How Do I.... Stick With It? (Entrepreneurs Share Their Inspiration)

I often ask entrepreneurs and small business owners why they decided to start their own business and if they have any advice they'd want to share with other like-minded souls. So for the new year, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on others' inspiration and doggedness, especially during this tough economic climate.

Here are some highlights from entrepreneurs I've interviewed since the Small Business Blog began publishing in July 2007.

"Don't give up if you believe in your idea," said Aviva Goldfarb, founder of online dinner planner Six O'Clock Scramble. "You're going to get so many No's...Just because something doesn't catch on right away don't despair, although at times I was desperate...Market your product [because] it's not like you build it and they will just come."

Blaine Harden founded Toddler Teams, a company that sells infant and toddler car seats with collegiate logos. Harden said his MBA gave him confidence, but "there are a lot of characteristics that an entrepreneur needs that you don't acquire at business school." He adds: "Despite all the cynicism that you'll encounter, you'll control your own destiny by staying committed to your beliefs and ideas...There will always be people along the way who doubt it or distract you along your pursuit, but you have to have the desire and the relentless commitment to pursuing your idea and that's a key component of entrepreneurship."

NorthStar Games co-founders Dominic Crapuchettes and Satish Pillalamarri create board games, often filling their apartments from floor to ceiling with their products as they struggle to succeed. Their business got a boost when Target agreed to carry one of their games -- a boon for them, but a challenge to supply the amount of games that a big-box retailer requires. "You have to work hard and fail and not get paid for your time," said Crapuchettes. "You just keep going and then biggest thing you're doing is building a brand and then just hoping you get lucky."

Mom Made Foods founder Heather Stouffer said: "I launched with bits and pieces of knowledge. I called other food entrepreneurs and asked them their stories....One piece of advice I have for other start-ups - don't be afraid to ask and don't be afraid to tell people what you're doing. The conceptual idea for a business is about 1 percent and the execution is 99 percent or more."

Alex Hofmann and Deron Triff started Changents, a networking service targeting 20 and 30-somethings who wish to build a better society. Hofmann said one of the hardest issues has been "kind of distilling your vision down to executable reality." He got some welcome advice from Avid Technologies founder Bill Warner: "He said to us, 'Guys, plant a sapling' and think about 'what can you do this week using the resources that you have that will build it and people can experience it'... Bill was right. It took us a while that we could accept something less than our grand vision."

Eric Nelson, artist and purveyor of Artfully Chocolate, said: "My art is not just a business, it's fulfilling a dream.... I'm all about colors, form and style. I had a great job, but it wasn't touching the core inside me." He previously worked at a trade association.

Lisa Flaxman founded MusiKids to offer children specialized music classes. Her business quickly outgrew her home, which brought challenges. She then was diagnosed with breast cancer. "Chemo takes the life out of you, I kept working throughout, and the beauty of it was that I didn't have to go to an office," she said. Her experience prompted her to found musiKares, a program that uses arts to help patients get through their time spent at Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Georgetown, where she was treated. "Life is certainly a conglomeration of experiences," she mused. "Thank goodness for music."

Alan Newman is an eco-friendly powerhouse and an unassuming businessman. He is stumped for a bit when asked what kind of advice he might have for aspiring or newly minted entrepreneurs and asks genuinely: "Why would someone care about what I think?" But after chewing it over, he said: "Do things that make your heart sing. At the end of the day if you're not doing what you're doing, life sucks. You've got to get up every day and get excited about what you do." Now, he's on a roll: "Today, I'll actually get paid. I like creation. I like beer. I like the community of customers. That's what drove me through the hard years."

James Gray, purveyor of Dozen Cupcakes, said one of his smartest moves was making friends with city workers who deal with permits. "They are actually there to help you, not just to inspect your space and tell you to be better." He advises establishing a relationship with the city and health inspectors so that they can give you pointers along the way. He had to retrofit his charter space with new plumbing and cooking equipment and worked with city planners to make sure his contractor was doing it correctly. And, he says, it didn't hurt that he brought them cupcakes.

A recession is a great time to start a business, according to Dub Me Now founder Manoj Ramnani. "You can get good talent at a reasonable price and attention from the VC's," he said. "Most people don't get enough courage to talk to VC's or come up with a business idea, but if you look at other companies like Google, they were founded during a recession."

A commitment to your business is key to Panos Panay, who owns Sonicbids, a service connecting musicians and promoters. After about a year of working in his home office, he decided that if he made a commitment to outside office space and had to pay rent toward it, it would give him the incentive he needed to dig into the business. He launched the site in February 2001: "The economy was terrible and there probably was no worse time to start an Internet business. They were shutting down left and right," said Panay. "It took a lot of perseverance, rejection and self-belief to get the first deal." In August 2001, a music festival out of Nashville, Tenn., agreed to use his service. "It all just snowballed from there by putting one foot in front of the other."

Savvy Auntie's Melanie Notkin advises other women considering starting their own business to ask for help. "Sometimes women don't feel they are worthy of someone's time, but if you ask for help and you're confident and excited people will feel that and be inspired by you," said Notkin. "Ninety-five percent of the time I get the help I need, for the other 5 percent, karma is a bitch." One of her proudest moments in the entrepreneurial process is when she met with a former, very successful colleague who offered her tremendous advice. When she asked why, the colleague responded: "Melanie, you were always nice to me," so Notkin subscribes to the adage what goes around comes around.

Master Key CEO John Wilber, who once lived on the Menominee Indian reseveration, credits his firm's growth to its workforce. "Never be afraid to hire people who are smarter than you," he advises, adding that entrepreneurs must overcome the fear of failure, have a willingness to sacrifice and a commitment to treating people the right way.

Eco-conscious Harlan Lee's view on life is best explained by the message scribbled in black marker on the company conference room's white board: "Ha'aha'a ka mea lehia maoli." That means, in Hawaiian, "a true expert is humble."

By Sharon McLoone |  December 24, 2008; 11:25 AM ET How Do I... , Profiles in Entrepreneurship , Tools and Tips
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