Small Business and Franchise Success Stories

Bob Burke decided to seize the opportunity to help small businesses turn perception into reality…. while along the way improving a few of his own in the process.

Perception is reality. In difficult economic times many businesses can’t afford to lease expensive office buildings, hire administrative staff or maintain highly professional operations and workspaces – without dealing with the financial burden of significant overhead costs. Yet many businesses feel that without the perceived and tangible advantages created by professional office spaces, dedicated conference rooms, skilled receptionists, and experienced administrative specialists, they will not be taken seriously by customers, vendors, and suppliers.

Bob is hardly a newcomer to the needs of small businesses and the realities of corporate life. He worked in chemical manufacturing for seventeen years, spent twenty-one years as a national sales manager for a global corporation. Later he found a productivity improvement firm where he consulted with businesses that needed to cut costs, improve efficiency, and optimize manufacturing and production processes.

Bob was extremely successful but over the years grew tired of the heavy travel demands. He decided to find a new business opportunity that would allow him to cut back on travel, stay close to home, and work full-time with his son.

“My son had just gotten married and was building a family,” Bob says. “My wife and I have three children, three grandchildren with another on the way… I traveled a lot while our kids were growing up and I wanted to help my son build a business so he didn’t have to live the same way. Granted, starting a new venture is always risky, but improving our family life makes it worth the risk.”

Bob has also received full support from his wife. “She’s enthusiastic and sees the big picture,” says Bob. “She’s willing to accept short-term hardship if it creates a better lifestyle for our family over the long-term.”

Since family concerns are a major motivator for Bob, it’s no surprise he found the opportunity he was looking for through his family. Bob’s son was working for Intelligent Office Systems, a Colorado-based provider of shared and virtual office systems and services.

“My son had been with the company four years, helping new franchisees and start-ups get established,” Bob said. “As a result he really understood the business and what it took to get started.” After a number of discussions and a lot of research, Bob and his son decided to become partners as Intelligent Office Systems franchisees. Together, they opened for business in June, 2008, with thirteen office spaces and three conference rooms located at a high-profile Denver business address.

Their location provides fully-furnished offices, conference rooms that can be rented by the hour, remote and on-site receptionist services, and comprehensive administrative support. Shared office solutions are available on an a la carte basis, which allows small businesses to pay only for the services they need.

“Perception is reality with many companies,” says Bob. “Our clients get a professional image at a much lower cost – and they get additional services they couldn’t otherwise afford.”

Bob’s goal is to maintain a 90% occupancy rate, leaving remaining 10% open for clients to use on an occasional, spur-of-the-moment basis.

While the business hasn’t grown as quickly as he expected – June 2008 was not the best time to offer new office space since many companies were feeling the effects of a staggering economy – growth has been solid in recent months as companies begin to understand the opportunity Bob’s franchise offers. “What they don’t realize at first,” says Bob, “and it’s one of our marketing challenges to inform people, is how many services they can get for a dramatically lower cost. Companies need offices but they don’t have a lot of money to spend. Right now receiving great service at a low cost is incredibly important for businesses working hard to survive and thrive.”

What has Bob learned from opening a franchise? “Cash is king,” says Bob. “I’m not comfortable with debt, especially in today’s market.”

The business has also taken longer to mature than he anticipated. “If you think you need $100k, find $200k so you’ll have a cushion if cash flow is a problem early on,” he says. Bob received help from Guidant Financial Group to purchase his business. Through Guidant he learned how to invest his retirement funds in the business without taking a taxable distribution. This provided him an alternative to investing in the stock market and allows him to directly impact the value of his investments.

Where cash is concerned, Bob offers another thought. “If you have a business plan and the cash to support it, you’ll succeed,” he adds. “If you don’t have the cash to support the plan, you’ll fail. And if you do have cash but you don’t have a great plan, you’ll also fail.”

Yet he also readily admits that even with his experience and background he doesn’t have all the answers. Who does Bob turn to for advice? The support provided by his franchise system.

“Don’t just choose a good franchise opportunity – choose a franchise that can support you,” says Bob.

“Everyone needs help – make sure you can get the help you need to be successful.”

Entrepreneurial ideas come from a variety of places – in some cases the inspiration for a great small business comes from stampeding away from the herd. Gary Caldwell started his family’s small business based on a simple premise: “If you do what 98% of the people won't do or don't do,” Gary says, “You can come out ahead.”

So what type of business, in one of the worst markets in decades, did Gary and his son, along with their spouses, start?

“We’re a real estate investing company in the Tulsa, Oklahoma area,” he says. “We buy properties, rehab those properties, and put them back on the market. We also wholesale properties, finding a property for another investor to purchase. We also set up lease options, we purchase rental properties… this year alone we’ve already done twelve properties, and we have several other deals closing soon.”

Solid Oak Enterprises is off to a great start. That might seem surprising since while Gary has significant business and management experience, his prior real estate background was limited. He holds a Masters in Financial Services along with an MBA, and had been in management his entire career.

“After sixteen years with the same company,” he says, “I was downsized because the new CEO brought in his own team. We moved to Oklahoma and I took a management position for a Fortune 500 company… and four years later they closed the doors on the operation. That was my second experience not having a ‘home.’

Before he lost his job, he gave his son – a senior in high school at the time – the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad. “He was always a good student,” Gary says, “And he not only read it, he totally absorbed it. And he said to me, ‘Dad, we’ve got to do this. We’ve just got to look into this.’ And so we started planning. Losing my job made me even more committed to working for myself, since running my own business had been a lifelong dream, and by February 2008 we were ready to incorporate and move forward.”

Moving forward meant building a team. While Solid Oak Enterprises only has four employees, the entrepreneurs set up what they call their Power Team: A real estate agent knowledgeable about investors; an attorney specializing in working with real estate investors; an accountant; a contractor who can work on several homes concurrently; and others. “We have people that do our yard work,” says Gary. “We have a licensed firm to do our heat and air, a licensed plumber, and so on. It’s a large team but we have people we trust who do jobs well for a good price – it’s a win-win for all of us.”

Moving forward required small business financing. “You know,” says Gary, “You watch the gurus late at night and they all tell you to get into real estate and make millions with no cash out of your pocket. That’s bull.” Recognizing they needed capital, the entrepreneurs turned to Guidant Financial Group for help investing retirement funds in the business.

“It takes money, Gary continues, “And the timing was right. We knew if we were going to succeed we needed to be committed. We needed capital to get started, and we made the right choice in how we financed the business.”

Moving forward also required a focused strategy. While conventional wisdom assumes real estate is a depressed and volatile market, the entrepreneurs instead saw opportunity. “We focus on single-family residences in Tulsa,” Gary says. “We plan to expand, but that’s the market we know: Our economy is relatively strong and the houses in our targeted profile market are moving. They sell. We still have our share of foreclosures, but we have plenty of buyers. And we network like crazy, working with investors on the West Coast who understand the opportunity because our market is stable.”

In fact, Gary sees not only stability but growth in the Tulsa real estate market. New homes are under construction and the months to sale average for the area is approximately eight months, a positive trend line. In fact, many areas of the Midwest have begun to rebound, and the entrepreneurs are making plans to expand to the Kansas City market in the near future. “We want to build teams in other areas,” he says. “It’s a good future. In good times, real estate can be a good opportunity. You just have to be careful how you buy properties, stay focused, and keep your finger on the pulse of the market.”

He also feels education is incredibly important. “We made a financial commitment,” Gary says, “But we also made a commitment to education. We invested heavily in our education and it’s proving to be a wise investment.”

Gary offers similar advice to other entrepreneurs. “I always tell those who ask they need education. People don’t know what they don’t know.” He backs up his commitment to education by helping others learn: The entrepreneurs speak at real estate seminars and participate in national webinars, and have started an investment club in Tulsa to help real estate investors develop skills and knowledge.

What other advice does Gary offer to people dreaming of starting their own business? “It takes cash to get a business moving,” says Gary. “Small business financing is critical no matter what market you enter. Then, take advantage of any educational opportunities you can. Again, you don’t know what you don’t know – so find out! Finally, build your own Power Team. Choose people with experience who you can trust. For example, we found a contractor who can do a quality within a set time frame and within a set budget.”

“He’s critical to our success. Find people to add to your Power Team who can help you succeed.”

Small business irony at its best: Including the word “Dry” in the name of your small business when you open the first distillery in Washington since prohibition.

Although the connotation wasn’t lost on entrepreneurs Don Poffenroth and Kent Fleischmann, founders of Dry Fly Distilling, Inc., the company’s name actually stems from their shared love of fly fishing.

These entrepreneurs didn’t come up dry in terms of their success: Their first whiskey release sold out in ninety minutes. After just three years Dry Fly products are now available in eighteen states and three countries. And to top it off, Dry Fly Distilling won “best vodka” and “double gold medal” awards for its Washington State Wheat Vodka at the recent 2009 San Francisco World Spirit Competition – beating out Grey Goose, Belevedere and more!

Like many entrepreneurs their success was in no way assured, even though the partners had significant business experience. “My business partner Kent Fleischmann and I both were in the food business,” says Don. “I was the director of marketing for a large food company. Kent worked for the food distributor Sysco as Vice President of merchandising and marketing in Minnesota. I think we both hit terminal corporate burnout within about a week of one another.”

Where did their small business dreams start? “I think the business sense you get working for a large corporation is always a good experience,” Don explains. “I think what it does is give you the motivation to get the [heck] out. After awhile my thought process was that if at the end of the day everything sucks, it’s because I made it suck. But if everything’s great, it’s because I made it great. The only way to accomplish that is to start your own business.”

The old fly fishing friends spent a lot of time on the river together hashing out what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives. “I came up with this idea,” says Don, “since I used to be involved with a brewery in Montana. I initially looked at that business, and when I started to look into brewing I was led to check out distilling by some of the vendors I had worked with. That’s where the idea for distilling started.”

After further research Don put together a business plan, ran it by Kent, and asked if he wanted to be an investor. “Instead of just investing,” Don says, “Kent said, ‘Why don’t I just do it with you?’ The rest is history.”

While Kent was excited by the small business opportunity, Don’s wife was more sceptical. “I’d worked for a company for nineteen years,” says Don, “and was earning a great six-figure salary, and there I am telling her I want to take a 70% cut in pay... to make booze.”

“She pretty much said I was on drugs. But she still supported it.”

Plans in place, the two entrepreneurs still faced two significant hurdles. First, they needed small business financing. Distilling is a capital intensive industry due to the equipment and resources necessary. The partners sought help from Guidant Financial Group. Instead of traditional small business financing, they learned they could invest their IRA or 401(k) in their business without taking a taxable distribution or incurring penalties. They loved the idea of investing outside the stock market into a small business they controlled. Those assets created the bulk of their start-up capital. They also tapped personal savings, were able to obtain a working line of credit with a local bank, and borrowed a small sum from one outside investor who, due to their rapid success, will be repaid in the near future. “We started out lean,” says Don, “But we were still able to make some capital expenditures that allow us operate with minimal staffing.”

Small business financing in hand, the entrepreneurs faced one other major challenge: while each had significant experience in the food services industry, neither had a background in the distilling industry. For example, Don had worked for the same company his entire career, starting out in local sales, advancing to a regional position, until finally taking over marketing responsibility for North America. Yet neither felt inexperience would stand in the way of success.

“Our history is in marketing,” says Don, “which in this business is crucial. Remember, we’re dealing with an industry that has a lot of old, established brands, which makes it prime for small niche manufactures to get in and carve a nice little piece of business. For the most part everything has been the same in the liquor business for the last 100 years. We felt a small manufacturer could create products the large guys can’t and build a great [small] business.”

To gain the knowledge they needed, the small business owners studied with Kris Berglund at Michigan State University and trained in distillery operation with Alexander Plank and Nick Haase of Christian Carl Distilleries in Germany. Their learning curve was steep but their success curve was equally steep: Starting with premium vodka and gin – and an array of branded shirts, hats, shot glasses, and playing cards – and expanding their product line to include premium whiskey has helped fuel a 100% small business growth rate.

“We’ve grown a lot,” says Don, “But we haven’t needed to grow our employee base. We’ll make 6,000 cases with just three employees – including Kent and me.” Instead of adding employees Dry Fly uses volunteers to bottle their alcohol; by creating a fun social experience the invitation-only Saturday bottling events have been fully booked through March 2010.

The two entrepreneurs use a “divide and conquer” method to run the business the rest of the time. Kent runs the sales and marketing side and spends time with customers while Don takes care of production.

So what were the entrepreneurs’ biggest concerns when they started their small business? The same as any new business owner has. Don explains, “Our biggest fears at the beginning were, ‘Can we make a product the market is going to come to? Can we compete? Do we have enough knowledge to run a small business and make it work?’

“I think were lucky enough to have a product that gained great acceptance out of the gate, and when we won some national and international awards for our products, that sure helped.”

“In the beginning we had to beg for distribution, but now we’ve reached the point where we can control our own distribution and choose where to and not go,” Don continues. “Now that we have enough national exposure distributors are coming to us. And we’ve learned to manage the business – it wasn’t always easy, and we definitely had some lean times, but I think that’s all part of the adventure. If everything goes perfectly you don’t learn what being a small business owner is all about.”

Don also offers advice for potential entrepreneurs who dream of starting or buying a small business. “I’m a voracious planner so I think detail planning to the nth degree is really important. Having a [small] business plan that creates a blueprint for what you actually plan on doing is an important aspect. Then I think you just have to have what I call “entrepreneurial blindness” where you’re all in, you’re going, and failure is not an option.”

Speaking of planning, Don and Kent follow a simple growth strategy. “We manage new opportunities by working them into our manufacturing plans to ensure we take care of our customers, stay creative in the marketplace, and build our brand. That’s what we’re all about.”

And Don’s wife? “You know, now she probably thinks I’m brilliant (for starting the business),” he says,” but three years ago when we started that probably wasn’t the case.”

Entrepreneurs have an uncanny ability to spot opportunity. Edgar Gonzales bought an existing small business in an established market because they saw a good news / bad news opportunity.
In Illinois, the good news is if you’re over eighteen years old and want to drive, you are not required to complete the thirty hours of classroom training and twelve hours of behind the wheel driving and observation to meet standard driver’s license requirements.

Of course no teen wants to wait until they’re eighteen when they can start driving at sixteen – as long as they meet requirements – but in the Chicago metropolitan area schools lack the infrastructure to meet demand, forcing many kids to wait until their junior or senior years to take driver’s education classes. That’s the bad news – which created the opportunity for Edgar Gonzalez.

“Waiting until your junior or senior years is not the cool thing to do,” Edgar explains. “Plus you have to hold your learner’s permit for nine months... so if you’re a junior or senior you’re practically eighteen already. The schools don’t have the manpower or resources and the kids get frustrated... so they come to private schools like ours."

Edgar purchased the small business in March of 2009 and already employs nine instructors and a receptionist at his three locations. “The business has exceeded my expectations from a cash flow standpoint,” Edgar says, “and I’m very happy so far."

It helps that Edgar has a background in education and marketing. He holds a Bachelor’s in Marketing and an MBA with a marketing focus. He worked in college admissions as a recruitment officer, and then spent four years as a recruiter for two different automotive schools. “When I saw this opportunity it went hand in hand with my eleven years of experience recruiting and filling classes for colleges and schools,” Edgar says. “While Progressive Enterprises isn’t a college, in many ways it feels the same."

A key to the entrepreneur’s success is word of mouth marketing. “What impressed me the most was the amount of referral business,” explains Edgar. “Parents talk to each other, buddies hang with buddies... and we get clusters of three or four friends. The previous owner set up a good academic structure and a good base of referral business, and that impressed me. I’ve extended that with some search engine marketing, Yellow Pages ads, and a few direct mail campaigns. But the key is building and extending a solid referral base."

Progressive Enterprises isn’t Edgar’s first foray into small business ownership; previously he was a part-owner of a Subway franchise. “I enjoyed the small business experience,” he says, “but owning a franchise is a little limiting in terms of creativity and growth and controlling your own destiny. Clearly it had benefits: It’s a great brand name. But this time I wanted to purchase an existing small business: I didn’t want to take the high risk of trying to establish a brand name, so this opportunity was right because the name was already strong, and after viewing the financials and all the information it I felt it was right."

In late 2008 he sold a piece of property and started to look for businesses for sale, independently searching for the right opportunity. Instead of traditional small business financing, he invested his retirement funds into the operation by seeking the help of Guidant Financial Group. Edgar found the opportunity through a business brokerage website. “I became serious once I knew all the cash was in place,” Edgar explains, “and I literally would run Google searches for small businesses for sale."

Not just a savvy entrepreneur and business owner, Edgar also brings hands-on skills to the table. “I’m a licensed instructor,” he says, “and I guess you could call me our fill-in person. If we’re really busy I’ll take a route, and if a client demands a particular time slot I may work with them if my staff can’t due to scheduling conflicts. I have to say no to any type of revenue."

Hands-on skills also form the basis of his expansion plan. “Now that I’m licensed it’s relatively easy to establish operations in other Illinois locations. I have the cash flow, so I plan to open up two new locations every year for the next five yearss."

His success is admirable but like any other small business owner he still faces challenges. “One challenge is making sure my instructors are friendly. You have to be patient with new drivers, so making sure my instructors can offer a little tender loving care is critical."

Edgar's expansion plans are also based on hiring employees to staff new locations, which creates a further challenge. “Say I have ten people who apply and two are sharp as nails,” Edgar says. “Those two still have to go out and learn the business and learn the classroom environment. They have to get licensed before I can ever put them on my payroll. That creates its own challenge because I have to say, ‘As much as I like you and think it could work, you may not pass the test.’ Or, possibly they don’t want to dedicate the time needed to meet licensing requirements. That’s been my biggest challenge." 

As father of two children, Edgar hopes the effort he puts into growing his small business will pay off for his family in the long term. “Right now my kids just think it’s cool their father owns a driving school,” Edgar says. “If things continue to grow at the pace I anticipate, I hope there will come a time they start to learn about the business.”

Owner Knows The Only Failure Comes In Never Trying

Roy Ferrara isn’t the kind of guy that sits around just waiting for success to happen. Starting his career in the restaurant business as a young delivery boy in a small family bakery, he quickly learned the value and reward of hard work and hustle. By the time the bakery grew into a popular sandwich shop in downtown Los Angeles, he’d moved up to full partner. Not only did he have the required food service savvy, he had a real talent for identifying previously unexplored revenue streams and then developing those opportunities with fervor and fearlessness.

For example, given the deli’s southern California locale, he opened a small theater in the back of the shop, giving local actors an informal, yet fun venue to hone their skills. He also expanded into the parking lot business when the sandwich shop needed more space for their growing clientele.

“My job was to figure out how to make money and go after it,” he reflects.

Twenty years later, he owns and operates a large Baja Fresh Mexican Grill franchise, which by all accounts is flourishing, even in this challenging economic environment. He’s extremely pleased to be passing on his winning business skills and work ethic to his two children, both attending college in L.A. It’s becoming a real family business, as both kids work part-time at the restaurant.

Roy believes there is a lot to be learned by being “belly to belly with customers and knowing what it’s like to survive on a tip.”

“It’s actually one of the major reasons we got involved in it. My kids could be involved in the business and learn some management skills. I wanted to get into a franchise and have a little structure to it so that not everything had to be learned at once. I have twenty years of restaurant experience so it’s nothing new for me, just the franchise experience,” Roy says.

A year and a half ago, Roy purchased the Baja Fresh restaurant in Bakersfield, about 100 miles north of L.A. Instead of letting the economy deter him from purchasing or opening a franchise, he looked for diamond in the rough-type small business opportunities.

“I was looking at trends. I wanted to buy something in a down, depressed market, which is exactly what I did. I used my experience from another business and my creativity and cost-cutting skills to take this business that was down and turn it around,” he says.

“Instead of looking at dangers that are out there…look at the opportunities,” he advises other people who would like to be small business owners or entrepreneurs.

Roy doesn’t understand the negative mentality held by many unemployed professionals and executives, who send out resumes, get no response, and then whine and complain about the job market.

The reason Roy chose the Baja Fresh franchise was simple – he liked the food. The lure of associating with a renowned and superior fast food product along with the timely opportunity to purchase an existing year-old franchise also helped make Baja Fresh the obvious choice.

His timing couldn’t have been better!

“I got out of stocks and bonds and was looking at commodities. I soon came to the conclusion that the commodity I knew best was myself and my ability to run a business, rather than gold or oil. So I said ‘let’s do it’”.

Once he made up his mind on the purchase, he contacted Guidant Financial. Instead of using traditional forms of franchise financing, Roy was able to buy a franchise by investing his existing retirement funds into the small business without incurring a taxable distribution. He believed there was a unique opportunity to invest those funds into assets at today’s depressed prices and profit from the turnaround. In addition, he loved the fact that he and his employees could defer income into their company 401k.

According to Roy, is passing valuable experience to his children through his business. Both of Roy’s sons work in the restaurant, learning from the bottom up, including food preparation, sales, marketing, operations and management responsibilities. They are excited at the prospect of gaining the well-rounded restaurant experience they need to follow in and carry on Roy’s success.

Roy’s franchise operation now employs 12 people and business is trending upward, despite a couple of slow months recently. That’s not bad, considering the current economic downturn, especially in the hard-hit San Joaquin valley where the oil and agriculture industries have contributed to a nearly 15% unemployment rate.

However, being the eternal optimist and opportunist, Roy is using this slight dip in business to get his sons even more involved with the inner workings of small business entrepreneurship, which he’s confident will reap many rewards in their promising young careers.

With their father providing a shining example of true entrepreneurial enthusiasm, both of Roy’s sons are getting ready to carve out their own American Dream and proudly continue the Ferrara family legacy.

Jack Biddle
Collision on Wheels
When you buy a franchise you expect to take a risk. Few people assume the greatest risk to their small business investment will be created by government legislation.

But that’s the case for entrepreneur Jack Biddle and his Collision on Wheels of Greater Pittsburgh franchise, a small business that makes cosmetic repairs to cars at customer locations instead of at a body shop.

Not that the business model doesn’t make sense; the problem is the franchise opened just as the bottom dropped out of the new car business, a segment of the industry responsible for 90% of the franchise’s revenue. To make matters worse, Gary explains, “The Cash for Clunkers program is killing us because the cars that are defined as clunkers are typically cars that would have been repaired and sold… and that repair is something we could have participated in and generated revenue from.”

While it might sound odd that brand-new cars need cosmetic repairs, very few arrive on a dealer’s lot in pristine condition. “New cars get small dings, acid rain on the ships… very few arrive without needing some sort of repair,” Gary says. “So we do a number of new cars. We also do a lot of the cars dealers buy at auction – typically low mileage vehicles with less than 15,000 miles. We rejuvenate them so they can be sold as ‘almost new’ cars.”

“We have the skills, but we choose not to do structural repairs,” Gary continues. “We are cosmetic repair specialists; in a way we’re like plastic surgeons for automobiles.”

Dealing with unforeseen events is a way of life for entrepreneurs and franchise owners. When Jack decided to buy the franchise, he brought a wealth of experience to bear and did a tremendous amount of research and due diligence.

“I’ve been selling my whole life,” Gary says. “I spent thirty plus years in the building materials industry, running hardware stores and lumber yards, including ten years running wholesale building materials distribution facilities. Towards the end of my career I worked in the IT side of the industry.”

How did he get his start? “I worked for a hardware story and ran an organic lawn care service called Green Thumb,” Gary says. “We were the only location in the company that made money that year. So we went to the national convention, I talked about some of the things I had done, and when I sat down, the guy sitting next to me said, ‘Okay – how much is it going to cost me to get you to run my business for me?’”

Jack made that move – and a lot of other moves. “I don’t think I stayed anywhere longer than four years… until something either caught my fancy or lured me away to do something else.”

His last position was with a $2 billion company as Director of IT Training. The company told Jack he needed to move to Florida, and he and his wife – who also worked for the company – decided not to make the move. “It made it possible for us both to leave,” Jack says, “and gave us time to start looking for a business. We like where we live, so let’s see if we can find something that can keep us here.”

During the research phase Jack worked up with a franchise consultant, who helped them find and identify franchise opportunities. “The only instruction we gave her,” Jack says, “is that we don’t want a fast food place. We were open to anything else.”

“So while [consultant] was introducing concepts to us,” Jack continues, “we would investigate them. I had a three-foot stack of franchise opportunities we read through, and we just kept leaning towards automotive-related franchises. So when she brought the Collision on Wheels franchise opportunity to us, it just clicked. It seemed like a great idea and I still believe in the concept.”

And he’s learned a lot. “In retrospect I would do several things differently,” Jack explains. “One is where the technician is concerned. The person who does the work is a key component, and I took a very aggressive position and overpaid for employees. I was paying somewhere in excess of 50% of revenues in salaries before I even paid myself. I got too excited about the quality of the people I was hiring and overpaid. I thought by paying them more I could get more out of them… and it just never worked out that way.”

“But the single largest mistake I made was to grow too rapidly. I bought two trucks, and then I very quickly bought a sales truck, and as soon as I had two technicians busy, I bought a third truck and a fourth truck and a fifth truck. In the course of the first year I took on a lot of unnecessary equipment expense.”

Yet he is still hopeful. While he does not feel automotive industry struggles are near an end, he still sees a long-term opportunity. Jack’s franchise has built strong relationship with dealers, and he feels those dealers are financially strong enough to weather any storm. While he doesn’t see opportunities for growth he does look for ways to optimize operations and run as cost-effectively as possible.

“I probably do more car dealer business than all the rest of the franchisees combined,” says Jack. “I have a sales background, so I’m comfortable working with sales managers and I’ve built respectful relationships. They know that what I say we’re going to do, we do. For example, a dealer called me yesterday at 6:30 p.m. and said, ‘I need somebody tomorrow. I have a problem.’ Our technician was there by 10 a.m. to take care of their problem. They stick with us because they know they can rely on us.”

What else has Gary learned? “Working with auto body technicians has been a true learning experience,” he says. “Remember I used to manage as many as 1,600 people. But auto body techs have an artistic temperament I really had to learn how to manage. I was not capable of managing that type of person in the beginning… but that has all been a good part of learning how to run the franchise.”

Gary offers further advice for entrepreneurs interested in buying a franchise and starting a small business. “Do thorough research before making a decision,” he says. “Don’t just go with something that feels good. Make sure it not only feels good but makes sense… there is lots of stuff out there that feels good at first glance, but when you dig into them thoroughly they just doesn’t make business sense.”

“And just as importantly,” Jack says, “You can never be over-capitalized.” Jack decided early on not to take on debt, instead turning to Guidant Financial Group for help investing his 401(k) into the franchise. “The biggest reason I’ve heard from franchisees that didn’t make it is they didn’t have [sufficient capital]. They expected to make money after sixty or ninety days… and you’re just not going to do that. ”

Yet despite it all, Jack is still confident. “I know our small business investment will pay off – I believe in the concept and I believe in myself.”

Former UCLA French Major and Mother of Three Says Au Revoir to the Corporate Rat Race and Make The Lifestyle Change She Needed to Stay Closer to Home.

Some people say new entrepreneur Sarah Naccarato gets too wrapped up in her work. Why shouldn’t she? After all, that’s her small business!

Sarah and her husband own and operate Iconography, a full service sign and design studio located in southern California. They specialize in designing, producing and applying colorful vehicle wraps and other auto graphics for a variety of clients.

That’s a far cry from where she started. Armed with a B.A. in French, Sarah began her career working in financial services for Sun America. She went on to climb the corporate ladder at a Fortune 500 executive search firm. With the increased responsibility, she accrued nearly 300,000 flight miles annually as a direct result of traveling to India once a month at the height of her successful career.

For a mother of two with a third on the way, extensive travel was taking its toll. “I loved it while I did it, but I have three small children. My youngest went with me to India six times – before he was ever born, “ she jokes.

But she and her young family were starting to feel the stress. So although she enjoyed her global travel experiences, once the India project was completed, she decided it was time not just for a career change, but an entire lifestyle change.

In addition to wanting to spend more time with her family, both she and her husband wanted to call the shots in their careers and establish a business that ideally matched their individual skills, talents, and strengths. Iconography was that perfect solution. Sarah manages the operations, including sales, marketing and networking in the community. Her husband is an artist by trade and handles all design, technology, and production details.

“I was tired of working other people,” she says. “I wanted to do it for myself. I wanted to be completely in charge of making decisions that would eventually be a reflection of me,” she adds.

Partly based on a franchise model, the Naccarato’s business, Iconography, is part of a larger parent group called Signworld. To Sarah, the major appeal of SignWorld’s unique business model was the freedom and flexibility to establish their own name and brand reputation in order to differentiate themselves in the crowded landscape of ubiquitous franchise sign stores.

“Signworld provides an incredible support system as far as training and access to a network of 250 other sign companies…but you’re not branded with someone else’s brand name,” she states.

This was also important because they couldn’t take the risk of suffering “guilt by association” should another business owner with the same franchise name deliver bad service or a sub-par product.

Sarah and her husband wanted to ensure that their investment in a small business was successful. Like every prospective entrepreneur, they looked at traditional small business financing options. In that search they were introduced to Guidant Financial Group. Through Guidant, they learned they could invest their retirement funds into a small business or franchise without taking a taxable distribution. It was a perfect match. They wanted to invest the 401K funds Sarah had accumulated during her long tenure in corporate America. They knew the smartest investment they could ever make was in themselves. “I spent fifteen years pouring money into that (401K). I will grow it, hopefully, ten-fold myself over the next ten years. That’s my plan.”

How has it been working out so far? Sarah proudly reports that Iconography employs two full-time people and business is booming since its launch 18 months ago. Unlike many new business owners, Sarah actually enjoys preparing her quarterly reports because her sales have been steadily rising -- up over 85% just recently. She’s expecting between 75% and 100% total year-end revenue growth over 2008.

Mobile advertising tools, such as vehicle wraps and custom car graphics, have become increasingly popular and affordable, so Sarah’s worked hard to leverage her excellent sense of timing into this emerging industry. To promote her business, Sarah spends a considerable amount of time personally networking with business owners and politicians in her surrounding communities. Her efforts have been extraordinarily rewarding, with nearly 80% of her revenue coming from customers within a 10-minute drive of Iconography’s retail location.

Leveraging Internet marketing to drive traffic to their website has been tremendously successful for Iconography as well. In fact, Sarah advises new entrepreneurs to develop a website as soon as possible and start Internet marketing campaigns immediately, since it helps capture prospects that are “absolutely ready to buy now”. She also participates in popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Linkedin.

“The economy has been good for us because we had to be really aggressive with our marketing.” she says.

The only regret Sarah has is that she waited so long to start her business. If she had to do it again, she’d probably take the plunge much sooner and encourages would-be business owners to just jump in with both feet.

Now, instead of sitting for hours on a plane flying half way across the world, missing birthdays and soccer games, she’s operating a successful and growing neighborhood business that she loves and enjoys more quality time with her children, ages eight, four, and two-and-a-half.

If fact you could say that these days, life for Sarah and her family has become quite simply “très bien”.

What do environmental science and athletic performance have in common?  In this case, a lot. Environmental science was just one step in a path that led from an elementary school paper route to an exciting – and rewarding – business opportunity.

Steve Halloran grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and graduated from Bowling Green State University with a degree in Environmental Science. While enrolled he helped run a recycling program where students were paid a portion of the savings small businesses realized by reducing dumpster and landfill costs. The part-time dumpster diver said, “We literally pulled aluminum, cardboard, paper, and other materials out of dumpsters to prove our waste minimization strategies would pay off.” After college he worked for a couple of years as an environmental consultant helping companies save money, improve the environment, and market themselves as “green” at a time when the recycling movement was just starting to explode.

The work was satisfying, but Steve decided to go back to school to obtain an MBA and took a job at his father-in-law’s retail furniture business. “I really got the best of both worlds,” he says. “I was able to bring a lot of ideas into the business and at the same time learned all the different functions: Delivery, service, operations, sales – really everything about operating a small business.” He rose through the ranks and became the general manager with responsibility for operating two stores.

After eleven years and a divorce he left the family business and leveraged his sales experience into a corporate position with La-Z Boy. He worked in New York, Miami, Chicago, Baltimore… wherever the company needed him. The travel wore him down and he began noticing that his stress level was rising exponentially. “I was highly paid but never home,” says Steve, “and that started to take a toll on my personal life.” While his pay was excellent, he slowly became dissatisfied with the effect his job had on his personal and family life. “I finally realized that while I loved La-Z Boy and enjoyed helping to make people comfortable, I wasn’t really changing people’s lives… and that’s what I really wanted to do. Plus, after years of working for other people, I had a real desire to start my own business.”

His first step? Research. Like millions of other people, Steve had often imagined leaving the corporate world to pursue the American dream. He researched opportunities that would allow him to leverage his experiences and talents to build something lasting for himself and his family – while striving to build a better home-life work balance.

Because he worked with La-Z boy both from the retail and the corporate side, he understood the value of a solid brand name and a sound franchise system. Yet at the same time he wanted to avoid taking on massive start-up and investment costs. “Take the furniture business, for example,” says Steve. “That was my first thought, since I really know that business, but the costs are high: Land, building, inventory, trucks, salaries… I was looking at over $3.5 million just to get started. I quickly decided I wanted to find an opportunity light on its feet.”

He worked with a franchise consultant, Britt Schroeter, to identify a handful of opportunities that met his criteria but settled on House of Speed, a Franchise created by ex-NFL star, Don Beebe, whose mission is to “Develop better sports performance through increased speed and character.” He was excited by the opportunity, both professionally and personally. As a local business he could spend more time with his family while he works with children and athletes to help them achieve their dreams.

“Obviously I want to make money,” says Steve. “No one goes into business to lose money. But what really gets me pumped is the knowledge I can make money doing something fun and rewarding while truly helping people and making a difference in their lives.”

While he is confident in the strength of the business model, he had been worried cash flow could limit growth while his company gains a foothold in the market. The success over the past few months has helped him prove the potential in his model and he is encouraged by the results. Two hundred and twenty athletes turned out to participate in their opening weekend event, setting a record for the franchise.

“We’ve already had parents come back and tell us what an impact we made on their kid’s athletic performance,” he says. “That’s incredibly gratifying.”

Where does he see his business in five years? He hopes to take on a more strategic role, leaving day to day operations in the hands of experienced managers. His goal is to expand and have locations throughout the state of Ohio.

And he has personal goals as well: “I want to help kids who are less privileged to succeed through gaining skills and learning the value of hard work. Maybe some will even receive scholarships or other opportunities,” he says. “If they succeed, someday hopefully they’ll return to the area and give back. I truly believe because we’re giving now, we’ll get back later.”

Steve offers one piece of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs. “People think you’re crazy to go into business during a down economy; I think the opposite is true. If I had a lot of money to invest I’d buy real estate, stocks, and businesses. Downturns are actually a source of opportunity because you can gain market share while others go out of business. Turn up the volume, gain share, and when things turn around you’re perfectly positioned. That’s my philosophy.”

Finally, how does Steve feel about being an entrepreneur? “I used to sell couches and make people fat,” he says. “Now I make them fit.”