SBA statistics are sobering. Many small businesses will fail (over half) in year one. Only 50% of start-ups survive four or five years. The odds are stacked against entrepreneurs but the sex appeal of being your own boss (BYOB) still sends many of us off the cliff and willing to take the risk. I jumped off that cliff in 2003, with a business partner. Perhaps the prospect of failure seemed less oppressive when you can share debt, the pressure and the risk with another person.
Why do people take the plunge and jump? Does an idea finally seep into your soul that it keeps you up nights? You realize the feeling is not going away. There are always catalysts that get us to the edge so we can make a big decision… a life decision. For me, it was a series of bad bosses, a realization of talent and experience, influential friends, a competitive/independent nature and an unwavering commitment to success. Pair all of that with a healthy dose of faith that the universe and good karma would conspire to help us.
February 2003, FineLine Creative Inc. was born. The name is a testament to two owners with very different approaches and skillsets. I loved the word FineLine for its uses and expressions. There’s a fine line between good and great, for example. Yvonne (my business other half) thought of a fine line as a graphic element. Our business plan positioned us as an agency boutique, small and responsive with experience in both marketing strategy and visual design. I was 34, recently divorced with a meager savings account. It was a risk. Yvonne was more financially stable with a family, a husband and two kids. Bonus, her dad offered us a family-rate loan to buy computers and software. The humble beginnings began in a cramped home basement office. I worked feverishly to sign new business, for both a paycheck and to get away from Yvonne’s husband who also worked from home. Every small business has its own unique start-up challenges.
In the beginning, were we better than the competition or just lucky? A combination of both. We signed a Lakeshore condominium developer with a big project to build/sell, who specifically wanted to hire a small local firm. He asked me if we needed a down payment. I resisted the urge to bear hug him and instead politely replied that 50% down would be just fine. That project gave us confidence and a cushion to begin our journey. A few key clients reached out to us and referred us. We worked with several non-profits on campaign materials and began working with a local manufacturer. Our plan to target various industries in the B2B sector worked and we made small strides even under the threat of a lawsuit. Thankfully, it was mostly posturing and scare tactics. We emerged unscathed to continue to build the business.
Also as a bonus, the fledgling business provided enough income to buy groceries and periodic plane tickets. Fitting in travel wasn’t always easy, especially in the 90’s agency pressure-cooker world. I worked too much, did not have flexibility in my schedule and I worried about money and taking time away. Over time, and now as a business owner, I’ve learned some valuable lessons. Time and experiences are so much more important than money, pleasing a boss or climbing someone else’s corporate ladder. Ultimately, I decided to make my own ladder and climb it to independence and increased adventure in life and travel.
So what’s FineLine’s secret sauce? Humility, adaptability, managed growth and finding key people that share our mission, values and ethics. The business journey now includes three more staffers, Shelli, Stef and Lisa. We can boast we’ve more than doubled in size, a robust agency of five! Also, at the core is to value flexibility and time away as much as the paycheck. Life-work-play balance is part of our company culture. We offer flex time to our team so they can deal with life’s curve balls like sick kids, doctor appointments or maybe a PTO day to recharge. And, it’s about trust. It’s not in our employee manual but we are not interested in micro-managing and watching over our staff like the Great Eye in Lord of the Rings.
Now, what is the most striking at the 15-year milestone is how fast the time goes. I felt like I was on the seat of a rocketship when my attorney handed me S-corp papers to sign. Keeping up with technology, especially in the marketing industry, has kept us all scrambling to hold on as the rocket jets ever forward. Facebook was just hitting the mainstream as FineLine began so we quickly discovered that designing/building websites would be a huge percentage of our income. Marketing was evolving…we adapted, learned new skills, added new services and explained to clients how important a website and SEO would be in the overall plan. Lucky for us, small business has some advantages, like being nimble and able to adapt to evolving industry trends. We embody an oft-used quote: If you’re not growing or changing, you’re dying!
Considering taking the BYOB plunge? Perhaps the most telling characteristic about the people running successful small businesses is not their intellect or attention to financial reports but rather the size of their hearts. Small is not an option!