How Do You Know if
There’s a Business in You?
How do you know if you have a business in you? And how do you find it? Interestingly, after talking to many women from around the country, it’s clear to me that businesswomen are born every day in every type of business; only the particular circumstances that led each woman to start her own firm varies. In the United States alone, approximately 11 million women own or are equal partners in their own companies, contributing nearly $2.5 trillion annually to the American economy and providing jobs for more than 19 million people (see figure 1). Despite this financial heft, most of us started out as ordinary “working Jills”—teachers, nurses, meeting planners—when we decided to try it on our own. In the beginning, many of us ran our budding enterprises from home before going out to compete in the business world. Whether or not you know it, you have a business in you —if any of the following sentiments sound familiar to you:
- I can make that product better than the people who make it now
- I don’t see what I need on the market, so I’ll create it
- I know how to save my husband’s company
- The family firm needs my help
- Forget corporate life. I want a day job I love!
- Now that I’ve been laid off, I’d better get a new job fast
- My clients are encouraging me to go out on my own
- I need more flexibility in my schedule and a solid income
- To support my family, I have to make more money
- I’ll let my husband stay home with the kids
- I need something to do to keep boredom away
Going Out on My Own
My own career as an entrepreneur began inadvertently. After working for nearly a year for a political science journal where I learned basic editorial work, I realized that I was itching to try something else. I began my job search by registering with a New York editorial and publishing placement agency, which lined up my first interview at a major publishing house. Despite my excitement, I failed to get a job offer by misspelling the word “embarrassed,” an embarrassing mistake I never made again. Next, the agency sent me out to a small medical communications company. I had no clue what such companies do, nor was I confident that my college biology course work would see me through an in-depth medical-editorial interview, but I went nevertheless. It was a buzzing office, filled with young, enthusiastic medical writers, staff physicians, and production workers, and run by a managing editor who herself was barely thirty. I knew right away that I wanted the job, and I was delighted when the offer came in.
After four years there I went to work as a managing editor at a New York City medical magazine. From there, I moved to a managerial position in another, larger medical communications company. Another four years passed, and I decided that I now knew enough to run such a company on my own. For me, the advantages to starting my own firm seemed clear: more control over my own schedule and the opportunity to earn a lot more money. I resigned my management post and joined forces with two partners to start my first medical communications company, TransMedica, Inc., in May 1981. We sold our company to CBS, Inc., in 1984, for millions.
This turn of events was about as unplanned a professional course as one could imagine. I certainly never set out to start, build, and sell medical communications companies. I simply stumbled into a field of business I had never even heard of before my job interview. Despite the random nature of this chance, and notwithstanding my lack of a graduate medical or business degree, I managed to start and sell my first medical communications company with nine years’ experience, and to sell it within three years. I went on to start three more companies in the same field, and sold two of them.
Is my story unique? Not really. What I discovered when I set out to write this book was that there are millions of women out there who have career paths and success stories similar to mine, and no doubt many more entrepreneurial women are waiting in the wings, dreaming about the day they will launch their new ventures. As such, I thought it worthwhile to draw upon my professional experiences starting and selling companies, as well as the experiences of successful women business owners around the country, and put together a book for women entrepreneurs to help them navigate the steps to business success.
The Story of Finding the Business Within
A job finding jobs for others. Suzanne Collins, for instance, never thought much about starting her own company. Burned out from selling cosmetics for Estée Lauder and other beauty companies, Suzanne had no idea what to do next. A colleague working in the professional recruitment industry put Suzanne in touch with a headhunting firm, which hired her for its Dallas office. Soon she was placed in charge of a new venture, a human resources consulting group to be test- marketed in Dallas. Her boss gave her a corner of the office, a desk, and some rudimentary office supplies, and told her to get started. That experience taught Suzanne that she could run her own business. With these scant resources, she built an internal staff as well as a database of clients. “One day,” Suzanne says, “I simply woke up and realized: I may as well try this on my own. I can pay myself the same measly salary, and get the same uncomfortable chair, and do it on my own.” With that, at thirty years of age, Suzanne opened CareerLink in February 2000. Today, Dallas-based CareerLink does more than $5 million in annual revenue and has twenty full-time employees.
Car-accident karma. Judy Wicks’s path was even more serendipitous than Suzanne’s. After college, Judy married her childhood sweetheart and moved to Alaska with him to be a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer. When their tour of duty was up, they went to visit friends in Philadelphia, where they noticed a lack of good stores for students. With $3,000, they opened the Free People Store, living in the back of the shop to hold expenses down. (The store later grew into the national retail chain Urban Outfitters.)
But Judy soon realized that she had to leave her husband, whom she had known since she was ten years old. She loaded up her car and began driving away. A half a block later, Judy got into a car accident. She wasn’t hurt, but the car was useless. Another driver stopped to ask her if she wanted a ride. What she really needed, she told the stranger, was a job, as she was now homeless, carless, and nearly penniless. The man told her that the restaurant where he worked was looking for another waitress. “So when anyone asks me how I got into the restaurant business, I always say by accident,” Judy says.
In her new job Judy went from waitress to general manager, ultimately running the restaurant for ten years. Then she left and started White Dog Café, a small muffin and coffee takeout shop on the first floor of her house in Philadelphia. Judy’s new business provided her with an income, and let her spend time with her then two- and four-year- old children. Today, Judy owns five houses: three for White Dog and two for her second venture, the Black Cat Gift Shop. The two companies now employ more than 100 people, serve 200 customers in the restaurant daily, and gross north of $5 million a year.
Inventing an industry. At the age of twenty-five, Angela Drummond turned an office job into her own business in a new market. Trained in fashion merchandising, the Virginia native decided to stay close to home after college rather than move to New York, as she had planned. She began a career in consulting in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, where she first heard about collaborative meeting software. An innovation at the time, the early 1990s, such software allowed people to hold meetings online, cutting down on travel and allowing greater project collaboration. Angela and two female colleagues saw this technology’s promise, and after testing the software on a consulting project for the U.S. Army, they saw that it worked well as a way to foster consensus on tough internal issues, such as those among different ranks of soldiers. The three women built a case for starting a new company based on the collaboration software and presented it to their firm’s management. But the bosses dismissed the idea: “No, girls, there’s no market there.” Angela and her colleagues looked at each other and said, “They’re crazy! We can do this!”
Rather than give up on their idea, the women began meeting at night and on weekends to plan for their new business providing the software and consulting services. They incorporated in August 1992 as Structured Solutions, Inc., and landed their first government contract, with the Department of Defense, three months later. After twelve years in business, Angela is still president and CEO of the company, now called SiloSmashers.
Creating the Product You Need
From the Post-it note to the all-inclusive diaper bag, all of us have at one point thought that we could have invented a useful product ourselves. We all dream of being entrepreneurs. Many women, frustrated at not finding something that fits their needs, come up with their own solution, and then turn their idea into a profitable business. If you have an idea but think you can never turn it into a successful business, consider how these women spun an inspiration into a company.
A runner’s best friend. Hinda Miller’s story typifies how some women can see a market need and from there create a booming business, one that was never on their radar screens when they first went to work. A costume designer by training, Hinda was living in Vermont, where she designed costumes for the University of Vermont’s Champlain Shakespeare Festival. This was during the late 1970s, as the jogging craze was sweeping the country. One day, she and two women friends, back from a jog, wondered aloud why a better bra wasn’t available for women runners. From South Carolina, where she had moved to teach costume design for two years, Hinda and her partner, Lisa Lindahl, developed a prototype running bra from a pair of men’s jockstraps sewn together, and lined up a manufacturer. (A third partner left after the design stage and wound up designing costumes for the Muppets!)
In 1978, Hinda, then twenty-eight, and Lisa, twenty-nine, went to their first trade show, the National Sporting Goods Association Show in Chicago, to exhibit their new product. They pinned up the JogBra on a piece of canvas that they draped and secured across a coat rack, along with an article that had recently appeared in the New York Post, picturing a Playboy bunny wearing a JogBra.
In the company’s early years, the pair tried to move from such improvisations to a more rigorous and formal business structure. Hinda borrowed $30,000 from her father to start the company, SLS, Inc., which later became Jogbra, Inc., and then JBI, Inc. She and Lisa secured loans from the Small Business Administration. They also agreed that product design and manufacturing was Hinda’s bailiwick while Lisa would cover sales. Overall, they developed eight different JogBra styles. Playtex bought the company for millions, after Hinda and Lisa were in business twelve years.
Hinda didn’t set out to make a product, build an empire, or earn millions. What she did do was zero in on a market niche, centered around one of her passions—jogging—and develop a product that would make jogging more comfortable and enjoyable for women.
A shooting epiphany. When Doreen Marks was a high school junior in 1985, her father took her on a hunting trip one Saturday afternoon in upstate New York. Doreen started out trailing after her father in the damp, snowy woods, and it wasn’t long before she took a tumble, plunging her firearm into the snow and mud. Her father hadn’t brought any gun-cleaning equipment, and when she returned to the hunting camp, she found no supplies for getting the dirt off her gun.
At home, she looked around for her grandfather’s old World War II gun accessories, focusing in on a chain with a weight on the end. She took this tool along on her next hunting trip, packed in a shoe- polish tin, and used it to clean her gun in the field.
Doreen continued to tinker with different parts and she soon came up with a new concept for a field cleaning system. By the time her father went to the Shot Show, the industry’s largest trade show, a short time later, Doreen convinced him to take a booth for her so she could test-market her eight prototypes. He got a ten- by ten-foot booth, and Doreen’s mother agreed to go along and staff the booth with her daughter. But the show’s organizers stopped Doreen at the door, telling her that no one under eighteen could enter. Undeterred, Doreen went back outside, put on too much makeup, and smiled her way back into the show.
The kits attracted the attention of several large distributors from around the state, who placed orders for the product. By the end of the show, her father told her, “You’ve got to start making and selling those things.” Doreen hired four high school friends to make the kits at her parents’ kitchen table. Even after she graduated early from high school and started college, she spent her nights attending class and her days running the business, which she named OTIS Technology, a family name that coincidentally stands for Outstanding Technology, Innovation, and Service. With help from the Small Business Administration she secured a patent for her kit. By 1990, Doreen moved the company out of the kitchen and into a horse barn on her parents’ property.
Today, thirty-nine-year-old Doreen is raising two teenagers while running OTIS, where she remains president and CEO. OTIS has more than sixty full-time employees, 150 sales representatives nationwide, distributors in several countries, and more than thirty patents. In 2005 the Small Business Administration recognized Doreen as one of its five top U.S. women small business owners.
Helping Your Husband, Boosting Your Own Career
Sometimes the catalyst that turns women into CEOs is a crisis involving their husbands’ jobs. Frequently it is the wife, not the beleaguered husband, who has the spark to start a company using her own marketing and administrative skills coupled with her husband’s expertise to create a new business.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from There's a Business in Every Woman by Ann M. Holmes. Copyright © 2007 by Ann Holmes. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.