Lessons from the Top

By Tripp Laino | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 07.19.16 – Biz Ink, Feature, People & Places

Of course, many people dream of running their own business, with romantic thoughts of answering to no one and being in total control of their destiny. But getting a company off the ground and fostering its growth is no easy feat (many more fail than succeed), with obstacles of all shapes and sizes—managing finances, personnel and operations can be a massive headache.

There’s no better teacher for the aspiring entrepreneur than those who have already managed those obstacles, so Frederick Magazine reached out to several successful Frederick business people and asked them to share their wisdom for others following in their footsteps (and even missteps).

The six entrepreneurs include: Daryl Boffman, who founded Acela Technologies in 2002; Erica Burns, owner of Erica Burns Designs, a 10-year-old online jewelry company that opened a shop in Downtown Frederick last year; Sharon Crisafulli, who opened Crisafulli Cheese Shop in 2015; Danny Farrar, who started fitness company SoldierFit in 2007; Amanda Haddaway, who launched HR AnswerBox in January of 2016 after 17 years in human resources; and Beth Schillaci, who founded the marketing firm VillageWorks 17 years ago.

Planning, Planning, Planning

Haddaway says she dipped her toe into the waters of running her own business by working on a freelance basis for other firms, which gave her the confidence to strike out on her own. “I got to a point where the freelance was doing really, really well, and I was going to have to make a decision on whether I wanted to scale back the freelance work or pursue something more full-time, and I decided to make the leap into entrepreneurship,” Haddaway says. “I didn’t start with a blank slate—I’d been working up to it and had some customers before I launched.”

Preparing a business plan seems like obvious advice, but several of the entrepreneurs stress going above and beyond the standard level of detail before the business opens.

“The very first thing you need to do is write a business plan—a very detailed business plan, down to who you’re going to market your product to and where the money is coming from,” Crisafulli says, adding that the City of Frederick’s Department of Economic Development is helpful in navigating the complex regulations businesses must navigate. “I’ve been pleasantly blown away with how well things have gone—knocking on wood here, but I really think that comes back to my solid, solid business plan. I can’t tell you how many times I pulled that out.”

“Do your homework on the type of business you plan to launch,” Haddaway says. “Learn all about the industry: who your ideal customer might be, all the things that go into setting up the structure of a business, and do some research about how you’re going to monetize the business and what your financial projections are for at least the first few months or even up to a year.”

“A plan should include not just what you want to sell and who you want to sell it to, but how should your team look,” Boffman says. “What skills do you have and the people to surround yourself with—nobody knows everything. Each manager has their own strengths and weaknesses. It’s easy to put people around you that think like you but that’s not necessarily the best thing for your business. You need to get people to challenge your thoughts and have you think other ways.”

And don’t forget to count the beans.

“It’s extremely important that an entrepreneur goes into business understanding it’s not enough to know what product or solution you want to sell, but what is the right price to earn a profit,” Boffman says. “If you don’t earn a profit, your dream will end.

A lot of times presidents and CEOs spend a lot of time researching the problem and solutions and not enough time understanding business finance – Take a class on reading financial statements so that you will see whether or not you’re profitable from your operations.”

Know Your Customers

It sounds so obvious, but it is often overlooked. “You can’t be for everyone,” Farrar says. “That’s one of the things that a lot of people fail to understand in life and in business—if you try to chase everyone you end up with no one.”

“People get really caught up in the tools that are available for marketing,” Schillaci says. “They see the hot new social media tool on news sites and wherever, and they get caught up using those and chasing whatever’s deemed hot. It comes down to knowing who your customer base is and where they spend their time and the information they need. The more you focus on who you’re selling to, you make smarter decisions—what they need, who they are and where they are.”

One of the most important customers is in the mirror.

“You have to really add yourself to your client list,” Schillaci says. “You’re making sure you’re marketing yourself. … You have to really schedule yourself into your production schedule so you’re not the neglected party.”

“Business owners are constantly sending their employees for training,” Boffman says. “CEOs need training, as well. Find some opportunities to improve your knowledge and your abilities as a CEO.”

Plan for Tough Times

“Make sure you’re going to plan to keep your overhead as low as possible,” Burns says. “Because I started online and continue that, it does help me, but it’s hard when you start out a business. There’s so many newer expenses—make sure you plan for those startup costs and that there will be slower periods of time.”

“Don’t get discouraged from those slower days,” Burns adds. “You’ll have days and weeks and months that are great and fabulous, but as soon as you start to get down on yourself, remind yourself, ‘This is why I’m doing it.’ Remaining positive and really focusing on maintaining that positivity and if things aren’t going well to promote yourself and do something new to get yourself out there.”

“Don’t be afraid to not get it quite right,” Boffman says. “Be willing to regroup. Sometimes you have to rethink things – you have to stop and regroup and make some adjustments. If you can’t adjust in business, that’s another reason businesses fail. You get an idea and think this is it and find that you might fail.”

Find Support

Find the people who will offer help and support, whether it’s friends and family, fellow business owners, or even a coach.

“The most valuable thing I did was hire a coach to help open my business,” Crisafulli says. “I made sure she was the most renowned cheese person in the country. I had to beg her to take me on but I wanted that guidance—not what to do, but guidance.”

“I have a group of other women business owners I like to get together with on a regular basis to brainstorm and share ideas,” Schillaci says. “No matter what kind of business you have, everyone has the same problems at some point in time. Just having that support network is really important no matter what business you’re in.”

But ultimately, you’re in business for yourself—you’ll need to take control.

“So many times we sit down and start talking to people, and they may mean well, but if you’ve got a friend, just because they’re your best friend doesn’t mean they’re giving the best advice,” Farrar says. “You have to listen to your counsel and pick your counsel very carefully. Even if you talk to a subject matter expert, if you believe in your heart of hearts what you’re doing is right, do it.”

Oh, and a word or two about Uncle Sam …

“Taxes—pay Uncle Sam!” Boffman says, chuckling. “They’re a killer. There are lot of things you’ll want to do with your money, but definitely take care of your taxes.”

Entrepreneur of the Year Awards

Several local businesses were recently honored for their accomplishments by the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce and the Entrepreneur Council at the annual Entrepreneur Awards.

Phil Rauh, chairman at Service Glass Industries, Inc., was awarded the Master Entrepreneur Award in recognition of his outstanding business acumen and philanthropic commitment to the community.

Rauh, who emigrated from Romania in 1940, began working for a division of  Harrisburg Glass after moving to Frederick with his wife, Erika. In 1985, he became owner of the business and changed the name to Service Glass Industries. Today, the firm is a major commercial glazing company whose work includes a variety of multi-story office buildings, hospitals and universities in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Service Glass Industries recently opened a new headquarters on Monocacy Boulevard, employing 40 people in manufacturing and administrative roles.

The Entrepreneur Council Choice Award was given to Clyde and Gerry Hicks, owners of The Trail House on North Market Street in Downtown Frederick. The pair opened the business in 1984 after Gerry, a Frederick native, met Clyde in North Carolina and the couple decided to combine their outdoor interests with a retail store.

Their goal was to have a successful shop where staff would be like family and they would know their customers by name when they came in the door. Thirty-two years later, they feel like they have accomplished their objectives and have certainly been a mainstay of retail shopping in Downtown Frederick despite economic ups and downs.

Rounding out the winners were the Mid-Maryland Performing Arts Center, recognized for Social Entrepreneurship; Rehab2Perform, which offers physical therapy and sports performance training, in the category of Small Business—Emerging; Dublin Roasters Coffee, for Small Business—Established; George Street Services, a business consulting firm, for Large Established; WLR Automotive, which includes The Auto Spa, The Lube Center and The Auto Repair, for Very Large Established; and clothing company Def Mvmt, which received the Youth Award.

Additionally, the council recognized the Hood College Enactus Club for its entrepreneurial work in developing the Backet, a jacket-and-backpack, designed for use by the homeless, which has received national attention.