Crash Course

Not So Fast

Entrepreneurial success can also be easy. It's reacting to that success that isn't always simple. If you don't react in the right way, success can overwhelm, control and humiliate you. It can happen to the biggest of companies, like Planet Hollywood, which, after going $250 million in the hole, had to declare bankruptcy and restructure last year. It had expanded too quickly, Robert Earl, the company's CEO and co-founder, told the press.

Success can also overwhelm even the smallest of companies. Just ask Bill Edlebeck of Chicago. The 35-year-old owns The Heritage Bed & Breakfast Registry (think of it as a "front desk" for bed and breakfasts, says Edlebeck); after 12 years of growing at 33 percent a year, the oil started gushing. Because in 1998, Edlebeck did what many entrepreneurs were doing at the time: He established a Web presence (http://www.heritageregistry.com). After allying himself with IBM HomePage Creator, the phone started ringing. And ringing. And ringing.

Edlebeck remembers the turnaround vividly. He had made plans for lunch with a friend one morning, and by the time lunch came around, he couldn't leave. The phone had been ringing steadily all morning. Usually, he was lucky to receive 10 calls and make one, maybe two, reservations in a day. But about 50 calls had come in, and he'd made five reservations, all before lunch.

The phone kept ringing the next day. And the next. Edlebeck was running the business on his own, and life had been moving along no faster than the plots of those Dick and Jane books. But now...

"I was afraid of my own office," remembers Edlebeck, who soon realized he wasn't equipped for what was about to happen: In 1996, The Heritage Bed & Breakfast Registry's sales were $73,000. In April 1998, everything started to change, and Edlebeck's company made more than $176,000 that year. His 1999 figures, estimated at press time, topped $205,000. Sounds good now, but back in April 1998, his sudden success was quickly becoming a nightmare.

"I desperately needed new phone lines, phones, computers, a LAN and a more efficient way of running the office," recalls Edlebeck, who has since hired two employees to help keep up with the onslaught. "Another glitch was that the sudden jump in volume sent up a red flag with our credit card processor. After years of the kind of slow, steady growth characteristic of a homebased business, they wondered why our volume had jumped and, fearing the worst, stopped making deposits into our account. They never told us this, though, so I couldn't figure out why we were making more money than we ever had and yet had no money in our account to cover the checks that we were paying to hosts."

Edlebeck's crime? Not preparing for the day he would become very successful. As an entrepreneur who once went through similar problems and now delivers seminars on dealing with sudden success, Russ Holdstein, president of Growth Strategies, says, "The real problem is when you have a business that hasn't evolved or changed. To stay successful, you must change to keep growing and adapting."

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the January 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Crash Course.

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