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Looking Out

For Danielson Designs, creating a successful business was just another way to help the community.

Even before they had a product, Annie and Mark Danielson had a goal for their company: "We wanted to bring jobs to our town," says Mark. In 1990, the couple moved to Trinidad, Colorado, to live closer to family. Trinidad's economy was sluggish, and as a result, the town had few employment opportunities. But Annie, 46, and Mark, 48, had a solution.

"We needed a product that an unskilled labor force could make and that we could ship across the country," says Mark. Annie, who had previously been in the gift and greeting card industry, came up with the idea of producing hand-painted picture frames. The pair went to a trade show in Chicago with 15 prototypes, came home with a stack of orders and started Danielson Designs in 1991.
The Danielsons have since expanded their product base to include decorative signs as well as frames. Today, the company has 100 local employees--about 1 percent of the town's population--and sells its products at more than 6,000 independent retailers across the country. "We have [sold through] Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom," says Mark, "but we really try to focus on small, independent retailers, because our passion is the anti-big-boxification of America."

Over the years, as Danielson Designs' fortunes grew, so did the town's. With the natural gas industry developing in Trinidad, employment was no longer a key issue, so the Danielsons turned their focus to quality-of-life issues. "Small businesses can be the most powerful force for transforming a community," says Mark. To help revive the downtown area, the Danielsons opened a dry goods store in 1998. And this year, they moved a regional theater company into a historic building.

Other retailers have since followed their lead, but Annie says it hasn't always been easy for the company, which projects sales of $11 million this year. "It didn't happen over-night," she explains. "There were years when we said, 'Good Lord, what did we do?' But now momentum is growing."

While the Danielsons are no longer concentrating on creating new jobs, they're still concerned with creating a positive culture for their employees. A few years ago, they established what they call their "bucket program." "Ten percent of our net profit goes into a bucket, and as soon as the bucket reaches a certain amount of money, we dump it out and give it to the employees," explains Mark. The funds are distributed based on tenure rather than rank. Mark cites one example with pride: "In the 12 past months, one of our employees made almost $6,500 from this program--over 20 percent of her salary."

JJ Ramberg is the host of MSNBC's small-business program Your Business and co-founder of GoodSearch.com.

JJ Ramberg is the author of It's Your Business, host of MSNBC's Your Business and founder of GoodSearch.com, a Yahoo-powered search engine that donates to charity with each search.

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This article was originally published in the September 2008 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Looking Out.

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