What Have You Become?

You have employees you don't recognize, sales you can't keep track of and a business that's grown way beyond "small." Do you even remember when everything was just innocent and entrepreneurial?

It never occurred to Ann King, owner and impresario of Blooming Cookies Catalog.com, an e-commerce gourmet gift service in Atlanta that posted more than $3 million in sales in 1999, that her business would grow so large she'd lose her entrepreneurial status. "I believe, after 15 years, that I'm still an entrepreneur, but I've changed my mindset to a more traditionally corporate mindset."

King, 48, launched her company in 1984 after being convinced she could do a better job than a similar business she saw featured on television. It took a true entrepreneurial mind to write her company's success story. In fact, her start-up struggles could be illustrations of worst-case scenarios in the entrepreneur's handbook: There wasn't enough money to buy a commercial oven-just as orders were piling up. A snafu saw her original recipe fall into the hands of a major hotel chain-with no compensation to King. Her first location had leaky roofs and saw minimal foot traffic, and took a $20,000 hit after a large order to J.C. Penney cost twice as much to fill as anticipated. Things got so bad an accountant advised King and Glo Ghegan (her business partner and friend) to file for bankruptcy.

"Things were tough early," King says. "But I learned a lot. And I learned that communicating and reinforcing my vision throughout the company was my responsibility. Once I understood that, things got better right away."

A watershed moment came in 1993, after a fire at the company's plant. The building was leveled, but Blooming Cookies wasn't. The near-tragedy turned into a PR winner when local TV stations began reporting King's statement that the company would be back in business by Monday-a scant three days away. King and Ghegan did better than that, shipping cookies (with a local bakery's help) to amazed clients within 36 hours.

Blooming Cookies never lost momentum after rebounding from the fire. A deal with 1-800-FLOWERS led to a better one with FTD-and an even better one with Kodak, enabling customers to send images over the Web to be printed on Blooming Cookies' cookie jars. The company's 1998 sales hit $2.6 million, and King aims for $12 million in the next few years.

But making millions changed her entrepreneurial vision to something more corporate. "I think our company still feels like a start-up, in that we all work closely together, and everyone knows we'll all pull together to make things happen," King says. "But things have changed for me. Instead of diving in and making things happen with a 'whatever it takes' mentality, I've become aware of how all components of a decision affect the big picture. It's not just about me anymore. My decisions affect lots of lives, and I have tremendous respect for that responsibility that I didn't have as an entrepreneur."

Brian O'Connell is a Framingham, Massachusetts, freelance business writer. His most recent book is Generation E: How Young Entrepreneurs are Changing the Corporate Landscape (Entrepreneur Press, 1999). He can be reached at Bwrite111@aol.com.

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This article was originally published in the May 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: What Have You Become?.

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