You Can Do It!

Despite some bumps in the road, these 5 entrepreneurs created thriving businesses. Learn from their challenges to help keep your company on the right track.
Magazine Contributor
12 min read

This story appears in the July 2006 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Editor's note: Find out how many entrepreneurs overcame challenges--and get fired up to become your own success story--in our Success Stories area.

The five hardy entrepreneurs profiled here all made it through lean or rocky times. Their takes on what a newbie needs to know can help you achieve success.

Keeping it Real
David Huertas, the owner of Santa Fe, New Mexico-based El Meson, saw a niche not covered by any other local establishment and decided to go for it. This chef opened his authentic Spanish-cuisine restaurant in July 1997, and at the end of 2000, he completed an expansion to double El Meson's capacity. Today, Huertas, 35, expects 2006 sales to reach $900,000.

Q:What are your top three tips for startups?

1. Focus specifically on what you want to accomplish. Says Huertas, "It was tempting to say 'The heck with it' and do hybrid [Spanish-Mexican] dishes, but we had a good plan, so we stuck with it."

2. Once you identify your goals, keep it simple. "We set a pace, as far as setting the standards for authentic Spanish cuisine."

3. Do something you enjoy. "This will be your life for a while," says Huertas. "Be prepared to sacrifice a lot of time while you're getting going."

Q:What advice can you give on growing a business?

1. Know the market. Huertas did his homework, working for other food establishments in the area where he wanted to open his restaurant.

2. Know the business. Working at restaurants showed Huertas the ropes of being a restaurateur: pricing, portions, sourcing, employees, etc.

3. Provide consistent, high-quality products. "People come [to my restaurant] time after time to get the same great experience," says Huertas.

4. Listen to your customers, and make changes based on their feedback. "Your customers are your greatest allies and can help you grow."

Q:What personality trait helped get you through the lean times?

Huertas maintained an unwavering belief in himself: "I believed in what I wanted to do," he says.

Q:Was there a time you wanted to quit? Why didn't you give up?

"A few times, I became discouraged because I saw other restaurants doing incredibly well," says Huertas. "I stuck with it because I knew if I didn't [offer authentic Spanish cuisine], someone else would."

Q:What was your biggest mistake ?

"Being overly ambitious and spreading myself too thin. In the beginning, we were open seven days a week for lunch and dinner." Huertas determined when he was making the most profits and changed his hours accordingly.

Slow and Steady
Armed with a great plan and models for different services, three former employees launched Blue Gecko Inc., a Seattle-based IT services firm, in January 2000. Founders Chuck Edwards, 34, J.J. Ecker, 34, and Sarah Novotny, 33, grew the business slowly through funding gleaned mostly from independent consulting. The trio opened a data center in Texas last year, and Blue Gecko now has 2006 projected sales of $2.5 million.

Q:What are your top three tips for startups?

1. Overplan! Know how your company will generate sales. Edwards says your sales plan should contain several different models, encompassing a variety of possible products or services.

2. Start with some seed money. According to Edwards, Blue Gecko's lack of funding prolonged the startup process.

3. Hire administrative help immediately. "A business needs bills handled and files organized," Edwards attests. "It's not expensive and will save you time and headaches."

Q:What advice can you give on growing a business?

1. Scrutinize every expense. Blue Gecko, now a global firm with clients in Europe and Japan, was a ver-tical operation in its first year. The partners worked out of home offices.

2. Take advantage of open source solutions (i.e., freely available software), and buy used equipment for internal operations. "We constantly asked, 'Do we need to spend X dollars? What's the ROI?' If we didn't under-stand how revenue was tied to it, we didn't buy it," says Edwards.

3. Refine your fulfillment processes. "We adjusted or eliminated services that weren't profitable." Occasional outsourcing helped the company handle clients' problems without changing its core business.

4. Know how to relate to customers. Edwards advises, "You need to know how to defuse things when someone is yelling at you." The Blue Gecko approach: Give clients several concrete, doable options.

Q:What personality trait helped get you through the lean times?

A good sense of humor: "When things aren't going well, I try to keep things in perspective, take a deep breath, tell a joke, chill out and move on," says Edwards.

Q:Was there a time you wanted to quit? Why didn't you give up?

"I considered quitting several times when I had a few 80-plus hour weeks in a row," Edwards admits. "I didn't because I couldn't stand the thought of working for a big company again."

Q:What was your biggest mistake?

According to Edwards, "Not getting enough funding at the get-go and not having a clearer sales and marketing plan." Because Blue Gecko's seed money came from long-term consulting jobs, the company was "very light on the business development side."

Creative Endeavors
When her garment-industry employer defaulted in 1989, Jamie Kreitman used her unemployment checks to start Jamie Kreitman/Kreitman Knitworks Ltd. Specializing in whimsical apparel and footwear, Kreitman launched her New York City metropolitan area firm in 1991 with a line of only 12 pieces. Now the 49-year-old entrepreneur expects sales of $1.5 million to $2 million in 2006.

Q:What are your top three tips for startups?

1. Do research. Kreitman always loved to create things, but she needed concrete information to start her business. "Use the skills you've learned since childhood, but don't leave any stone unturned," she advises.

2. Be stubborn. Although Kreitman had experience in the garment industry, she still had to learn the ropes. "Getting one big order doesn't mean your path is set. Being an entrepreneur takes sheer guts and demands way [more than] an 'employee' mentality."

3. Prepare yourself for anything that could go wrong. "Vary your accounts, because even the best-rated store can default." Kreitman recommends exercising caution and diligence, getting credit info before delivering and requiring signatures on all orders.

Q:What advice can you give on growing a business?

1. Outsource. Kreitman decided to move production to China. When she began, she was the head designer. To grow, she had to find cost-effective sources that could produce top-quality embellished garments. She also outsourced her shipping, sales force, bill collections, web design and more.

2. Branch out. For Kreitman, this meant venturing into footwear. The fashion industry is all about what's fresh. Kreitman saw a niche for high-end fanciful footwear that would complement her existing apparel lines.

3. Build a website. Initially, Kreitman sold through wholesale boutique accounts, but she needed an outlet that could generate sales 24/7, both directly and by driving business to the retailers that carry her lines nationwide.

Q:What personality trait helped get you through the lean times?

"My stubbornness and the way I think," says Kreitman, who previously taught at the college level. "My academic background trained me to think differently, to think things out."

Q:Was there a time you wanted to quit? why didn't you give up?

Some of Kreitman's best retail clients defaulted on payments, so she came close to closing shop more than once. She says, "I didn't quit because I would miss the creativeness!"

Q:What was your biggest mistake?

Kreitman had her trust violated several times before finding reliable partners. "Every day is a whole new scene," she says. "Now I'm a bit more cautious before I make decisions."

Eyes on the Prize
At her kitchen table in January 2001, Grandee Ann Ray started Grand Ideas, a corporate gift and specialty product fulfillment firm in Charleston, South Carolina. Though she began with little more than a cell phone, a fax and minimal inventory, Ray, 47, has grown the business to 2006 projected sales of more than $1 million.

Q:What are your top three tips for startups?

1. Visualize where you want to be. "Every day, do something to get yourself there," says Ray. "My vision was to have a million-dollar business."

2. Stay focused on your goals. "I wanted [to do] something autonomous and relationship-oriented," Ray explains.

3. Do what you say you're going to do, and do it on time. "My customers know they don't have to worry when I'm working on a project for them."

Q:What advice can you give on growing a business?

1. Recruit and maintain a strong customer base, and deliver great service. "I love working with people and do whatever I can to help them find creative solutions," says Ray.

2. Get good help. When looking for help, you must know your weaknesses. Ray says, "I don't feel threatened by people who have talents I don't."

3. Get your technology in order. Ray swears by her BlackBerry, and she invested in a small-business server two years ago.

4. Hire a business consultant and a business manager. "It was the best thing I ever did," says Ray. "It helped me get a better focus on things"

Q:What personality trait helped get you through the lean times?

Ray attributes her success to her perseverance and diligence. Despite major legal and personal struggles (she started her company during a difficult divorce) and hard economic times after 9/11, Ray decided gift fulfillment offered the creativity and flexibility she yearned for.

Q:Was there a time you wanted to quit? why didn't you give up?

"About a year and a half ago, I was working 16-hour days, bogged down with operational details like bills, ordering and filing," says Ray. "I was pretty burned out, but I didn't want to go back to working for someone else, so my mantra was, 'I can do this!' That's what kept me going."

Q:What was your biggest mistake?

"Blindly trusting people." Ray had to pay over $14,000 in back taxes after her new accounting firm discovered sloppy reporting done by another firm.

Fit to a Tea
With a thirst for "something fun and creative," Arsen Avakian wanted to launch a company with relatively little competition. His big idea--to do for tea what Starbucks has done for coffee--was born out of reflective time spent in downtown Chicago's bustling coffee cafes. Avakian, 30, started Argo Tea, a wholesale tea company and cafe, in Chicago in 2003. With 2006 projected sales of about $5 million, Avakian plans to expand beyond Illinois in 2007.

Q:What are your top three tips for startups?

1. Do your homework. "Exercise due diligence, but be flexible," says Avakian. "Dreaming and being passionate about what you do is great, but knowing the business is a must." Before launching Argo Tea, Avakian mulled over the performance histories of other successful companies, including Microsoft and Starbucks.

2. Define your goals. "Our passion is to offer healthy choices, using the best tea blends to make signature beverages. We are laser-focused on where we want our product to be seen and heard." Avakian and his team have forged a relationship with Whole Foods Market, where health-conscious consumers are introduced to Argo Tea through samples.

3. Focus on everyday results. Says Avakian, "Our mission is to deliver one cup at a time, one store at a time."

Q:What advice can you give on growing a business?

1. Make good real estate deals. Avakian and his team scrutinize every aspect of a deal, following the old adage "location, location, location."

2. Get your supply chain in order. For Avakian, this involved going to Asia, networking, taking risks and suffering losses. His first $5,000 pallet of tea turned out to be stuffed with Chinese newspapers. "It was educational," Avakian says pragmatically.

3. Never stop thinking like an entrepreneur. "If you think in dollars, you'll make the dollars!" Avakian's team is constantly developing new ways to market the company's product.

4. Develop strategic partnerships. Argo Tea reached the right influencers and invested in sponsorships, including a women's event for InStyle magazine.

5. Invest in talented people. To lessen turnaround, Argo Tea has training classes on its products, bar techniques and customer service. The company offers health insurance and fosters internal growth--Argo's training manager started as a shift supervisor.

Q:What personality trait helped get you through the lean times?

Being persistent and a little crazy. Says Avakian, "If you don't push enough, and allow for the time it takes to make things happen, you won't get there."

Q:Was there a time you wanted to quit? why didn't you give up?

"I never wanted to quit. We were cash-flow positive from Day One, so there was no reason for that to ever cross our minds," Avakian says.

Q:What was your biggest mistake ?

Starting a business has many potential pitfalls, including "overestimating or underestimating the complexities of the business, opportunities, people or yourself." Avakian's advice: Be prepared to make a lot of mistakes. "Hopefully, 80 percent of the time you're right."

5 Ways to Get Off to a Good Start
1. "Make sure your family is squarely behind you," says David E. Gumpert, author of How to Really Start Your Own Business and How to Really Create a Successful Business Plan. "Your family must be clear on what life will be like, and comfortable with some belt-tightening as the business is launched," cautions Gumpert, who founded an internet business in 1995 and grew it to a successful firm before selling it to a large company in 1999.

2. Feel good about this new adventure in the long term. Gumpert says many people get lost in the initial flush of excitement. "Think about how you'll feel about this in five years."

3. Have a web presence and strategy sooner rather than later. "People expect to go to the internet and find you--for directions, product and service info, etc.--so your site must contain this information, at the very least," says Gumpert.

4. Test-market. Seek information from competitors and feedback from prospective clients to hone your offerings prior to launch.

5. Operate in "stealth mode" in the beginning. "Get feedback and data from the market," says Gumpert, "and focus on doing business with real or prospective customers without making so much noise that you alert competitors."

Pattie Simone is president of, a consultancy specializing in strategic planning, mentoring and copywriting. She is also founder of, a women's speaking group.
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