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Things you need to know to run your own business

Things you need to know to run your own business

By Victoria Tilney McDonough,
Photography Chris Cumming ’93

It’s no secret that Denisonians leave the hill to follow life’s countless roads. A browse through the alumni roster, however, reveals a significant number who head out into the business world, particularly as business owners. We can only speculate what fuels such risk-strewn, often unmapped pursuits. Perhaps it has something to do with their experience on Denison’s campus, where the culture invites students to test their limits among any number of student organizations, as Zachary Lewis investigates in “Squeeze Play,” beginning on page 20. Or perhaps it’s the very design of liberal arts teaching and learning, which Kelli Whitlock Burton espouses in “Higher Education, Liberally Applied” on page 24. Or maybe it’s a combination of determined spirit and real-life experience that bear them down the avenues of success and fulfillment. In the following pages, we ask seven entrepreneurs to each share a landmark lesson from his or her own personal enterprise. 

Freelance writer Victoria Tilney McDonough lives in Alexandria, Virginia. The enterprising Chris Cumming takes his respite in Seattle and his photographs wherever the assignments lead him.

Man in business suit stands atop a rock while a train whizzes by in the background

Entertain all ideas, for one shall be king

David Fox ’93 
CEO and Founder, Agistix, Inc. Silicon Valley, California

During several years in sales and operations at a major technology company, David Fox learned a lot about the challenges of the global shipping marketplace—from the difficulty of getting large equipment through customs to the frequency of fraudulent shipping practices among small businesses. He started to formulate ways to create better visibility and control within logistics organizations, and wrote a business plan while on a two-year stint in Asia.

When he returned to the U.S. to shop his idea around, a family friend set up a meeting between Fox and an entrepreneur known throughout Silicon Valley for his 14 successful mega-start-ups. What was to be a 30-minute lunch turned into almost three advice-laden hours. “Don’t put on blinders to what you think your technology should be,” said the entrepreneur, as he pointed out how Fox’s plan could actually disrupt the logistics industry. “Don’t be afraid to entertain the ideas of others, even if they seem ridiculous as first. They may impact your own ideas in ways you couldn’t have imagined.”

“It was the break-through moment for me,” says Fox, who used the wisdom to alter his business plan until he had it just right. “It is advice I continue to live by, and at the time it was a green light.” Not long after that meeting, Fox launched—with no venture capital—Agistix, Inc., a leading provider of on-demand, carrier-neutral global logistics management solutions. Now three years old, Agistix, which has been profitable for almost two years, is one of the Valley’s fastest growing companies slated to double its gross revenues of $40 million in the next year.

Fox has always been a keen listener, but now he is better able to distill his own and others’ ideas. “My passion for what I do seems to be infinite. I am relentless in my approach, but I have learned that sometimes I do need to slow down, listen, and review other options again, then keep on truckin’—full speed ahead.”

A man sits on an outdoor bench with his hand on his knee, smiling and looking into the distance

Take advantage of bad advice

Ned Thomson ’53
Retired President/CEO, Thomson-Shore, Inc., Ann Arbor, Michigan

Ned Thomson was in a managerial role at a large book printing and binding company when the owner told him that he was being too nice to the employees. “There are two sides in business—the management and the workers,” the owner said. “If you don’t take advantage of them, they will take advantage of you.” The notion did not sit well with Thomson.

A year later, in 1972, he and co-worker Harry Shore quit their jobs, bought used equipment, and started their own printing and binding company. “We thought it would be a lot more rewarding and fun to own our own company with our values at the center of it all.”

The first year or so was tough. Thomson, Shore, and one press operator did everything, each juggling two to three shifts almost daily. Thomson’s wife, Mary Jane (Chenoweth) ’53, did the bookkeeping at home. “Soon more employees came on board,” he says, “but we were still working 365 days a year and sometimes we had to borrow money an hour before payroll.”

Within a few years, however, the business took off. “From the start, we told our employees that there are no unimportant people,” he says. “Everyone from the president to the janitor affects our customers and makes our business the best it can be on every level.” Thomson-Shore operates on the Scanlon Plan, a formalized version of participated management. Every decision is made by committee—from determining wages and health insurance to creating a health and wellness program. And every employee has stock in the company. Today, with $30 million in annual sales, Thomson Shore prints books for 80 university presses and more than 1,000 commercial publishers, acquiring a new customer almost daily (all through word-of-mouth recommendations, since an original goal was to operate without a sales force).

Upon his retirement, Thomson sold his stock to the employees, but remains on the board at their request. Knowing that he and Shore created something unique—in essence, a business run as a classless society—he never wonders what would have happened had he taken that advice years back.

A woman smiles as she cradles a cup of coffee and brings it near her mouth

Don’t stop until you set
your passions on fire

Suzanne Pettit ’85
Co-Owner, Poppet, New York City

Suzanne Pettit loved working in the movie industry as a wardrobe supervisor. She reveled in dressing people. “I have an eye,” she says. “I know clothes, especially vintage and period garments. And I absolutely love making people look good.” But the hours were long and the shoots demanding; she needed a change, more balance in the maelstrom of her life.

Pettit pondered and soul-searched and decided to launch her own business. She browsed businesses for sale, and when she came across a vintage clothing shop, which she didn’t end up buying, she knew she had found her thing. She also remembered something a friend had told her years ago: “Catch on fire with what you love to do, and the whole world will come to watch you burn.” So in 2003, Pettit took the leap. She opened Psyche’s Tears, a vintage clothing store in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.

But over the first two years, Pettit learned that owning a business is a lot of responsibility and hassle, especially with New York rents. She needed a partner. “Boutiques and restaurants come and go in this city because the rents are so exorbitant,” she says. “I wanted to share the business—and all the fun, success, and worry that comes with it.”

In May 2006, Pettit and her new partner opened Poppet in the East Village, a funky neighborhood with a lot of foot traffic. Poppet features everything from crazy-wild to the utmost in elegant. And the shop itself is, as one customer described it, “like walking into a flower.” Pettit and her partner do a lot of research and some traveling to find the amazing pieces that they have—from a $1,400 dress designed by the renowned Ossie Clark (which has drawn in other fashion designers to gawk), to a museum-quality pair of crystal-encrusted platform shoes, to less expensive but equally fabulous finds that can be worn straight off the rack.

Has the passion of owning Poppet set Pettit on fire? “At this point,” she says, “I have an intense glow. I’m not sure I have totally caught on fire yet, but some days I smell smoke.”

Valorie Luther

Use both sides of the brain

Valorie Luther ’85
Founder/CEO, Creative Concepts LLC, Fairfield, Connecticut

In a senior year writing class, Valorie Luther was singled out by her professor. He gave the class an expository writing assignment then told Luther that since she was a dance and English double major, he wanted her to link her paper somehow to dance.

“When someone pushes me, gives me a project, it’s as if my excitement multiplies from theirs,” she says. “That professor helped get the best out of me. I never forgot that.” Luther wrote that paper about the dance of death. To do her research, she traveled to the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library in New York. There, she immersed herself in the Middle Ages, the Bubonic Plague, and the social mores of that time. She learned that during that period dancing was prohibited, except at funerals when they could only move their feet, not their upper bodies. She wrote the best paper of her college career; her writing flowed and twirled, choreographed by her diligence and excitement for the project.

Five years ago, Luther founded Creative Concepts, a boutique PR and marketing firm with four fulltime employees, 20 freelancers, and clients ranging from the 60-year-old family-run company Bigelow Tea to a tech start-up developing a multi-layered online calendar. The firm’s success, she says, is rooted in the thrilling experience of that college paper; to this day she does her research thoroughly and creatively. With Bigelow Tea, for example, she retained the clients’ traditional brand while encouraging them to move into the future. “We created a blog for them,”

she says, “which has already given their business a new boost.” Designed in the shape of Bigelow’s recognizable teabag label, the blog is called Constant Comments: Tea Talk Flavored with News, Tips, and Recipes. Says Luther: “I have learned that the more you open your mind to ideas, listen to what people are really saying, and then go and dig around for all the information you can find—good or bad, useful or not—the greater your project will turn out.”

A man wades through the ocean surf pushing a skinboard ahead of him

Make choices that will allow
you to sleep at night

Kurt Vincent ’06
Co-Owner, Dale Threads LLC, Columbus, Ohio

Kurt Vincent doesn’t consider himself a businessman, but rather a guy who needs money, so he can do the things he wants—like surfing in Maui or making documentary films.

During a year off from college (before he transferred to Denison from Wooster), Vincent and a friend sold vintage clothes on eBay. “Vintage clothes are cool,” he says, “and selling them gave us the idea for our own business—redesigning collegiate apparel that would be more stylish and high-quality—more like popular mall fashions and less the traditional, bulky sweatshirts and stuff that you only wear to the gym or on game day.”
 
When he arrived at Denison in 2004, Vincent submitted a business plan and landed the Harlamert Entrepreneurial Stipend (funded by Irv Harlamert ’52). With that seed money, he and his partner and childhood friend, Ryan Vesler (an Ohio University student), founded Dale Threads LLC. They shopped around for vendors who used quality and preferably organic fabrics. They created logos and designs to be applied with thinner, more delicate inks—a departure from the usual thick, rubbery ones used on most collegiate apparel. The cuts are also more flattering—clothes you might wear with jeans or a funky skirt on a night out.

In the process of shopping vendors, Vincent and Vesler were continually told by experienced business people that they would be fools not to use manufacturers overseas, where products are often made cheaply in sweatshops. “We’d save a lot of money, they told us. So would choosing lower-quality fabrics and processes,” says Vincent. But the more they thought about that advice, the more they knew they wanted to do the opposite. For them, making a sweatshop-free line of clothing was as important as, if not more than, the clothing itself.

“We started Dale Threads because it was fun and would give us some money to have the freedom to pursue our other interests. We didn’t go into this to make money—money that would compromise our values. I mean, how can you sell clothes to college kids when you know the people who made them may not even have adequate housing, nourishment, medical care, or other basic human necessities? That’s insane.”

John Canning

Always tell the truth—
and share your mistakes

John Canning ’66
Co-Founder/President, Madison dearborn Partners LLC, Chicago

John Canning knows that in the private equity business, where a tremendous amount of money and risk is involved, you have to say no to a lot of people. Canning learned this lesson the hard way. Like the many people who seek backing from Madison Dearborn, a young entrepreneur once came to Canning with a business plan, requesting $5 million. “His business was not right for us, but instead of just telling him so and getting that ugly moment over with, I told him that our minimum investment for new businesses was $10 million. So, of course, the next week he comes back with a revised plan and a request for $10 million,” says Canning. “No one likes to deliver bad news—whether it’s in or outside of the firm—but coming up with fake reasons always backfires. I’ve learned that no matter what, it’s easier to be honest.”

Madison Dearborn Partners, founded in 1980 and now the fifth largest private equity firm in the U.S. and the biggest one between the coasts, has $14 billion under management with net returns of 20 percent. In terms of personnel, it’s a relatively small but cohesive organization. “We have virtually no turnover,” says Canning. “We joke that our partners either retire or die.

“Partnerships are fragile organizations and as a head of a firm, you will only last as long as your partners do. So being fair and honest is crucial,” says Canning, who learned this from watching other similar businesses implode when the “top guys hoarded” the money.

“All of the firm’s founding partners have had a disaster or two. Anyone taking the kind of financial risks we do will have that kind of failure at some point. If they don’t, they’re not taking enough risks,” says Canning. “But understanding why something went wrong is what’s important. Sharing these experiences in an honest and upfront way, then continuing forward by making decisions as a group have always been the key to the way we do our business.”

Cynthia Booth

Listen to your mother

Cynthia Booth ’79 Founder/Owner, Cobco Enterprises, Cincinnati

Cynthia Booth was not a math major, but she does have an equation that has helped her succeed in every facet of her life. Great ability + character = success. Simple, but not always easy to achieve, at least not without total determination, tenacity, and a little bit of faith. This she learned from her mother.

More than 50 years ago, Booth’s mother opened a hair salon and retail store in Atlanta, when being a woman, a successful business owner, and an AfricanAmerican was almost unheard of. “My mother knew that she could provide a service that women would always want,” says Booth. “And because she treated her customers, her employees, and her community with respect and care, her salon thrived.”

Booth later became one of the highest ranking women in the Cincinnati banking arena. But after 18 years in that line of work, she wanted her own business. While looking at organizations that might need fresh leadership, she developed a scorecard that measured commitment to product, to employees and customers, and to community. McDonald’s kept rising to the top. So did Booth, who was chosen from thousands of applications McDonald’s receives annually from hopeful franchisees.

In 2000, Booth opened her first of six McDonald’s restaurants, which are noted for their stylish, upscale interiors, featuring WiFi, fireplaces, and plasma TVs. “I am always thinking about how to make things better—be that the cohesiveness of my family, employee satisfaction through incentives, new programs at Denison (which gave me such a strong foundation in critical thinking), or how to keep giving back to my community.”

Booth, whose restaurants served more than 2.1 million customers last year, takes great satisfaction in knowing that her decisions positively impact other people. “Seeing an employee buy a house or send a child to college because she has a steady income and a positive place to work each day makes everything worthwhile. So does seeing a family sit down for a good meal in one of our restaurants.” And those decisions spring from determination, which, according to her philosophy, “is the difference between mediocrity and greatness.”