EE Interview: Isaac Childs of Rustico Leather, LLC

RusticoI interviewed Isaac Childs, Founder and Manager of Rustico Leather. His experience is a compelling story that any entrepreneur can learn from.

Isaac, describe your company for me.

Rustico Leather is a Utah-based designer and manufacturer of leather goods. We have 9 employees and average just over a million in annual sales. We are currently in over 600 retail locations across the country ranging from resort town boutiques like the Sundance General store to larger distributing retailers like Barnes and Noble. We also do a lot of custom projects in the entertainment, corporate and promotional industries. Some of these clients have included Disney, Oprah, Philip Morris and many more. We also sell direct to the public through our online website and are constantly providing unique custom leather products for individuals across the country.

Rustico specializes in hand-crafted leather journals, photo albums, binders, presentation covers, pad folios, satchels and accessories. All our products are proudly made here in the USA. All our products are Handmade to order. This allows us to create individuality in each one of our pieces, creating a “one of a kind” type feel to our products. We have our leathers specially designed so that they wear into a beautiful patina with use and age. All our leather and paper is all purchased here in the US. We have roughly 84 great standard products to choose from, and we are constantly creating new and unique custom products for individuals and companies.

Okay, Isaac, let’s dig a bit deeper. What’s the value proposition?

Custom products with very small or no minimums, short lead times and surprisingly affordable prices. They are hand made in the USA. Each product is made to order by skilled artisans ensuring a “bespoke” style of service and product. This increases its value as a keepsake or gift item and is meant to last a lifetime. Our best value is that we work with a company or client to create a product that will not only attract attention to the receiver but also be kept and used for many years to come.  All our products can be personalized with names or logos of companies for added effect.

What motivated you to launch Rustico? How did it all begin?

After creating the initial journals and having pretty good success selling them to family, friends and one local shop (Sundance general Store), several friends from college and I launched a website with the intention of selling these online. Shortly afterward, Disney gave us a call to help with a press kit for their upcoming series storm stories. From there we just launched forward, never looking back.

What is the mission and vision for Rustico?

We will be the premier custom leather goods maker. Ideally, we would like everyone in America to carry or have a Rustico Leather journal sitting on their desktop, bookcase or nightstand. We want people to turn to us for high end custom projects that require great quality and workmanship.

What would you say is an entrepreneur’s greatest or most valuable resource?

Passion. Passion for the plan, product, vision or business model is probably the most important resource an entrepreneur can have. Next would be a great mentor. Unguided passion can spell disaster pretty quick.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an entrepreneur and how have you overcome it?

The biggest challenge I faced would probably be learning how to manage people effectively. I am not sure if I have overcome this completely but I have read a lot of books, watched others that I felt where great managers, picked their brains for info, gone to trainings and hired others that have more experience than I do.

What motivates you to overcome your challenge with managing people? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

My inspiration comes when I travel. I’m able to get a breath of fresh air and then come back and dive back into the thick of it even stronger. I really love what I do. I honestly can’t think of another thing I’d rather be doing. When the challenges seem to come in waves I just have to remember that perspective and then I’m good to keep moving forward.

What role has innovation played in the development of Rustico?

Every project we do is a variation of something we’ve already done–continuous innovations. Many of our products have been developed due to problems that needed to be solved or a necessity that required some smart solution. So in that regard, innovation is very key. While many of our products are based off old world standards (i.e. leather, paper, handstitching) being able to create and produce such labor intensive and raw products in a larger scale and affordable takes 21st century planning and ingenuity. Without constant innovation and reinvention of our products and processes we would not be competitive.

What do you wish you had known before launching Rustico? Any regrets?

I wish I had a better understanding of forecasting and knowing what to look for in a balance sheet or P&L in order to see what is happening with the business. At the same time, had I known everything I know now, I’m am not sure if we would have continued moving forward; my naivety pushed me to move forward when conventional training would have told me to stop.

Got any advice for rookie entrepreneurs?

Be passionate about your idea. Remember, bigger is not always better. Develop a process. Have a healthy tolerance for the unknown. Constantly be ready to change. Improve. Innovate.

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EE Interview: Rene Rodriguez of Speaking Roses

rene-rodriguez-of-speaking-rosesRene Rodriguez, President and CEO of Speaking Roses International, recently spoke with me about his company and experience as an entrepreneur. His product of printing images, text and just about anything else on rose petals is quite unique.

Tell me about your company, Rene.

Speaking Roses International is located in Utah; We have been printing images and messages on flower petals for the past 9 years.

So what exactly is your product?

We have a process for transferring images and messages onto the petals of fresh-cut flowers without harming or shortening the life of the flowers. And now we are giving the opportunity to businesses and individuals to take care of their local markets.

snoopy-flowerInteresting. What is the value proposition of your product?

Combining the sentiment of a personalized message with the emotion of flowers creates a new standard of expression and a unique, personalized, one-of-a-kind look. Most importantly, our product is capable of cornering several major markets, i.e. the floral industry, the greeting card industry, the promotional industry, and the gift industry, which together represents an $80 billion dollar value.

What motivated you to launch your company?

Launching a product that would forever change a world-wide industry was the driving force for me.  A background in the promotional industry and a passion for the international business arena enabled me to develop the vision of Speaking Roses.

What’s the mission and vision for Speaking Roses?

We want to provide a way for customers world wide to express their emotions through flowers with the click of a button and then expand this concept to other items like candy or fruit. Virtually any gift (e.g. golf balls, candies, frames) could be embossed with a message. We also intend to form alliances with iconic companies (e.g. Disney, Harley Davidson) that could license us to sell their copyrighted images on our flowers and products. We also intend to offer customers gift cards and to show customers how to set up affiliate programs on their Speaking Roses website. Finally, Speaking Roses will monopolize the popularity of social networks by leveraging the principles of viral marketing. We will provide members of social networks with the ability to send virtual flower messages to friends and family.

In your opinion, what is an entrepreneurs most valuable resource?

Confidence in himself to first  have a vision and then to believe that the world around him can give him all the information he needs to make that vision a reality. If his confidence is great enough he will have the persistence to fill all the details needed to succeed. To achieve that level of confidence, one must realize that the only difference between success and one who wishes to succeed is simply the decision to do so.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced (as an entrepreneur) and how have you overcome it?

I was faced with the decision when launching to either bootstrap or call on equity investors for the financial backing needed to support growth. The catch with using investors was that I would give up equity. This was the route I took initially, but (after much disappointment) I decided to break away and start over small so that control was back in my hands.

So what did you learned from the process of raising funds?

I learned that my greatest asset in this process was myself. Since I always strive to be my best in everything I do, my own network had enough faith in me to invest. That made the process of raising angel funds much easier.

Managing investor expectations can certainly be challenging. So then what keeps you motivated and inspired?

My inspiration comes from being aware of what goes on in the world. I believe that information is the secret to success; if you watch, listen and learn you will be able to exercise your thinking and ideas will come to you. I’m passionate about attaining knowledge and achieving goals in the international business arena, so any challenges that I encounter are actually motivating for me. I have the personal belief that the answers to every challenge are there if one is willing to look for them.

What role has innovation played in your business?

Without an innovative product,  you are no different than any one else. The appeal of our product is that it IS extremely innovative, and our dream has always been to use an innovative product to have a huge effect on a worldwide industry.

What do you wish you had known before launching Speaking Roses?

I wish I had had more confidence in myself. It took me a while to realize that there is not a big difference between the founder of a successful company and someone who dreams to do so but has not yet. I saw people who had already succeeded and believed they must have been genius in order to accomplish what they had accomplished, but later realized that they were no different than I was. Once I applied myself, studied the world around me and began learning from other people’s mistakes, I knew I could do what other successful entrepreneurs had done.

What advice do you have for rookie entrepreneurs?

Study the world until your vision comes to you. Collect all the information you can that is pertinent to your vision. Ask the people around you if they are willing to give you feedback. Ask questions. Be ready and willing to receive inspiration. Once you have the information you need, create a plan to make your dream happen and be persistent in following through with that plan. If you can dream it, you can do it.

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EE Interview: Marion Freijsen of E.factor (Part 2)

marion-freijsen-2This is the second part of my interview with Marion Freijsen, Co-Founder of E.factor. We had an enlightening conversation about business development and the role of entrepreneurs in the current economic crisis. We also discussed how entrepreneurs can succeed in raising external financing, among other areas of Marion’s area of expertise.

Marion, what makes a great entrepreneur? Define their essential characteristics, personality and skills.

This is one of the questions that many academics have tried to answer, but no one has yet been able to bottle it! I do think there are a number of factors that each entrepreneur has and they are equally true for myself. Passion is number one, determination closely following; you need to be stubborn to a certain extent and not care about what others will say or think. You need optimism, and a deep belief in what you are doing. In terms of skills, many of these can be learned, but you cannot learn to be an optimist or to not take no for an answer or never give up.

So, what exactly is business development? What does a Director of Business Development do?

Business Development is looking at ways of developing new clients, new territories, new channels and even to look at ways of developing new products. All of these make up “Business” and so ought to be part of the role.

What are the biggest mistakes you think entrepreneurs make in the area of business development?

The most common mistake I have seen is that many entrepreneurs believe that they have the best product out there (which may be very true) and therefore that people will automatically come and buy it from them (which is never true).

You have to go out and Sell! Sell! Sell! Never give up selling, and don’t hand it over completely to someone else either. After all, you are the one that knows the product and company inside and out–you are the master sales person.

What is the best strategy entrepreneurs can use to get new customers under the adverse conditions of the current economy?

Use the tools that you have available to you via the internet. Many entrepreneurs still fear presenting themselves on the internet – but you need to get an online presence. There are many ways that allow you to control what your potential clients read about you on the internet…taking the fear out of the equation.

What is the most effective way entrepreneurs can penetrate a new market in today’s economy?

Find a local connector. You can’t do it all yourself, and you can’t begin to grasp another market’s intricacies without some help in the beginning. Do make sure though that you don’t just simply sit in meetings set up by the other person, without working hard on establishing a relationship with your new contact yourself. If you don’t get a personal bond, you will lose the contact the moment you stop working with the introducing partner (see more on this in The N-Factor, authored by Adrie Reinders and myself, which was published in 2007).

What role does business intelligence play in an entrepreneur’s success? How should an entrepreneur best approach the process of gathering business intelligence?

It is crucial to your success. Without proper background info, you are relying purely on luck–not the best basis for success, right? Always do your homework, on people, on markets, on products on anything and everything. If you don’t know your prospect – google them before meeting them. Going to a conference? Google the attendees and make a shortlist of who you really want to meet. It’ll save you a lot of time.

What are the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make when executing their business plan and other strategic initiatives?

To think that it is set in stone. A business plan is a guide and laying it out is great preparation and forces you to think about your goals. But it is a living document and you need to constantly fine-tune it based on what you encounter, changing market conditions, new competition, etc.

What do you think an entrepreneur must do to survive the tough times? What is your recommended formula for success in general?

Be creative, be flexible and be strong.

You can survive, but don’t expect to do it the same way you did last year. For instance, funding is not going to come from banks or VCs as easily as it did before; you have to look for people that will invest in YOU, that know you and that trust you.

What role do you see entrepreneurs playing in the county’s eventual economic rebound?

A big one, it is essential that we continue as entrepreneurs to build our companies and hire people and expand our businesses. We are the engine of the economy. Don’t expect global corporates to really be able to contribute in terms of growth much for a couple of years. They are laying off people and saving costs. However, entrepreneurs–when they start a business–don’t really look at interest rates. They just know they have to start and see it as another challenge to work with. This is the attitude we need in these times.

What do VCs want to see in a business plan that entrepreneurs overlook?

In a business plan you have to make it as easy for a VC as possible, clearly put the key financials in the first page (executive summary), make it easy for them to understand your differentiating factor. Most of all, you need to understand that these days a VC is much more interested in what you and your management team have to offer in terms of relevant experience and skills than in what your product is like. It is YOU they bank their money on and then your product/service.

What other advice do you have for entrepreneurs seeking external financing?

Be as clear and concise as possible. Take time to LEARN how to prepare your pitch the best possible way. This could be the most important thing you do in your entrepreneurial life, and just assuming you know how to do this well would be just as bad as not doing any market research.

What is the most frequent advice you give struggling entrepreneurs?

Don’t blame anyone else for failures, always take a hard look at yourself and learn from the process. That way, you will grow and grow and ultimately you will be successful. And never be afraid to ask for help or advice; we all need it from time to time.

Are you an entrepreneur that would like to tell EE readers about your business? Click on the interview form at the top and feature your business!

EE Interview: Marion Freijsen of E.factor

marion-freijsenMarion Freijsen, Co-Founder of E.factor, recently spoke with me about her company and how it benefits entrepreneurs.

So, Marion, tell us about your company.

“E.Factor” stands for “The Entrepreneur Factor” and represents an online community and virtual marketplace designed for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs. It grew to over 720,000 members within our first year. With both online tools & resources as well as the physical events and E.Factor Lounges – the real world relationships one has, can be maintained and built in the virtual community.

EFactor.com is a place where you can focus exclusively on making business connections, negotiating deals, exchanging information, and advertising products and services.

Comprised of businesspeople and investors across a wide variety of industries around the globe, the E.Factor community is ideal for entrepreneurs looking to increase their brand exposure, establish a network of high quality contacts, and acquire the funding needed to take their enterprise to the next level.

Interesting. Tell us a little more about your product.

E.Factor is the world’s largest niche social network. The goal is to enthuse, inform and support entrepreneurs. E.Factor consists of three “layers” – the online community, the events held globally and the lounges in many different locations (100 in the US alone).

So what’s the value proposition?

E.Factor offers a place where any entrepreneur can find advice, information, funding, deals & discounts and meet and share info with like-minded people.

What is your company’s mission and vision?

When an Entrepreneur wakes up at night thinking of a problem–we would like his or her second thought to be “Let me check E.Factor in the morning” ….

What is an example of when your company benefited an entrepreneur?

From our last event by a member: “Congratulations on a wonderful event last Friday — the panel Efactor put together was terrific! The moderator was great and the panelists were all very focused and experienced. I learned a lot about the fashion industry myself–and from a start-up perspective, the advice everyone gave was right on target.”

Marion, what is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an entrepreneur and how have you overcome it?

The biggest challenge always is to keep going, under any circumstance. For me, it took a while before I realized that whilst I was working for other companies I was, in fact, an entrepreneur at heart and was actually acting as an entrepreneur–just not benefiting myself, but others. As soon as I realized this, I quit my job and founded my own business. Everything fell into place within a week or two.

And what is the biggest mistake you’ve made as an entrepreneur?

To not follow the power of my convictions. You often know by gut feel that something is wrong and you should definitely act on that feeling. Don’t mistake it with fear though – the fear to not be able to make it, or to get criticized by others is a different type of feeling and can paralyze you instead of inspire you. But your gut feel is very important and can prevent mistakes being made – if you listen to it. In my case, we started off with a company in the Netherlands, NRG, building the site for E.Factor and they just weren’t getting it. They did not understand what we wanted to achieve so whilst we were forking out a lot of money, we then had to fork out MORE for corrections they were making. In the end, we threw out the entire site and started again. I only continued because I hoped they’d be coming with something later on that would work better…but I always knew it was not going to work. So we wasted money on it.

Are you an entrepreneur that would like to tell EE readers about your business? Click on the interview form at the top and feature your business!

EE Interview: Dave Lavinsky of Growthink, Inc.

dave-lavinsky-of-growthink1I recently interviewed Dave Lavinsky. He’s the Managing Partner of Growthink, a strategy consulting, investment banking and market research firm with offices Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. Dave has managed more than 150 client engagements across all of Growthink’s practice areas, with a specialty practice and expertise in marketing.

1. What makes a great entrepreneur?
A great entrepreneur has passion, persistence and deep knowledge of their domain.

2. What are the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make when raising funds?
They go after the wrong type of investors and then they give up when they don’t succeed. If you don’t speak to at least 100 potential investors, you don’t have a chance.

3. What are the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make when drafting a business plan?
They think that 1) people want to read their business plan and/or 2) they tell the whole, long boring story of their company in their business plan. A business plan is a marketing document. It has to sizzle and excite the investor who reads it.

4. What are the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make when executing their business plan and other strategic initiatives?
They lose focus and try to tinker with too much. Use the 80/20 rule (see below). Entrepreneurs must focus on the important stuff.

5. How often should a business plan be updated?
The business plan should be updated monthly, quarterly or annually depending upon the stage of the venture. The earlier the stage, the more updating is needed. The plan should be revised substantially, as needed, each year.

6. What must an entrepreneur do to survive the tough times?
Persistence is key. Set up systems that allow the business to run smoothly.

7. What role do you see entrepreneurs playing in the county’s eventual economic rebound?
Entrepreneurs are the KEY to economic recovery. They are the ones who create new jobs.

8. How do you define an effective corporate/business strategy and how should entrepreneurs develop them?
An effective business strategy is one that is proven to work. To find one, look at the millions of other businesses that are currently running or have run in the past and take the elements that worked.

9. What is the biggest difference between a business plan and a marketing plan?
A business plan tells the whole story….the business model, the financial model, the history, the management team, the operations plan, etc.

The marketing plan is focused specifically on the plan to attract and serve customers.

10. What do VCs want to see in a business plan that entrepreneurs overlook?
VCs want to see that the business can scale very quickly and has unique barriers to entry (primarily via proprietary IP).

11. What other advice or recommendations do you have for entrepreneurs?
Continual education is key. I just got back from a 4-day marketing seminar which cost me thousands of dollars. There is SO much that we don’t know. Marketing experts go to conferences to learn more. And since entrepreneurs have to be experts in multiple disciplines, they need to continually invest in their education.

12. What advice do you give struggling entrepreneurs most frequently when you are hired as a turnaround consultant?
Use the 80/20 rule. Figure out what 20% of their effort is resulting in 80% of the results. Focus on that and forget the rest.

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