Lessons in Business Growth
July 9, 2021 | Lessons in Business Growth
For many, owning a small business is the epitome of the American Dream.
The ability to be one’s own boss and call the shots can be highly alluring, even with the risks and challenges that come with business ownership. Launching a company requires great effort and determination, as does each stage of growth that comes with business success.
In Iowa, small businesses are an integral part of the economy. While it’s typically big corporations that garner media headlines, small businesses far outnumber their larger counterparts. Iowa’s small businesses comprise 99.3% of companies in the state and employ 48.1% of its workers. Growing small businesses is important to state government and groups such as the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, which recently hosted its Taking Care of Business Conference in Coralville. At the conference, industry leaders gathered to learn, network and share ideas about how to grow and strengthen Iowa’s businesses and economy. These groups work together to ensure that Iowa is an attractive home for businesses and that those companies are able to grow with few restrictions.
Just this year, Iowa ranked No. 1 for opportunity by U.S. News and World Report for affordability and economic opportunity.
FOLLOWING YOUR PASSION
Kathy Evert started Signarama in Ankeny five years ago after serving as an executive at regional economic development organizations. She was ready for a career change and a new challenge and Signarama fit the bill. Signarama is a full-service sign company serving central Iowa that designs, produces and installs most types of signs and graphics.
“I wanted the independence and the potential [that] business ownership could provide me,” Evert said. “I considered a few other startup businesses and looked at several businesses available for acquisition. I acquired Signarama Ankeny in 2016 and started the YESCO Sign & Lighting franchise in 2017.”
Signarama sign and graphic services include vehicles and wraps; wall, window and floor graphics; exterior monument and building signs, real estate, development and directional signs; interior signs including ADA-compliant, reception and room ID signs; yard signs; banners; tradeshow exhibits and more. The YESCO division services, repairs and retrofits most types of exterior signs and lighting. Her advice to those considering starting their own business: follow your passion.
“First, follow your gut, your passion. Second, assemble a support group of other business owners that can be your sounding board,” Evert said. “Next, join a few networking groups and local or statewide business organizations. Networking and referrals are powerful and real. Getting involved at some level in your community is the right thing to do. Finally, create a positive work environment and do all you can to be a small business employer of choice.”
As an employer, one of her greatest challenges is finding skilled workers. Most graphic design programs in the area do not offer training in design production.
“The sign and graphics industry is a custom business – everything we make is custom-ordered, she said. “Finding and retaining employees with training or experience in the industry is a challenge as the pool is relatively small and training is very specialized. There are many graphic design degree programs, but they lack in the application/production of designs. Most training programs in this industry are held in larger states on either coast or the southeast part of the country, which presents a challenge for small businesses due to the cost for training and time away from the business. The competition for employees in our industry is as fierce as most industries, and that won’t change any time soon.”
When seeking new employees or training opportunities, she reaches out to her business network.
“It is an ongoing challenge,” Evert said. “As part of two franchises, I have a network of other owners and franchise organizations that I reach out to for training and support. Some of our suppliers also provide training opportunities that I am considering for employees. Investing in training and partnering with others for training will be necessary for the long run.”
THE COVID-19 CURVEBALL
The coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns slowed business for most, including Signarama.
“The pandemic affected my business early in 2020 with a slowdown in orders and the uncertainty and unknown I think we all experienced,” Evert said. “We prepared for the worst as best we could, arranged for some employees to work remotely, offered curbside pickup and delivery of orders, and added some new products and promotions.”
While orders are returning and improving, the supply chain slowdown is hitting home for the company.
“The pandemic disrupted our supply chain like it has many others. This has resulted in price increases, longer lead times and searching for additional suppliers,” Evert said. “We are buying some materials in larger quantities versus just-in-time inventory purchases and from new or more than one supplier.”
Gabe Glynn was just about to launch his company, MakuSafe, when the pandemic hit. The company creates devices to be worn by workers to keep them safe on the job.
“MakuSafe exists to make sure that more workers make it home to their dinner table each and every day,” he said. “Through a small wearable armband device, we gather millions of data points in real time from labor workers and send that data to a cloud platform, called MakuSmart.”
The data collected is focused on tracking the environment surrounding the worker to identify the potential for accidents and injuries. MakuSmart software then processes that data and identifies when risk is beginning to increase, so supervisors can intervene to prevent an accident before it happens, Glynn said.
He co-founded the company after watching his father’s career as a safety manager.
“I wanted to try and help him improve the safety of the more than 1,000 workers that he was responsible for every day,” Glynn said. “In my research, I learned that tens of billions of dollars are spent on worker injuries every year and that every day on this planet more than 1,000 people lose their life in a workplace accident. We set out to change the way the world views and understands human work.”
He and his team spent four years creating the device and software, improving it and planning the business start. They were all set to launch the company in April 2020.
“Our first shipment of production devices was scheduled to arrive to the applause of a couple hundred stakeholders, investors, customers, media folks and employees,” Glynn said. “We had grand plans for our product launch and we had dozens of customers that had signed up and placed a down payment deposit to reserve their share of our first shipment. None of that happened. Many of our customers were completely shut down due to the pandemic, our product was delayed, and we never got the chance to hold our big event. It was devastating.”
When the company was able to sell its product, it had the perfect device to help with social distancing and contact tracing.
“Thankfully, we had built a technology that was perfectly suited to address some of the contact tracing and worker proximity challenges brought on by the pandemic,” he said. “As companies looked to get back to work, we were already positioned to help them do so. Although we never got our grand launch party, we were able to begin deployment of our product in the fall of 2020.”
The pandemic also presented challenges to the company culture at MakuSafe.
“As a startup, culture is one of the most critical elements for success,” Glynn said. “You need talented and humble people to, with little instruction, take a vision and bring it to life. As a team, we all experience the highs and lows together and you need to be able to count on your peers to pick you up when you hit a wall. This became very hard to do when our staff of nearly 25 began working remotely.”
The company adapted and Friday became remote game day, with virtual Pictionary, wine tastings, a failed attempt at a talent show and a lot of memes on Slack channels, he said.
“If the pandemic taught us one thing, it’s that we cannot plan for everything,” he said. “As a leader, you have no choice but to be flexible, adaptable and resilient. Nobody else in your organization can do that for you. You must bring the positivity and you must bring the energy every single day.”
MakuSafe’s greatest challenge wasn’t the pandemic, however. Glynn says the company’s greatest obstacle has been funding. M kuSafe is backed by over $10 million in venture capital.
“Raising capital, especially that much capital, was not easy,” he said. “We had a lot of pressure early on to consider moving to Silicon Valley to find investors willing to invest money in a technology that included physical devices.”
Through grit, determination, prayer and patience, MakuSafe found its investors, he said.
“EMC Insurance was one of the first institutional investors in our company, but we have many angel investors that believed in our vision from the earliest days,” Glynn said.
“It has taken us significantly more time and capital than we ever imagined, but their commitment to helping us reach the finish line never wavered. We used the capital to hire some incredibly talented people to our team, and those people continued to create and expand upon our vision with some leading-edge solutions. Their efforts helped attract global and Fortune 500 companies to our doorstep, and that inspired investors to continue supporting our company.”
STAYING CURRENT AND COMPETITIVE
The world of manufacturing has become incredibly technologically advanced. With that comes the need for training and new perspectives on how to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world. This is the case at United Equipment Accessories in Waverly. The 69-year-old, family-owned company engineers and manufactures customized rotary solutions, including slip rings, rotary unions, cable reels, and shift controls. UEA’s products are used internationally in various industries, including wind turbines, cranes, radar systems, aviation, medical and even theme park rides.
“To stay competitive in our current markets, we try to identify where we can expand, with slight changes in our business and to planning for the company’s future vitality,” said Deb Malek, UEA’s CEO.
Expanding the business and developing new product lines can be planned to a high degree, she said. Planning future growth allows the company to create a strategy for cash flow and investments.
“Not having an eye to the future can impact our opportunities and define how fast we can financially grow, or the changes needed to shift the trajectory,” Malek said. “As a smaller company, we must be wiser to where we will put our money, whether it’s manufacturing 4.0, training, product technology, systems, capital, etc., and staying innovative and agile.”
UEA is in the process of developing its managers to become strategic visionaries in their departments to remain forward-looking and competitive.
“We will have eight people looking out for the company’s future needs, in their field of expertise,” she said. “Whether that be in technology mapping our products, manufacturing 4.0 tech mapping, automation of standard office processes, or Cybersecurity Maturity Model certifications. We have eight teams who know our business and are able to see how their departments can prepare UEA for our growth path. When your talent is doing work in which they are strong, that can be powerful.”
The pandemic brought on the greatest challenges the company has ever experienced, she said. In the short term, UEA dealt with supply chain constraints, rapid price changes and finding the right skilled people, she said. Now the company is watching the changes in international commerce and geopolitical impacts.
“Prior to COVID, we exported and imported product to and from Asia, India and Europe,” Malek said. “Currently, some customers are managing their cost of transportation and potential tariffs by routing sales to competitors on the same continent. We are watching the impact to our competitive positioning to our global customers as these current patterns are still unfolding.”
A takeaway from the pandemic was the need to be more agile with data to respond faster to changing events.
“We will be moving more to automation of reports to allow faster response, whether in pricing or supplier and shipping delivery, financials,” she said. “In a fast-changing, unknown time, data accessibility and speed can help us see.
Secondly, we have increased our scope of external monitoring material with ITR Smart Monitoring, Kiplinger Letter, etc. Thirdly, communication; we had people in the plant and some working from home, and we have set up a shared place for two-way communication. Now everyone gets the same message and feedback quickly.”
Those who want to experience business growth should always look to the future, work on their business every day and develop a team to have a shared growth horizon to create a strategic path, she said.
“Learn to be innovative and agile, always go back to your base growth horizons and questions,” Malek said. “Has it changed, should it change, what advantage has this new environment given us or what new opportunity has it uncovered?”
Michele Farrell has invested in businesses and started the marketing consulting group Measured Intentions, where she helps small and medium-sized companies market themselves, measure the results and grow. “We really create a culture around helping companies understand what marketing is, what it does and how it can help,” she said.
Her husband, Lance Farrell, started the company Farrell’s Extreme Bodyshaping and the couple invests in a military body armor startup, among other companies. Owning a small business isn’t for everyone, she cautions.
“It’s not easy to run your own business,” Farrell said. “You really have to hustle, and you’re not guaranteed a paycheck.”
When running your own business, it’s easy to become overly busy at work and lose sight of the important things in life, so it’s important to focus on priorities, she said.
“Make sure you’re taking care of yourself while you’re serving your customers,” she said. “They are obviously the most important thing, but you need to focus on you and your team. No matter what the challenge is, it’s important to do right by the people who have given you so much.”