THE RIDE: Competing With the Big Guys
By Mildred L. Culp
Knoxville News Sentinel
Rarely does a founding entrepreneur launch in a big way or a start-up become large overnight. Size, or lack of it, spells “obstacle” for many entrepreneurs.
Seth Holehouse, managing director (now CEO) of Fortuna Auction in New York, N.Y., works less than two blocks from Christie’s, the largest jewelry auction in the world (www.fortunaauction.com). “Our main … obstacle is gaining a name and building it with wholesalers and store owners,” he says. Interacting face-to-face with domestic and international buyers is essential for a fine jewelry auction to build trust. He does a lot of it, shaking hands and meeting gazes.
Identifying good subcontractors proved an obstacle for Diane Potter, founder of Springboard Designs in Hutchinson, Kan. (www.springboarddesigns.com) Unlike four dot-com’s eLance, Freelancer, Guru and oDesk she had neither the capital nor the tools to draw some of the best candidates for her digital marketing business for small business. “It was terribly difficult to find people who were accountable and didn’t treat their work like a hobby,” she concedes. An interviewing coach taught her how to ask illuminating questions.
Fortuna opened in 2012 with $40,000 in profits from another jewelry business. Springboard opened four years earlier with a $3,500 loan from Prosper.com. Holehouse and Potter spotted a market need. In a thriving global industry, Holehouse noticed the absence of a high-end boutique jewelry auction anywhere near New York. During one specific assignment with a best-selling author, Potter observed how a person can be distracted, fail to build relationships online and fail to create products that would generate revenue from traffic.
Revenue started flowing for Springboard when Potter hired people and set up her systems. Building a website that bespoke quality and other beautiful marketing materials put Fortuna on the road. Holehouse learned that follow-through was absolutely essential. Similarly, Potter learned that she might have to meet a challenge by doing something over and over.
Her low point came during 18- to 20-hour days of “figuring out the workflow and constantly reinventing,” she recalls. “I got the Sunday night blues, which almost infuriated me, because I was working for myself.”
“Sourcing jewelry from auctions was difficult,” Holehouse says. “Our business customers want merchandise at a (low) price. We put a lot of work into contacting estate lawyers, marketing and advertising. We felt vulnerable, because we weren’t sure it would work.”
Both entrepreneurs feel a high right now. It took Potter five years to position her business where it is today. She’s shifted to free evenings and weekends. She can choose not to work. She develops blogposts, videos and other self-promotional items essential to the business. “I have time to work on my business, marketing and making connections,” she remarks, “not just be in it.” In 2012 Springboard generated gross revenue of $157,187.
Holehouse attributes his high to watching “people come to us to sell a big estate for a client or buy more eagerly because they know they can trust us.” His business grossed approximately $1.25 million last year.
Fortuna Auction, New York, N.Y. ? 4 FT + 5 PT
Springboard Designs, Hutchinson, Kan. ? 1 FT + 27 PT
(Dr. Mildred L. Culp celebrates entrepreneurs and their spirit in THE RIDE for Knoxville News Sentinel.)