Four Worth Studying
Case studies in four uncommon but successful small businesses from across the state.
Shella Sylla started SisterGolf to help women learn to use golf as a career booster.
Starting your business requires your great idea and a little help from your friends. That’s the best advice from owners of four young companies.
Shella Sylla started her career in banking. She tried everything she was supposed to — took the classes, tried to build a network, worked her territory. But she “hit a brick wall,” she says. While her co-workers seemed to reach their sales goals effortlessly, even leaving the office early for a round of golf now and then, she struggled.
Her co-workers were supportive. They even invited her to join them for golf.
“I had zero interest in the game,” Sylla says. “I was a girlie girl, not interested in being outside or breaking a nail or perspiring. Golf is something Caucasian men do, so why would I?
“But my desire to succeed overrode all that,” she says, and she decided, “Whatever it takes for me to be successful, I’ll do it.”
She roped in a couple of girlfriends and the three headed out to try a golf lesson.
To her surprise, she enjoyed it. But much more important, when she mentioned it at the office, she suddenly had a conversation starter with her male co-workers. At a tournament, “I’d usually be the only woman there, so you stand out and people talk to you. It’s something to talk about, to build a relationship.” Networks started to grow, and she began to exceed her goals.
“It took a minute to connect the dots,” Sylla says. “But one day the bell went off and I realized that other women need to be taking advantage of this. I wanted to make it easy for women to enter the sport for business reasons.”
Though she was pretty sure it was a good idea, she didn’t get far until a decade later when she mentioned it to a friend, and this time her friend told her the idea was flat out brilliant and she shouldn’t wait a day longer before launching it.
She headed to Birmingham, where she had family support, and kicked off SisterGolf. Not exactly golf lessons — though she can help you get those, too — but golf basics. Etiquette on the golf course, where to find the pro shop, what it feels like to hit a bucket of balls at a driving range, what to wear.
“It’s golf lessons, yes,” she says, “but the main part is how to use the sport to create relationships to move forward in your career.”
The basic goal is to help clients succeed in a male-dominated environment, she says. “Golf is just a tool.”
Now that her business is going strong, she finds more men enquiring about her program — especially men who moved up the corporate ladder a little way and then need a boost to take the next step.
“This is not a guarantee to get to the top,” she says, “but it helps you get your foot in the door and get noticed.”
Best advice she received: Try again
Best source of advice: Birmingham Business Alliance
What do you wish somebody had told you earlier: “Whatever timeline you have for thinking you’ll get from Point A to Point B, it’s going to take 3 or 4 or 5 times longer.
Best advice she has to give: “Build support group to prop you up and celebrate the victories.”
In the Sports Zone
Darla Hall was working in marketing back in 2011 when a client’s son was struck by a car. She wanted something special for the youngster to enjoy during his long recuperation. Knowing he was an Alabama fan, she started looking for something Tide related and at least somewhat educational. But she couldn’t find anything she liked.
So she made the gift herself — her first Roll Tide Activity Book, with puzzles and trivia and games.
The boy loved it — and Hall saw the business possibilities in a flash.
Savvy about the use of branded items, she consulted an attorney, researched issues on the web, and went through all the hoops for licensing collegiate materials. Her attorney also helped her protect her own ideas.
She had added several collegiate sports teams to her mix, and saw the potential for growth, but knew she needed funding or her expansion would be a team at a time.
A friend mentioned Alabama Launchpad and she gave it a try. Her business plan won $43,000, which enabled her to expand to more than 100 teams, adding college, NFL and all of Major League Baseball to her mix.
“It really accelerated my business,” Hall says, and it connected her with experts who mentored and advised.
Now her business has grown and she can hire experts to handle the elements that fall outside her own expertise — accounting, for example, which can be a nightmare with royalty issues. And she’s learned that even when your plans are long-term and the growth potential looks fabulous, it’s important to keep today’s dollar and cents in mind, too.
And there’s one more crucial factor for Hall. She started the business to brighten a child’s day. And she won’t let that go by the wayside. “That’s the core of my being — to use it for good and to influence other people to do good.
“Every day I remind myself why I started — to brighten a child’s day — and if I can continue to do that, it’s worth it.”
Single best advice she was given: Enter the Alabama Launchpad competition
Best source of early advice: The internet
Biggest challenge: Marketing to retailers and direct to customers at the same time.
Her advice: Be persistent — Don’t worry about hearing the word “no” over and over, just don’t give up.
Socialize Your Bizness & Bodies by Cindy
Actually, Socialize Your Bizness is Cindy Ross’ third entrepreneurial venture. There was a clothing line at first, but it wasn’t her passion, she says, and she opted out.
She did have a passion for fitness, growing from her own health struggles, that led first to a degree in exercise physiology and then to work as a personal trainer and finally, last year, to a full-fledged gym. She tailored her Bodies by Cindy company to clients with health concerns and in a month grew from 30 to 120 clients. Her husband, Jason, left his job and joined her running the gym that now has about 500 members and 20 trainers.
Many of her clients are struggling with health issues — a real need to lose weight, recovery from joint replacement surgery or maybe an auto accident — and she finds fulfillment in watching their success. She’s especially proud of helping a client who came to the studio in a wheelchair four years ago and now runs for fitness and pleasure.
“That’s where my passion came from — giving people a quality of life back.”
As a sideline, she began delving into the business of social media. “I loved social media and websites,” she says. So when one of her gym clients asked for help, she obliged. And when he asked her to become director of marketing for his business, she began thinking bigger. “Every day my vision changed.”
She began designing not only websites and social media, but billboards, logos and more. And she found herself working 18-hour days until she finally broke down a year ago and hired an employee for her newest venture, Socialize Your Bizness.
Now she has offices in the RSA Tower in downtown Mobile and employees around the world — they keep in contact via Facebook and Skype — and provides all sorts of social media services from website design to blogging, even direct mail and billboards.
Best source of advice: Her uncle, an entrepreneur in Louisiana
Advice you wish you had heeded: Don’t brand your business after yourself. It makes it harder to sell when you’re ready to move on.
Great advice: Learn to delegate
Elegant Knights Limo-Party Bus
Mary Taylor was nearing the end of her Army career — years spent in military transportation — and she was looking for a post-service career that would provide something fun to do with the rest of her working life. A friend worked for a party bus, and that sounded fine to Taylor.
But she had no clear idea how to start a business.
Her first step was contact with the Chamber of Commerce, where she was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina. Her first contact was a bubbly, vivacious staffer who encouraged Taylor’s dream. She also steered Taylor to the SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) office, where Taylor took an eight-week class for prospective entrepreneurs that included contacts with attorneys, accountants, marketing and web design experts — “every aspect of setting up a business.”
Her plans were interrupted by a promotion and move to Massachusetts, but she continued her research and made a fascinating discovery. Nearby competitors weren’t very forthcoming with advice; once it was clear that she planned her business elsewhere, they were happy to help.
Retirement from the Army brought her back to Mobile, where she had roots and family. She did extensive internet research on insurance, regulations and even available vehicles. She enlisted help from family and bought a bus.
In 2013, she had her first booking — taking a load of teenagers to the Baker High School prom.
Since then she’s had enough business — Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association, group trips across the coast and much more — that she’s just bought a second bus.
Best source of advice: SCORE — “They asked hard questions and really made me think about my plans.”
Unexpected resource: “The internet was my friend”
What you wish you’d learned earlier: “Insurance was a shocker.”