Advice from the Front Lines
We packaged some TED Talk-type insights from four very different, dynamic small business entrepreneurs.
“They needed what I made and had markets for it.”
When Mary Beth Greene was a retail sales rep, clients asked repeatedly, “Do you have a line of bags we could sell? She didn’t then, but she does now — and she owns the company that provides that line. Packed with trials, tragedy and triumph, Greene’s story is in the bag.
The Fairhope resident saw a need and filled it. People wanted high quality, classy, colorful, waxed canvas, easy-clean totes. People like Justin Timberlake, who received one for Fathers’ Day. People like Neiman Marcus, who carry the MB Greene line in their online catalogue. Or people like those shopping the 400-plus retailers throughout North America carrying her products.
The Selma-born former high school teacher had no formal business training. But in early 2000, she started work as a sales representative. What she learned in 11 years calling on retail customers outplays a marketing degree any day.
In the final years of working for someone else, she pondered entrepreneurship, inspired by customer clamor for quality totes. In 2012 she committed memory to action, creating prototype bags in the research and development center that did double duty as her kitchen table. She produced samples with scissors, tape and paper cutouts.
“I took lots of baby steps,” she recalls of her soon-to-be business owner days. “When I thought my product was right, I found a factory to turn paper cutouts into real prototypes.” Her startup days benefited from the experience of her sister, Amanda Lide Bagwell.
“Mandy was a successful artist and ceramics creator, with a 42-page catalogue,” her sister recalls. “I accompanied her to Atlanta for market shows and learned so much from her.”
June 2014 was a make it or break it moment for the future MB Greene Co. With a factory-made prototype in hand, the Eastern Shore entrepreneur met potential buyers at an important Atlanta trade showroom, AmericasMart. “I knew if they accepted my products and ideas, it wasn’t because they were nice people,” she says. “They needed what I made and had markets for it.”
Greene soon had markets, too, because Atlanta loved her. MB Greene was clear for takeoff. The euphoric Fairhope bag creator and designer hurried home to share the good news.
She decided if her work was accepted and orders placed, she would quit her sales job and officially start her business. The day had arrived but the night was tragic.
In the pre-dawn hours of the next day, Mary Beth’s sister, mentor and friend, Mandy, died.
“My life went on hold,” she recalls. “I did not know if I could do this anymore. She was a model for me. This was a low point, but I circled back around, telling myself, I am a strong and independent person. I can do this. I can be fearless.
“I never dreamed of having my own business. I just wanted to be a mom and raise a family. Everything I went through prepared me for this.”
In August, 2014, she placed the first purchase order to manufacture her products overseas. Three months later, 16,495 bags arrived at her door. But the company would not launch for two more months, so there were no sales yet, just bills.
Once again, being fearless came in handy. The entrepreneur notes, “Either everyone will like our bags or we will have a really colorful bonfire.” There was never a bonfire, but sales were hot and still are.
The distinguishing features of her work include solid bright and vivid colors. Each item has a finish designed to wipe clean easily. “Experiences of being a mom of two boys made me insist on easily cleaned and durable,” says Greene.
Products include small zip, large zip, airline carry-on, duffle and hanging garment bags. Her latest is the Be Clear Collection, transparent, perfect for airlines and picky football stadium security. A June 2017 launch is set for ‘The Oyster Collection’ — bags in grays, blacks and more muted colors.
MB Greene officially opened in January 2015 in Atlanta and Dallas showrooms. It spread throughout the U.S., Canada, The Bahamas and more. Since startup, 41,500 bags have been received with orders of 57,000 more under way with her manufacturers — prepping for anticipated growth this year.
In addition to full-time employees, her two sons lend a hand. “I have to give them credit,” she notes. “They help their mamma.” She also acknowledges husband Brett Greene, and their blended family for support as well.
The Fairhope creator stresses being consistent and excellent in everything, from placing orders to packing boxes. But success means more than money. “I want to be successful,” says Greene. “But I also want to be a successful inspiration to others — children, customers, employees, friends and family.”
And for her products, “simple, functional and stylish” is not just her motto, it is her product’s tagline. Mandy would be so proud.
BEST ADVICE RECEIVED
“Be able to ship. Have it in inventory. You must have inventory first. For some that is scary — like when 6,000-plus bags are on hand with no orders.”
BEST ADVICE SOURCE
“I don’t have a primary source for advice. I seek advice and opinions from customers, retailers, friends and family. The people closest to my products, either buying or selling, are the best sources.”
WHAT I WISH I COULD DO AGAIN
“I wish I had logged the stages along the way. You can design, plan and dream, but, eventually, the baby has to be born. It was exciting, and, thankfully, I was more excited than scared in my early days. I wish I had recorded the process to look back and help stay true to my goals.”
WHAT WAS LEARNED ALONG THE WAY
“Be consistent and stay focused every day. Also, everyone must work for the same goal, and the bar for that goal should be set high.”
ADVICE TO OTHERS
“Go with your gut and follow your intuition. Work hard, stay focused and be fearless.”
“Give people what they will pay for and then some.”
Clarence Johnson Jr. was raised in a one-room shack with little money and lots of love.
Now in his 60s, the businessman remembers, with a chuckle, growing up in downtown Mobile: “We were poor; actually back then it was called ‘po.’ But my parents always made me feel smart. All I ever heard from them was encouragement.”
Po or poor, today he is neither. But he never forgets the roots of faith or the journey that led him to Bama Pest Control.
Graduating from Mobile’s Central High School in the late 1960s, Johnson considered joining the military, during the Vietnam War. On sibling advice, he instead moved to Detroit, working the assembly line at the Chrysler Corp. But less than two years into his new job, Johnson was drafted in the Army, to Vietnam.
Completing military service, he returned to Detroit’s Chrysler plant — only this time he met a co-worker, who is still a co-worker, also business partner and wife of 40-plus years, Ruthie Johnson. “We married, and continued working for Chrysler, making good money,” Clarence recalled. But he wanted more.
“Even in Detroit, Ruthie and I discussed having our own business,” today’s CEO recalls. “I told Ruthie, ‘We have great incomes, working in an automobile factory, but feel I am cut out for more than this Northern Plantation.’”
Clarence took Ruthie home to meet the family. “I fell in love with Mobile the first day I saw it,” Ruthie says. “My first visit to Mobile was in 1971. Just walking in the neighborhoods was a good feeling.”
In 1974 the couple walked away from two established careers, saying goodbye Motor City and hello Port City. Life was a struggle, working various jobs, trying to get by, until 1976 when Clarence hired on with Orkin Pest Control as an applicator-technician.
“Ruthie and I had always wanted to go into business, and here it was. I liked Orkin, pest control work and being around people. I could make a career doing this — in my own business.”
After leaving solid jobs with Chrysler, Johnson left a solid job with Orkin. On April 1, 1980, Bama Pest Control officially opened for business with an army of two. Clarence Johnson was the technician. Ruthie Johnson was secretary.
“It was a leap of faith,” Clarence remembers. “We were young and crazy enough to think it would work.” Ruthie adds, “I remember saying ‘We will have to split beans, but we will make it.’”
He made a $100 week, and she made $50. First month’s revenue was $829. Clients paid $12 a month — except at Christmas.
“They don’t teach you things, like some customers won’t pay bills during holiday season,” recalls Bama Pest Control’s matriarch, about her first Christmas in business. “It was hard telling our children there will be no gifts this year.” Their holiday dinner featured chicken — not turkey.
Others might have given up. “I’ve seen many enter business solely to make money,” says Clarence. “And, of course, you want to do well financially, but if that’s the only reason you go into this, you will soon hate it.”
He is also emphatic about family support. “Make sure you are transparent with your spouse and that your family understands, because they will have to sacrifice. This business is now your baby. And like a baby, you will get up with your business at night worrying, and on occasion, have to change its Pampers. If your mate is not onboard with this ‘baby’ there is trouble ahead.”
Ruthie Johnson cautions about being overly optimistic. “We thought owning a business meant we could go out and buy a Mercedes. That was 40 years ago, and we still don’t have a Mercedes.”
The Johnsons never gave up. “Failure was not an option,” says Clarence. “I felt whatever we did would be successful. But there were times of second thoughts and questions. I worried about providing for my family.”
Almost four decades later, Bama Pest Control has more than 1,100 clients in three states served by about a dozen employees. The Johnsons, deeply devoted to church and charity, are in demand as speakers and in faith-based groups. “When I look back at all the business failures and realize how well ours has done, it is because of God,” notes Clarence. “All odds were against us.
“We had limited education and no business sense at all. We were told by so many that we would never make it and this would not work.” Naysayers were proven wrong. And much to the dismay of intrusive insects, Bama Pest Control works, and works well.
“The big three in order of complaints received are ants, cockroaches and termites,” says Clarence. He smiles, “Bugs don’t know a thing about the economy and don’t care. They will always be there. And as long as people are squeamish about being around them, we will be there, too.”
BEST ADVICE RECEIVED
“Give people what they will pay for and then some. Always focus on a good products and quality service.”
BEST ADVICE SOURCE
“Edwin Henley, early business partner, mentor and friend. He taught me the importance of tithing and also suggested we needed a name alphabetically up front in the Yellow Pages — like Bama Pest Control.”
WHAT I WISH I COULD DO AGAIN
“To listen and learn more from those with experience.”
LEARNED ALONG THE WAY?
“Starting out, you wear many hats. But as soon as possible, concentrate on what you know and love — the business and the skills and talents you bring to it. Then hire out the rest — tax preparations, bookkeeping, IT support.”
ADVICE TO OTHERS?
“Ask yourself this: If all my needs were met financially without having to work, would I still do this? If the answer is ‘Yes,’ go for it.”
First and forever outside the box.
“Being an entrepreneur requires thick skin,” says Selena Rodgers Dickerson, CEO of Selena A. Rodgers Corp., which goes by Sarcor LLC. She developed hers through positive and negative experiences with education, mentoring, reading and domestic violence.
When Dickerson was laid off in 2010, she had “the option to either look for another job or look for a contract.” She had managed construction teams and designed roads, water-treatment plants and wastewater treatment facilities. She was trained in multi-level marketing. Given this background, she chose to look for a contract.
Dickerson had started Sarcor in 2008, but a lack of business experience kept her from going full-time. Today, her company offers engineering, project management services and construction inspection for civil transportation-related projects. As most of Sarcor’s clients are city, municipal and state transportation departments, there are slow times. Dickerson uses those periods between projects to keep her staff engaged in continuing education.
Dickerson attributes a lot of her success to lifelong learning. In a minority introduction to engineering program in college, she says the dean of the college would tell the students, “You may not have a mentor you can touch, but that’s not an excuse for not being able to excel when you have books and resources available.” Dickerson has taken the opportunity to be “mentored” by authors such as Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey, T. Harv Eker, Og Mandino, John C. Maxwell and Bruce Wilkinson.
In all its designs, Sarcor shuns the set standard and seeks the most economical and environmentally friendly solution. “I believe that as a citizen first and a consultant second,” says Dickerson. “It is my fiduciary responsibility to make sure that the communities — all the communities we have the ability to touch with our design — have a sustainable thought process to weed through as much as a sustainable design as the funds will allow.”
Currently, Sarcor is set to design sidewalks along Elder Street in Birmingham. Part of the street is on a large hill, which includes a creek and a wooded area. “So,” Dickerson asks, “how can we be sustainable and make that walking path an asset to the natural creek that runs there?”
This commitment to sustainability comes from Dickerson’s habit of bringing the strength of her independent personality to bear on challenges. She refuses to spend mental energy on the unnecessary. “People say, ‘Think outside the box.’ I don’t believe that I should ever be in a box in the first place.”
Thinking with a clear mind and operating with a free spirit is something Dickerson has fought hard to attain. She broke through a wooden board at a T. Harv Eker conference to get there. If they were afraid of something that was keeping them from success, conference participants were to put all their fear and energy into breaking a board. Several years earlier, Dickerson had been working as a co-op with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Huntsville Support Center. “During that time,” she says, “I met someone who I thought was going to be the love of my life, and I found myself on the opposite side of a fist.” She suffered a partially detached retina to her left eye. “That was the scariest part of my life, being dragged up a flight of steps and body slammed across the table. And not knowing if you’re going to get to tell your parents goodbye.”
Dickerson was on bed rest for two and a half weeks over Christmas and participated in domestic violence counseling. In recovery as in business, she credits the support of advisers and mentors, friends and family, for her success. “I’m only as good as my team,” she says.
“I have a mantra,” says Dickerson. “Resilience is the ability to adjust to or recover from misfortune or change.” She scribbled it everywhere. A couple of years ago, when moving, she pulled out an old desk. In it she found the mantra along with her daily affirmation she had written and laminated. She says it was surreal to read over the list of goals and see that she had accomplished everything she had set her mind to. “Sometimes, I wonder where I would be today if I was still working a job, if I was not laid off. How would my life have changed?”
The ability to keep her end clearly in mind has helped Dickerson transform even potentially debilitating experiences into good. She says the best book she’s read is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People. She has made good on Carnegie’s advice, enlisting calamities as comrades and turning abuse into an ally, whether it was getting laid off or beaten up. “Making it through that particular experience, I really believe that it was just a part of the course in order for me to be able to have a thick skin that’s required today.”
WHEN YOU WERE STARTING SARCOR, WHAT WAS THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED?
“My grandmother told me, ‘You’ve always had these really big dreams, Selena, but if you never go to your meetings, and you’re always complaining about being too tired, you won’t be that millionaire that you set out to be. You won’t accomplish your goals.’”
WHAT IS THE BEST SOURCE OF ADVICE YOU'VE ENCOUNTERED?
“The Emerging Leaders and the Mentored Prodigy Program from University of Alabama in Huntsville and Alabama Department of Transportation.”
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN BEFORE STARTING SARCOR?
“I wish I had done a double major in undergrad. A business or accounting class or minor at a minimum would have been very resourceful for where I am today.”
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED SO FAR?
“I learned that I cannot do it all myself.”
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE WHO IS STARTING A BUSINESS?
“Read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and begin with the end in mind.”
Think of it as the legal profession’s Uber
As an attorney, Jack West has experience setting up companies. He just wasn’t fully prepared for how difficult it would be to start his own. “I definitely still think like a lawyer, but I have to also learn how to think like a business person,” he says.
West remembers what it was like to be a busy law student trying to network, gain experience and make some money. Job postings may offer students opportunities to work 20 hours a week for a local firm. “But it was difficult, at least for me, to make that kind of commitment,” he says.
Working at a law firm after graduation, West saw the limitations of the traditional internship program. Students would help in the summer and then go back to school in the fall. All that work he had been delegating to them would land on his plate again. “It would have been awesome to have a way to get a student working on a project whenever we had the need,” he says. The intern selection process was based on a one-page resume and 20-minute interview, so a student might look good on paper but not deliver. “We would’ve burned an expensive summer slot on somebody who, in the end, just didn’t end up producing the quality of work we had expected.”
West saw an opportunity here to create a win-win solution for these two groups — Book-It Legal, an online platform where attorneys can hire law students to conduct research, draft client alerts, review documents, summarize a deposition. This is especially helpful to smaller law firms. “You immediately put your work out to a big pool of students, and you can get applications and get a student working on your project the same day,” says West. Think of it as the legal profession’s Uber.
Book-It Legal is one of 10 startups in the 2017 Velocity Accelerator program at Innovation Depot in Birmingham. The program offers new entrepreneurs funding, mentors and workspace. It’s keeping West and his team busy. “The idea of the program is to do a year’s worth of work in three months,” he says with a laugh. The program ends in April with each startup demonstrating its work to the business community and potential investors at the venue Iron City in Birmingham.
West appreciates the help and support he has received. “I’ve been overwhelmed or just amazed at how many great people — really experienced, that have built wonderful companies — are willing to help out new entrepreneurs,” he says. The program has guided him as he plants a foot in the tech world while keeping the other in the legal world. Friends at both ends are helping him keep his balance.
Students are eager to jump aboard the endeavor. “Students are fired up about it,” says West, “because it gives them a chance to get experience, network, make some money.” What’s more, if a firm likes a student and there is a need, it may mean a full-time job for that student down the road. Law schools are also receptive.
But, says West, “Getting the students really isn’t the hard part. It’s the attorneys.”
Lawyers have legitimate concerns about confidentiality, conflict-of-interest issues and security. Book-It Legal seeks to allay these fears by providing a secure place for attorneys to exchange messages and documents with students. The law firm pays through the platform via credit card, and students are paid either straight to their bank account or through Venmo.
In addition to concerns over cybercrime, West faces institutional inertia. “The law moves slowly,” he says. Attorneys are on a spectrum when it comes to embracing new technologies. While some apply the latest trends to the field, others are behind but interested in catching up, and some will stick with tradition and never “jump on the tech bandwagon.” West works hard to win them over.
Coming out of the slow-moving law field, West has had to adjust to the fast-paced nature of the tech industry. He must also be careful not to keep his head down and pencil up too much. Communication is vital to his business. He advises new entrepreneurs to “talk to users, build the smallest thing possible that you think will work. Give it to people, and then let the market give you feedback to tell you what to build next.”
Despite work weeks that can stretch to 70 hours, West says it’s worth it. If you have an idea for a business, his advice is to go for it. “It’ll just eat at you if don’t,” he says. “You’ll stay at your corporate job, and you’ll see somebody else come along with the same idea and build a billion-dollar company, and you’ll always regret it. And you’ll learn a ton.”
WHAT'S THE BEST ADVICE YOU GOT WHEN YOU WERE STARTING UP?
“Build something people want.”
WHAT HAS BEEN THE BEST SOURCE OF ADVICE FOR YOU?
“The people at the Innovation Depot and the startup community in Birmingham.”
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN BEFORE STARTING THE BUSINESS?
“I wish I were able to switch into the mindset earlier that we’re a software company — it’s not a law firm.”
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED?
“I’ve learned how fast you need to move in a startup — you really have to move as fast as you can to test the market, to get out in front.”
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU OFFER TO OTHERS WHO ARE STARTING A BUSINESS?
“Surround yourself with people who have been there and done it, and are willing to provide mentorship and guidance, and can help you avoid some of the pitfalls that particularly first-time entrepreneurs are apt to fall into.”
Emmett Burnett, Hanno van der Bijl and Elizabeth Gelineau are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma, van der Bijl in Moody and Gelineau in Mobile.