Pure, heartfelt enthusiasm can take you a long way in business--just ask Bobby and Helene Stone about the $2.6 million business they run out of their basement.
When most people visit my company and look around one of my warehouses, all they see are boxes--hundreds of thousands of boxes neatly arranged on shelves that rise up to the ceiling, almost 56 feet above the floor. But when I look around that warehouse, I see something different. I see a fabulous business that my employees and I have built from scratch in just 13 years. It sounds silly, but the smell of cardboard gets my juices flowing.
I love my business, and I don't think it's possible to be a successful entrepreneur if you don't. Whatever your company does, you need to feel in your gut that it's the most interesting, exciting, worthwhile enterprise you could be engaged in at that moment, or you're going to have a hard time convincing anyone else--employees, customers, investors, whomever--to make commitments to you. If I thought storing boxes on shelves was boring, I never would have been able to attract the great people I work with, and we wouldn't have been able to accomplish what we've done. Fortunately, I found every aspect of records storage fascinating from the start. I just love showing off our facility to visitors, and I'm sure my enthusiasm is contagious. Enthusiasm usually is. In fact, genuine enthusiasm is one of the most powerful forces in business. It can help you overcome a lot of obstacles.
Let me tell you about my friends Bobby and Helene Stone. Longtime Inc. readers may remember the Stones from their first appearance here in a cover story by my co-author, Bo Burlingham, titled "How to Succeed in Business in Four Easy Steps" (July 1995). The article recounted my efforts to teach them the fundamentals of business as they struggled to make their computer-supply company viable.
When I started working with the Stones in 1992, Helene was running the company, Data-Link Associates, out of their basement, selling a range of computer supplies, from magnetic media to PC cleaning kits. Bobby, who had just been fired from a sales job he'd held for more than 14 years, wanted to join her. The problem was, the business was generating only $162,300 a year in sales and was losing money. We figured out, however, that with some changes it could be profitable. The Stones went to work, and Data-Link was supporting itself on its own cash flow by 1994. As the company continued to grow, Helene and Bobby brought in two more salespeople: their son, Steven (see "The First Salesperson," December 1998), and their daughter, Jennifer. Today, the company does $2.6 million a year in sales, has six employees--and still operates out of Bobby and Helene's basement.
Much of that growth is attributable to the Stones' creative use of the Internet as a sales tool (see "An Internet Model That Works," May 2001). Through the Internet, the Stones have developed relationships with customers all over the world. A couple of years ago, Bobby learned that one customer in Canada was a manufacturer of high-quality media storage cabinets. As it happens, Data-Link sells such cabinets, but it couldn't afford to carry the Canadian company's products because the U.S. distributor had set the prices too high. Then, in the spring of 2002, Bobby heard that the Canadian manufacturer was changing its distribution strategy and looking for four or five independent companies to be its U.S. representatives. He immediately called the international sales manager, who said he would be coming to the States to interview candidates. Bobby asked him to include Data-Link on the list. The sales manager readily agreed and made an appointment to stop by. He had no idea what he was getting into.
Most of all, says Bobby, "he wanted to know how we did business. He couldn't believe the numbers."
Understand, the sales manager was used to doing business with companies located in office buildings or industrial parks. The rep firms on his list all worked out of suites with spacious offices, modern furnishings, water coolers, and other trappings of mainstream business life. Whenever he arrived for an appointment, he would be greeted by a receptionist who would offer him coffee before leading him to a conference room, where he'd meet with people in suits.
So you can imagine what he must have been thinking as he pulled up in front of the Stones' house in a middle-income, residential section on New York's Long Island. Helene Stone answered the door, holding her then-three-year-old granddaughter, Rebecca, in her arms. She said hello and called for Bobby, who came upstairs from the basement, shook hands with the man, and asked him to walk around to the rear of the house, where the business entrance was located. When he got there, Bobby ushered him into Data-Link's basement headquarters.
There was hardly room to move. The place was packed with desks and chairs, fax machines, computer equipment, filing cabinets, storage racks, and boxes of products waiting to be shipped. Bobby was oblivious to the mess. For him, it was simply a byproduct of success. The sales manager, however, looked around in disbelief. Winding their way through the clutter, they came to a narrow, steep set of stairs and climbed up to the first floor, where Bobby invited his guest to take a seat in the dining room that served as their conference room.
"He was in shock," says Helene. "I mean, really. He kept looking at us, like, 'What is going on here?' There's Rebecca, dancing her way across the living room, and I'm chasing after her while Bobby is talking. At least Bobby wasn't in shorts. He put on pants and a shirt for the occasion." Most of all, says Bobby, "he wanted to know how we did business. He couldn't believe the numbers we were churning out. It just blew him away that we were running the business out of a basement with no sales force. He had a million questions."
And Bobby was delighted to answer all of them. He loves talking about the business, as does Helene. The business has been an adventure for them, filled with discoveries, challenges, and triumphs. What the Stones lack in trappings, they've made up for in resourcefulness, particularly in the area of sales. Among other things, they've figured out how to use the Internet to turn the traditional sales process on its head. Instead of going out to knock on doors, they've set things up so that customers get in touch with them. Bobby tried to explain to the sales manager how it works--how they get great placement on search engines; how they identify trends and use the information to decide what special promotions they should run; how they've vastly expanded their market and also improved their collections, since a higher percentage of sales are paid for by credit card.
The meeting lasted for about an hour and a half. When it was over, Bobby and Helene showed their guest out by the front door. A week later, he called back: "Welcome aboard," he said. He'd visited some 20 companies and selected five to be distributors. "I'm sure you're going to do a great job."
But the Stones didn't find out what had really happened for another year. Shortly after the first anniversary of their meeting, the sales manager called to say he was coming back to town and would like to take the Data-Link staff out to dinner. He knew the routine by then. When he showed up, he parked his car, walked around to the rear of the house, and knocked on the basement door. The Stones were waiting for him. He said he wanted to speak with them for a few minutes before going to the restaurant.
"You should have seen the notes I made after my last visit," he said, as he settled into a chair in the living room. "I wrote, 'This company is either going to make it big or do nothing at all. I can't figure it out." Back in Canada, he'd told his colleagues all about Data-Link. They shook their heads and laughed. Then he told them he was choosing Data-Link as a distributor. They thought he was nuts. He said he'd take full responsibility. There was just something about Bobby and Helene and the way they talked about what they did that made him think it was worth the risk. And he'd been thoroughly vindicated. Data-Link had outsold the other four U.S. distributors in the first year. "You far exceeded our expectations," he said. Now he wanted to take the relationship to the next level. He hoped that the Stones would start promoting a wider range of his company's products. They agreed.
So what convinced the sales manager to go with them in the first place? At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I'd say it was love--specifically, the love that Bobby and Helene have for their business. You can't fake the kind of enthusiasm they have when they talk about it. Those feelings have to come from the heart.
And that's the way we should all feel about our businesses. If we don't, it's better to move on to some other pursuit. Life is too short to waste our time--and everybody else's--on things we don't believe in.
Norm Brodsky (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a veteran entrepreneur whose six businesses include a three-time Inc. 500 company. His co-author is editor-at-large Bo Burlingham.