For Lucie Voves, the trigger for starting a company wasn't a single “eureka” moment but a growing realization over time: I can turn my personal venture into a viable business.

Today, her Connecticut-based frame-making company Church Hill Classics--known online as DiplomaFrame.com--sells more than 100,000 custom frames a year, generating more than $9 million in 2013 revenue. She now has 85 employees who this year helped land Church Hill Classics on the Inc. 5000, an annual list of the fastest-growing, private companies in America. It's not just this once; 2014 marks the seventh time her company has nabbed that top honor in the past eight years.

And though the company hasn’t made it into the elite Inc. 500 since 2003, in many ways, Church Hill Classics is the ultimate success story--that is, of course, if you think bootstrapping and growing organically are business strategies worth emulating.

Going Back to College

It all started in 1991, when Voves commissioned a painting of her favorite building at Dartmouth College, where she had graduated two years prior with a degree in art history and English. The artist’s wife taught Voves how to frame the painting, and Voves saw an opportunity to augment the paycheck from her day job as a brand manager at Procter & Gamble. “I kind of stood on the street corner at Dartmouth that first year at graduation and peddled art,” she says. “Finally [I] got into the bookstore, and did well with the art--but I had a lot of customer requests saying, ‘Hey, I love your frame, can you frame my diploma to match?’”

Dartmouth frames were in particular demand--the school’s diplomas are written entirely in Latin, making it difficult to tell what school they're from. Voves knew that if she wanted to expand the business, located at the time in her Newtown, Connecticut basement, the most logical starting point would be other Ivy League schools with Latin diplomas. Over the next three years, she made connections with school bookstores, eventually widening her services to schools like Syracuse University and the University of Connecticut. By 1996, Church Hill Classics was an incorporated business--now headquartered in a larger home basement 20 miles away in Ridgefield.

Self-funding a bare-bones business limits growth. “We would take a new school and it would take a couple years to make that profitable,” Voves laments. “So I only took on a few every year, as some of the older ones started to roll over and become profitable accounts for us. In hindsight, I think I missed a really big opportunity.” 

Thinking Like an Entrepreneur 

Voves, who has never taken a single business class, may not have been thinking like an entrepreneur back then. But it’s no stretch to say that her entrepreneurial spirit has carried Church Hill Classics in the face of significant challenges over the past decade. 

About seven years ago, the company’s biggest competitor--whom Voves declines to specifically identify--was bought by a large cap, gown and ring company. “They’re about 80 times bigger than we are,” Voves nervously laughs. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, if they throw money at this, we’re in trouble.’” 

That acquisition sparked a company-wide push to stay ahead of the curve, focusing on technology, the internet, workflow management and marketing. And it coincided with the beginning of a recession, which demanded changes of its own. At the time, DiplomaFrame.com was just a portal linking customers to a school’s bookstore. But many bookstores were finding themselves under pressure to reduce inventory cost, leaving them unable to buy the frames they needed. 

The company's solution: Bookstores could keep a small supply of the most popular items, but everything else would be offered on a store co-branded webpage on DiplomaFrame.com--with bookstores receiving commissions on each item purchased online. The recovery wasn’t immediate, and in 2013, the company fell off the Inc. 5000 (which tracks growth over a three-year period). Getting back on the list this year, Voves says, was relieving--knowing you’ve regained momentum allows you to stop focusing on the past and start looking to the future. 

Challenges Ahead 

But new challenges always await. Voves is concerned, for example, about commerce giant Amazon.com “just gobbling everything up. And we haven’t gotten into bed with them,” she worries. “They do sell diploma frames. They’re not as nice as ours.” 

The quality of their product doesn’t go unnoticed. “She somehow seems to be able to fit the right people into her company that make you want to be a partner with them,” says Kelley Foster, a Cornell University bookstore representative who has worked with Church Hill Classics for 14 years. “Their product is bar none to anyone else’s--the quality is just fantastic, and the time they put into putting them together is just amazing.” 

The quality of their workplace doesn’t go unnoticed, either. The company's flexible schedules are particularly popular among women with children who may want to be home with their kids after school. Some even get summers off. Debbie Hyde, who has worked on the production floor since 2010, takes Mondays off--though she likes working so much that on busy weeks, she’ll be there anyway. “I don’t want to sit around,” she says. “Most people [here] want to do things.” 

That’s exactly the attitude management is trying to foster. Every worker is visible, and every worker has a voice. “We’re always open to, ‘Is there a better way of doing it?’” explains Robin Schultz, the operations manager who has worked with Voves for 19 years. “The production manager is very much into empowering the people on the floor: ‘You make the decision, what do you think?’” 

A Mission to Mars 

This past August, employee visibility reached new heights with a Mission to Mars exercise, putting the company’s mission, vision and values in the hands of the people. The entire organization voted to nominate a group of five to seven individuals, top management excepted, who could best explain the business if aliens landed in front of them that day. One of the value statements brainstormed by those selected blew Voves away. “Creative: We look beyond the ordinary.” 

It epitomized everything she thought about competing with larger companies. Conventional wisdom says to panic--and that’s ok, at least at first--but you have to embrace being entrepreneurial to survive. Be nimble. Make the most of limited resources. Get a little outside the box, and figure out how to gain an edge. “The straightforward way may not be the best way to accomplish it,” Voves says--and considering the unorthodox path Church Hill Classics took to get here, she might just know. 

Published on: Dec 9, 2014