Dana Oliver is the founder and CEO of Adventure Kids Playcare. With ten locations in Texas, two in Seattle, Washington and 300 employees, Dana is successfully scaling her business one franchise at a time (a decision she made when she realized franchising was a great way to share her business model and lifestyle with other families). Dana and I met at The DEC in Dallas, Texas during the morning networking portion of Capital One's #StartedByHer event this past May. Dallas is one of the fastest growing cities for women entrepreneurs and promotes a business-friendly environment. While the big picture of North Texas' entrepreneurial growth is interesting, I also wanted to learn more about the experiences of individual entrepreneurs in Dallas - and Dana's story immediately caught my interest. Why did this single-mother choose to start her own business? And what could other women contemplating entrepreneurship over the 9-to-5 job learn from her experience scaling a small business into a franchise operation?

Tell me about your entrepreneurial journey. When was the "aha" moment that you knew you needed to start your business?

I thought I had my dream life, working in New York City in the financial industry during the late 1990's. Of course, it was during the time of a lot of mergers and acquisitions. The firm I was with purchased a competitor's bond department--I was standing on the bond-trading floor with about 300 people one afternoon when the word spread that 75% of the 300 people would be laid off. I wasn't laid off because I was one of the younger lower paid employees but I watched the faces of the more senior employees and I could tell they were devastated. Over the next few days, I saw middle-aged men crying and saying that they had no idea what they were going to do--this was their life and most had been with the company for years. This was a pivotal moment for me: I was 30 years old and knew I didn't want to be in their position down the road. I decided I wanted to have control over my own life and work. I started my business about five years after that occurred.

Did having a "job" before starting your venture, help or hinder you at the start? Which of your prior skills and work experiences are you applying in your business today?

I don't know if there is really any training that can fully prepare you to start your own business. On any given day you may have to negotiate a contract and repair a toilet--sometimes at the same time! I consider all of my prior skills and work experience to be helpful--but I think it is extremely important to continue to invest in yourself and your education. I go to conferences, classes, networking events, etc., every chance I can.

Starting a business on your own is tough. Any advice for other women on being a solo founder?

Here are three suggestions:

  1. Recognize it's important to build a support network of positive entrepreneurs who want to grow their business. Look for groups to join (meetup.com is a great resource). Search for someone who you would like to model and ask if they are open to being a mentor.
  1. Prepare emotionally every morning--put yourself into a positive state. You will be bombarded with negativity some days (from vendors, customers, employees) and you can't let it bring you down. Stress can zap your energy level and you will need A LOT of energy!
  1. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Your comfort zone is your enemy and fear is your friend. If you don't have some level of fear, you're not pushing yourself hard enough to grow.

As an entrepreneur, I believe we create our own economy. It doesn't matter which party is running the government, it doesn't matter if we are in a recession or if the economy is booming, it doesn't matter what college you attended or didn't attend, it doesn't matter where you live or what kind of car you drive (and your GPA as well as IQ are irrelevant too) the only difference is how much you hustle. If your business doesn't make it, there is no other valid excuse. The more you hustle, the "luckier" you get.

How did you fund your business at the beginning?

I used a combination of personal funds and investors (friends and family). I set up a formal debt proposal for the investors though. I was told by the banks I approached at the time that I would never be able to get a loan to start the business because I had no experience in the industry (in addition to being a single mother with no secondary income). I took out a very small income to live on the first few years as I was more concerned with making sure the business was successful.

What advice / tips do you have for other entrepreneurs / small business owners about hiring "experts" to help you get a business started?

That's an excellent question! I have a friend who spent $25,000 for a feasibility study from a consulting company for a large business she was starting; but ending up closing the business within a year. You have to look at your budget very closely and make the choice--should I spend $25,000 for a consultant or $25,000 on marketing and advertising or that first critical hire?

Who was your first hire? Any guidance on knowing when to make that first hire?

That's a question I hear a lot and I think is the scariest point for an entrepreneur. The bottom line is, if you want to grow your business, you will need help. Because we are a childcare center, I had to start off with quite a few employees. But when I needed more administrative help, I initially used virtual assistants and a virtual bookkeeper. This worked out great because I was able to have help without making a long-term commitment.

Your time is your most important commodity--more than money. If you find yourself doing tasks that an assistant could easily accomplish while you are using your time to create more revenue--then hire someone! Hiring is also about delegation. I think the best advice I ever received on delegation is to "inspect what you expect". As the owner, we are 100% responsible for everything that is produced from our company and delegation doesn't relieve us of that responsibility.

Looking ahead, what would you like your business legacy to be?

To have had a positive effect on my team, our customers and in the community.