WorkWise: Loving, leaving a basement start-up

culp@workwise.netDecember 23, 2012 

Starting a business in a basement, particularly if it’s windowless and unfinished, could be dreary. Are such businesses doomed to fail, if only because of sagging spirits?

La Mancha Sims, who raises capital for small businesses and medical practices, brought investors into his basement for 17 months as founding partner and CEO of Triton Business Group Inc. in Kennesaw, Ga. “It was the only place we had,” he says. The newly minted college graduates at WAM Enterprises LLC in Katonah, N.Y., opened in the Wayland, Mass., basement of one of their mothers, which gave them a quiet space of their own, a welcome change from dorm life, according to Mike Wolfe, president. They found the option attractive for in-bound marketing services targeting all but large businesses and didn’t move for more than a year.

Two other entrepreneurs felt that basements would meet their lifestyle needs. Debra Cohen, president of Home Remedies of NY Inc. in Hewlett, N.Y., wanted to be a stay-at-home mom as she provided outsourced sales and marketing to pre-screened contractors and served as a referral source for homeowners. Her business grew there for five years, “the only open space I had,” she comments. After 21 months Donnie Schexnayder, owner of StartTeaching Guitar in Colorado Springs, Colo., still uses his basement to develop and market training and informational products for guitar teachers. His basement combines the comfort of home with the flexibility to be with family.

PROBLEMS

Each business owner encountered a severe problem. Some even learned to laugh about it. The isolation got to Schexnayder and preyed on his motivation. It was difficult to keep perspective. “I ended up networking with other people doing the same kind of thing in three kinds of groups – local, West Coast and international,” he explains. Then, too, the family pooch interrupted, nosing his way into the office, barking, when Schexnayder was recording a podcast. He had to re-record. Only in retrospect did the entrepreneur find it humorous.

Sims watched high net-worth individuals lose interest over his unprofessional environment. He upgraded, renting high-end office furniture and equipment. He also changed his meetings by inviting groups of three to five investors and having a caterer serve meals, which enabled him to capitalize on peer pressure. More people invested. But a plumbing disaster brought progress to a halt ten minutes into one presentation for investors he’d been courting for at least six months. Fortunately, they laughed and one even called his plumber to the rescue. Sims really didn’t want to leave the basement but did when the business outgrew the space.

Cohen found herself in constant clutter from toys and in dreariness because of lack of light and a door. She’d started on an old farm table. “Then I added a sofa table to make an L-shape,” she says. “It wasn’t pretty. ... I called it ‘the dungeon.’” Over time, frustrated by her underground digs, she enclosed her front porch to capitalize on the ease and low overhead of working at home.

Wolfe and his partner considered themselves “brilliant” by buying a cell phone so they wouldn’t be dependent upon the family phone upstairs. “There wasn't cell phone reception in the basement,” he recalls. “Oftentimes we’d be outside, on the phone, regardless of weather conditions,” sometimes with one partner holding an umbrella over the other. Sitting in a heated car helped in the cold. As the business grew, the owners visited client businesses and worked virtually first from Connecticut and now New York.

For some entrepreneurs, basements become intrusive. For others, basements stop meeting their business needs. However, entrepreneurs who become dissatisfied learn to laugh and find a way out.

Dr. Mildred L. Culp welcomes your questions at culp@workwise.net. © 2012 Passage Media.

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