Toby Asplin (center, flanked by his crew) was looking to make an offer on a small business information technology consulting firm when he got a call from his broker. Bad news: the deal had fallen apart. That was a big disappointment. But it was what the broker did next that took Asplin full circle, back to the time, when as a child, he often followed his dad and uncle to remodeling jobs with a hammer in his small hand.
By the time he could lift a drill, Toby was boring holes for new doorknobs; later, he'd pull nails out of reclaimed lumber, and be paid for every pound he recovered.
"So by a young age I was already on a production-based compensation plan," Asplin chuckled.
His first job was at age eight, selling greeting cards thanks to an ad in the back of Boys Life magazine. With his parents urging him to save at least half the proceeds from that gig, the odd construction job and birthday money from relatives, by the time he was nearly 12, he had enough saved up to purchase two calves to raise on the family farm. Asplin re-invested the profits from the sale of the two cows, after paying for the hay and grain he'd used for feed--and purchased more calves, eventually building up a small herd.
Asplin sold the herd before he graduated high school, and figured he'd have enough in savings to put himself through a private college. The money didn't last, though, and tapped out after the first year, Asplin joined the Army. There, as combat telecommunications specialist in Germany, he was put in charge of a unit supervising soldiers with more stripes on their sleeves than he had.
"You know, I didn't have any employees when I was working for myself as a kid," Asplin said, "so that really helped me learn how to deal with difficult employee situations."
After his three years of active duty were up, he returned to college at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, balancing a full-time course load, a commitment to the Army Reserves and a job as a full-time maintenance engineer for a downtown hotel.
After college, and a gig at a bank overseeing their ATM network, Asplin seemingly put down his hammer for good, accepting a job with the city of Bellevue where he quickly got involved in the Chamber of Commerce helping small business owners craft marketing and promotion efforts to attract customers. His efforts were a quick hit.
"One guy said, “Wow, you could charge for this," Asplin remembered. Ever the entrepreneur, he started a small firm where, at first on a part-time basis, he would help his small business customers network their computers and build databases to track inventory, calculate job costs and payroll.
When his nascent firm snagged a contract with a nationwide telecom to build a customer relationship management application to track sales and services for its on-demand TV service, that was the end of Asplin's job with the city. Over the next 17 years, the company would handle contracts from some of the biggest names in logistics, technology and banking in the country as well as a number of early-stage and startup companies.
Next, Asplin would take six years away from life as an entrepreneur serving as First National Bank of Omaha's strategic partnership officer. But he felt the entrepreneurship pull once more, starting Bluestem Corporation in 2012 to handle technology services and process improvement and project management consulting for Canadian financial institutions.
"We had a very small niche with a limited window of opportunity to do the kind of work we were doing," Asplin said, "I recognized the need to have a business life for this company beyond that. So, I found a local small business consulting service for sale, dug a little into their books, and my company was ready to make them an offer."
Which brings us back to the start of our story.
There was another business out there for sale, the broker told Asplin. But it wasn't an IT firm, or a consulting company, he warned him.
It was a handyman company.
"I knew I was qualified to do the work on the front end, learning the trade growing up on the farm and helping my dad and uncle," Asplin said. Armed with his years of experience in consulting and banking, he could see that the business was a diamond in the rough. What it needed was a realignment of its cash flow priorities and better leveraging of its marketing spending to attract and keep customers.
So in March 2013, Asplin's Bluestem Corporation was approved for an SBA-guaranteed 7(a) loan through Wells Fargo to purchase the assets of Handyman Joes.
"The thing that appealed to me, given the timing and the market, was the ability to access the funds at a relatively low rate," Asplin said. "The business was a fairly asset-heavy business as opposed to the consulting companies I'd owned. With the handyman business, the bank knew, well, if the guy goes belly up, we can recoup our money."
Asplin brought a tried and true governing principle to the management of Handyman Joes: "Don’t expect what you don’t inspect" to make sure the work was getting done the right way, and money spent on the right things. He also drew on his management experience first learned in the Army to balance the changes the business needed with the desire to keep the employees in the fold.
"Any time there’s new management it makes employees nervous," he explained. "I’ve been on both sides of that. So, as the business succeeded I wanted them to participate in that success, and I made sure I’d have tangible proof fairly early in the process so they could trust me as an owner and the manager of the business."
Asplin also sought to bring his experience applying information technology to improve the business. On the firm's web site, potential clients can find information for repair and improvement jobs on kitchens, bathrooms, basements and bedrooms, as well as service for decks, siding and gutters. Moreover, he said they're developing a "Homeowner 101" series of articles and videos to help first-time homeowners understand their responsibilities with simple repairs and maintenance.
It didn't take long before Asplin was able to create three new jobs. While there's been 10-12 percent in revenue growth over the same time from the previous year, creative cost-cutting has led to a 25 percent increase in profit over the same time.
Asplin also has more than quadrupled the number of "fans" the company has for its Facebook page, "that makes it very easy to reach out to a base of customers for no charge."
He's got a short-term target for Handyman Joes to grow from four full-time technicians to eight, improve its closing on estimates and bids to move toward larger projects.
Long term, "I want to franchise the business on a national basis, and because of our approach, I think we’re fairly unique. I want to make this model stable and repeatable here in Omaha first, then we can look at opening one perhaps in Lincoln or Fremont."
But to reach that growth, Asplin said, he'll have to avoid a common trap.
"There's a problem that practitioners of a trade who are owners of businesses often get sucked down into working in the business rather than working on the business. I can clean gutters to make a customer happy but that is not my intent. I always need to take the panoramic view to see what I can do to grow the business."
Designs for the stylish young clothes horse, Omaha's Little Miss Fashion sees opportunity thanks to SBA Microloan
She was so good at making pretty, new dress designs out of her old dresses that she almost lost her school’s financial aid. Yolanda Diaz had earned a scholarship to pay for living costs and transportation to attend high school in the Mexican city of Chihuahua, and like every teenager, she wanted to have lots of different clothes to wear each day. Once, though, she was called into her principal’s office and told her there would be no more aid, because such scholarships weren’t for rich families who could afford so many new dresses for their daughters.
Yolanda wasn’t rich, of course. She’d just learned how to sew and design new clothes growing up poor in her small town some 500 miles south of El Paso. Still, the principal didn’t believe her, not until she put Yolanda to the test: “If you make dresses, then you make one for me.”
So she did. As a result, the principal was so impressed she helped Yolanda get her start as a clothing designer. One of her first jobs was creating stylish uniforms for an expensive private college. No problem, right? Except there were 500-some students, and each needed three uniforms.
"They needed them in three months," Yolanda remembered her exasperation. "It was amazing for a first opportunity, but I had no experience, no idea how to do sizes. I put an ad in the paper for help. I worked at night, and my helper thought I knew what I was doing."
Fake it until you make it, Yolanda agreed.
She delivered those uniforms on time, and a new business was on its way.
Designing clothes for online success
Today, as the one-woman owner of Omaha-based Little Miss Fashion, Yolanda produces two design lines a year of bold colors and soft, stretchy material for girls to play in style and comfort available through the popular Seattle-based daily deal site Zulily.
She displayed her designs in the spring and fall at Omaha Fashion Week for three years before she got her big break. But it took financing through the Omaha Small Business Network (OSBN) and the SBA Microloan Program to make it happen.
Zulily, in need of vendors and designers for fresh products for its customers, liked what they saw of Yolanda’s collection on display at a show a couple of years ago. She was happy that they wanted some 1,500 pieces, and found a factory back in Mexico that would manufacture her designs, but the thrill of new business made her think back to when she started her business in her home country.
“I have made a lot of mistakes, but I’ve learned from them,” she explained. “One of the big ones was lack of money, as I tried to make everything myself. You cannot. I remember I made my samples and took them to a store. They liked them and they wanted a big order, but I couldn’t make it myself. I didn’t have the material and I did not have the money to get it. So I couldn’t fulfill the order, and then the store didn’t want to deal with me anymore. After that, I said I will buy the material first, then make samples, then sell.”
SBA Microloan program provided the capital for growth
Problem was that “she was literally down to her last dollar,” said Vicki Wilson, executive director of OSBN, and with nothing to spend on the raw materials needed to meet the order from Zulily, “she was running out of time.”
Yolanda explained it takes a week to send a sample to Mexico to manufacture, two more weeks to schedule and promote the sale on the web site, another five weeks to get the purchase order for the site and another month before she'd receive payment. The $20,000 microloan provided the working capital her business needed; since then the business has grown to an average of $10,000 a month from online orders, "and customers always ask me to notify them when we have new styles," she added.
Her small sample-making warehouse off 50th Street buzzes; on a typical day a visitor will see bolts of bright cloth draped across a large table and remnants filling shelves, sketched-out design ideas for future styles on bond paper taped to the walls, and along the far wall a sewing machine that gets a lot of work. This is where she's come up with nearly 140 different styles for sale online, and invents 20-30 new ones for each subsequent sale.
And to prepare for each of those sales, Yolanda sends her design and materials to her factory in Mexico, where they'll manufacture at least 100 dresses for each style and send the merchandise back to her. That's when the frantic work begins; she'll have 48 hours to slap bar codes on as many as a thousand separate pieces and ship the lot to Zulily's warehouse. No worries: she has her husband and son willing to put in those long hours to help.
She admitted it was a lot of hard work "and faith" to become successful after coming to the U.S. more than 15 years ago. "When I started my business here, I worked another job at night in a specialty finishing shop making boxes," Yolanda said. "It took two years just to save the money to start making materials and to pay the people at our factory in Mexico to make merchandise for us."
Trade restrictions cramp her style
Little Miss Fashion is in the process of getting its own web site and plans to have a special collection in time for Christmas, although at present Yolanda said she's limited in her designs; popular winter clothing materials such as fleece and fur aren’t available at a price that fits her budget. It's complicated, but the bottom line for her means using materials outside the U.S., Mexico and Canada would put her afoul of trade barriers and would prove too costly.
She recently finished an accelerated program in entrepreneurship at Gallup University, and sends promotional packages to boutiques across the country with brochures on Little Miss Fashion and sample garments to help drum up business. Moreover, she's given back to the community, volunteering as a sewing teacher at South Omaha-based Catholic Charities' Juan Diego Center, finding and hiring talented women as independent contractors. Perhaps one of them may pursue the dream Yolanda had some 20 years ago.
"I have a little sister, she was maybe four or five years old when she looked up at me and would say, 'I would like to have clothing like you,'" Yolanda smiled, explaining how she came up with the name for her business. "She loved looking like me, so I started making clothes for her. I still think of her when I make my designs."
Can playing a round of golf at your new favorite course actually be good for the environment? Ryan Cooper says his smartphone app can make the connection between the most avid duffer and a course with its eye on sustainable water use. A course that’s got a more natural, drier landscape could use incentive rewards through this app to lure new golfers to play there, and as a result encourage other courses to follow that ecologically-friendly lead.
That’s one of the serendipitous benefits of a product designed and developed partly with proceeds funded by an SBA Express loan.
Companies connect with golfers coming off a great round
Launched in 2012, by Ryan Cooper, a former manager of a couple of golf courses and an avid player himself, GolfStatus helps players track, archive and share their scores and achievements, discover new courses and keep tabs on their friends. At the same time, businesses which want to reach golfers can hit them with instant rewards for sporting goods, fitness centers and other services at the end of each round.
“If you get a hole in one, that’s a very proud moment, you’re pumped about it, those endorphins are running, and if you get a note from business congratulating you on that, you’re more likely to take them up on their offer,” said Cooper, whose day job is as an attorney in Lincoln. “If you’re playing and making progress, a business can reach out and say ‘come on by and we’ll give you a free trial or half off.’”
The app already has been used by nationally-known apparel, electronic and soft drink brands, but “while we love providing rewards from these big names, we also want to get local businesses involved,” Cooper added.
Golfers also can use GolfStatus to post individual scores through the United States Golf Association’s Golf Handicap and Information Network right on the course, connecting them with both more than 2.1 million others across the country, and with the rest of their local morning foursome.
And the company has gotten some attention for its potential for growth: GolfStatus recently was listed by the editorial board of tech-trendy blog Silicon Prairie as one of the Nebraska start-ups to follow on Twitter.
Turning a passion for golf into a marketing idea with SBA financing
Cooper’s idea came out of frustrated day dreams during breaks from law classes in Nebraska. Since he couldn’t play the sport as much as he wanted, “I started thinking about how to improve the game, and more specifically, about ways to help golfers capture, archive, and share meaningful moments in their golf careers,” he said. “For me, GolfStatus is a great fit because it is a combination of three of my interests: golf, technology, and marketing.”
But to unite those three interests into a product required a team of designers and software developers to create an easy-to-use and eye-catching app and a database to connect businesses with potential golfer customers. And to get a team of them together to do that job required access to capital, which Cooper got, thanks to an SBA Express guarantee loan approval in April 2011 from U.S. Bank in Lincoln.
“The SBA is one of many options that you can use,” Cooper explained. “I think if a small business owner looking to launch doesn’t explore all their options, they may take out personal loans, use credit cards at higher interest rates, or give up more equity than they want.”
Cooper used the proceeds to further software development used to run GolfStatus. “I think the SBA is interested in furthering businesses that will stick around for a while.”
Using the app to build loyalty with environmentally-conscious courses
For golf courses struggling as a result of severe drought conditions across the state last year, getting golfers to spend money on a round or two was tough.
“You can’t control the weather,” Cooper said. “Before going to law school and founding of this company, I primarily worked on golf courses in Colorado where water is scarce. I actually went to law school with the intention of practicing water law. Our use of water and when it’s appropriate to use it on golf courses is one of the issues we’re going to face as time goes on.”
This is where GolfStatus can use its rewards connections to help get buy-in and loyalty from customers who would forgo a round on a lush, green, overwatered fairway in favor of a more naturally gardened course.
“If you give a pat on the back to your customers and give them good deals when they do well, they’re more likely to play your course when dealing with the ups and downs of what Mother Nature throws at you,” he explained. “Golfers can play wherever they want, and courses run razor thin margins. Having customers who think of your course first, not because your course is in great shape, but because of that relationship you’ve built with them is the idea behind what we’re trying to do with GolfStatus.”
Possibilities for future growth
Cooper also pointed out that in the process of developing the technology for the smartphone app he’s been able to see potential applications connecting “these moments of accomplishment and building that relationship. There are lots of ways to do that and some of the technology we built could be used in other apps out there.”
Naturally, Cooper already would have an eye on future expansion for his new tech firm. He spent his formative years in Austin, Texas, about the time Michael Dell started his computer hardware company.
“There was a real entrepreneurial vibe there, and seeing how it changed everything, I think that sort of inspired me,” he admitted. “It’s really great when you can start a business and provide a livelihood for people, and that has been a driving force for me ever since.
“Nothing about creating a successful business is easy, so you need to stick it out. It takes a lot of hard work, and you learn a lot about yourself along the way. The tests come when you feel like you’ve done everything you could and you couldn’t possibly do any more. Those are the times when you have to dig deeper and grow as a person to help your business grow.”