Inventor Insight: Lessons from the frontline of entrepreneurship

I am constantly amazed to hear about the kinds of business that were started right here in Whatcom County. The diversity is surprising, from Woodstone ovens, to Brenthaven bags, Homax products, Faithlife software and more. Whether the business is destined to be a global powerhouse or a local favorite, there are lots of opportunities for individuals thinking about entrepreneurship to take a chance. In order to find out what it takes to make a business work, I sat down with two entrepreneurs, with very different businesses started right here in Whatcom County, to find out what they had learned in the first few years and what advice they have for others.

Laundry is not something everyone thinks of when it comes to business but for Colleen Unema, who opened Q laundry in June of 2013, it is all she has thought about for the past four years. I asked her what she did to get her idea off the ground. “I went to hundreds of laundromats… I did laundry, asked questions, met owners, etc.” Colleen continued on explaining how she turned that information into a plan. “I did a lot of thinking about the action items that would be needed daily, weekly, monthly, yearly and over a decade to have a successful business — I created a map for each of those time frames so that I would not get distracted.”

For Joel Townsen, inventor of the Flipout screwdriver, the startup path took a little longer, “I came up with the idea in November 2003 and it finally hit store shelves in 2014…so 11 years — almost exactly.” The nature of his business was different and required years of product development and prototypes to create an electric screwdriver that transforms into 380 positions and gets into tight spaces.

No matter what type of business an entrepreneur is going to start; retail, wholesale, licensing, online, etc., there are common things that every successful entrepreneur points to as imperative. From highly visible people like Mark Cuban or Bill Gates, to local people like Joel and Colleen, mentorship was listed 97 percent of the time as a key factor. “I could not have done this without mentors.” Explains Colleen, “I cannot afford to make a bad decision that could cost this little company — so I rely on mentors to give me good advice, teach me how to think it through or calculate it out. I will never ever ‘go it alone’ because too much is at stake.” For Joel, mentorship was critical in the final stages of getting his product off the ground. “It helps to talk to people that have already accomplished whatever it is you are trying to do. You can only do so much on your own, and it’s great to have positive people to push you and encourage you.”

In addition to finding valuable mentors, Colleen has some advice for those getting started. “Write a ‘business Plan B.’ No joke. I wrote two plans, one that I was absolutely certain was as close as I could get without real numbers and no comparable in the same industry — then write a Plan B for a couple of the variables that have the potential to tank the business, because just maybe you need to run the business differently than you planned in Plan A, and you need to know you can still pay all your bills.”

For Joel, the advice is simple, “ If you have a vision in your head of something really cool, go after it... there’s nothing more exciting and rewarding than turning awesome ideas into reality.”

According to 2013 stats, more than 500,000 new businesses start up in the United States each month. You read that right — each month! On the flip side, there are slightly more businesses that close each month, highlighting the fact that there are obstacles to getting a new business started. To give yourself the best chance for success, find out more about the successes and failures that both Joel and Colleen have had as entrepreneurs at a free event given by the NW Innovation Resource Center at noon-1:30 p.m., Wedneday, Feb. 4 at 2211 Rimland Drive, Room 106.