Drive Binghamton is a collaborative effort of ecosystem builders in the Southern Tier. The project includes a series of events including Tales from the Trenches fireside chat, designed to bring together students and young entrepreneurs with those who have been there and done that. Our guest speakers candidly answer questions about how they overcame challenges as entrepreneurs. These discussions aim to inspire others to explore entrepreneurship, while providing knowledge on avoiding the same pitfalls.
Tales from the Trenches – People Building Real Businesses in Binghamton – Part 2
So far we have heard from four Binghamton area entrepreneurs: Adam Sabol is the co-founder of The Communikey. Casey Coolbaugh is the co-founder of Muckle’s Ink. Elin Barton is the co-founder of White Knight Productions and Damien Cornwell is the founder of On Point Productions and WJOB fm. Here’s just a snippet of what they’ve taught us.
How did you start your business?
Adam: Communikey started with us being seniors at BU. Anytime when we talked about where to go for lunch, as locals, Jimmy and I would spout off 6 plus locations. Dave is from Long Island. He would know Tully’s and that’s about it. So we thought how many other out of town students are there missing out? Over beers in Jimmy’s basement we had the idea of promoting kids going out to different places around town. We didn’t graduate thinking we were going to start a discount program. That just ended up being the vehicle we chose to solve a problem we thought existed. After about 5 years of experimenting, being wrong, failing along the way and getting better – here we are.
Casey: Necessity is the mother of invention. Shauna and I went to school for music and cinema. We were throwing film shows that brought people together from across the state, but we didn’t have anything to give them. Shauna had a little experience from high school printing shirts, so we put out the feelers for a basic printing press to make t’s and totes for people coming to the show. A man from Port Crane was interested in selling his print shop. We saw the potential and he saw in us a couple starry-eyed kids who he wanted to pass the torch. One thing led to another, and five years later we’re doing really well.
Elin: We fell into our business by noticing an opportunity. At the time there wasn’t a lot of people working in video production in the area. We knew a lot about it, so we decided to go for it. We started in a very small space. It was supposed to be a closet, but it was our office. And we didn’t have a lot of resource (equipment, staff) so my daughter, who was eight at the time, held our boom pole for the audio on one of our first projects. You do what you have to do to get started.
Damien: When we started our first studio I was in my bedroom. I remember yelling at my sister because the dog was barking and we were trying to lay vocals. To this day, I’ve never liked small dogs.
How did you find your first customer?
Adam: We talked to every person we knew, told them our half-assed idea and begged them to give us money. We started with a horrible print out about Communikey and why people should invest. At our first stop we were so nervous we pretended to be there for lunch and didn’t pitch anything. Our next stop was even worse. Dave said he thought I was going to cry. After striking out at every business in a 3-mile radius we walked into Parkway Wine and Spirits. We showed him a 3-tiered pricing chart for a product that didn’t exist, and ads for the website that weren’t even a concept – but he said yes. Now what do we do? Make him an invoice, give him a contract to sign? We ended up having him autograph our 1-sheet and circle the package he wanted. We started the day feeling like we needed to polish up our resumes, and ended it feeling like the Wolves of Wall Street, able to sell anything. We had no plan, no structure and all we can do is laugh about it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Casey: I was afraid to go door to door. We had bought a turnkey business that already had a few customers, but now it was open to us to turn it into the business we ideally wanted. My father was like, get out there and start knocking on some doors. But I felt like I needed the infrastructure in place, because what would we do if a big order came in? What I learned is as an entrepreneur, sometimes you shouldn’t worry about solving a problem until it’s a problem. We were lucky our next customers were word of mouth. There’s a lot of competition in the printing world, but people wanted to work with us. They were investing in us not the product.
Elin: Referral. One of our first customers was the Board of Elections. We did a training video for the voting machines. I don’t remember what I quoted for this project, but even the city was like, you need to double your price.
Damien: Word of mouth. When it came to our first big video production deal, I sold the deal and then when out and bought a camera. That’s how we do it!
What was your biggest setback and how did you prevail?
Adam: When we started this business it was a side project. We had just graduated from college and everyone had full-time jobs. This made things move slow, and we were spending money on things that didn’t matter. We took out a loan to hire a developer, but we underestimated what goes into motivating someone. You cannot pay someone enough to care about your project as much as you do. We realized that if you half-ass anything, it’s never going to get you anywhere. So we quit our jobs. We learned that until you need it, it will never be anything. Life changed so much when Communikey became our only thing.
Casey: When we first started out, if I customer didn’t have a logo I would create it for them. But as it turns out, my time is money. It was hard for me to say no, especially because I liked the projects and wanted them to succeed. Now we’ve built a team so if people need a logo we have someone who can do graphic design. Or if a large order comes in, we have interns who we can delegate projects to. We’ve also found our target market at BU. They know what they want, don’t haggle on the price and most times already have logos.
Elin: When we started business was rockin. Every year our revenue was growing by 50-60%. We were hired by a big client who became 70% of our business. We were loving it and making a lot of money. But one day they left and that was awful. It was very difficult to recover from, and this was a huge lesson to learned. Don’t rely on any one customer or client to sustain your business.
Damien: So there’s times when things are great and times when they’re slow, but we always go forward. We work to improve ourselves and always think about what’s our next best move. We knew going in, being in a small market, that there wasn’t necessarily going to be enough dollars for hours. So we had to do other things than producing music, and that’s when we expanded our portfolio of services to make our numbers meet.
Can you leave the audience with some deep thoughts?
Adam: At times this process has been very painful and expensive. I just taught a class in entrepreneurship at BU. It gave me the chance to look back on it all, and really appreciate how valuable those awful times were.
Casey: I had a vivid dream. I was in a dark room looking at my hand and there was a glowing orb. The more on concentrated on it, the brighter it got, the faster it would spin and the louder it would hum. I concentrated on my other hand and the same thing happened. Then I was on my death bed. Surrounding me was a room full of glowing orbs. To me this represents entrepreneurship. Creating something that will survive long after I’m gone.
Elin: When we started our business we saw a need and we had a passion, but we didn’t have money or even own a camera. It was when we made the decision and went from our heart that everything started to fall into place. When you stop aligning yourself with this core purpose, life has a way of putting up roadblocks and pushing you back to where you need to be. It takes a certain constitution to take the risk.
Damien: The world has a way of writing your course. As long as your core principles of what you believe and what you’re trying to do are aligned with the mission of your business – things tend to fall in place. It doesn’t make it easy. There are still plenty of ups and downs. But somehow it feels different when you walk down that road because there is camaraderie reinforced by the fact that people have a like-vision and want to accomplish the same things.
Your net worth is only as good as your network
Investing in your business is an ongoing journey. That’s why it’s important to attend events and interact with others. Networking is one of the most valuable uses of an entrepreneur’s time. At events, we meet like-minded people we can work with and learn from. These informal chats often lead to unique opportunities, such as internships, new clients and a network of great friends interested in supporting one another on their journeys. Entrepreneurs are busy – of course – but we all should make the time to attend events. Our net worth is only as good as our networks, and the real value of attending events is forming and maintaining a strong contact base. These relationships, when nurtured, will serve you throughout your career and life. View all of our Drive Binghamton events at uvc.org/Binghamton and watch the recap videos of Tales from the Trenches 1 and 2 by SouthSixty Productions.