Starting a Custom Home Décor Business

Interview with Mark Danielson, President of Danielson Designs, Ltd

Mark and Annie Danielson wanted to do something to help their economically depressed small town, while helping the environment. Their design company creates home décor with an environmentally-friendly twist, and gives back to their local community.

Interview with Mark Danielson, President of Danielson Designs, Ltd.

Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?

We're a cool design company with heart. Danielson Designs, Ltd. creates home décor accents and gifts that are made in the USA, environmentally friendly, and industry-leading in design. Our creations are currently carried in over 4,000 independent retail stores around the U.S. and Canada.

When did you start the business?

Danielson Designs was born in 1991 in a barn woodshop.

What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?

After graduating with an undergraduate degree in biology and a graduate degree in theology, my first business was - you guessed it - a custom home furniture business. I designed, crafted, and sold my own home furniture and home office pieces. I was doing this at the time my wife and I created Danielson Designs.

How did you come up with your business idea?

This is the best part of our business - our story. In 1991, my wife, Annie, and I moved to Annie's hometown of Trinidad, Colorado, with our growing family. While we loved the beauty and quality of life in southern Colorado, we couldn't abide the economic woes strangling Trinidad and the region. We asked ourselves, "How can we be part of the solution?" That simple and seemingly innocent question led to the creation of Danielson Designs. Our focus was, is, and always will be about supporting and promoting our small town and Small Town America.

Did you write a business plan? Was it an effective tool for you?

The bank required us to have a brief business plan, which we used to secure $5,000. We never really read it again because we were so busy responding to what was happening. Now, almost 20 years later, we find it critical to undergo an annual strategic review to help identify what the most important opportunities and changes are and how we're going to tackle them.

Who did you hire to help you? Bookkeeper, Accountants, Lawyers, etc.? Would you suggest others do the same?

Did it all ourselves initially. Eventually started hiring people to help us build the product. About 5 years in, we finally hired an accountant. Still don't have a lawyer!

What outside resources were helpful for you -- Business incubators, Chamber of Commerce, SCORE?

Wish we'd known about SCORE in those days, but didn't. Most important resource we had were other companies that we met at trade shows.

Did you operate your business from your home? What were the challenges and benefits to this strategy?

We started out of our home and home shop, which worked great until we went to 24 hour/day production and the night crew kept waking us up. It did keep our overhead down during a key time in our incubation. After about three years, we moved to town when we needed expanded office and manufacturing space.

Did you have a partner when you started your business? How did you select a partner?

My brother was a partner with us in our opening years. He ran the business side of things, my wife ran the design side, and I ran the operations. We had a good gift complement.

Have you hired additional staff? What is your greatest human resources challenge?

While we've hired hundreds of people over the past 18 years, it's been a challenge. We live in a remote, rural community and have actually found great people locally from the labor to the executive level. However, when we've needed to bring people in, it's not always easy to find someone who wants to move to a town of 10,000 far from a bigger city.

Do you own a business with family members? What do you think are the benefits and challenges to running a family owned business?

We bought out my brother after about 10 years. It can be a great joy to have a structure of that kind, but it opens up your relationship to totally different dynamics. My wife and I continue to be partners and love it. Works well for us because we have such different gifts that we bring to the table, so we have great respect for each other and love working together.

For women entrepreneurs, what specific advice would you have for young women who would like to become an entrepreneur? Are there specific advantages, disadvantages to being a women business owner?

Says my wife, Annie: Don't think you can do it all. If you expect to have a healthy family life, and marriage, surround yourself with a capable team that complements you and brings things to the table that you don't. Trust them to bring their best.

Green business is all the rage right now. Has it really been practical for you as an entrepreneur to incorporate green business practices?

Absolutely. If you have a commitment to environmentally friendly manufacturing practices, then the door is open for all kinds of solutions. Some solutions are "sexier" than others, but they all add up. On the sexier side, we switched to 100% post-consumer recycled wood for our signs and photo frames from harvested timber. We also use only water-based paints and UV inks, which dramatically reduces VOCs and makes for a safer working environment for our employees. On the not-so-sexy side, we switched from Styrofoam peanuts to bubble wrap for our bulk shipments. The sheer amount of packaging material dropped by 80%, which helps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the transportation process of both the packaging material and the shipped product. What's more, peanuts are virtually impossible to reuse whereas bubble wrap can be reused by our end customers over and over again. Not sexy, but environmentally smart.

With the current economy in a slump, what cost saving tips would you have for a new entrepreneur?

At our first trade shows, my brother, my wife, and our 6 week-old son shared a hotel room to trim expenses. I'm not sure I would recommend this necessarily. (smile)

Find ways to keep the overhead down! Overhead is a killer. Drop the pride and buy used or re-used wherever you can.

Have you outsourced any portion of your business? Has that worked for your business?

We're not big fans of outsourcing. Call us control freaks, but it's never gone well for us. We've outsourced parts of our manufacturing, as well as some HR functions, but it's never lasted too long. If you want something done right...

Finding employees to work in a new and growing business can be a challenge. How did you find your employees?

In the early days, the economy was in such a bad way that we received a continual stream of applications and we just skimmed the cream off the top. During other years, we've found talent through Craigslist, Monster, headhunters - all the standard stuff. But it's important to note that almost all our best hires have come from outside our industry.

How has your experience in running the business been different from what you expected?

We entered business with some trepidation. Our desire was to help bring jobs to our economically depressed community, but we had no idea what we were doing. Turns out entrepreneurship is the most fun thing we've done and one of the greatest calls a human being can answer.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

The list is too long to go into any detail, but if we'd done some things differently, we'd not have learned what we know now. Every mistake is an investment in the MBA I never got.

What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?

Find out what you love doing. Do it. It won't matter if you make a lot of money or not if you're doing what you love to do.

You absolutely have to have the passion, Mark. Thanks for sharing some of your passion with us.

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