Entrepreneurs Climb Over Huge Obstacles to Success

Tina Servis, Maid 2 Clean, Rochester, NY

Reeling from a divorce and a personal bankruptcy in 2005, Tina Servis was suddenly a single mom raising two children. She had always dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur, and now she had absolutely no idea how she would pull it off.

"I just knew there was never an option to quit," she said.

Within two years, she saved $100,000 (thanks to a high-paying job and a down-sized lifestyle) and enlisted a wealthy friend to put in double the cash and become her partner in a franchise. She offered him 60% ownership.

"I jumped in too fast, I was just ecstatic to have the opportunity," she said.

The next thing she knew, she said, her partner morphed into a tyrant, forcing the company to close. She lost her entire investment.

"It was like going through another divorce," she said.

But, again, she got up and got moving. She took out a personal loan for $25,000 and gave herself three months to find another business opportunity or go back to working for someone else.

"I bought a magnet that says, 'Dwell on possibility,'" she said. "Every time I got discouraged or sad, I pulled it out. And instead of saying, 'I can't do it.' I had to say 'I'm gonna do it — and I have to do it!'"

Last year, with a Craigslist ad, a mop and some cleaning supplies, she opened Maid 2 Clean, a residential and commercial cleaning company. Thanks to a lot of sweat equity and a strong support system, which includes a new boyfriend, today she has eight employees and $140,000 in revenues. She expects sales to more than quadruple next year.

Chris Denny, The Engine is Red, Santa Rosa, Calif.

Chris Denny, 27, and his partner Dan Sartin, 26, planned to start their event-marketing and production company while they were both working full-time corporate jobs last year. But, the day before the launch, Denny was laid off.

"We decided it was a sign to move forward faster," Denny said.

But it was September 2008, the height of the recession, when the financial industry tanked, and the corporate event business had become synonymous with waste and excess.

"We were coming to the conclusion that our business model was flawed," Denny said.

By Thanksgiving, his savings was gone and “the company was within a month of running out of money," he said.

Still, clients were approaching them for branding and advertising work, so they decided to retool their strategy. "We called a time-out and realized very quickly, if we have a pity party, we will fail," Denny said.

They gave themselves 10 days to come up with a new business plan, and then re-launched the company as The Engine is Red, an advertising agency. They're on track to complete their first year with $250,000 in revenues.

"Today we celebrate every step along the way. A new file management system? Let's bake a cake," Denny said, with seriousness behind a chuckle. "Everything is challenging, but it's about moving forward. As long as the business is better tomorrow than it is today, then we did a great job."

Glenn S. Phillips, Forte Inc., Birmingham, Ala.

Just seven years ago, Glenn Phillips was financing his computer consulting firm with credit cards. He ended up $300,000 in debt. Struggling through a painful divorce made matters worse and, at his lowest point, he was living in a rented room because he couldn't afford even the cheapest apartment.

"In retrospect, it's real obvious what the problems were, but at the time it wasn't," said Phillips, who acknowledges he had issues establishing personal and professional boundaries. He worked around the clock, but charged a pittance for his company's consulting services.

"There wasn't any further down to go without being bankrupt," he said.

Desperate to turn things around, he went into counseling for his personal struggles and reached out to mentors for business advice.

"We adjusted pricing on services, and we lost a few customers, but they were customers we weren't making money on anyway," Phillips said. "We picked up new business from others who understood the value message."

Business began to rebound. "It was kind of like a big ship starting to turn," he said.

Today, debts are paid off, he remarried in 2006 and bought a house last year. He'll also finish 2009 with $1 million in revenues for his eight-employee company.

"There are people who will help you if you're not in denial, and not looking for someone to fix your problems," Phillips said. "Be very candid with yourself, and then very candid with people you can trust."

Natasha Nelson, Yogurtini, Tempe, Ariz.

With one phone call, two sisters would begin to face the biggest challenge of their lives.

In 2007, Natasha and Chelsey Nelson were living in California and in the early stages of planning a self-serve frozen yogurt shop. But, then the phone rang and they learned their 56-year-old mother had just been diagnosed with a rare form of Parkinson's disease, a degenerative and terminal illness.

"When it hit us, it hit hard, but we already had one foot in the business," said Natasha Nelson. "We knew we had a great idea and our mom was our biggest supporter, but could we all emotionally handle it?" The sisters moved back to Tempe, Ariz., to join their dad in taking care of their mother, and that's when they decided the answer was: "Yes."

"But there were a lot of times we wanted to back out. We were even tossing a coin, at one point," Nelson said.

Then came an especially inspiring moment.

One late morning, while the sisters were doting on their mom, who had lost her speech by now, they noticed her typing emphatically on the computer at her bedside. "Doesn't anybody work around here? Get to work!" their mom wrote, in an effort to cheer her daughters on.

"She made us realize life is going to go on," Nelson said. "You just get up and put one foot in front of the other. It's better than crawling up in a fetal position in my closet, because that would have been my other option."

Today, Yogurtini is profitable and the sisters are turning it into a national franchise. They already have four commitments.

"We're ecstatic that we've done something our mom can be proud of," said Nelson. "The sky's the limit at this point."

George Burke, BookSwim.com, Newark, NJ

George Burke, 28, started his online book rental business with his best friend in 2007. The setbacks started early. First, they paid a consultant to draw up the specs of their business model, but never saw any results. They were out $1,500 and still had no plan.

After finally cobbling together a Web site, the company started operating with a little help from his partner's parents, the basement of their home became the center of operations. That is, until the township's zoning board learned of the home-grown operation and forced them to move. Not long afterward, Burke's partner decided he wanted out of the business.

"First, moving into a warehouse compared to a rent-free basement was a scary prospect," Burke said. "At the same time, my partner and I are negotiating the terms of him leaving. I had a real fear that there was no way I could do this on my own."

Meanwhile, Burke's chief financial officer unwittingly let bills "slip by," which led to the company losing its line of credit. Burke slipped into a depression. After hitting rock bottom, he underwent hypnotherapy to conquer his fears and give it another shot. He then hired the right people to help him run the business.

Today, he has eight productive employees. He worked out a deal with his former partner, who now receives a portion of monthly revenues. In 2009, revenues are expected to top $1.5 million.

"I challenge myself to make sure this thing works," Burke said. "You see these rainbows of hope and doors that open but it's a matter of having the confidence to walk through them. Seeing small successes really keeps me going."