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5 Small Business Stories of Businesses Who Started Against All Odds

Small Business Stories

If people only started businesses when they had plenty of seed money and tons of time to launch their product or build their client base, many of the world’s most innovative products and companies wouldn’t exist. Entrepreneurship rarely starts with a smooth takeoff like an airline passenger jet – sometimes it’s abrupt, bumpy, and stressful, like an emergency medical evacuation helicopter struggling to take off from a combat zone.

But the great lesson for entrepreneurs is: if you can overcome an inauspicious beginning to your business, you can survive anything. Some of the best businesses started by overcoming the biggest challenges and the most difficult odds. After all, if everything in your life was going smoothly and you had no problems to overcome, why would you ever start a business in the first place? Sometimes the best business ideas come from being prompted to suddenly make big changes – disruptive forces, bad luck, and painful events often cause people to totally re-evaluate what they’re doing with their lives.

We talked with a few small business owners who started their own companies in the midst of very difficult life challenges – health problems, domestic violence, corporate layoffs, divorce, and near-homelessness. They all offer inspiring lessons on how entrepreneurs can launch new businesses even in the midst of serious adversity.

5 Inspiring Small Business Stories

From High School Dropout to Inc. 500 Entrepreneur

Dave_ConklinDave Conklin is a serial entrepreneur, speaker, and consultant who has experience in the real estate industry and digital marketing, and has employed hundreds of people during the past 12 years. He’s also overcome some significant obstacles and financial challenges to get where he is today.

“I’m an Inc. 500 entrepreneur who is a high school dropout and has had cars repossessed,” Dave says. “I had no money when I started my first business in 2003.” Fortunately, Dave developed a skill that has served him well throughout his business career – building relationships and finding great partners to work with. “Even though I had no money, I found some other people in the industry who did have some cash to invest, and they paid me what I needed to pay my bills, and in exchange I gave them each 1/3 ownership of the company,” Dave says. “That turned into a VERY profitable company over a few years. I worked very hard and ended up having 60 employees. We were the 16th fastest growing real estate related company in the country between 2004 and 2007.”

Dave says that even at the most difficult, seemingly impossible times during his business journey, he has stayed motivated by focusing on his core sense of purpose in life. “You need to have a ‘why’ that resonates with you,” Dave says. “If you don’t have a ‘why’ for your life, there’s no reason to keep on keeping on. When you are driven by more than money, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.”

Dave’s sense of purpose comes from his religious faith and his love of family. “I’m a Christian, so I believe that everything that I do, I’m supposed to do as if I were doing it for Christ,” Dave says. “That helps me tremendously. Also, I have two sets of twins and an amazing wife. I want to try my best every day to work hard so I can provide them the life that I feel they deserve. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but having great experiences with your family certainly helps, and money helps that to happen.”

Follow Dave Conklin on Twitter at @DaveConklin.


Bouncing Back from a Divorce

Magalie_ReneMagalie René is the founder of Kid-Smart Spaces by Foundations Design Group, an interior design firm specializing in helping independent schools use the power of design to create better learning environments for students. Magalie got inspired to start her own business after going through a divorce.

“Getting divorced was by far the most challenging event I’ve ever faced,” Magalie says. “It left me mired in self-doubt and fearful of the future, but it also opened my eyes to everything that wasn’t serving my highest good, starting with my unfulfilling job. Although I wanted to pursue my own business, it had always seemed out of my reach.”

Magalie bounced back from her difficult times by finding mentors and building a supportive network of like-minded people. “It’s crucial to find someone who has walked a similar path successfully who can counsel you to do better,” Magalie says. “My friend, who eventually became a colleague, and mentor is Anjie Cho, a Feng Shui Architect. Two things she’s done for me, among many, is that she is honest with her advice, whether I want to hear it or not, and she reinforces the importance of balance and mindfulness – because even incredible success is meaningless if it doesn’t feel good.”

Magalie also finds inspiration in everyday wisdom and advice. “Every time I receive a nugget of wisdom, be it from a cab driver, Oprah, or my mom, I jot it down in an iPhone note I’ve titled ‘Words to Remember’ which I read when I need encouragement to keep moving forward,” Magalie says. “One of my favorite quotes reminds me that in difficult times a change of perspective can change everything. Alicia Dunums says: ‘Fall in love with the gap! Instead of ‘this is what I’m missing in my life’ think ‘this is what I get to create.’”

Many small business owners struggle with time management, but Magalie says that time is nothing to fear. “Time is neither your enemy nor something you’ll run out of,” says Magalie. “Remember instead that when used wisely, time is your supporter. If you’re trying to get over a difficult experience such as a divorce, or just trying to make the leap past self-doubt to entrepreneurship, I recommend that you use your time for self-development: read, take courses, get a therapist, or career coach. Use your time to write down a specific plan – starting with where you want to be five years from now, and working backwards to determine the steps to take by year, month, and week to get you there. And finally, use your time to write down your accomplishments and read them regularly to celebrate your progress.”

Follow Magalie René on Twitter at @KidSmartSpaces.


Finding Inspiration from Motherhood in Difficult Times

Kisha_VelazquezHaving a baby is always a momentous and often stressful occasion in a woman’s life – but what happens when the birth of your baby coincides with losing your job and having to make a stressful move to a new home on short notice? Markisha “Kisha” Velazquez is the partner and creative director of Junior Baby Hatter Co., a specialty clothing brand that designs very cute “gentleman-style” flat caps to be worn by baby boys. Kisha got inspired to start her company after losing her corporate job soon after her baby was born – at a time when her family was struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

“Six short months after having my baby boy, Adam, I lost my job at a major women’s wear brand for dubious reasons,” Kisha says. “My husband and I were living in the basement of a friend’s house because our former apartment in New York City was infested with rats and had a carbon monoxide leak when my son was only two weeks old. So we scrambled to move with our new baby to Weehawken, New Jersey, and as a result of moving to New Jersey, we lost our eligibility for New York state health insurance and couldn’t afford to purchase our own.”

Fortunately, despite these difficult circumstances, Kisha and her husband quickly found inspiration to start making money from an unexpected source. “My husband, Alex, was the primary caregiver of our son while I was working full-time, but he began working freelance when I was laid off,” says Kisha. “To stay busy during the transition of working mom to stay-at-home mom, I began sewing woven flat caps for my son to wear. My sister-in-law thought they were pretty cute when she saw the pictures posted in Facebook and commented, ‘You should sell these.’ I knew I had absolutely no money to start a business with no full-time income or property or even an apartment of our own, but I thought, I have nothing left to lose.”

Soon Kisha found that she really loved making hats for her son to wear. The unique flat caps that her company sells are not like typical baby hats – they look more like the style of hat that an older “gentleman” would wear, but with a creative array of colors, designs, fabrics, and textures that look great on a baby or toddler. “Making these hats helps me hope for a better future for our son when he grows up, and helps me imagine what kind of gentleman he’ll become,” Kisha says. “His wonder and enjoyment of life gives me an appreciation for mine and gets me out of bed in the morning.”

Kisha also says that she got great inspiration and help from her mother-in-law. “My mother-in-law has always been a big cheerleader for this business idea,” Kisha says. “She even found a free online MBA program in entrepreneurship for me to complete while I’m running the business and taking care of Adam. Education has been a huge help in figuring out my niche in the market and making strategic decisions for the company. My teachers at school and mentors at SCORE have also given me great guidance.”

Follow Junior Baby Hatter on Facebook.


Escaping Domestic Violence and Inventing a New Life

Julie_AustinSome new business ideas are literally a miracle – the circumstances of their creation are so unlikely that it’s hard to believe the company ever got a chance to grow. Julie Austin, inventor of Swiggies Wrist Water Bottles, is a living example of miraculous entrepreneurship.

“I’m an inventor and manufacturer with a NASDAQ-winning product that’s sold in 24 countries,” Julie says. “But it’s a miracle the business ever got off the ground in the first place. I literally started my business with $5.00. At the time I was running from a dangerous domestic violence situation and had to leave with the clothes on my back. I found an apartment that would let me move in and pay at the end of the month with no deposit. I had to work very quickly to find a job and start over.”

Julie had an idea for a product – Swiggies; a water bottle that can be worn on the wrist. But when she was first getting started, she had to learn how to market the product and even had to figure out which market was best. She got a big break by going to a trade show – even though at first it seemed like the trade show was going to be a failure. “I did a trade show that ultimately changed the course of my business and is responsible for launching my company in a big way, but the show itself was a total disaster,” Julie says. “It was the wrong show to be at and I closed my booth down before lunchtime on the first day. I met another guy there who did the same and we ended up walking the show. He told me my product would be a good one for the promotional products industry, which I had never heard of. He invited me to share a portion of his booth at an upcoming show. When I walked in the door of this new show, I was mobbed in the aisle. I knew that was the market I needed to be in. It was all due to serendipity.”

Julie also ended up running a business sort of by accident – but again, this turned out to be a good thing. “I never wanted to run a business; I just wanted to license the product and move on,” Julie says. “But a series of events happened and I ended up having to do it all myself, which as it turns out, was the best thing that could have happened. All entrepreneurs need to know how to do it all themselves. It’s a great learning experience. Once you’ve done it, you can do anything.”

Today Julie is an award-winning author, inventor, and innovation speaker whose Swiggies product is sold in 24 countries, and who has appeared on dozens of TV shows, magazines, and radio shows around the world. She’s come along way since that day when she had only $5 to her name!


Recovering from Serious Injuries With Entrepreneurship

April_LeffingwellApril Leffingwell is the founder of SHEA CHIC Boutique, a small business that makes personal care products such as body butters, skin cream, and soaps. Her products have been featured on the Today Show, Good Morning America, Access Hollywood Live, and have been placed in Hollywood’s biggest Celebrity Gifting Suites and used by country music’s biggest stars.

But April got a unique start in entrepreneurship – she suffered a serious back injury that made it hard for her to leave the house or work at a regular job. Fortunately, she was able to use her skills and interest in personal care products to build a successful business working from home.

“I started my business five years ago after experiencing a terrible back injury,” April says. “I needed something positive to focus on so I began making body butters and soaps in our kitchen. I’ve had some extremely difficult times with pain and detoxing off of five years of pain medicines. Staying positive all the time has been difficult, but when I’m struggling that’s when I use my small business for charitable good. I donate to countless animal charities and my small business has paid for life-saving surgeries for animals in need. My customers see the good that comes out of buying my products and that in turn makes them feel good about supporting my small business. I always pay it forward! God is good!”

April says that one of the best ways to help her stay motivated and focused is to keep her business centered on a larger purpose of supporting charitable causes and making a difference in other people’s lives. “It’s important to give back,” April says. “When you’re starting out it’s easy to make everything about you and what your small business needs. People respond to those who aren’t just focused on their own success, but the success of others. I’ve given to so many animal charities that honestly I quit counting. Karma does exist. So don’t be so focused on keeping score. If you’ve got an incredible product, excellent customer service, and a charitable heart you’ll always come out on top.”

Follow April Leffingwell on Twitter at @SHEACHIC.


Do you know of any entrepreneurs who have overcome big obstacles to succeed? Leave a comment and let us know, or tweet us at @KabbageInc.


Kabbage Team

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