Get a really good accountant from day one. I was good at sales, marketing, and organization — not accounting. Owning and running a business is complicated, so get someone to help with payroll, financial reports, taxes, and anything else related to money.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Quinn Williams, President and Founder of Saint Louis Closet Co. While in her first semester of Saint Louis University graduate school, and while working part-time at three restaurants, Jennifer decided to do what she loved: change people’s lives through custom organization. She approached the Small Business Administration (SBA) to get a crash course on starting a business. That November, she forged ahead with acquiring a start-up loan and taking a risk, trusting that early sales of her new custom closet systems would prove profitable. They certainly did! That first year, Jennifer — a 25-year-old college grad — made $236,000 in sales. This amount would be exceeded by over 2,500 percent over the next 28+ years.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I’m the oldest child of three girls. My mom and sisters would tell you I was always a bit obsessed with organization. In sixth grade, I organized my own bedroom closet (decades before the custom closet industry) by wallpapering the walls with Time Magazine covers and glue. I also went shopping at Venture for clear shoe boxes with red lids and plastic hangers. This was revolutionary for me as everything was color-coordinated, matching, and labeled. If only I had started my business then!
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?
In 1991, while attending graduate school for public relations, I was working three waitressing jobs to pay for college. That’s when a friend from high school moved to St. Louis to open up a custom closet franchise. He knew me well, along with my love of organization, so he asked me to come work for him. I then started this fourth job designing custom closets. Within two weeks of starting, I fell in love with custom closets. As the daughter and granddaughter of entrepreneurs, starting my own business was not a dream but an eventuality. I immediately dropped out of graduate school and quit two of my three waitressing jobs (keeping one just in case).
There is no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
A good idea does not always make a good business. However, a passion and love for a good idea does. You have to absolutely love what you do in order for your business to be successful. This idea will become your everything for better or worse as you live with it daily. Your passion and belief really has to be there. I love being organized but I’m also passionate about helping others organize their lives. I see the pure joy custom closets and organization brings to people.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
Go for it! You have to take chances in life and business. Only one in 10 startups is successful, so you need to get going right away. Don’t be afraid of failure — just surround yourself with family, friends, and employees that support you.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
I’ve been running my business for 29 years and have not been bored yet. You have to constantly challenge yourself and your business, whether it’s with new products, services, growth, or even a new marketing campaign. People tend to dread what they do when it becomes stagnant. Most entrepreneurs are so busy coming up with the next idea that they don’t even have time to think about it.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
There’s nothing more fulfilling than knowing you are making people happy. That’s why I love working with my clients and employees the most. There are plenty of downsides to owning your own business, too. You can never really take a vacation (as the business is always with you), you are weighted with the responsibility of payroll and accounts payable every day, and the buck stops with you. I don’t know if I will ever totally overcome these obstacles, but I have learned to take responsibility for them daily. I have surrounded myself with some of the best employees in the world who make my job easier. I’ve also learned to make decisions quickly and continuously move forward without getting bogged down in the mire.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I’m not sure if I had any idea of what my actual job would be like. I was 25 when I started my business and, to be honest, I just winged it each day until I figured it out. I had grown up in an entrepreneurial family, so I knew it wasn’t going to be all lunches and golf.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself, “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a ‘real’ job”? If so how did you overcome it?
The grass is always greener for me. I sometimes dream of paid vacation, employee benefits packages, and weekends off. That’s when I look at what I’ve accomplished and how many more things I want to do with Saint Louis Closet Co. I get right back to work at my own business after that.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started Saint Louis Closet Co., I was lucky to receive an SBA loan for part of the money I needed. I then financed the remaining $15,000 on personal credit cards. I don’t recommend this but now I look back at my ingenuity using a Sears credit card to buy installation tools, a Famous Barr credit card at Venture to buy office supplies and an electric typewriter, and Ford Motor Credit to finance my first installation van.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
From the beginning, my customers and my employees have inspired me. My local community has always supported this local business I began. Customers have made sure to help when needed by referring us to their friends and family. Employees have shown me dedication beyond my expectations by working long hours, taking work home, coming in on weekends, and allowing me to be part of their families. It’s truly because of them that I am motivated and inspired each day to do what I do.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Near and dear to my heart are local, women-owned businesses. I have used my success to mentor and promote them at every turn. Also, I get to speak to high school and college students about entrepreneurship and taking chances and risks to start a business.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You are going to need WAY more money than you think! I thought I needed $50,000 to start up my business, but in reality it cost me over $100,000 and took three years to get out of credit card debt.
- Get a really good accountant from day one. I was good at sales, marketing, and organization — not accounting. Owning and running a business is complicated, so get someone to help with payroll, financial reports, taxes, and anything else related to money.
- Owning your own business is like having kids. Once you have kids, they are your everything 24/7. It’s the same when you own a business.
- You always pay yourself last, so be prepared to make personal sacrifices. When I opened Saint Louis Closet Co., I was young, single, and didn’t have any real responsibilities. Luckily, I lived inexpensively, but you have to plan ahead and budget. Your employees and suppliers get paid before you.
- The Internet is coming and it will change everything!!
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love? You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would want to inspire a “Go Girl” movement that lets women business owners know it’s okay to not be the perfect mom, wife, hostess, and business owner, too. We have to give ourselves a break and do the best we can. It’s important for us to build the self-confidence and self-esteem to know that what we can do is good enough. We don’t need validation.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
You CAN do anything in life you want, you just can’t do everything. Life is full of opportunities, but you have to choose! This is relevant to me and to many woman business owners. I have focused on my business and family but always feel like I’ve never done either 100 percent perfectly. It’s a balancing act when you own a small business because you have to be there. I wanted to take off for several months after my children were born, but I couldn’t. Instead, I was back to work in a week, bringing them in with me. You make sacrifices as a small business owner. While I know I can do anything, I’ve chosen to own a small business and be the best I can at balancing a career and a family.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Michelle Obama. It’s not her politics or her hubby — I admire Michelle Obama because she is #goals when it comes to being a working mom, doing so with grace. She wasn’t just the FLOTUS. She was an attorney with a leading position at a Chicago law firm when she met Barack, whom she was charged in showing him the ropes. Yes, she had a bigger title than the would-be POTUS. How can that not inspire you? This Mom-in-Chief and I have a lot in common now that both of her girls are college-aged and leaving the fold. After having the biggest selling book of 2018, I look forward to seeing what she has up her sleeve next.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.