Whether they are chasing a dream, re-entering the workforce after time off, rebounding from a job loss or seizing an opportunity, people all over our area have launched businesses that have taken their careers—and their lives—in new directions. Following are three such stories and the advice these entrepreneurs offer to others looking to make a change.
Following Her Passion
Kelly Millspaugh Thompson
Falls Church native Kelly Millspaugh Thompson traces her love of vintage furniture to her childhood when she would go with her parents to antique shops and estate sales looking for hidden gems. “When I got out of college and was furnishing my own home, I didn’t have a lot of money, so I went to yard sales and garage sales,” she said. “I started painting furniture to give it a fresh look.”
That passion for giving new life to vintage furniture stayed with her and eventually led her to open Stylish Patina four years ago, a retail furniture and home decor shop in Falls Church. “If you were to ask me 10 years ago what I would be doing now, I’d probably say running a company, but not my own company,” she said.
Kelly spent her early career climbing the corporate ladder. She worked for companies such as AOL, AT&T Wireless and Hooked on Phonics, where she was vice president of operations. After the sale of Hooked on Phonics, she started her own business consulting firm. While running that business from her house, she had more time to explore her love of vintage furniture.
She discovered a line of paint called Annie Sloan Chalk Paint that she fell in love with. She saw an opportunity and soon became a distributor of the paint. “I started small. I opened a barn in Frederick, Maryland, and held furniture sales once a month.” After a couple years of holding monthly sales and writing a blog, she built up enough of a following to open a retail store. Many of her customers lived in Northern Virginia, so she looked into opening her shop in her hometown.
Throughout this time, Kelly continued to work as a business consultant. “We are really a dual-income family,” she said, “so it wasn’t an option for me to just follow my bliss.” A couple months after launching Stylish Patina, she opened a nearby warehouse called Rough Luxe to handle overflow merchandise, and she held monthly sales there until last year, when she began opening it every Saturday. About six months after Stylish Patina opened, Kelly closed her consulting firm to focus full time on her new business.
“It’s really been fun. I feel very lucky to be able to do it right in my hometown and to be able to follow a dream,” she said.
Kelly credits her business background with her retail success. “I don’t do anything that’s not profitable,” she said. She’s also quick to seize an opportunity. “One of the things I love about owning my own business is that you can make changes immediately. If you see something isn’t working in the store, you can make a change right away.”
In addition to running the retail store and warehouse sales, Kelly and a couple of her staff also teach classes once a month on using the line of paints she carries, and they do some furniture makeovers for people who don’t want to do it themselves. Kelly also offers interior design services, and she recently launched a furniture line featuring vintage pieces with cleaner lines for those who like a less rustic finish.
“A lot of people think, ‘I’m going to have my own business; I can be with the kids; it’ll be great,’ but it can be really stressful. It’s a balancing act,” said the busy mother of 2-year-old twins. “One of the things I intentionally did was keep everything really close by. I live about two miles from the store and the warehouse is less than a mile away.”
Some of the challenges Kelly sees in owning a business are finding good staff, putting in lots of hours and, of course, finances. “Finding good staff can be hard, but once you do, they can make or break your day-to-day operations,” she said. “Finances are always a concern, and can be a strain, and as much as you like to think it’s great that you can set your own hours, you usually work 24/7.
I started my business because I love furniture, but I probably spend a quarter of my time doing that and 75 percent doing all the other stuff. That’s the reality of being a small business owner.”
Kelly’s advice for others looking to open a business is to be realistic and do your research. “Sit down and talk to other business owners and find out how long it took them to really make a living,” she said. “Financially, know what you need to make in your first year. At the end of the day, that financial component is the most stressful piece, so you need to know what you’re getting into. If you don’t gauge that right, it can be hard on a marriage, hard on a business, and before you know it, you’re back in corporate America doing the same thing over again.”
410 South Maple Avenue, Suite 114, Falls Church
Bridging a Gap
Like a lot of women, Fairfax City business owner Ellen Grealish took time off from her career to stay home with her children. When she wanted to re-enter the workforce several years later, she looked forward to putting to use the experience and skills she garnered from her eight years as a sales development and marketing professional with Hewlett Packard, but she wanted a part-time position that would allow her to pick up her youngest child at school.
“I remember thinking that if a company only knew that I would be willing to negotiate my pay rate and forgo benefits in exchange for a role where I could be home at three, it would be such a great deal for the business and myself,” Ellen said. She went online to look for part-time or part-virtual work in her field and found only cold calling or retail jobs.
A conversation with her friend Sheila Murphy revealed that Sheila wanted to find a flexible job as well. They learned about a staffing company in Colorado called 10 til 2 that focuses on part-time jobs for experienced professionals. They looked into opening a franchise, ultimately deciding against it, but they felt they had identified a real need in this area. They began talking to business owners and realized that one of the biggest challenges for a small business is trying to find really good talent when they don’t always have the budget to bring in someone with 10 years of experience at a big company.
Ellen and Sheila, along with Gwenn Rosener, co-founded FlexProfessionals, LLC, to build a bridge between businesses and an experienced, talented employment pool who are willing to work at competitive rates with no benefits in exchange for a part-time or flexible role. Originally geared toward mothers looking to re-enter the workforce, FlexProfessionals now includes retirees and people looking to scale back on their hours.
“I didn’t intend to switch careers,” said Ellen, “but no one was going to hire me. I didn’t intend to start a business. It just sort of fell into place, and here we are 6 1/2 years later, and we have built a pretty thriving business.” FlexProfessionals has opened a Boston office, has more than 9,000 job candidates in the DC metro area and made $3.2 million in revenue last year.
“It’s a great feeling to look back and see you built something from nothing,” she said.
Part of Ellen’s mission, and one of her biggest challenges, is getting companies to understand that there is a different way to do things. She and her partners work hard to get in front of business owners to change their mindset, and they practice what they preach.
FlexProfessionals’ 13 employees all work part time and part virtually. “We promote these jobs, but at the same time, we’re also building and running this company in a part-time, flexible way,” said Ellen. “Everybody in our company is empowered to create their own schedule as long as our clients’ needs are being met. People can take as much vacation as they want, and nobody has come close to abusing it. As a small company, we couldn’t initially pay people what we thought they were worth. If I can’t pay you money for your worth, I’m going to give you something of value to you.”
As a business owner, Ellen admits it’s hard to turn off the work. She tries to keep work and family separate and be 100 percent focused on what she’s doing. She advises those who want to change careers to think about where they want their career to go and to focus on which of their skill sets are transferrable.
“If you’re a lawyer who wants to get into fundraising, don’t highlight all the legal things you don’t want to do anymore. Put a summary at the top of your resume to sell yourself and why a company should be looking at you. Think about what skills you gained as a lawyer that can transfer to fundraising, like negotiating.”
She also recommends focusing on small businesses when looking to make a change. It’s harder for a big company to take a chance on an employee trying something different. “You may have to adjust your pay expectations to get in the door, but you can renegotiate later,” she said. “Promote what you can bring to the company that they may be overlooking.”
Seizing an Opportunity
Christine and Mike Angles
After taking time off from her career to stay home with her two sons, Vienna resident Christine Angles wanted to re-enter the workforce. Previously a software engineer with Deltek, she began doing some website development. When her husband Mike left Deltek in 2011 after 23 years with the company, the couple started doing some consulting work. Then a chance discussion at their son’s basketball game took their careers in a new direction.
In July 2012, Great Falls Allstate agent Doug White told them about an agency for sale in Manassas. He couldn’t take on another agency at the time, and he suggested that Mike and Christine consider it. “This was a great opportunity,” said Christine, “and it was a very good price, but the people were retiring, and they wanted to move quickly. It all happened very fast. Not only did we have to be approved, but we had to get licenses and go through training. It was a little intense.”
Once they got settled in and comfortable with their new business, they bought another agency in 2014, this one in Chantilly. Today they have six employees between the two agencies, and four years into their new venture, they are happy they took the chance.
“We like the flexibility of owning our own business. You can make your own hours. You can still be a coach and make it to school events. And if you have ideas, you just implement them. We like having the ability to follow through on ideas and take action because we have full control,” said Christine.
For example, seeing the car wash across the street from their agency in Manassas gave Christine a marketing idea. “I thought, what if we say we’ll pay for your car wash if you get a quote?” she said. They printed a promotional card that the owner of the car wash agreed to put on the checkout counter.
Ownership also brings with it responsibility and pressure. “Things go up and down with insurance, and we have to keep everything going. Also, we’re always open. We have 24-hour support, but we still get calls at weird hours, and we respond because these are our customers, and they’re going through a stressful time.”
Christine and Mike like the perks that come with having a big company behind their business. Active volunteers, they take advantage of an Allstate Foundation program that gives $1,000 to organizations where they volunteer. “Each of us can get up to five of these grants per year,” Christine said. “These are things we would be volunteering to do anyway, but we like being able to give the groups we’re helping that added boost.” Organizations that have benefited from the Angles’ involvement include local elementary schools, a homeless shelter in Manassas and Volunteer Fairfax.
Some people worry that it would be hard to work with your spouse, but Christine said it hasn’t been difficult. “We actually never go to the same office. Since we don’t see each other at work, we have a Monday morning meeting at home. That was part of our plan. Mike really doesn’t like to talk about work after work. He’s very good about that.”
Christine admits she misses some of the challenges of software development, but she has new challenges now. Allstate has awards and contests, and she’s driven to be one of the best in her new field. “If I see something that says only the top 10 percent of agencies get to do this, well, I want to be among that group,” she said. She and Mike have received regional and national recognition for being among the top agents for 2013-2015.
Mike and Christine didn’t plan to switch careers, but sometimes an opportunity presents itself and sparks a change. “Having our own business was almost easier for me than getting a job after staying home,” said Christine. “The technology is all different now. I was looking at my resume, and I hadn’t worked in 12 years, so to create a resume was daunting. Running your own business in some ways is easier than looking for a job after being out of the workforce.”