Start Small, Grow Slowly: Keeping a Personal Touch in the Virtual Age - Business Goal Setting Series

Joanna Alberti banked on the hunch that even in this age of virtual communication, there’s still a market for smart, sophisticated, sassy – and real – greeting cards. She was right. With an initial investment of $10,000 in personal savings and a small business loan, Alberti launched philoSophie's in 2005, and within months was landing contracts for custom-designed work from major corporations.

A graduate of Boston University's School of Management, Alberti worked in advertising for two years, but always kept a little black journal of drawings and funny one-liners – Sophie's Philosophies. Having to come up with a product to sell for a company art show, she designed a set of cards that were glittered and hand-blushed (her cheeky homage to hand-brushed).

They got laughter and other positive reactions, and Alberti knew she had something special in philoSophie's.

“I sat down with the entrepreneur department at BU, and walked the national stationery show before I ever showed there,” says Alberti, who recently moved her business from Boston back to her hometown of Rochester, NY.

Goal 1: Get to Know the Competition

Knowing her competition was the first goal in striking out on her own, and she did that by checking out Internet sites, shopping boutiques and upscale card shops. She also sought and got advice from Mike Oleskow, whose Max & Lucy greeting cards and products are distributed in such national stores as Target, Home Depot and Barnes & Noble.

“I knew I didn’t have the money to pay him for a formal consultation, but he was kind enough to look at my work and tell me what he thought,” Alberti says. “I stuck my neck out, and made contacts wherever possible.” With no budget for advertising, Alberti found charity auctions and parties were great places to get her cards noticed, get contracts with larger companies and build her brand in conjunction with other affluent businesses and stores.

“I essentially have two business models,” she says. One involves the products and lines she is currently doing; the other looks ahead to a time when she wants to think about licensing her products for wider distribution. “I want control of the quality, but I'm learning to let things go.”

She’s pleased with the “bare bones” approach she’s taken while setting goals for her company. It took her from crafting the cards herself in a studio apartment, to a base salary that equaled her advertising job, and now to having a “small army” of sales reps and hand-designers.

Goal 2: Extend the Brand

Alberti capitalized on philoSophie's first successes by extending her brand with a glossy line that’s being market tested, and launching another Web site to sell her custom illustrations.

“When I talked to mentors, I found out there really wasn't a right or wrong way to start a business,” Alberti says. “You just have to start. As long as I'm paying the bills, there's no right or wrong.”

Goal 3: Step Away

Despite that advice, she’s very calculating about setting goals and modifying them as her business changes. “Ideally I would like to step away and not wear all these hats, but I'm not rushing into anything,” Alberti says. “I like to build relationships. The benefits of that are triple.”

Boutique owners who’ve been with her from the beginning have told Alberti they're glad she's hired sales reps, but still like the personal touch she brings. “The postman where I used to drop off all my shipping called me 'sparkle angel' because after a day putting glitter on all the cards, I would sparkle,” she says.

These days, she has a staff that can produce 800 cards in a half day, but they’re all still hand-made the way Alberti likes it: light on the blush, heavy on the personal touch.

Alice Rhein is a frequent contributor to StartupNation.

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