Small Business Champion Interview
Curt Donohue comes from the commercial construction industry, having spent more than 20 years managing large-scale construction teams/projects for Fortune 500 entities like Hilton Hotels, Centurylink and Level 3, as well as Celestial Seasonings, Ball Aerospace and Great West Life. Whether acting as an owner’s rep or senior project manager Curt owned the final responsibility for bringing medium to large-scale multi-million dollar projects to a successful conclusion, on time and under budget. Curt’s management acumen provided his former employers and clients with day-to-day oversight, making sure all projects are properly staffed and executed.
How do you measure success?
I have two measures of success, money and time. I’ve had both of them at various points in my life. However, having both at the same time has been elusive. I’m now aware that for me and my family to be happy, we need some measure of both money and time, not just one or the other.
It wasn’t that long ago that I was making more money than I had ever made. I was putting money in the bank and spending more than I should have. Making this money cost me 60 to 80 hours of my life per week. I even had two weeks over 90 hours that year. While the money was great, I couldn’t enjoy much of it. At least not truly enjoy it. Yes, I spent plenty of money on things I wanted. But, I eventually realized that spending money on the things that I wanted wasn’t really what I wanted. I realized that what I really wanted was freedom, the freedom to enjoy the money I was making with spouse and my family. That means I needed more time.
Then, in 2008, I got exactly that, a bunch more time. I’m not sure if you can relate to this, but the fall of 2008 was horrible time for me. I was just closing out a significant project and looking forward to two other exciting projects when the economy crashed. And, I mean really crashed, at least for me. I was out of work for around 18 months due to the recession and my inability and unwillingness to get out and sell myself and much as I needed to in order to compete for the meager amount of work left. Oh boy, did I have time. And, absolutely no money. In fact, we spent all of our savings trying to make the payment on various “investments” we’d made. We even spent our retirement funds trying to keep up on our house payment current.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough money to go 18 months without work. We lost everything. The house, a truck, a trailer, two pieces of land, and our dignity. At least it felt like we lost our dignity. I’ve got a substantially more positive outlook on that experience, now.
What is the biggest “happy accident” you have had in starting your business?
I would say that my biggest “happy accident” would be meeting my partner on Craigslist. Craigslist you ask! Seems unlikely, I know, but keep an open mind.
Our partnership all came about because I was looking to build someone a website in exchange for a high quality video camera that I could use to improve my full motion videos. I needed something that could create a shallow depth of field. Up to that point, I was making a living building websites and creating educational videos using a screen capture software. I wanted to make the leap to more full motion video since it was starting to become such a critical marketing tactic.
In the process of writing up an advertisement, I ran across a listing for someone who was doing exactly what I wanted to do. This listing invited me to participate for experience only. I thought, what the heck, I’ll see what it’s all about. We met, learned about each other and, by the time the meeting was over, realized that we were highly complimentary to each others goals. We decided to work together loosely until it no longer made sense. Ultimately, we incorporated 4th Kind Entertainment and proceeded to have a few successes in our first year. One of the those big successes was wining the first-ever TripAdvisor commercial contest. It was a pretty big deal for us to get two weeks of exposure on national television (AMC, The History Channel, FYI and TrueTV) with a major brand our first year out.
When have you been the most satisfied in your life?
I’m not aware of a single moment in my life when I’ve been the most satisfied. I do know, though that most of the satisfaction in my life has come from spending quality time with my spouse. She is my best friend and we thoroughly enjoy each other. Whether we’ve had loads of money, or no money, we’ve found a way to enjoy each other and grow into a solid partnership. So, to be truly satisfied, all I need to do is find a way to enjoy time with my wife.
What was the best piece of advice you were given when starting your business?
Sell kid, Sell!!!!! Everything starts with sales. No sales, no business. Another equally good piece of advice is that you can generally sell yourself out of financial problems as long as your sales are profitable. No money in the bank? Make some sales. No money for payroll? Holy cow, make some sales! Do you want to provide your employees/contractors a great place to work and fee like they can count on you? Make lots of sales, over and over.
Once again, no sales, no business. When you’re getting started, prioritize sales. You can always get better at execution assuming you’ve got some money to work with.
What is your biggest struggle in being a small business owner (and/or starting a small business)?
Hands down, it’s sales. I come from a technical background, which isn’t necessarily good or bad. It can be a significant weakness, though, if you’re not aware of it. From what I’ve observed in my own personality and behaviors, I don’t really like selling. I do like organizing and executing work. In all my former jobs and projects, someone else has sold the work. I just needed to get it done. Oh boy, is it different to have to sell for yourself when sales don’t come naturally. I have a tremendous newfound respect for anyone who makes a good living at sales.
While I know I said I don’t really like selling, I’m growing to like it as I get better at it. I feel that I’m just not growing fast enough. For me, sales is a constant struggle and point of stress. Nothing happens without sales, remember that. No matter how good you are at executing a certain kind of work, if there are no sales, there’s nothing to do. And, then you go bankrupt!
Do not understand the importance of sales. If you have enough sales and some aspect of your business isn’t where you want it to be, you’ll at least have money coming in to work on whatever it is you’re not happy with. If you have no sales, you can’t improve anything in your business. Your just plain stuck and not going anywhere anytime soon.
If you weren’t doing what you are doing now what would you be doing?
If I hadn’t taken the leap into video and film, I’d probably still be in construction. I most likely would have went back to work for a significant commercial contractor as a project manager or, possibly, a business development guy. Even though I’m not a huge fan of sales, I am getting better at it and liking it more all the time.