Monday, January 9, 2012

How (not) To Open a Business in Norfolk: A Story of Lofty Dreams Gone Bad

This is a short version of why I had to close one of my businesses (I was a partner) that was in the start up phase.  I truly believe if my partner had not been left to deal with the mountain of work on her own while I was laid up in the hospital dealing with POTS, clots, and pregnancy - we may have had a different outcome.  With two of us working on everything, we may have been able to do some of the things I mention in the article since she wouldn't have been overloaded with the mountain of work and the coordination needed to get something this big off the ground. But, as always, things happen for a reason, and it was not meant to be.

I'm hoping to provide some "lessons learned" and tips that can be applied in any City/State when opening a business.  Enjoy :)

How (not) To Open a Business in Norfolk: A Story of Lofty Dreams Gone Bad 
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How (not) To Open a Business in Norfolk: A Story of Lofty Dreams Gone Bad

My former business partner and I had found a location, an investor, and had gotten to work opening a loft on Granby to hold events.

I should be exhausted right now after a weekend full of events. But I’m not. Our business never had the chance to get off the ground.

What we should have done, and what you should do if you are opening a business in Norfolk:

1.  Go to SCORE for free mentoring.  Anyone starting a business needs to make the trip to their website and set up an appointment. We had it on our to-do list, but were both running two businesses at the time, and kept putting it off.  Make this a priority. Look to others with experience for advice and double check that you are doing everything right. Best of all – it’s FREE.  They have everything from business plan templates to financial worksheets. But that is not enough! Go there and find a mentor. They will help walk you through the process, and direct you to the resources you will need.

In hindsight, this alone may have saved our business. My partner and I are very creative people (both designers), with our business experience being limited to a more Mom and Pop dynamic, nothing this big. Once we decided our business location, I had gone online and downloaded a template for a business plan from SCORE and gotten to work. My partner had been researching lofts and area venues while I crunched numbers, and we came up with a plan based on this specific building as our venue. It was perfect! A gorgeous historical building on Granby that had been gutted and revitalized, retained its historical charm, and renovations were made to order for tenants. They showed us a top floor, a new addition to the building, and our jaws immediately dropped (mine almost dislocated). Views of the entire skyline of Norfolk and the water! Glass walls! Exposed loft style ceiling! NOBODY had a location like this.

A view to build on.
My heart pounded and I tried to contain my need to do a happy dance in front of the men in suits. They were willing to remodel it to make it work for us, and assured us that if we could find the money, they could make it happen. Then the words “roof-top deck” were uttered, and – well – I almost passed out. Being able to have your wedding, or an art show, or listening to music, all while sipping a cocktail with a killer view from the roof through glass walls on cool mod furniture??? YES PLEASE.

So we started negotiating with the developer and realtor, and coming up with ideas. We had a solid 50 page business plan that I ignored my family for about 40 hours straight one weekend to compile. We found an amazing investor after shopping around for anyone willing to back us. We thought we were doing it all right. But we never made the trip to SCORE.

2.  Go to the City to Norfolk Directly to verify what is required in terms of building codes, permits, and any other bureaucratic issues that may need to be cleared before opening.  This applies for any industry and any size business. Find them here. Our landlord/developer claimed to be “in” with the Norfolk City people, and owns a few dozen properties in the area, which we researched and verified, so we believed what he told us.

We worked out the details, had meetings upon meetings, contacted local groups, businesses, community leaders, and press. We held an open house and polled past clients and colleagues about the space. Everyone was super stoked, our “Urban Chic” design for the space was pretty amazing (if I do say so myself), not to mention the kick ass rooftop deck. The landlord assured us that all permits were in place, and all the kinks had been worked out. We had hired a lawyer to review the documents, and thought we were on our way. This was a big mistake, and ultimately the downfall of our business.
Let me repeat: Contact the City directly, with the help of a mentor from SCORE.

3.  Document everything. And I mean EVERYTHING. Every meeting, every promise made, every bit of progress made on the project. Take pictures, write things down, record meetings, do whatever you need to so you have proof if something does not happen the way it was supposed to. We documented some things, but not everything. We had built a friendly relationship with everyone involved over the course of a year. That is *not* enough. You need to resort to the good ol’ adage of CYA (cover your ass). Especially if your livelihood is on the line.

4. Build flexibility into your business. In our specific case, we modeled our entire business around the location, because we loved it so much and knew others would love it too. Before selling, promoting, or buying anything for your business, make sure you have tied up all loose ends and have completed the aforementioned steps. Our business model would not have worked in any other location due to its uniqueness, and this proved to be an insurmountable issue. Have some flexibility in your plan, in case bumps in the road come up, because they will.

5. Have a back up plan. If your business consists of just you, or is a partnership – have a back-up plan in case health issues, family issues, or something catastrophic occurs and you are unable to fulfill your obligations. Unfortunately, right after the papers were signed, and after we had started booking weddings, advertising, and buying stuff, I ended up in the hospital with an extremely high risk and unplanned pregnancy that almost killed me (due to Pulmonary Embolisms and a disorder named POTS that is normally very mild). I was in the hospital until the baby was born, almost the entire 9 months. I was there for and orchestrated much of the start-up phase of the project – but completely left my partner out to dry after construction really kicked into high gear. She did an amazing job taking care of the business, and dealt with the logistics of the construction, booking events, and purchases – and at every step was assured that all permits were in place and everything was fine.

Then, out of nowhere (with me still in the hospital), she was informed by the developer that our capacity requirements were denied by the City… that he had gone to his 5th and final meeting to try and get the capacity limit increased, but the City wouldn’t budge.

Would have been nice, eh? (Pic | Andi Grant)

WHAT? We were flabbergasted. With a capacity limit of 50, we couldn’t hold any events. Our business was done. We had some back and forth with the developer, and unfortunately it was not a fixable situation. It was horrendous – our dream business that we had sacrificed so much for, lost time with our families for, and had grand dreams of being our big break– was suddenly finished. Now we are stuck with a whole lot of wasted time, lost money, and useless marketing materials. I was really looking forward to those nights on our rooftop deck, drinking hipster drinks, listening to the latest electro-indie, ambient house, dubstep, live jazz, and whatever else. I wanted to see the local charities, designers, and artists host their shows with our City skyline as a backdrop, and amazing sunset views from the roof. I wanted to help design unique weddings and create memories for local couples…
But it was not meant to be. The sad thing is, if we had known about the issues with the Norfolk codes, and had a mentor, we could have rallied the troops, and used our connections in the community to find a solution. So learn from us, and somebody please open a loft I can go drink hipster adult beverages at while listening to cool music ASAP.

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