“The only option was to succeed. So I rolled up my sleeves.”
These were the words spoken by Robby Sorensen as he reflected on important lessons he got from his experience in starting Finger Puppets, Inc. He spoke about learning to be prepared for tough times. Above all else, he learned to face the challenge of running his own business bravely. This is his journey, in his own words.
When it came to the steps needed to establish his business, Robby made sure no stone was left unturned. “It all started with lots of dreaming,” Robby said, “The company was originally conceived as a school project. Everybody loved the idea, and I couldn’t get it out of my head! Finally, acting against everyone’s advice, I dropped out and just went for it!”
He took steps anybody else would when starting a company: incorporation, setting up banking and merchant accounts, creating a website, buying inventory, designing brand and marketing, etc. As a company that imports a line of handmade finger puppets from Peru, it’s imperative that the quality of the products be as high as possible. To ensure this, each product is handmade by artisan producers from the Andes, making trips to Peru a requirement. Establishing a presence in Lima was another requirement.
Putting together the foundation of the company was far from easy, and that was only the beginning. “Once everything was put into place, I knew I had a reliable supply chain. I still had to source packaging makers and set up the workforce to put it all together in South America. Finally, once the product was ready, the long road to market began.”
On Specialists and Tools
When it came to specialists, Robby admitted that it was a long list. “I knew very little about e-commerce, but I didn’t want to only be a wholesaler, so consultants were necessary with setting up the website and introducing me to the world of internet marketing,” he said.
The business needed a big investment to create custom graphics and branding, necessitating designers and photographers. Other specialists included digital marketing specialists, a trademark lawyer, and accredited lab to meet consumer product safety requirements, among others.
Robby also made free use of the local community college. Although he dropped out of a university business program, he felt like he still needed some practical day-to-day skills. “I knew that photography and graphics were going to play an important and on-going role, critical for our social media campaigns, advertising, and marketing. I also realized if I ever wanted to bring more products to the market, this would be an essential component.”
He found that the best part about taking such classes was the control it provided him over numerous aspects of his business. “I knew how long things should take, what they should cost, and how they can be achieved. I also learned how to find the best people when I needed to, and what to do if they let me down.”
On Funding, Help, and Support
The funding thus far has been entirely bootstrap. Robby had made the classic mistake of dramatically underestimating the price tag. “It’s so easy to plan out the big picture, but the devil is in the details. The nuts and bolts, if you will.” Fortunately, help came in the form of friends, mentors, and family.
Finger puppets are hand crafted and fair trade, which makes it a sustainably made product. “I wanted the company to become certified so I reached out Green America as well as GreenPlus.org and worked through those certification programs. This really helped shape the brand, the message, and even our company culture.”
On Work-Life Balance and Company Culture
With the difficulties that come with starting a business, the question of how to achieve a balance between work and life often comes into play. Robby Sorensen did not feel any differently. “In the beginning, starting a business sucked,” he admitted, I wanted to give up numerous times, but I eventually got a lot better at it and I began to see glimmers of success. After a while, it started to get fun.”
“Personally, I think it is extremely important to achieve work-life balance, but it’s not easy to do. Finally, I’m at a point where the business is running smoothly. I can now make time for balance. Still, I have a hard time tearing myself away from my desk because I’m having way too much fun!”
Company culture is something “of the utmost importance” for Robby due to his fair trade and eco-friendly products. For the company, culture and brand are inseparably linked, so it is their duty to uphold and promote the same values that the brand stands for.
“We developed a corporate sustainability plan, set, and met all of our stated goals, and are guided in all aspects of our business practice by our corporate code of ethics.”
Words of Wisdom
A lot of lessons were learned as time went on, but were there things that Robby wished he knew when he was just starting out?
“I knew it would take a lot of money, just not exactly how much,” he said. “I also underestimated how long everything would take. I assumed I would always hire the right people, and that they’d always deliver results. I thought everything would turn out the way I planned.”
“That didn’t happen. Usually, it still doesn’t.”
When it came to the advice he’d give to entrepreneurs starting out today, Robby took an example from one of his mentors. “One of the very first things I learned from a mentor has turned out to be one of the best pieces of advice anyone has ever given me. Some probably already do this, but for those who don’t, this is great advice. From the start, the importance of getting organized was always emphasized.”
“Keep track of absolutely everything. He stressed that I take time to learn and use digital tools and apps that are available to help. It was great advice that turned out to be even better as time went on.”