Sunday, April 20, 2014 · 4:57 p.m.

Niedlov's owner: 10 thoughts on 10 years in business

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John Sweet, owner of Niedlov's, which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary. (Photo: Contributed)

I’m not famous. I’m not a cultural icon. I’ve never pitched a VC firm or signed a term sheet. I don’t have thoughts of going public. My business never experienced 1,000 percent growth in a year. My life isn’t extravagant or very exciting. I’m the “millionaire next door” … except I’m not a millionaire. My family and I live in a 1,300-square-foot apartment, and we have one vehicle, a pickup truck. I’d rather spend an evening cooking dinner with my wife, Angela, and making dessert with my children than socializing at a cocktail party. I am an introvert and a perfectionist, independent and ambitious, competitive and passionate. I am a baker and a businessperson.

Angela and I started the business nine months before we were actually married. She helped me set things up and then moved back to the town where we met, 600 miles away. I worked alone for nine months until we married, then the two of us “lived the dream” for a year and a half until our son was born, and Angela took some time off. I started hiring people, we bought a building in which to permanently relocate and the bakery grew a lot. Two years later, we almost went out of business. Then, we recovered and continued growing. Ten years after we started, we’re selling $1 million worth of bread annually, employing 25 people and living above our bakery.

Chattanooga is now becoming known for its urban revitalization; public-private partnerships; green initiatives; and a cutting-edge, citywide fiber optic network. These features, along with a central location in the Southeast and an abundance of natural beauty, have drawn many industries over the years and, more recently, a slew of young entrepreneurs. As the next wave of business builders looks to steward our city’s great resources in new and exciting ways, here are a few lessons I’ve learned from a decade of bootstrapping, business development and commitment to a craft.

10 thoughts on 10 years
—Don’t have partners, only lenders
Finance your business with savings. If you need more money, borrow it. Your growing business is always worth more to you than it is to anyone else. We borrowed cash from a good friend, my father-in-law, an aunt and uncle, a business associate, three banks and a local alternative financing institution. But we never sold shares of the business.

—120-hour weeks are good for you ...
... Once or twice. There is great value in looking back at how rough things used to be. It keeps your perspective positive. “At least we got one day off this week.” “At least we have air conditioning now.” “At lease everyone else could cash their paychecks.”

—Don’t buy stuff until you need it
I mean, not until you really need it. It is often said that most businesses don’t make it because they’re “undercapitalized” or they “can’t finance their own growth.” I think if they bought less stuff that they didn’t really need, they wouldn’t need so much capital. I mixed the dough by hand until it was so much that I physically couldn’t do it any more. Then, we bought a mixer.

—You need an advocate
Someone besides yourself who will talk the talk, has some answers, loans you money, finds you clients, sells your stuff, knows bankers and won’t stop telling people that they’ve got to meet you or try your thing. This person has connections in your community or industry and loves what you’re doing. Two or three of these is better than one.

—Spouse as a business partner is not always a bad idea
It works for us, and it might be right for you. It can be dramatic, though, and a high capacity for conflict is certainly required. For us, the inherent risks are outweighed by the many practical benefits.

—You need friends who are not part of the business
These people are not in the trenches with you. They have enough distance from your chaos to see and evaluate your life objectively. They’ll shoot you straight whether you’ll like it or not: “Your wife needs you to work less.” “You’re killing yourself.” “Hire a sales guy.” “Don’t buy that building.” “You’ve got too much debt.” Good friends are invaluable.

—Be your own landlord
If you’re a normal business, there’s likely to be greater long-term value in real estate than in your business. As soon as your business is viable, consider buying your own property. If you’re a destination business, move to a crappy part of town and make it better. We bought a dilapidated building on a rundown street as close to downtown as we could. More people and businesses have come to our area, values are going up and we’re on our way to owning a significant asset.

—Have long-term goals
Write down long-term goals, then tape them up on your office wall, in the break room, to your computer, over the door—somewhere you’ll see them every day or at least several times per week. When they change, change them on paper and repost them. We just took down our “debt-free by 10-year anniversary” signs.

—Grow better
Once you reach a certain size, consider growing better instead of bigger. For us, that was $1 million in sales. At that level, we turned our attention to getting more efficient in production and distribution, replacing worn-out equipment and giving better service to existing customers.

—Always be investing
In your staff. In your community. In your family. In your health. In your physical space. In good conversations. In brainstorming and envisioning. In the future. It’ll take a few years, but the returns on these investments will make your professional and personal life much more fulfilling.

John Sweet is a baker and entrepreneur. He and his wife, Angela, started Niedlov’s Breadworks in 2002. Niedlov’s was honored by the U.S. Small Business Administration as Tennessee’s Small Business of the Year in 2010. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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