A Tale of Two Agents: From Home-Based to Storefront
Every business owner is energized by seeing others’ successes. It creates the feeling of ‘If they can do it, I can too!’
When I was first started the site, I had a vision but it was just that—a vision, with not a lot of action behind it. But, when I spoke with others who had been successful in my field and heard their story, the vision went into hyper-drive. It really could happen!
And that’s what this article is set up to do. Inspire you; show you what’s possible by sharing some stories of real-life agents whose home-based agencies have grown to the point they decided to move into storefronts.
Opening a storefront agency may or may not be on your radar, but either way, you can’t deny that a good success story doesn’t get you all giddy and squirrely! Or, maybe that’s just me. 😉
So sit back, and let me introduce you to two inspiring agents (and friends), Jennifer and Wendy.
Wendy's World Travel : Annandale, Minnesota (pop: 3,298)
So, how did Wendy get to the point where she could open a storefront? Well, it wasn’t magic. She started out the same as most of us, without a lick of industry experience.
When she was 19, she went to travel school and—like any good travel professional—she took a month off to hang out at the beach before applying at a local travel agency. The owner interviewed her in the morning and she was hired that afternoon.
Over the next seven years, Wendy saw quite a few career/life changes: (1) she moved about an hour away from the agency, (2) she had a daughter, and (3) she moved up into a managerial position.
"My boss told me I could never make any more money. I felt like I was in a dead end. I decided I wanted to be home with [my daughter], Livy. I was going to get out of travel completely."
But fate intervened.
Or rather, a local Business Development Manager knew what a great agent Wendy was and wasn't about to let her go. When she heard Wendy was going to leave the industry, the BDM reached out to Wendy and encouraged her to look into other options instead of leaving the travel industry.
Making the Leap to Open Her Own Agency
Wendy’s last day at the agency was April 30th, 2007. By May 1st, Wendy's World Travel had formed and she was signed up with a local host.
Now, most of us know starting an agency is tough. Even if you worked in a storefront, those are the agency’s clients and they don’t go with you. So essentially, you’re starting from scratch. You need to build your client base and that takes at least a few years.
Wendy had a few corporate clients that kept her afloat the first year which brings us to the next year, 2008. Yup. That darn economic crisis hit. You know, the one where retail travel sales dropped 23%.
"I just kept advertising, really kept pushing my name as much as I could. Things picked back up in 2011."
That’s tenacity, folks. She started her agency right before the economy took a huge dive... and survived. It’s inspiring that despite the unexpected rough start, Wendy’s World Travel was able to open a storefront just six years after the doors opened.
Wendy had some great advice and insights for new agency owners I wanted to share:
Steph: What was your biggest challenge in going off on your own?
Wendy: I was scared. I had a lot of fear when I was first thinking about going on my own. I had only worked an hourly job, I had never been on commission. And, I was worried about failing and having to find another job.
Steph: What advice would you give others that are just starting their agencies?
Wendy: Invest in marketing. It also really helped that I surrounded myself with positive people.
The Decision to Open a Storefront
In 2013, Wendy and her family (now with two kids) made another move; this time to the country, making it difficult for clients to find her. On top of that, she had a sub-agent that worked with her on a daily basis and she realized she longed for more separation between her personal and business life.
All these signs, along with business picking up again, meant one thing. It was time to look at expanding to a storefront.
“[Opening a storefront is] something I wanted to do for a long time. I’d consulted with an agent that had helped open and close agencies throughout the years and she kept saying no, it’s not the right time. Finally she said yes, now is an amazing time.”
Overall, the change from home-based agent to a storefront agency hasn't shocked Wendy too much. She researched thoroughly before signing her lease and made sure to seek the advice of other business owners who had gone from home-based to a storefront.
Steph: How have your clients responded to you having a storefront?
Wendy: It seems since I have moved into town, people are starting to take me seriously. Like this wasn’t my main income the last seven years! It’s like they think, ‘Wow! She’s opening an office, she really does this for a living.’
Steph: How has your business changed since the move?
Wendy: I have someone in this office, every day. Every day. Where as before, I’d maybe have someone at my house once a month.
I would say that 99% of people who come into the office end up booking. I was worried I would get a lot of people coming in and wasting time but once they’re in here, they’re getting pricing and they’re booking. When I’m in-person with them and going over the properties with them, they can actually see I’m talking about things I know, not reading it off a computer screen.
Steph: Were there any surprising adjustments?
Wendy: Yeah, my husband has to pick up a lot of slack at home now that I have set hours! I’m a lot more productive at work but my home chores suffer during the busy season.
What kind of advice would Wendy give an agent looking at opening a storefront? Wait until you have the sales before you expand. Beyond that, get involved with your local community, especially for people in smaller communities.
Agent: JENNIFER DONCESCZ
VIP Vacations: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (pop: 75,103)
I first crossed paths with Jennifer in 2012 when I was sitting in on a presentation she gave (Keeping the ‘Business’ in your Home Business). If you don't know Jennifer, there's something I should tell you about her. She's known for pink. Pink everything.
Essentially, the past 20 years, she's been busy building a pink empire. And as you'd expect, the exterior of her storefront is painted VIP Pink. 😀
Every empire has to start somewhere and Jennifer's is no exception. She began working part-time at an agency while she was in college. That was 1992. Fast forward two years later and she signed on as a (short-lived) full-time employee. After six months, Jennifer became pregnant and went on bed rest. And that was the start of VIP Vacations.
At first, it was a way to pay for an annual trip to Disney. Then to pay for the annual Disney trip and groceries. Then, the annual Disney trip, groceries, and pre-school. What started as something she planned to do only temporarily turned into a serious, full-time gig.
Bursting at the Seams
Through the years, VIP Vacations steadily grew. However, it wasn't until about five years ago that VIP Vacations hit a whole new growth trajectory. In 2009, Jennifer hired her first employee (part-time). How did she know it was time to hire someone? Jennifer has a simple metric system:
"If you can sell over $1 million in travel, you shouldn't be spending your time putting data into a computer (data entry, mailing lists, etc.). Your time is much better spent selling. Hire someone part-time and focus on selling."
It seems to be an effective system considering her staff went from one part-time staff in 2009 to five full-time in 2012!
As her agency grew, it began to take over not only her house, but also her block. By late 2012, her street was lined with 6-7 wrapped Sandals cars, a perk she gives employees as part of their compensation.
So, what were some of the signs it was time to move to a storefront? Possibly the most glaringly obvious sign was that her employees were scattered throughout every inch of the house: the converted bedroom-office, living room, foyer, and the part-time employees went into the dining room. There was no more room.
The final push was when the walk-ins started—that's when she knew for certain it was time for VIP Vacations to leave the nest.
Jennifer and her husband decided they didn't want to rent, they wanted to buy and invest back into the community. So the hunt began for a VIP headquarters. Enter an abandoned 3,000 square foot Victorian house on a street where 40,000 cars pass per day. Great visibility. Great location. Needed a lot of TLC.
After a lot of elbow grease, the new VIP Headquarters was open for business.
During our conversation, Jennifer brought up some great advice for agents looking to eventually open a storefront. Here are a few snippets:
Steph: How comfortable were you with the risks of opening a storefront?
Jennifer: The risk factor wasn't as big because I knew how much I sold. I didn't want to count that the store was going to attract business. Don't assume that you're going to have walk-ins or that drive-by traffic will bring sales. I knew I could afford to do this.
Steph: What advice would you have for others that are thinking of expanding?
Jennifer: When you have a store, you have to be there. I think the first step would be getting an employee. You'll be exhausted to have to man it seven days a week. At least have a part-time employee.
Since they've moved into the new space, VIP Vacations has grown to twelve team members (10 full-time, 2 part-time). Even with the growth, they've still got room to grow at the new place. A creative twist to mention, the VIP office has a bedroom/bathroom on the third floor for visiting sales reps, out-of-state agents, or for employees that are working late or don't want to drive in bad weather.
Steph: Were there any big changes you noticed when you moved to the storefront?
Jennifer: Yes. I used to go bridal shows and if there were 200 brides, I'd get 5-6 to book with me and I'd think I was doing really well. To see how much I was really missing over the years, I kick myself. They really want a storefront. They do. They want to come in and talk to somebody.
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What I really loved was their stories demonstrate that having a successful storefront agency isn't pipe dream. You can be in a small town or a city. You can rent your office space or buy a place. There is no one path to success.
Drop any questions (to me,Wendy, or Jennifer) in the comment section below!
Image Credits: Flickr/byMichael (added text)
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