Carissa Reiniger, Silver Lining Limited

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If the average 22-year-old college grad had $5000 in the bank, she might finance a European getaway or — let’s be honest — a Louis Vuitton bag. But Carissa Reiniger took that small sum, plus about $7000 in available credit, and launched Silver Lining Limited out of the condo she owned in downtown Toronto. Thirteen months later, she had opened a second office in Edmonton, and her revenues hit the $1 million dollar mark. Offices in Vancouver, BC and Las Vegas soon followed. Carissa recently celebrated her four-year anniversary by feting her company’s very successful restructuring, which has led her to sell her first three franchises, and raise her profit margins from 11 to 42 percent. Oh, and did we mention the publication of her book, Inspiring Entrepreneurs: How to Build Your Business to Its First Million? Or her creation, with Staples Canada, Intuit, Citi Cards Canada, Rogers Cable Communication Inc., Intuit and Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Co, of the Committed to Growing Small Businesses coalition? Or the NYC office that’s currently in the works?

As if all of that weren’t impressive enough, Carissa readily admits that she was the unlikeliest candidate to launch a startup in the first place. She was young. She had no capital. Her background was in psychology, not business. And she had never worked for a small business, let alone owned one. But she had worked at large firms who specialized in marketing and advertising, and so she not only had a background in those areas; she also had some ideas about what kind of business she didn’t want to start.

The rest, she made up for with enthusiasm, a practical approach to business that was based on forging strong relationships, rather than hiding behind pizazz, and lots of hard work. Now that she’s successfully weathered the arduous journey from startup to established company, she’s taking some of her focus off growth, and instead striving to achieve greater balance in her own life, and – what else? – do her part to create resources that will help even more small businesses to prosper.

What we learned from Carissa:
“One very practical lesson that I learned is that cash flow sucks. While you still have a job, go to a bank and get them to increase the debt facility that you have. Increase your line of credit. Get a higher credit limit on your credit card. Do anything you can to make your cushion as big as humanly possible before you quit. Banks don’t have to know you’re planning to quit. While you have a job, go get as much debt [facility] as possible because they will give it to you when you have a salary, and they won’t when you’re an entrepreneur.”

A New Kind of Time Clock

“One of the things that I always thought was really funny and frustrating — probably more frustrating at the time, and more funny now – was, working at the advertising agency, I’m a total night person. I would work until three, four in the morning, sometimes, for them. And then get reprimanded for not being at the office by exactly 9 a.m. I just remember thinking that was so backwards. If I do really good work late at night, encourage me to work late at night, and let me sleep in a bit, so that I stay again late at night.”

Get Real

“Working in marketing, it was all about the hype, and pizazz, and making people feel great. I’ve really gone away from that. I think people respect honesty. I think people respect real relationships; I think people respect real talk, not marketing talk. I feel like the more real we are, in every way, shape, and form, and the more authentic we come across, the more successful we get. I try not to let marketing and buzz rule us. But, instead, value, and relationships, and realness rule us. And then, we end up getting the marketing and the buzz anyway.”

You Get Who You Pay for

“I hired a very junior level employee, and that person didn’t have a lot of experience. They didn’t have any connections. So, although their intention was to really come in and take a bunch of stuff off my plate, the reality was that trying to train them and manage them actually took more of my time, so it was taking time and money that I couldn’t afford….It was not the right decision. I would have been better off outsourcing certain tasks to people who were experts in different areas, like bookkeepers, or admin people.”

Projections Are Just That

“And then, the next expense was an office. And the mistake I made there was, I took on an office that was nicer and bigger than we needed because I was planning on growing. So I took on overhead that I couldn’t realistically afford at that time. I could afford it in my projections, but you can’t count on projections.”

To Franchise Or Not to Franchise

“In order for us to scale properly, I had to figure out a different solution, because I had been building a bunch of tiers of middle management. The reality was that we were most profitable in the individual centers. If you looked at just the individual offices — Las Vegas, for example — they were really profitable. But all of our profit was flying out the window by trying to manage them.

I started to think about the fact that, if those offices could actually operate independently, the profit margins remain high, the need for all of that middle management decreases, because we’re not managing a bunch of staff anymore. We’re really partnering with entrepreneurs, helping them grow a Silver Lining office in their city. And I don’t love managing people, so I get less excited about having a huge number of employees, and more excited about creating more entrepreneurs and really partnering with them to help them grow their business.”

A Good Process Is Worth a Thousand Words

“The way that I’ve always thought about Silver Lining is that I needed to create a company that I could walk away from at some point, whether I was planning to franchise it, or sell it, or just let a general manager step in and mange it. And so, in thinking about those things, we’ve constantly been building processes into everything we do. We’ve constantly been working to make sure there’s a document that explains what our financial processes are, and to make sure there’s a time and expense template, and to make sure there’s an employee manual that we walk everyone through when they start.”

Don’t Run Your Business By the Seat of Your Pants

“I really think that people should be creating those personnel tools, even if they don’t plan on franchising. There are so many small businesses, and we see this all the time, who are running by the seat of their pants, really struggling, not really clear on what they do, or how they do it. And the more that they can put processes in place, the more it will help them, even just from an employee training point of view.”

The Five Pillars

“I have what I call my five pillars: my career; my self, spiritually; my self, mentally and emotionally; my self, physically; and relationships…the people in my life. If you had asked me, a year ago, what I was working on, I would have said I was working on my career. Today, I consciously always am working on something in all five areas of my life. I try really hard to refocus on that every day, and I have checklists and spreadsheets that I look at to see that I’m actually following through on the small decisions that I’ve made in all five pillars of my life. So I try really hard, every day, to look at those and say, ‘How am I doing career wise? How am I doing physically? How am I doing emotionally? How am I doing spiritually? Have I talked to any of my friends and family lately? Am I missing birthdays?’”

This Featured Lady was profiled by Sarah Tomlinson, a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

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