I have said many times that whatever business you own, big or small, you must have a tolerance for risk to be an entrepreneur.
Not me. I was born with the “surround me in certainty” gene. Give me an employer, a boss and a regular paycheck. I don’t even buy lottery tickets, which I simply view as another method of taxation.
Then there’s Ginny Williams.
The 69-year-old entrepreneur built a business in Glen Burnie, Md., called ArchScan, which converts paper drawings of blueprints and other construction documents into electronic files for clients that range from government agencies to health-care institutions to educational institutions.
It’s a tiny business, but the industrious Williams is proud of the little company she built on her own.
She loves it so much that she put everything on the line to keep it going. Government sequestration, federal budget cutbacks and the financial crisis had crushed her revenues over the past few years.
To make do, she maxed out a home equity line of credit.
She temporarily laid off some employees. She cut back hours for other employees.
She cut her salary to $25,000.
In desperation, she took $50,000 out of her savings to cover costs until new contracts rolled in.
“This was an enormous gamble,” said Williams of the $50,000 withdrawal. “But I had worked so hard, worked thousands and thousands of hours, and had been married to this company for 12 years. I could not face the reality of throwing in the towel. You never knew what was going to happen next.”
Finally, in October, the lifesaving call arrived.
The Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum and research center, came through with a nine-year contract worth millions.
“It appears 2014 is going to be a fantastic year with $750,000 in revenue, a 58 percent increase over 2013,” Williams said. “This company has definitely been on a roller-coaster ride with many highs and lows, but I feel my decision to gamble paid off.”
Self-starters like Williams inspire me. No ego. Just under-the-radar grinders who get it done.
Williams didn’t start out that way.
“Never in a million years did I think I would be involved in something like this,” the Annapolis resident said.
Williams was born in upstate New York. Her dad was a factory worker and her homemaker mom sold Avon. Williams planned to be a dental hygienist but instead ended up as a homemaker and mother of three in Howard County, Md.
But she had an itch to be an entrepreneur.
Sitting around the kitchen table with another mother one night in 1980, they put their heads together and started a wallpapering business because it required almost no capital investment.
They called the company Interior Concepts and patched the name onto the back pockets of the paint overalls so people could see the advertisement while Williams and her workers were wallpapering.
They practiced on an upstairs bedroom in Williams’s home. They called wallpapering companies and asked them what they charged. A friend gave them their first job, paying them to wallpaper a 5,000-square-foot commercial office in Silver Spring.
Williams didn’t make a lot of money, but she learned how to run a small business with five employees, including things such as inventory control, payroll and tax withholding. She learned how to manage people, scheduling three different wallpaper installation teams.
After eight years, she became tired of the business and closed it.
Next, she used her contacts from wallpapering to get interior design work.
“I had a natural instinct,” she said, adding that she worked with her husband (they are now divorced) on home additions.
For several years, she worked with Louis Mazor, a high-end Baltimore interior design firm.
After her divorce in the early 1990s, the scrappy Williams had to find income. She got a job as a sales representative for Maryland Blueprint, which makes blueprint drawings for architects, engineers and construction companies.
To drum up customers, she went to lunches and association meetings where architects, engineers and builders gathered.
She moved around in the blueprint industry, eventually earning $100,000 a year, mostly through commissions.
“You had to take care of these companies,” said Williams, who rose to become a regional sales manager for one firm. “You had to work all night if they had a project that needed to be done. I was known as the scanning queen.”
She was fired in 2002 after her employer was bought by California firm.
Three days later, divine intervention struck. The Archdiocese of Baltimore called and asked her to come in as an independent consultant and organize all its blueprint drawings.
She spent the summer cataloging plans dating back more than a century for 183 churches and parishes across Maryland, as well as 150 elementary and high schools. She was earning $30 an hour.
She found a Columbus, Ohio, company run by a friend that scanned all the plans onto 12 compact discs, which she neatly delivered back to the archdiocese.
Driving home one day, she thought that there must be thousands of companies with blueprints that want to digitize their old building plans.
“I just felt that digitizing documents was going to become the wave of the future,” said Williams. “These building plans were disintegrating in basements, and I saw a business digitizing them, and they would have them forever.”
The summer was not even over when she filed papers to create ArchScan, a not-very-memorable name for the combination of archival and scan.
“People know me as the person, not so much the name of the business,” said Williams.
A nonprofit association for business consulting called the Service Corps of Retired Executives, which works with the U.S. Small Business Administration to help entrepreneurs, coached her on a business plan and her financial accounting system.
She started spreading her cards around to anyone she could find, including former clients from previous blueprint companies.
“I called on every single person I knew when I was selling blueprints, trying to convince them not to use blueprints anymore but to digitize.”
She and her daughter, Vivica, who works in business development, visit trade shows, where Williams meets building managers.
“Whenever we go to vendor marketing meetings, we are always remembered as the mother-daughter team,” Williams said. “This helps us stand out in the crowd.”
One of ArchScan’s first big breaks was a contract with MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore.
Williams has had to improvise. At times, she scanned the blueprints at an employee’s home. When the Smithsonian wanted to know if her facility had security and fire protection, she counted her two dogs and a smoke detector to fill the bill.
ArchScan has six full-time employees and one who is part-time. The company rents 4,300 square feet of space in Glen Burnie, where it scans all the documents it organizes. Williams, who visits the production center a couple of times a week, owns 100 percent of the business and has zero debt.
While in a good year she pays herself a six-figure income, like almost every business owner I have interviewed, she is most proud of the company she built.
In 2011, the SBA named her Maryland Small Business Person of the Year.
Looks like the risks were worth it.