One of the perennial question often asked about entrepreneurship is: Are entrepreneurs born or made? Indeed, there are some people who possess innate, genetic business talents, whose mission in life is to venture on their own to realize personal and financial goals. Those people are born entrepreneurs. Some people, like Barbara Cash of Anchorage, Alaska, are thrust into entrepreneurship by completely unexpected life events. Though she never planned to be one, Barbara became a business owner by learning and through hard work and dedication. In 2000, she was named by the US Small Business Administration as the Alaska Small Business Person of the Year.
Barbara Cash started her firm, Interior Space Design in November 1978 when she lost her job (Editor’s note: she is now the President and CEO of RIM Design). Just four years after graduating with a university degree in interior design, the local firm she was working with decided to leave Alaska and return to Seattle as the result of an economic slump in the Anchorage economy. With no job, no savings, and no previous business experience – she did the unexpected: seized the opportunity to start her own business.
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“At that time, I wanted to continue what I was doing and there were not many venues available in Anchorage,” said Barbara. Fortunately, one corporate client was so impressed with her talent and quality of her work that they encouraged her to set up her own design firm. With boundless energy, incredible optimism and determination, Barbara took the plunge. ” I had very little to lose,” she chuckled. At the age of 26, she was at the helm of her very own business.
Surmounting Business Challenges
For almost a year, she was running a one-person business, doing all the design work, keeping the books, and marketing her business from a small office she shared with another business. “Looking back, in many ways it was much simpler to start a business with very little capital because we didn’t have the expense of computers. Our work was done by hand back then,” she explained. It was later that year that she hired an assistant.
“I had so much energy and enthusiasm,” she recalled. “Back then, it was not uncommon to work for eight hours, go out to eat dinner, then come back to the office and work until midnight.”
Interior Space Design flourished for the next seven years. From a one-woman firm servicing a few clients, she built up her business and increased the number of her employees to nine people. However, Alaska’s economic crash in the mid-80s brought hard times to her business. Oil prices plummeted, banks failed and the over-built real estate market crashed. Her business, which is strongly affected by economic conditions, the construction industry, and the real estate market, downsized the number of her employees to three. For the first time, she had clients who could not pay her. “I always had very, very good clients … but it was a difficult time.”
Slowly, the Alaskan economy recovered and the real estate business experienced resurgence. To strengthen her firm’s position, she expanded her market beyond the commercial projects such as corporate and professional offices, and banks, healthcare and medical offices, to include educational institutions, government work for the state of Alaska and the Department of Defense, and hospitality projects. The relatively small size of her main economic market has dictated the need for broad flexibility, instead of too much specialization. As she explains, “We would never limit our work to just banks, or just retail, for example. In our market, we respond by developing expertise in areas as the market changes. And we’ve become a very balanced firm because of that.” To a lesser extent, the company also services residential projects.
Importance of Good Client Relationships
Barbara explains her business as follows:
“When people think of interior design, they think of what goes in the surfaces – the carpets, the walls, and furniture. We also provide three-dimensional design and space planning, which essentially determines how the space will be laid out and will be used. We spend a lot of time learning about the business we’re helping, what their goals are and how to arrange their space to better support their functions and goals. Our aim is to give then the best use for their space.”
Today, she employs four full time professional designers with nationally recognized qualifications, two support staff, and two additional designers on an as-needed basis.
She credits the growth of her business to good word-of mouth from satisfied clients, who continue to return for her services. “We are very fortunate that 85 to 90 percent of our customers return,” she proudly beams. In fact, several of her clients have been active for 18 years.
How does she cultivate relationships with her clients?
“We work very hard and we emphasize excellence, quality and service. We’re dependable; we are here when they need us and we do great work. And we are accountable: We don’t make many mistakes, but if we do, we take immediate responsibility and develop the solution.”
Such attitude nurtured the long-term relationship with her clients.
Doing What She Loves
Interior design has always been her passion. Even as a child, she has always been interested in manipulating space. “My mother would come home everyday to see the living room rearranged,” she chuckles in remembrance.
So what is the most favorite part of her business? Design. “When I sit down, spend time designing and producing sketches, developing and improving space – and realizing that I get paid to do what I love to do!” She also enjoys working with her talented staff. “They are the people that make me look good!”
With her unbridled enthusiasm and continuing passion with what she does, it is no wonder that she thrives in her chosen field. In fact, her company has received numerous external recognitions, including the 1996 Honor Award in Interior Design given by the U.S. Air Force’s international design competition. She herself was selected by President Clinton as the Alaska delegate to the 1995 White House Conference on Small Business. In May this year, she was chosen as the Small Business Person of the Year for the state of Alaska.
Fragile, Yet Strong
The seemingly frail and fragile appearance belies the steely determination that Barbara Cash possesses. She has triumphed over the roller coaster ride of her business brought about by the boom-bust cycle of the Alaskan economy, while raising her family. Cash is married to an architect, whom she describes as “unbelievably supportive to me.” They have two children, an 18-year old daughter and a 14-year-old son. “The most rewarding thing to me is to know that they are happy, well-adjusted individuals,” she adds.
She credits her strong spiritual faith: “I don’t know how people can handle all the challenges I had without a strong faith.” Hers is a Christian faith. She advises her fellow entrepreneurs to work harder to achieving excellence and accept responsibility to your clients.
Despite her accomplishments, though, she does not believe the success she has achieved is the final goal. As she explains,
“Success is a journey, not a destination. It is something that I’ve strived to develop – to improve and do things better. I continuously look for ways to improve the way our company provides services to our clients. I will never say ‘Gee, I’ve made it’, and stop pressing forward. Other people have great capabilities as well. If I can do it, you can do it.”
But in our eyes, Barbara Cash has made it. She has taken the risk, and proven that she has the courage to step up to the edge of the precipice and believe that she can make it to the other site. She is a success — if only for rising above all those who choose to play it safe.
Original publication date: March 7, 2000