Quitting a job in a theatrical way created some viral videos last year, but do you ever wonder what happened to the people who publicly burned bridges? Last year, Gwen Dean quit her job in one of the most public ways imaginable: on a Super Bowl commercial for GoDaddy. She exited an 18-year career as a machine engineer to become a self-employed puppeteer, and told her boss “Ciao baby” with the help of a fuzzy blue bird puppet.
While it sounds a little extreme, the decision to launch Puppets By Gwen wasn’t a rash one. Dean had been running a small puppet show business on the side for two years when she saw a blind ad placed by GoDaddy looking for a puppeteer who wanted to quit their day job. One year later, she says it’s one of the best things she’s ever done.
“If you had told me two years ago that this would be life, I wouldn’t believe it,” Dean says. “I’m excited to get up every morning and go to work. It’s shocking what can happen when you go ahead and commit; when you get up the courage to say, ‘It’s not crazy.’”
Sidnee Peck, director of entrepreneurial initiatives at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, says a service business’s first year is often the most exciting: “The entrepreneur still has an incredible amount of energy and is invigorated about what they’re doing,” she says. “The true challenge comes in the second and third years, where you’re settling into systems and the business is normalizing.”
Dean says her first year has been a learning experience. Initially, she planned to offer shows as well as create a branded line of puppets, but her time was quickly consumed by bookings scheduled two months out. She decided to concentrate on the tasks that brought in revenue–the shows–and tackle the other things later, but it led to her first challenge.
“I got to the point where I was going to have to refuse bookings or add a B-crew,” Dean says. “I didn’t expect to become an employer so soon.”
Being an engineer at heart, Dean calculated the profits and expenditures involved with growing, and determined that it would be scalable if she could stay booked. She hired two employees who could do shows and a personal assistant to organize it all.
Dean took her time finding the right people: “For me, improvisation skills were vital,” she says. “You can’t stay on script with kids; they want to have input. Kids don’t get to make a lot of decisions in their lives, and it’s empowering when they do. We like to let them be part of the show; it also makes the parents feel they got their money’s worth.”
Listening to your customers’ needs is the most important part of an entrepreneur’s first year, says Peck: “What do customers want? What are they paying for? What are they interested in paying more for?” she asks. “You can glean a lot from the first year that will propel you into the second and third year.”
Dean’s for-hire shows, which include birthday parties and performances at day cares and schools, range in price from $250 to $500. She also allocates time for charity work. While every day is different, Dean says she doesn’t have time to be scared or worried; she’s busy doing the things it takes to make her business a success.
“You don’t think about it when you’re going through it, but when you look back it’s like the growth chart you had when you’re a kid,” she says. “Sometimes growth is slow and then sometimes you shoot up.”
The most surprising part of owning a business has been the need to shift gears, says Dean. “You have to exploit all of your resources and find ways to take care of clients,” she says. “You have to be a good listener. And you have to be computer savvy–these days I’m hashtagging everything.”
Dean’s website, which GoDaddy provided for her, is a vital piece of her business: “It’s my legitimacy, my storefront,” she says. “People would say to me, ‘Aren’t puppet shows from the ’70s?’ Then they see my website and say, ‘Oh, it’s a thing.’ Ninety percent of my bookings come from it.”
Moving into her second year as a full-time business, Dean is considering her growth options. She wants to hold workshops to teach others the art of making puppets. She is planning on writing write two books–one about her journey and another about the engineering behind puppetry–and she’s working on a line of handmade merchandise that she’ll sell at street fairs this summer.
If Peck were coaching Dean, she says she would encourage her to decide where her true passions lie and what kind of business she wants. If she loves to perform, for example, she should focus on hiring enough people to help her meet the demands of her city. If she loves to sew, she should make more time to create and sell her puppets. If she wants to spread the experience of puppetry, she should create an entertainment company that trains people in different markets to produce shows. Or if she wants to be a storyteller, she should focus on her puppets and scripts and create a line of branded characters.
“Success can be surprising, and you can wake up one day and have a company that turned into something you didn’t expect,” says Peck. “During year two, you should have a checkpoint where you make those decisions early on.”
The only regret Dean has is that she wishes she’d started her business sooner. “I over-thought it,” she says. “If you want to start a business, trust your gut. Be in a place where it’s okay if you fail. It hasn’t been a yellow brick road but it hasn’t been a rabbit hole either. Starting before I jumped in was the best way to get my feet wet.”