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Canvas On Demand Founders Share Startup Advice During Entrepreneurship Week

By Jenny Callison, posted Oct 24, 2014

A presentation by serial entrepreneurs Tom Lotrecchiano and Joe Schmidt to UNCW students this week began with a question and ended with a sandwich.

In their talk, titled “Entremanureship,” Lotrecchiano and Schmidt related the ups and downs of their quirky business journey. Their presentation to an audience of students late Thursday afternoon was part of Entrepreneurship Week at University of North Carolina Wilmington, and the two weren’t shy about sharing stories of their failures as well as their successes.

The Raleigh-based men, who are business consultants and speakers, were in Wilmington a year ago to speak and have informally advised some of UNCW's Center for Entrepreneurship tenants. They have been business colleagues for more than 15 years, first working together for companies owned by others and then becoming entrepreneurial partners early in their careers.

Their best-known business venture is Canvas on Demand, a company that imprints customers’ photos on art canvases.

It’s not enough, they say, to plant the seeds of a venture. Any startup needs lots of fertilizer -- the manure referenced in the session's title -- and hard work to make it grow.

Among the insights they shared at the event:

• Spending sufficient time to formulate the right question about a potential venture yields a much better answer, Lotrecchiano told the audience, explaining how an extensive questioning process led to a breakthrough, low-cost, high-impact marketing campaign for Canvas on Demand.
 
• Make small bets on new ventures. Losing small is much better than losing big, Schmidt said, referencing the pair’s decision to pilot a personalized kiddie music CD product at only one Triangle-area mall, instead of taking the opportunity to go into several at once. That meant that their sales debacle was less expensive and less humiliating than it could have been, he said.
 
• Make lots of small bets, and let the idea choose you, Lotrecchiano said, adding, “Do those bets on the side. Don’t quit your job until you know the new business is going to be successful.”
 
• Don’t spend money on things that don’t matter, Schmidt said, recalling how once-promising businesses with fancy digs and furniture had to abandon them when they went bust during the Great Recession. The two business partners maintain a minimalist approach to their work environment.
 
• Don’t worry about being cool. “Do whatever you need to sell stuff. No job is beneath an entremanure,” Schmidt advised. “People will respect your numbers.”

• Find a person you know who represents your customer, and think of all your customers in terms of this individual, so that you’ll always do your best for them. “Your customers are real people, not statistics,” Schmidt said.

• Be sociable. The partners cautioned against using social media for marketing and brand awareness without first establishing a friendly, accessible company persona that can be broadcast through social media and online.
 
• Don’t be afraid to go against conventional wisdom, if you think you’re doing the right thing. The pair cited shoe company Zappos, which has turned liabilities, such as returned purchases and customer service calls, into marketing opportunities.

• Make your own sandwich. Telling a joke about a man who always complains about the contents of his lunchtime sandwich, and then admits he makes it himself, Lotrecchiano cautioned his audience that, when you’re starting a business, it’s important to put into that “sandwich” the ingredients you want: the people you hire, the products you create and the culture you establish. If you like your sandwich, despite “all the hard work, the times you cry and want to give up," he said, "the effort will be worth it.”
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