For Garrett Strommen, becoming an entrepreneur was a given. Like most business owners, he simply asked himself, “Why not?” and his business idea developed and evolved into a full-fledged money-making activity. Garrett describes the path he took to making his Los Angeles-based language company Strommen Inc. (https://www.strommeninc.com/) a success, and imparts a few words of wisdom for other startups. This is his story.
A Co-op is Born
I started Strømmen, a language lesson and services company, in much the same way as the rollerblading lessons. Looking back on the whole experience, it feels like a dinosaur egg hatching; I had no idea how much it would grow. I was fresh out of college and I needed a job (being an actor in Hollywood wasn’t exactly a consistent gig). I posted some ads online for Italian lessons and learned some basic html code to make them stand out. Fast forward a few months and I was a successful Italian teacher driving around Los Angeles, and meeting with students all day. When a client asked me if I knew a Spanish teacher, it was apparent that I should take it to another level. Besides, there were only so many hours in a day that I could teach. I worked closely with a friend to build our first website for a few hundred dollars and brought on some friends from the neighborhood to teach Spanish, French and German. The teacher co-op was born.
The world is an increasingly smaller place and the need for communication and understanding across cultures is increasingly important. As alumni of St. Stephen’s, we share a third international culture, and know this well.
With over one hundred language instructors, one of the benefits of my job is feeling that I have created a network of global citizens similar to the community at St. Stephen’s.
Building a Company
I have no shortage of ideas; in fact, I seem to have too many. I find that to be the biggest difficulty: not realizing my ideas fast enough. The mundane aspects of business often get in the way of growth and improvement. Delegating responsibility isn’t always easy.
Early on, I hired my first assistant for 2 days a week even though I had no idea what she should do. It was an awkward and expensive step into unknown space, but I have never turned back. Now I have administrative employees on the phone and computer all day, every day. At another phase of Strømmen’s development I realized that the payment system I had devised was holding back growth because I was dedicating more time to that than anything else. If I grew the business any further I would suffocate in busywork. I worked with a programmer, ditched my gigantic spreadsheets and hired a bookkeeper. The process took about 12 months, but now we do what used to take me a week in one day. Once you make a systematic improvement it never goes away; finding the time, energy, courage and resources to make the improvement in the first place can be the toughest part. In fact, it can seem insurmountable until it is over.
At the time, I didn’t need any capital, as the company grew organically. It was easier to do this with a service-based business where I could perform the service, but in retrospect, I can see how having some capital may have allowed me to skip a year or two of work. I am very happy to have not given up any equity and I would recommend that other entrepreneurs avoid this if it isn’t necessary. I am an angel investor in a friend’s company that is making wearable technology. That has been really interesting and of course raising capital makes a lot of sense for his business and many others. If you have a business that makes income right away, I would say avoid investors until you have proved your concept and truly understand what you need the capital for.
Managing the Business
We have small failures everyday, and occasionally a big one. The key is turning that failure into a success. Every time we have a customer-service issue, a miscommunication between staff, or a bad process we try to take a moment to discuss what happened and brainstorm ways to prevent a recurrence. With customer-service issues in particular, if you are able to reverse their experience and make a customer happy you will create a loyal supporter for life.
What St. Stephen’s Did For Me
My education at St. Stephen’s influenced me to become a business owner by reinforcing my independence, creativity, critical thinking skills, and world experience. During my four years at St. Stephen’s, I was always treated with respect, as an adult and individual. The superb faculty, engaging curriculum and diverse group of peers would make for an excellent school anywhere, let alone in the center of Rome, Italy.
Sandra Provost’s Drama class and Lucy Clink and Anita Guerra’s art classes under Richard Trythall as Chair of the department, nurtured and developed the creativity that I still harness everyday in pushing my business forward. Dr. Helen Pope’s Latin and Cecilia Negroni’s Italian classes gave me a great start in understanding foreign language on a deeper level. I also found classes with Martina Anfuso, Michael Brouse, Mr. Locilento and Edward Steinberg to be inspiring and lasting influential experiences.
My business deals with globalization and intercultural communication. I am hard-pressed to think of a high school that would be more capable of fostering those concepts. The world is an increasingly smaller place and the need for communication and understanding across cultures is increasingly important. As alumni of St. Stephen’s, we understand this very well.
Maybe it was growing up in Italy, but I still love “il dolce far niente.” In some ways I’m always working, but I have also built a business that allows me as much freedom to spend time with my family as I want. I feel successful when I can take a day off to go to the aquarium or take off for a last-minute vacation.
Despite this success, I also have a strong drive to improve Strømmen and continue to grow it into new markets. It’s great to celebrate victories along the way, but I don’t think it’s good for a business to ever feel totally successful.
Advice for Other Startups
Start small. Start a business idea with the very smallest version of it that requires the least amount of capital. While this doesn’t work for every kind of business it can at least give you a proof of concept to take to investors. It helps if the business can make some degree of money right away. Stick with it. Learn the business and try to constantly improve what you offer and how you offer it with respect to the competition.