erry McCoy founded FlagAndBanner.com with only $400 when she was just 20 years old. “Unlike my friends, I’m not very scholarly. When I was in school there was no such thing as attention deficit. You were either a good kid or a bad kid. Guess which one I was.
“I graduated from a tech school in 1974. The year of the recession. Not a depression but similar. When the economy is bad and people are broke, the first thing they give up is dining out and buying clothes. Just my luck. My new industry was hit the hardest. No one was hiring. In fact they were cutting back.” Well, I had to have a job. So I went to a temporary employment agency. They said “I have a job for you. Selling flags for a company named…get this… Betsy Ross Flag Girls. Again, I’m afraid. Selling flags? I’ve never done anything like that before. But what could I do. I needed a job. I want to be somebody.
“I show up ready to learn how to sell flags. For a few days I sat with the secretary who tells me everything she knows about flags. On the third day the boss man comes in, points to a map of Dallas on the wall and says ‘Now drive out there and every time you see a business with a flag or a flagpole, go in and ask them if they need to buy another flag,’” said the entrepreneur.
Kerry McCoy said that she never was particularly good at anything. Consequently, “I wound up having to be self-employed.”
McCoy explained that when people ask her how she started out, she says, “It was kind of a series of bad luck. I wasn’t very good at school, and didn’t do real well in college.” Finally, since she liked clothes and fashion, her mother suggested that she study fashion merchandising. McCoy prospered. However, once she graduated she had to contend with a recession and a spike in gas prices, during which time “people stopped eating out and buying clothes.” Consequently, McCoy was unable to secure a job in fashion merchandising and instead sold flags for a flag company.
After about six months, she was homesick. When she returned home for a visit, McCoy’s mother suggested she move back home and start her own business selling flags. Initially, McCoy had reservations. “I said, ‘how can I do that? We have to pay taxes’ and this and that.” No sweat, her mother responded. “She told me that if I sold anything, we’ll worry about paying taxes then. I think most people think way far down the line and get overwhelmed. Being young and naïve helps too. You don’t know what you’re getting into.”
To get into the business, the first thing McCoy did when she returned home was have some business cards printed up and obtain her business license. “It only takes $50 in most places to get started in a business. People think they’ve got to have a logo, advertising and all that. They always have these great ideas on how to start a business and think if they make this or that product, it will sell.” Not so fast, noted McCoy, who explained that selling and getting the word out to people to buy your product “is the hard part; coming up with ideas and new products is easy.”
McCoy, owner of Arkansas Flags and Banners, went door to door in her car, trying to drum up business. But with the price of gas, she switched to telemarketing and the yellow pages. She said one of her first biggest ventures was borrowing $20,000 to put yellow page ads in the six states that surround Arkansas. “That was risky and scary.”
Before the Internet came along, she said she used to go to the library and research flag suppliers, which is how she found hers. “None of the big guys would work with me. They didn’t need more dealers. They try to support their existing ones. I found a little guy in New Jersey who said he’d sell to me.”
When making a sell, McCoy, who worked part-time jobs for nine years before her business took off, said she offered a two-percent discount for anyone who paid $50 upfront for a flag.
She also had an offer of space from her father, who was an entrepreneur and had a small office with two secretaries and three telephone lines. “He gave me the last line and when I was out selling, his secretary would answer the phone for me if the call came in on the last line. And he gave me
a desk at his office,” said McCoy, who expects sales of $3 million this year.
When McCoy ran the company out of her home, she hired a woman with whom she had waitressed, and who had been in a serious car wreck. “She answered phones and I slowly taught her things.” When McCoy’s daughter started school, she hired another friend, who had contact customers whose names were included in a large card file. “She doubled the sales for me.”
Still, at first, McCoy admits it was hard to hand over that duty to her. “I’d watch her make phone calls and think, ‘oh, don’t say that!’ It was hard to let go. Now it’s so good to let go. I can delegate like crazy.”
Trying to define her market also can make her a bit crazy, she said, since it can be so deep. “How do you get the demographics on that? Every business, home, military, school, art center and trade show uses them. It’s hard to drill down and target a single market.”
When the Internet came along, she said she pulled out of all the yellow pages because “no one does that” and now uses someone “who does nothing but Internet marketing and another who does nothing but Internet products onto the website. “It’s not like you just make an ad and hope someone sees it. These are actual people who are typing in a name for your product. It’s tricky, because you spend lot of money on Google ad words, which is like throwing money away.”
While she doesn’t spend as much time as she used to out of the office communing with others, McCoy said she loves talking to the press. “I think I get more bang for my buck then I do wandering around cocktail parties.”
Her experience also has counted when it comes to enduring the latest economic downturn, she said. “Two years ago, when everything went to hell, I knew what to do because I’d been through a couple of recessions. And when war breaks out, you buy all the American flags you have the money to buy because you’re going to sell out every one of them in three days.”
That was her strategy on 9/11, much to her husband’s consternation. “He said ‘no, we’re going into the slow season. You can’t spend all that money on inventory.’ I promised him that because it was war, the flags would sell. The flags sold.
“I worked for Betsy Ross Flag Girls for six months and learned so much about myself, about business, and about other people, that I started my own flag company.”
If you dream of being your own boss, start a small business. Start from home. Start from your car or van. Start part-time or full-time but just get your feet wet and see if having a business is something you would enjoy. Kerry fell into her business somewhat by default and the rest is history. Read everything, learn and do your research. Visit our website at www.sbomag.com for tips and resources on how to get going.
SOARING SUCCESS FOR A SMALL BIZ
Arkansas Flag and Banner
800 W Ninth St
Little Rock, Arkansas 72201
Sales and manufacture of flags, banners and other related items. The company was founded in 1975 and makes $3 million+ a year.