Discover more in the Women in Business series

Seeing the Writing on the Wall

A pioneering business owner tells entrepreneurs to follow their gut on whether a business idea is a good one.
Writer/Author/Publisher/Speaker, Garden Guides Press
April 27, 2012

For graphic designer Carrol Caldwell, the idea for her company started with her teetering on a ladder in 1998. A lover of typography, Caldwell was trying to paint a Yeats quote on her bathroom wall. It dawned on her that there must be an easier way. Thus she created Wall Words, the first company to sell vinyl wall lettering.

Flash forward to 2012, and Caldwell’s business is still going strong. She employs six people and did $550,000 in revenue last year. Her quotes and wall art are found throughout thousands of residences and businesses, including the Pentagon’s commissary.

Education and Commitment

When Caldwell started 14 years ago, the idea of decorating with vinyl lettering and incorporating words into interior design was a new concept. As a pioneer in the field, she had to educate consumers and have faith in the product, even when others didn’t. During her initial market research, she found some resistance to the idea of decorating with words.

“I surveyed a network group I belonged to and none of them thought the idea was worth pursuing,” she says. “When you believe in your mission and product, ignore the nos. Do your due diligence, but at the end of the day, listen to your gut and go for it.”

Words on walls are now commonplace, and Caldwell shares today’s market with other manufacturers.

Keys to Success

Caldwell started her career in aerospace, where she was a graphic designer for 17 years before striking out on her own. She consulted with the career counselor at the company where she worked. The counselor advised seeking a degree in business, since her design skills were already honed. That decision to focus on business techniques helped her build Wall Words.

“Studying business introduced me to a variety of essential skills, such as the importance of quality control, hiring effective employees and knowing when to ask for help,” she says. “I’ve received a great deal of support and encouragement through the SCORE program.”

At SCORE, Caldwell is involved in the CEO Forums program, which brings together groups of business owners of similar incomes who meet and share their experiences. Caldwell also takes classes at SCORE, including one on improving websites.

“The instructor put my website up in front of the class and told me what I was doing wrong, which included some broken links and navigation issues,” she says. “That taught me to check my website regularly and make sure it’s working."

Weathering the Recession

Prior to mid-2008, Caldwell posted $1 million in annual sales and had 11 employees. She cut her workforce in half during the recession and saw sales dip 40 percent, yet she still managed to stay in business and remain profitable. She attributes her survival to the ability to face reality.

“When the economy is rough, it’s hard for many small business owners to accept the fact that cutting costs is a necessity if you want to stay in business,” she says. “When I found myself dipping into retirement savings in order to make payroll, I realized I had to make cuts in personnel and move to a smaller location. I terminated employees and moved from a 4,400-square-foot office to a 1,800-square-foot space that costs just one-third of what I paid before.”

Caldwell also saved money and increased profitability by becoming more discriminating about advertising.

“I used to pay for several full-page magazine ads, but I’ve narrowed my choice in placement and make sure to always include discount codes on the ads so that I can track when they’re working.”

New Products

Like all successful entrepreneurs, Caldwell responds to trends and remains viable by staying one step ahead of her competitors. When copycat brands popped up, she added quality vinyl wall art to her offerings. Her most recent is her hot rod collection.

"The guys love the hot rods because they finally get the car they always dreamed about,” she says. “For me, remaining profitable and enjoying myself as a small-business owner means constantly creating new, fun products.”

A freelancer since 1985, Julie Bawden-Davis has written for many publications, including Entrepreneur, Better Homes and Gardens and Family Circle. She blogs for Contently.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Writer/Author/Publisher/Speaker, Garden Guides Press