Kathleen Bennett Marold is the founder of Floor 13 Textiles, a company that sources and supplies upholstery and drapery fabric for the hospitality industry. She’s taking on industry giants with her execution mindset (a skill she’s honed from the start of her career), a network of enthusiastic sales representatives and a focus on exceptional customer service. Floor 13 is bootstrapped (Marold admits this is how she thought every business was launched).
In case you’re wondering, there is an upside to being bootstrapped. “You get creative in stretching a dollar and you know every in and out of the operations of your business,” says Marold. But it's her questioning of how things work that is key to Marold's career journey (first, up the corporate ladder then out the door to launch her own business).
Kelly Hoey: You’ve had an entrepreneurial "ask questions” mindset since the start of your career as an administrative assistant at Donghia Furniture & Textiles.
Kathleen Bennett Marold: Every step in my career has been approached with me cocking my head and saying to myself, "That does not make sense." And when something does not make sense, I feel compelled to fix it. I questioned the why the company wasn’t taking on commercial clients (such as hotels) and within a year had the Four Seasons Hotel chain not only as a client but as the company’s number one client. I was fortunate to have management that appreciated my initiative. Egos rarely got involved and management let me tinker with things until it made sense. Sometimes I was right, sometimes I was wrong and always I was learning more about the industry.
Hoey: That approach doesn’t always turn out well.
Marold: Oh, questioning the boss most definitely backfired on me! I once reported to a very head-strong individual. When I starting learning about the business unit he managed, I perceived some rather serious financial problems. When I raised this issue, the guy blew it off. I persisted because it simply did not make sense and he continued to ignore me. When an executive from headquarters visited the office, I raised the issue directly with him. From there, the issue quickly escalated. I was asked to create a presentation to present to the president of the company (in Germany). My suspicions ultimately proved to be correct: my boss had signed a rather bad deal. But it was a major catastrophe in terms of handling egos. I may have been right but my career at the company was torpedoed after that.
Hoey: What was the upside of this clash of office politics and egos for you?
Marold: After a few more roles reporting to someone else in a corporate environment, I decided the best course of action was to start my own business (and try to make sense of the things that I couldn't change in the corporate world).
Hoey: Having a job is not the worst way to lay the foundation for an entrepreneurial venture. Any career advice for those just are starting out?
Marold: If you’re in an entry-level position, ask as many questions as you can (especially if something does not make sense). By asking questions, you’ll find solutions. If you are part of the solution process in a company, then it is easy to gain more responsibility and move up the ranks.
Hoey: Having a great boss early on was one key milestone in your entrepreneurial journey, what’s another?
Marold: Losing my job while Floor 13 was just a side hustle. I was collecting unemployment when I learned about the New York State Self-Employment Assistance Program (SEAP). That program gave me the boost of confidence I needed to pursue Floor 13 full-time (and not jump back into the workforce).
Hoey: Tell me more about SEAP. How did you learn about the program?
Marold: SEAP is an invitation-only program offered by New York State. To qualify, you must be receiving unemployment. The Labor Department looks at employment history and determines eligibility for the program. I knew nothing about this program until I was invited to participate. SEAP provides aspiring entrepreneurs with tools and resources to establish a new business while collecting unemployment benefits. Participants are required to participate in 20 hours of business training or workshops as well as engage in a minimum of two one-on-one sessions with a business counselor. Participants receive 26 weeks of unemployment, but those benefits cannot be renewed.
Hoey: Are there other programs or networks that have helped you grow your business?
Marold: SCORE. I am constantly surprised when I talk to entrepreneurs who haven't heard of this free service for business owners. It provides wonderful mentors, plus access to workshops. I call my mentors when I am stuck and they are always willing to help me think through challenges. My mentors also guided me through the Small Business Administration loan application process. All entrepreneurs need to contact SCORE immediately. It is truly a no-brainer. The other program is Million Dollar Women, a masterclass created by entrepreneur Julia Pimsleur. I was about to give up then I discovered Million Dollar Women. Working with experienced coaches on my business has really had me grow quickly as an entrepreneur. Finding a coach that can tap into your potential is definitely a worthwhile investment in your longterm success .
Hoey: Your business model relies on a network of sale representatives. Any advice for other business owners who are looking to connect with and hire independent sales reps?
Marold: Word of mouth networking is magical. My company has attracted great sales reps because these salespeople talk and recommend great companies and products to other reps. Trade shows are also a great place to network with potential talent (not just networking to meet potential customers!) The last trade show I attended in Las Vegas turned into one big "speed networking" round (at least that is what it felt like at the end of the day), interviewing one great salesperson after another.
Hoey: I hadn’t focused on using trade shows as a channel for hiring. So, putting on the marketing or new business angle back on, what’s your top networking tip for maximizing the ROI of trade shows?
Marold: Stay focused on the product! Your business cards need to have a product shot on it. The back of the business card is wasted when it is blank. Including a product shot opens the door to talk about the specific product (pictured on the card) with the person you are handing it to.
Hoey: Let’s not overlook the power of having satisfied customers. Any guidance on how to deliver exceptional customer service?
Marold: Here are my top tips:
Time is always of the essence. Respond promptly even if it is just to say you are working on it.
Deliver information without being wordy. Remember that your customers are busy and do not want constant interruptions (whether calls or emails) and they most definitely do not want to sift through streams of information to find what they really need.
Be personal. My clients operate hotels and resorts. If I stay at a client's property I send a note with a short anecdote about my travels. If the customer is located in a geographic location I plan to visit, I ask for tips or recommendations (and then follow up on their tip(s) after my visit).