I recently hosted a Small Biz Camp in Austin, Texas and while planning the agenda, asked my friends at the local SCORE Chapter to recommend one of their clients to be featured on stage with a one-on-one interview. I wanted to include an inspirational success story in the day’s events. They suggested Eva Schone, a German-born entrepreneur living in Texas and growing her business with a unique and inspiring story to share.
The day of the event, I welcomed Eva to the stage and together we unraveled the story of her growing business. Eva is an architect by trade but has applied her experience, skill and her love of design to an often overlooked industry - trophies and awards.
LET’S BE HONEST, MOST TROPHIES AND AWARDS ARE BORING.
So often, we don’t even think about it – our kids get the standard metallic figures in sports. At work, we might get an etched glass item or a marble plaque. And they are appreciated but rarely, so rarely, are they truly worthy of display based on their design.
When Eva Schone was an architecture student, the American Institute of Architects in Tampa, Florida held a contest to design a new award honoring architects for design excellence. Eva was excited about the contest and says it was the first time she really thought about what getting a trophy or an award really means and how important design is in communicating the values for which someone is being honored.
Eva says, “I always loved the materials with which we build as architects and thought that many of them had such inherent beauty and poetry. I was thrilled to think about how they could be applied in product design, especially to honor architects.” She ended up designing an award made from concrete. Eva built a form/mold and poured concrete to make her prototype. “I loved doing it,” she says. “Even though my design wasn’t chosen, the project left a lasting impression on me.”
And here we come to one of the big lessons from my time spent with Eva and most other entrepreneurs I meet with any real success under their belts. Failure brings a lesson, not loss.
THE JOURNEY BECOMES THE DESTINATION
Eva grew up in East Germany where she says it’s fair to say being an entrepreneur isn’t exactly an encouraged path. The Berlin Wall fell just at the right time for her to grow into a new system and explore an entirely new world. She took the opportunity to live and work in a lot of different places in Europe before moving to the United States in 1998.
Once in the US, she started to study architecture and worked very hard for 10 years to become a licensed architect. “That was my life.” She says. “It’s one of those professions that’s all encompassing and I thought this was going to be the rest of my life.”
But after having worked for several years in architecture firms, she realized that her creativity level wasn’t at its best, that working on a computer for hours on end wasn’t her ideal situation, and that she needed more hands-on work to be and stay her most creative self. She wanted a change.
She shares, “My mom taught me many crafts when I grew up and I really missed using my hands and working directly with materials. I was longing to make things again. Designing a building and seeing it come to life is a very special experience that I treasure, but I also really enjoy working on a smaller scale where I can be much more involved in the process of making - there’s a different immediacy. I love collaborating with artisans and fabricators.” All of that came together in 2010. She was in her mid-30 and says she felt like “Now or never.”
TURNS OUT, USA IS STILL A GREAT PLACE TO START A BUSINESS
“The entrepreneurial spirit of people here is remarkable,” she says. “I love that people support each other and cheer each other on with sincerity. There’s a generosity that’s just wonderful and I think pretty unique. If for any reason it doesn’t quite work out the way it was planned, people understand and encourage you to start over or pursue something else. The fact that many successful entrepreneurs have multiple start up failures under their belt speaks to this spirit. Allowing for learning and the possibility to try again is critical for long-term success.”
Eva also got help from her local SCORE office with free mentoring and low cost business classes. She tells me about working with her primary mentor, Carlton Smith. “Carlton has been such a wonderful supporter over the years. He was a high-level executive and the recipient of many professional recognition during his career - he gave me valuable feedback from the perspective of an honoree. He also understood the culture of high-end and luxury goods and shared his expertise when I was establishing pricing. His experience of living and working abroad for several years was an extra bonus and connected us on that level.”
She also mentions SCORE mentor Celia Bell, saying she has been an inspiration as a successful business woman. “She has generously shared her encouragement with me and has made several fruitful business introductions,” says Eva. She adds, “When I needed contractual help, I was assisted by SCORE mentor Barry Lewis who shared his expertise with me in this regard.”