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Making the leap

Local Small Business Follows Signs for Growth

Melanie and Brian O’Neil are confessed DIYers.

So when they were planning their wedding in Portsmouth, N.H. three years ago and couldn’t find suitable gifts for their siblings, they decided to do something special on their own. Repurposing spare flooring from their newly purchased fixer-upper home in Millis, they made customized name signs.

The presents were a huge hit.

The O’Neils returned from their honeymoon to find that friends and family had placed orders for 15 more. Word began to spread. Soon, what began as a hobby became Rustic Marlin, which today has 15 full-time employees, plus part-timers. The company now sells its wooden signs online and in 75 stores across 23 states and Canada.

The couple eventually left their day jobs—Melanie in marketing and operations for start-ups, Brian in pet food sales—and began working full-time on Rustic Marlin. The name combines the company’s style and one of Brian’s prized catches from his fishing days. Why? It just sounded right.

A big early step was securing their first retailer, who required a quick turnaround. They scrambled to fill the order within a week, and delivered as promised—barely. Another milestone was hiring their first employee, for 12 hours a week.

Rusticmarlin_Alex4Rustic Marlin headquarters in Millis, MA.

Their four-bedroom house doubles as the company headquarters and production facility. The dining room is the conference room, the living room is the office, the exercise/tackle room is a production space, and the garage is the assembly area. The business, in other words, has consumed their home. “It’s a bit of a nuthouse, but you can’t beat the commute,” said Brian.

Their business lines include family names, weddings, businesses, pets, special occasions, cities and towns, furniture, growth charts, and any special order a customer can dream up, all in assorted colors.

Growing Pains

Rustic Marlin started well and continued growing, cautiously. But the owners soon faced an unexpected challenge—demand was expanding rapidly and they struggled to keep up.

MVI_0204.00_01_20_10.Still001All Rustic Marlin products are handcrafted.

Brian notes, “We never really had a good plan as to how we were going to grow the business. We always thought we’d get a little bit bigger but we were never looking that far ahead.” So, instead of significant planning, “We took single, little steps only to come to a point where you get stuck in a position where you’ve maxed out what you can do in a given space.”

Seeking more room and efficiency, they sourced $19,000 through Kickstarter to renovate their beat-up barn and install a driveway for delivery trucks. Even as the cement dried on the new barn floor, however, the couple knew it was not enough space to expand adequately, and they wrestled with the next step.

“Certainly you have to make sure that you have the business and a customer base you can rely on,” said Brian. But that’s just the beginning: “It’s taken us now, basically, two years from start to really understand that what we need to do is take it to another level.”

Business dramatically expanded this year, according to Melanie, “far more than we could have predicted when the beginning of the year started. So, it’s always been the elephant in the room that we needed to grow our space.”

Two numbers tell the story:

In 2013, the first full year of Rustic Marlin, they produced 300 signs. This year, 10,000 signs went out the door.

MVI_0204.00_05_21_23.Still005Explosive growth forced the owners to plan for expansion.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t nerves about making a jump full of promise and risk. “We don’t sleep at night, worrying about it. It’s a big step,” she said. “We’ve actually been taking steps all year long. Because the business grew too quickly, we had to work on business plans and projections in ways that we never really focused on before.”

The owners engaged their customers to better forecast demand and share their own plans. They turned to a board of advisors and sought increased professional guidance from lenders and a business manufacturing trade group.

“In working with our advisors, they helped us not worry about finding a space for tomorrow, but finding a space we’re going to grow into the next year if our sales keep going like this,” said Melanie.

Going for It

Itamar Chalif, vice president and business banking officer at Rockland Trust, said small business owners must focus on key basics as they weigh growth strategies:

  • Seek financial advice from professionals with experience in business and commercial issues, including business-focused certified public accountants, attorneys, and lenders. “They need that valuable advice to do their planning, understand complex issues, be better prepared for the unexpected, and to avoid costly mistakes caused by inexperience,” said Chalif.
  • Find an attorney with expertise in commercial leasing or buying. “There are very few built-in protections in this area compared to residential property,” Chalif added.
  • Be deliberate about keeping a delicate balance between debt and reserves. “Many small businesses avoid debt due to fear. Properly planned and disciplined debt can be a great tool for growth and overcoming tough times,” said Chalif.
  • Examine your insurance coverage carefully. “Focus on the terms of your coverage, not the price. Commercial insurance is complicated,” he added.
  • Get advice from professionals who understand employment laws and adhere to them—all of them. “When it comes to employees, do everything by the book,” said Chalif.
Rusticmarlin_Alex5Rustic Marlin produced 10,000 signs in 2015.

Finally, the O’Neils made the decision to seek bank financing and find a commercial space. “It’s very difficult to grow a business from bootstrapping. You need to bring in a bank to grow it to the next level,” said Brian.

The couple was approved for financing by Rockland Trust in recent weeks and is now seeking 15,000 – 20,000 square feet of commercial space. Rustic Marlin aims to improve the production process and become more efficient. That means at some point, they’ll get their house back. But the lessons from the early days will remain.

Their Best Advice

“My biggest advice is always seek external opinions, even if it’s family members, and talk with other business owners,” she said. “Don’t be scared to open up because sometimes you might only see something one way because you’re living and breathing it.”

Communicating with the staff is also vital, she said.

Rusticmarlin_Alex.00_03_50_09.Still004Brian and Melanie O’Neil, owners of Rustic Marlin.

“Whenever we have a challenge or a success we talk to our team, letting them help us brainstorm ideas, giving them the freedom to come up with ideas, and letting them have accountability. They feel like Rustic Marlin is their name and part of who they are as well, so they’re really proud of what goes out the door. We’re really lucky.”

In the end, said Melanie, “You have to love it and believe in it and be willing to work hard all the time.”

Still on the to-do list: getting a retailer in Portsmouth, N.H. to feature their products, maybe right by the historic North Church in Market Square where they took their vows—and unknowingly launched a business.

Rockland Trust’s new Talking Business Advice Series will offer weekly insights on how to build, sustain, and grow your business from experts and the people who created and run companies big and small—with topics ranging from managing cash flow to succession planning and cybersecurity.

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.