Success Story: Joe Kyte

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Joe Kyte found his inspiration in the topiary characters adorning Disney World. A character himself, he left his six-figure job to pursue his dreams and built a profitable business while playing with wire and turf. His works are now putting smiles on clients’ faces worldwide and are guaranteed to keep Topiary Joe smiling too.

 

 

 


Oana Harrison: Do you feel like you are successful, that you found your calling? What was your path to success?

Joe Kyte: This is a second career for me. I worked in horticulture as a sales manager. As a part of my job, I worked with a Danish firm called GRODAN, introducing hydroponics to the US and Canada. We did some field trials at Disney World, in Florida and set up an exhibit that’s still at Epcot today. I was fascinated by the all the character topiaries they had there. I took some pictures and asked about how they were making them – and then I thought to myself: “That looks fun and I can do that.”  It took a few thousand pieces until I was happy with my work but I finally did it. That was twenty-four years ago. Unfortunately, my wife didn’t like me quitting my six-figures job and bending wires for a living. Everything happened within three months: I quit my job, I opened a nursery in Homestead, hurricane Andrew hit two weeks after that, and then hurricane Helen happened – my wife divorced me. It was a tumultuous time and I learned to love Ramen noodles for a few years. But it taught me a lot about perseverance and being frugal. My whole shop is an AC welder, a table vise, and that’s it.unnamed-1

Today, the business is going great and we are keeping busy – no more Ramen noodles. This week, we had orders go to Florida and Columbus, Ohio; last week it was Italy – a container full of topiaries for Princess Cruise Lines.

OH: What made you move to Tennessee?

JK: I’m originally from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Eleven years ago, I was living in Murphy, North Carolina and I was traveling often to Tellico Plains to go fishing – it’s a beautiful area and it was half way between North Carolina and Oak Ridge. The Cherohala Highway and a river stocked-full of trout brought me back home to Tennessee.

OH: What are some lessons you have learned along the way/what do you know now that you wished you knew back when? What do you wish you’d known before you started your own business?

JK: I wish I would have had more financial backing because it could have helped me get a faster start. I started my business and I kept on building it up by religiously making something every day, building up inventory, and getting better at what I did. I knew it was going to be an arduous journey but I wanted to be able to do what I loved and to create.

OH: What do you think was the most important contributor to your success?

JK: The desire to not be poor… it was quite a motivator. Beyond that, I wanted to enjoy my work and make things – I did what inspired me. And how else would I have been able to enjoy my other hobby, fixing old cars? – 248 so far…

OH: What do you find to be the most fulfilling aspect of what you do?

JK: I really love to create and see kids smile. Now I also have big kids as customers. I have a couple of customers – Jack and Sally – who wants “A Nightmare Before Christmas” for their yard. Every day is something different – and I thrive on doing something different all the time. That makes me happy.

OH: What was your most fun project?

JK: One of the most fun projects I worked on was building sculptures for sixteen different Sandals Resorts. I got to live in Jamaica for three months and I really liked that!

It’s between that and the seven weeks I spent in Ireland building a herd of thirteen

elephants. That was an extremely fun time. The bull elephant went to Prince Charles. I got to go to a party in London and met Prince Charles and Camilla – I got to step on his foot… The party was a fundraiser for ElephantFamily.org, a non-profit organization on a mission to save animals from extinction, and it was hosted at the Petersham house, a beautiful 400-year-old estate on the Thames river. I sat down next to Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones and listened to Mick Jagger’s brother play zydeco until 2 o’clock in the morning. I got to sit down and talk with Annie Lennox and met Ravi Shankar and his daughter – yeah, it was a great party.

 

OH: Looking back now, twenty-some years later, would you do it all again?

JK: Absolutely! It’s fun being creative and free. I enjoy traveling the world for my work – and having my work pay for it. I get to have adventures, I get to teach – it’s great.

OH: What’s next for you?

JK: We are building animals two by two for Noah’s Ark in Kentucky: giraffes, lions, elephants, and camels. At the same time, I have a request to build copulating teddy bears for a hotel in Times Square, New York, to place along the walkway leading to the rooftop restaurant… oh, yeah, my work is a lot of fun.

But seriously, I love making others smile and I love being creative. It doesn’t take long for another project to come along. And now you can see us in action on the live feed on our website topiaryjoe.com.

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OH: What advice would you give to someone else who wanted to go pursue a different than conventional path?

JK: Learn to love Ramen noodles… and just follow your dream. Be happy.

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Success Story: Kelly Fletcher

Creativity is one of her strong suits and she has used it to create her own reality. Kelly Fletcher is a free spirit and wanted to have a fulfilling personal life as a single mother while having a great professional life at the same time. Ten years ago, she opened her own PR and Marketing firm Kelly Fletcher PR and never looked back. Now she is sharing the lessons she learned with other women in a desire to motivate and inspire them to define their own success.

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Oana Harrison: Do you feel like you are successful, that you found your calling? What was your path to success?

Kelly Fletcher: Gosh, I don’t even know where to start… The funny thing about success is that it’s so elusive. If you had told me ten years ago that I would be where I am today, have this much in revenue, have these clients, and have these many employees I would have said “Absolutely, that’s success! That exceeds my wildest dreams.” But when you get there, when you live it day-by-day, you don’t just say “this is it.” Success becomes an elusive thing because it’s never enough – and I’m not talking about money – you can never have enough business, you always continue to grow and feed your business.

Success for me is first figuring out what I want for it to look like. I guess there’s no real definition for it. You have to define your own. I’m really hard on myself so while to an outsider it might look like I’m very successful, I may think that I’m only marginally successful because I know I can always do better. Those are the demons I live with – it’s a part of being an overachiever. I started this business as a means to an end. It wasn’t a driving passion that I had to start a company. I just wanted out of the corporate environment. I’m very grateful to my then full-time job because it provided me with contacts that generated several clients, allowing me to kick-start my business. When I made the leap, I had three clients with one-year contracts so I had a good launching point.

I’m a creative spirit, so I hate having to live by someone else’s rules and schedules. I wanted to be judged on the quantity and quality of my work not on my sitting in a chair from 8 to 5 or going to meaningless meetings. Starting my own business wasn’t about money or even about being super passionate about what I did every day but it was about having the latitude to make your own timetable. I wanted to have the flexibility to take the time I needed as a single mom to raise my only child. I wanted to be able to have Spring Break off, to stay at home with my kid when he was sick and not to feel guilty about it or ask for permission. For me it’s been about creating my own reality and a set of rules I live by that are my own – it’s about having autonomy.

It’s a lot of pressure and there have been many times when I’ve thought this was too much, and I wanted to give up. Your mind will tell you: “you should really go back to getting a job” because in some ways having a regular job is easier – no risk, you know what to expect, you generally know how success is measured, you go do your job and then you leave. You don’t have to take it home with you and live it every day. The trade-off for creating your own reality is that sometimes it’s really hard and there’s nobody there to push you. You have to have a lot of self-motivation and will power to keep getting up every day even when you’re beaten down, even when past due accounts receivable are looming and you’re struggling to make payroll. When you have your own business, there’s always something.

OH: What do you wish you’d known before you started your own business? What advice would you give to others venturing out on their own?

KF: I’m actually glad that I didn’t know more than I did at the time. If I had known then what I know now, how hard it was, if I had understood the risk I took, maybe I would have been too intimidated to try it. So I think that there are times when naiveté is a plus when it comes to entrepreneurship. Just jump in and do it.

I wish I would have gotten my financials in order sooner. For the first few years, I was operating by the principle that “if we have money in the bank that’s great and if we don’t, we don’t.” Then, I hired a business coach and I’d say that that’s a huge reason why I’ve been able to be successful. We more than doubled in size as a result, experiencing a 20% year-over-year growth over the past five years, which is significant in our industry. I wish I would have known to seek outside counsel sooner. There are coaches out there that can help, whether that’s through Knoxville Entrepreneurial Center, my business coach Kevin Kragenbrink, or the Propel Program through the Chamber of Commerce – there are lots of resources that I could have tapped into but I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

You have to be willing to learn and understand that you don’t get to do only what you’re passionate about all the time. You have to focus on the business aspect of things if you want to run a profitable business. I love to create, write, and pitch stories but I’m not always doing that. I hate numbers but I have to run my business by the numbers, otherwise I’m not going to be successful. You also have to have your processes in place and hire good people. It took a while but with the help of my business coach, we have built solid processes, we have a plan, we have talented people working here. I’m not that much in the trenches anymore, which frees up my time to do higher level business activities like work on strategy or mentor others.

OH: What do you think was the most important contributor to your success?

KF: This is going to sound ridiculous but I think it’s my background in performing arts. I went to school on a vocal performance scholarship and all through my twenties, I was a working singer. I lived in New York and I did theatre and opera. When you’re in the performing arts industry, as a singer, your instrument is your body. When you go on auditions and you get rejected over and over or you get criticized, it gives you a lot of strength and perspective on how to approach things in the business world. You’re not gonna win them all and you can’t take things personally; business is business. That training of getting knocked down so many times and having to keep getting back up was actually the perfect training for me as an entrepreneur.

OH: What do you find to be the most fulfilling aspect of your life – business or otherwise?

KF: Personally, you know my life for the past 18 years always revolved around my “little child” who’s now graduating from high school. I’m very proud to have been a single mom raising a son and having him see that women are equals, that we are forces to be reckoned with. He grew up with a strong, independent woman and he’s seen my ups and downs as a business owner. He’s lived it. So it’s fulfilling to me to know that he now aspires to have his own business and he’ll also be selective about who he’ll choose as a mate because he’s gonna want someone who has her stuff together, you know.

Professionally, I think I’ve grown so much by being a business owner, learning how to handle situations, how to lead people, how to motivate them, and build a team, how to create a culture of accountability. We call each other out on not living our values or our culture: transparency, respect, accountability, service and quality. We try to live that culture, so if somebody is not living up to it, we address our cultural failures privately and work on getting back on track. I feel fulfilled for being able to create and maintain a strong and positive culture for professionals. I am happy to be surrounded by co-workers who want to be here and by clients who treat us well. We don’t work 60-hour weeks, we have a good life-work balance. To be able to create that kind of opportunity for others, to give people jobs that they like and find rewarding – that is very fulfilling!

OH: Not everybody gets dealt the same cards. You have to work with whatever or around whatever life hands you. What hurdles do you feel like you were able to overcome in your journey to success?

KF: I think people have a lot of misconceptions about me. They find out that I was a singer and former Miss North Carolina and they think that I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I actually grew up with divorced parents. My dad was a teacher, my mom was a bank teller. If it weren’t for my grandparents, we wouldn’t have been able to do very much at all. I owe my dance and voice lessons to my grandparents. They paid for my prom dress. We weren’t poor – well, the funny thing is that we were probably kind of poor but we didn’t know it; it’s just the way things were. We were latch-key kids: I came back from school, got off the bus then kept my brother and sister until my parents came home. I was the babysitter, I knew how to clean the house, how to do laundry. It isn’t like we went hungry but there were plenty of times when there wasn’t much in the refrigerator until my mom got paid. So I grew up with having enough but just enough to make me “hungry” for more, to make me want to push myself to succeed.

Other than my dad, I was the first one in my family to go to college and I went to school on almost a full scholarship. My parents didn’t pay for my college; I paid for it through scholarships and my Miss North Carolina money. I’ve overcome plenty of hurdles – as lower middle class, we weren’t always pushed to do or want more. I wanted to go the North Carolina School of the Arts. “Oh, but that’s so far away,” my family said. It was an hour and half away… I grew up in a really country family, so even my accent has been a hurdle. Money has been a hurdle, self-esteem has been a hurdle, even my education – I have a degree in music and I’m running a business. All of those hurdles motivated me even more to be successful than if I had grown up having everything from the start. Nobody gave me a dime – I made it work. As a woman especially I’m really proud of that. I didn’t get money out of my divorce. I’ve made it all happen on my own.

OH: What’s next for you?

KF: I am thinking about starting another company that can make money for me while I sleep because if you are in professional services, you live and die by billable hours. I think about what that would be, what would I do differently, and how I could apply the lessons I learned from my current business.

I’m also considering teaching as a business coach or motivational speaker. One of my bigger passions in life is helping advance women in business, so if I can figure out a way to weave that into whatever I’m doing even more, that would be great. I do have something to bring to the table due to my experience, so I’d love to help.

I thought about writing a motivational book about my journey and the lessons I learned. I’ll tell you a funny story. In our kitchen, we had this chalkboard. I taught my son what a quarter was and then we used to write down our quarterly goals. One time I wrote on the board “get a place at the beach” as one of my goals. Shortly thereafter, one of my friends called and said: “oh, I am so excited for you that you are getting a beach house.” I figured that my son had told them about our goals. Of course, at the time I was barely paying my bills… But the lesson was that if it’s on the goal list, it’s going to happen, right? So now I just need to put this on the list: “take a summer off, go to the beach, and write.” Sometimes I forget that I could totally do that!

I don’t know – I’m really at a transitional point in my life now. I’m a bit too young to retire but my son is off to college, so I have all these possibilities available to me. I thought about moving to New York and opening an office there – I love that city and I would love to live there again. So far, I have created my reality but it has been revolving around my child. Now I am free to pursue whatever I want and I love a challenge – so it’s time to recreate my own reality.

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Success Story: Bobbie Dunn

If you “Google” the name Bobbie Dunn, you will see a top listing for Bobbie Dunn the comedic actor responsible for generating laughs in several Laurel and Hardy comedies and another listing for an award-winning interior designer. This is one of those serendipitous things since the Bobbie Dunn I interviewed – the owner of Alpha Omega Hair Design in downtown Knoxville – confessed that she both liked to make people laugh and would have loved to be an interior designer. But her true calling is cutting hair, and being around people is her forte. Her clients often become her friends and she is glad to count Pat Summitt among those special people. Read about Bobbie’s journey from a small town in Appalachia to finding success as a Knoxville entrepreneur.



Oana Harrison: Do you feel that you found your calling? Can there be more than one? What was your path?

Bobbie Dunn: I grew up in the Appalachian region of West Virginia, a very poor section of the country. I grew up tough. We didn’t have a bathroom in the house until I was in the 8th grade. I grew up on a farm and I worked out the fields like the boys did; well, I was a little more protected than the boys were because I was my granddaddy’s baby girl. But I put up hay, I shucked corn, I dug potatoes, I did everything that had to be done. And I knew right then that that wasn’t the life I wanted to live. I had a very strict stepfather. I was pretty popular in high school but I wasn’t allowed to date, I couldn’t do many of the things that the normal kids did, I couldn’t stay out later, I couldn’t go to the ball games, I couldn’t do any of that. And I resented it. So, I started out rough and when I turned 18 I decided I was going to run off, get married and get away from all that. I married a guy who was two years older than me. He was in his last year of college and I worked in a sewing factory to pay for his tuition. Then we moved to the town where he went to college and I worked in a place like a Burger King – it was called the Burger Boy Food-O-Rama. It was miserable and then I turned out pregnant. I got pregnant three months after I got married, then I got fired because I got pregnant because I was anemic and I kept passing out. The manager was afraid that I was going to pass out, lose the baby and sue him. Back then, they could fire you for being pregnant.

OH: Is that when you moved to Tennessee?

BD: When my husband finished college, he became an engineer and we moved to Tennessee. He went to work with TVA. We moved here in June and gave birth in July. I was going to pretty much stay at home and raise the baby. However, a manager position opening came up for our apartment complex. They went through three managers over six months… I was nineteen but I figured I’d apply. The manager told me I was too young, so I told him, “well, you don’t have anybody now and you don’t seem to have a problem getting rid of employees. What have you got to lose?” He scratched his head and said: “Well, you have a point.” So, I managed the apartment complex we lived in for two years and I saved enough money to put towards buying a house. When I turned in my notice, the manager said I was the best manager he’d ever had.

OH: After you finally became a proud homeowner, what was your next step?

BD: When we moved into the new house, I was going to stay at home, be a good little wife and a good mother… and I was bored out of my board!… I went to work for Kelly Girls, a temp agency. I would work here two days then three days there, and then take some time off. It was just a fly-by-night operation, there were no guarantees. But I had some of the most interesting jobs that you can imagine working for them. That was fun.

OH: What are some of the more interesting gigs you had through Kelly Girls?

BD: I did the survey in the neighborhood to bring cable to Knoxville. Got dog-bit during that event by a yappy poodle – that was hysterical. Also, way before GPS existed, I rode around town with a guy from Toledo, Ohio and showed him where different places were in the area for him to go ask for donations to start St. Jude’s Hospital. I look back on that now and think – wow! At the time, we didn’t know what St. Jude’s was but now, I think, I had a hand in that! It makes me proud.

Those were the two most interesting jobs I had. The others were working in a bank or an office; switchboard operator, filing, odds and ends jobs.

OH: How did you get into the hair industry?

BD: My marriage started falling apart and I got a divorce. I didn’t have a job but I had made so many contacts through the Kelly Girls that it wasn’t hard for me to find another job. I worked for an insurance company for a while but I hated it…I absolutely hated it. Being confined to a desk and typing… I wasn’t good at it. It wasn’t my thing. I hated getting up in the morning and going to that job. I would take the “girls” into the restroom on our lunch break and cut their hair. One day one of the guys who was working in the building reached and grabbed my arm. And I thought “uh-oh, I’m in trouble.” He said “listen, you are wasting your talent. You need to go to school, get a license, and cut hair.” “I can’t afford it,” I said. He said “You can’t afford not to. The guy who runs the barber school lives across the street from me. I’ll put in a good word for you.” So, I called and made an appointment to talk to the guy.

But I still had to come up with the money for the program. When I was 24, I had broken a vertebra and the doctor told me I had to get off my butt and onto my feet. He also told me that he would help me get a rehabilitation loan. I went back to him to ask about it: “I decided what I want to do. I want to be a barber.” He laughed at me. I said: “Do I not look like a barber?” He said, “Frankly, no you don’t.” But he signed me up and I went to school. My daughter was 8 years old at the time and I thought we were going to starve to death. We lived on about $230/month and, while the loan paid for my school, I had to stretch the $230 a loooong way. But we did it.

OH: How was barber school?

BD: It was a 9-month stint. The first day I walked in the school I thought “I do not belong here.” I didn’t fit in. I had been in barber school all but three months and the guy who owned the barber school also owned a hair styling salon told me “I want you to come work for me when you graduate.” So, I knew I had a job getting out, which is something that most people had to struggle to get. I have been blessed because I have been able to either talk my way into a job or a job landed in my lap. I was blessed with that and I’ve never looked back. Of course, it takes a while to build a business and one of the first things we learned in school was that only one in ten people make it in the hair industry. It’s a tough business to stay in and I’ve been in it since 1998. That is where I find myself successful: is being able to stay in it.

OH: How did owning your own business come about from that?

BD: I stayed in the first shop where I went to work for two years before it burned down. After that, the guy across the street called me to go work for him. I worked there for 18 years while my daughter grew up and went to high school. I knew I wanted to move on and do my own thing, so in 2000 I took the leap to open my own shop. I started out on a budget, very small, and I’ve been at it ever since.

OH: How was the transition from working for someone else to having your own business, hiring and managing people, and all that it entails?

BD: That wasn’t fun – laughed Bobbie. That was the hard part because not everybody has your work ethic. You have to go through a few to get to the ones that have the same work ethic and the same goals as you. You can find out probably in the first month. When I hire someone, I give them a three-month trial period and see whether they are going to make it or not.

It’s very difficult to find those people who are hungry; you gotta be hungry. The kids coming out of school today are very entitled and they think that everything ought to fall in their lap. It doesn’t work that way. You gotta work for it. They don’t seem to have the fortitude to go out there and beat the streets to get the clientele like I had to when I started.

OH: What would you say that the most important contributor to your overall success was?

BD: Determination and a sense of humor.

OH: What are some lessons you learned along the way or some advice you’d like to give to others?

BD: There are always going to be setbacks but you can’t let them keep you down. You gotta get back up and keep punching. It’s not about what someone’s going to hand you; it’s about what you’re going to work for.

OH: What do you feel like the most fulfilling aspect of your life is – business or otherwise?

BD: For me, it’s the friendships I make through my job; people don’t just become my customers, they become my friends. And it’s not a client-stylist relationship as much as it is family and I love that closeness. I’ll tell you a little story. I went to a hair show one time and they had a psychologist going to a class. He told us: “You have more influence on people than I do. You have a license to touch people and this creates a bond between you. You’re in their space, so people have to trust you.” He told us about a client who he had been counseling for a year. She had a crush on a guy whom she had met over happy hour in a bar. She wanted to go out with him. The doctor advised her to ask him out instead of waiting for his move. He finally talked her into doing it, she was all excited about it, and he couldn’t wait for the next time he saw her and find out how it went. She came into his office, he asked her how it went. She told him she didn’t ask. Why not? – he asked surprised. We had already talked about it, you decided how you were going to do it and all. What happened? Well, I went and got my hair done after I talked to you, she confessed, and my hairdresser thought it was the dumbest thing I could do, so I didn’t do it. So, you see, you have more influence over people than me…,” the psychologist concluded. I thought it was hysterical – confessed Bobbie.

OH: Speaking of receiving advice… Everybody needs to have a support system around them – some more than others. How did you fare?

BD: When you’re 300 miles away from home it’s hard to have a support system. I was quite honestly here alone, with my daughter – she was all I had family-wise. But I had made some very good friends and I still have them today. They have been my biggest support system.

OH: What kept you going?

BD: Laughing – I didn’t want to starve to death…

OH: You had your business for almost seventeen years. What’s next?

BD: Well, I’m 65, retirement should be next… Really, I don’t want to retire. My recent and new back injury (I fractured a vertebra – again – moving furniture by myself…) made me realize even more that I can’t sit and look at four walls. Most people can go through their entire lives without fracturing a vertebra – and I’ve done it twice! But I intend to stay up and running.

I’m a people-person, I like to be around people, I love people! I actually like being behind the chair working on somebody. So, I might want to cut back a little but I’m afraid that if I stop cutting hair, I would have no more incentive to get out of bed. I have to have a reason to get up and get out of the house – and I need to be around people because they make my world go around.

OH: What words of wisdom do you have for others?

BD: You are exactly right that success for one person may not be the same for another. I think you’re successful as long as you are doing something that makes you happy. That to me is the key to success – being happy. Because like I told you, I was miserable at my first job, I hated it. It was not my calling. I was 27-28 when I found mine and I never looked back. I never wanted to do something else. I think that the only other thing that I would have been interested in would have been interior design – not that I’m that good at it but I just like furniture. But I don’t think that I would have had that much fun because I wouldn’t have been around that many people. And for me, it’s that social interaction that makes me happy. I’m kind of an entertainer sometimes when I’m dealing with people. I like to make them laugh, make their day a little better.

When I worked at the insurance company, I hated it. I was terrible at typing and I don’t know why they kept me. But I found something enjoyable in it – I cut hair during my breaks… That did my heart good and it led to something better, something that I wanted to do. So, find the good in a bad situation. Stick with it and don’t give up on your dreams!