Every great brand has a story. And, sometimes, because growing a business can be challenging and unpredictable, that story is one of difficulties and triumphs. Want to know ours? Here is an article written by Kudzu Brands CEO and co-founder Murphy Funkhouser Capps about her personal journey into business ownership and of “taming Kudzu” into the business it is today. Enjoy!
Life, Love & Kudzu: The Cultivation of a Dream
People start businesses for different reasons. Some follow a passion, others want to be their own boss. I did it…for love.
In 2010, I was a single mother working 80 hours per week selling and writing radio ads for a regional media group. By that point, I had worked for two unfulfilling decades in the corporate world. For me, work was something you did to pay the bills. It wasn’t supposed to make you “happy”. I had accepted that the creative things I really loved like writing and storytelling were just a hobby or something I might get to do when I retired. In fact, I had resigned myself to being an over-worked clock-puncher. Until I met him.
We were attending the same leadership program and reached for the same donut. Tall, dark, and handsome, Kenny was a former attorney who had left it all behind to start his own design and print business. To me, he was a mysterious vigilante, someone who had defied the norms, shunned the status quo, and wore dapper bowties. Over the next few months, we shared many donuts and talked about his business, his dreams for it, and my deep, hidden desires to get paid for doing what I really loved.
It wasn’t long before Kenny asked me to quit my job and join him in business ownership. But instead of being elated, I panicked. It had been fun dreaming. But, single mothers do not quit their jobs to go work with cute guys from their leadership program! And besides, you don’t really get to live your dreams! Do you??
But, the idea would not leave me alone. I had been presented the opportunity I’d always wanted. If I passed this up, I was making a conscious choice to remain miserable.
In August of 2011, I said yes. Trembling, I stood in front of my boss and told him I was starting my own business. He said I was being “foolish”. A voice I didn’t recognize responded forcefully, “Maybe! But, I’m doing this!” After that, there was no turning back.
Kenny and I signed the lease on a beautiful office building and got engaged on the same day. In June of 2012, we were married on a hillside, under a canopy of kudzu vines.
All those romanticized ideas about owning a business? Well, at first, things were idyllic. We enjoyed working side by side. I would hold the camera and he would adjust the lights. I would design the sign and he would install it. It proved to be a winning combination. Within two years, we had tripled sales and grown to a staff of ten. Growth is good. Out of control growth is… well, scary. There were so many decisions to make, people to pay and things to keep up with. We had to navigate the nuances of a new marriage and a rapidly expanding business at the same time. I was soon back to long work weeks and sleepless nights. I realized quickly that the business was aptly named. It was wrapped all the way around me.
At some point, it stopped being fun. Kenny and I started to argue. Our biggest disagreements were about company vision. I was convicted to work with smaller businesses but, Kenny thought corporate accounts would be more sustainable. I wanted to focus on branding and design while Kenny wanted to put our resources towards printing. In order to get some respite from the stress, and to stay happily married, we established a rule of no talking about the business after 6:00 pm.
In 2013, I was 6-months pregnant when we lost our largest client and 80% of our revenue overnight. Remember that rule about diversifying your client base? This was just one of the many business lessons I had to learn the hard way. Together, we had to lay off half the staff. After it was done, I was so upset, and cried so hard, Kenny was worried about the baby. It was one of the more difficult days of my life.
But, despite the rocky patch, we still loved each other, and our shared dream, very much. So much, in fact, we decided to start two separate, but compatible, companies. Kenny started a printing company and I started a branding agency. Within a year, sales were back up for both of us. With this creative solution, we felt we had persevered. The business kept growing, despite the odds against us. You can’t kill kudzu, right??
But there were more challenges to come. The very next year, we found ourselves holding hands in the oncologist office as we received the news that Kenny had cancer in 80% of his bone marrow. I listened numbly as the doctor told us about all the treatments, the time in the hospital, the costs, and the life expectancy.
But, I didn’t feel sad. I felt mad. Mad that cancer had dared to interfere with our plans. It was at that moment that I decided to fight. For Kenny, for us, for the business, for the people we employed…for people everywhere who had a dream to start their own business but, hadn’t yet found the courage.
Kenny went through two hard years of treatment and eventually left Kudzu to start his own non-profit organization (throwingbonesrun.org). Meanwhile, I gave the business everything I had. Since I dusted myself off and got back up again, the company has rebounded to 10 employees, won an Asheville Chamber Sky High Growth Award, was selected for the Advantage West ScaleUp Program and was recently chosen for the national Goldman Sach’s 10,000 Small Businesses 2017 cohort.
In January of this year, I was blessed to meet another woman who wanted to leave the corporate world to follow her passion. Heather Johnson and I will soon celebrate one year of doing business as a 100% female-owned company.
There are still hard days and always new challenges. But, the experience of owning a business, of overcoming my fears to remain committed to doing what I love, using my creativity in the service of others, has been, so far, the greatest success story of my life.
Kudzu Brands is a full service branding agency, based in Black Mountain, NC, offering brand development and management to all size growing businesses.