Á LA CRATE: Young boutique scored with sound advice

Sarah Mullins is pretty sure she’d still be in business even without the counsel she received from the Madison Chapter of SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, but she knows that advice helped her clear some hurdles.

Mullins, the co-owner, along with husband Jeff, of Á LA CRATE in Monona, is nearing the five-year mark, which many startup businesses never see. Thanks to SCORE, she now has a fuller understanding of why the devil is in the details. “I’d like to think we’d be around, but the business planning really did help us with some of the nitty-gritty details that we might have skimmed over otherwise,” she says.

Hold me accountable

Á LA CRATE, a vintage, reclaimed, and custom rental warehouse, is still very much a boutique business, which is just the way Mullins wants it. Its business space along Industrial Drive is chock full of uncommon rentable goods, everything from mismatched vintage china to 8-foot-long reclaimed harvest tables. The pieces often go out for weddings and other celebrations, birthday parties, and trade show booth displays. 

“We try to buy locally, and everything here is either made by a member of our team or a local artist, or is found,” she explains.

The Mullinses developed the business concept from their wedding experience. They had collected a number of unique pieces for the big day, but it wasn’t easy to find the pieces they wanted in a short timeline and on a budget. So something that should have been fun turned out to be stressful; following their nuptials, they sold everything they had purchased for the décor.

“We knew a lot of couples in the same boat,” Sarah notes, “and thought that Madison is such a great sharing community, what better place to see if this would take off.”

Without advice from SCORE counselors like Joel Petersen, the takeoff would have been more challenging. Sarah and Jeff were both art majors who had a lot of ideas when they opened in 2011, but they didn’t have much funding. As they struggled to take the next step, they heard of SCORE, and the free counseling and business plan vetting available from the Madison Chapter, which has about 50 retired mentors from a variety of industries, was a godsend.

“The fact that it was a complementary service, and you’re meeting with retired business professionals, was pretty awesome,” Sarah states. “They were very approachable and gave us someone to be accountable to.”

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The Mullinses didn’t just meet with their SCORE counselors once. They met several times, constantly fleshing out their business plan, especially the financial components, and making sure they understood business terminology. The SCORE advisors would give the couple some assignments to complete before the next scheduled meeting. “They didn’t write it [the business plan] for us, but they would review it, interject questions and concerns, and help answer questions that we had,” Sarah recounts. 

The first section of what was a fairly standard business plan contained a statement of purpose, and descriptions of the products and services, the market, the competition, management, and personnel. A second section focused on financial details like funding, capital equipment, the balance sheet, income projections, and cash-flow projections.

In identifying their market and potential competitors, they responded to questions like:

Who will this business model benefit? “We already knew that it would benefit the bridal market, but we enjoyed thinking about what other industries could benefit from uncommon rentals as well,” Mullins says. “The business plan was the biggest part. We could also say that just by meeting with them, it helped solidify our idea.”

The potential market was probably the most interesting category to examine. At the time the business opened, the Mullinses believed they had the only vintage rental company in the state of Wisconsin. Sarah looked at what similar companies in other states were doing, and she was especially interested in any geographic differences in inventory.

“It’s a drastically different climate here, so how could we adapt what we were carrying to better fit Wisconsin? That portion [of the business plan] was really helpful, and we actually still reference that sometimes.”

SCORE one for reality

SCORE counselor Joel Petersen ran a landscaping company, and for 25 years worked for the City of Madison’s planning department. After he and another counselor advised the Mullinses, Petersen came to Á LA CRATE’s open house, and Sarah Mullins remembers thinking that it was nice to see him outside of the SCORE office.

With a new, 3,000-square-foot location, three full-time and two part-time employees, seasonal employees, and a freelance team, Mullins says the business is doing well.

The fact that Mullins came back time and time again to meet with SCORE impressed Petersen because many people who think they have a legitimate business idea don’t survive that initial encounter. They either don’t understand the necessary pre-launch steps, or they have no concept of fundamental issues like ownership structure.

According to Petersen, about half of them never come back for a second meeting, and sometimes a SCORE counselor’s frank assessment helps them avoid a potentially ruinous mistake. “They feel that if they go to the bank and borrow this amount of money, they’re in business,” Petersen says. “Well, there are some other things you might want to do before you get that far. Are you sure you can do everything you want to do, and do it where you want to? Unfortunately, at least half the people I’ve met with don’t understand that.”

One of Petersen’s favorite reality checks was the time a man came in and said he wanted to buy a restaurant. When Petersen asked if he had ever worked in a restaurant, he replied, “No, but I was a cook in the Navy, and I like to eat.”

Forget the fact that in the military, the cook was often counted as the enemy, or that the would-be restauranteur’s love of food could prompt him to consume the profits. The biggest problem with his idea was the restaurant had failed under its previous ownerhsip, in large part because of its poor visibility on a side street.

“I could go on and on,” Petersen says ruefully, “with story after story after story.”

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