Real World Adaptability: Trunk Club Rolls On

(2010 update: I’ve been told very recently that Joanna Van Vleck is no longer running the Trunk Club, and that there may have been problems under the surface that I wasn’t aware of as I wrote this post. It was written in 2008, more than 18 months ago. Tim)

What’s not to love? It’s a great business model, its founder is dedicated and — more important — quick to adapt, and she was a student in my ‘Start Your Business’ class a few years ago.

And things haven’t gone exactly according to plan, but things keep going, and the founder keeps adjusting. That, to me, is real planning, as in “planning, not just a plan.”

That’s the Trunk Club, which is a couple years old now. It was started in Bend (Oregon) and has already opened presences in Dallas and Portland as well, plus a new virtual version that opens it up to any customer anywhere.

I posted about Joanna Van Vleck’s intriguing business model late last year in Success Story: The Trunk Club on my Up and Running blog with What I wrote then was:

It’s a great example of how market, identity, and focus come together to build new businesses that combine new ideas with old-fashioned serving the customer.

That was about nine months ago. Since then, it gets better. And not because things have gone according to plan, but rather — and much more realisticly — because Joanna has been able to adapt to changing assumptions without slipping up. For example:

  • Her co-founder dropped out as things started to take off. “Too much work,” she said, or something like that. It was a friendly parting, but still…
  • Investment promises came and went. Joanna ended up with enough investment to keep going and grow: less than promised, and from some different sources than planned, but enough.
    • She had one person end up writing checks for a different amount than agreed upon, and some other people appear in the nick of time. In all cases these were contacts, from her own networks, not through the more formal investment search contacts.
    • One key advisor was originally the guy sitting next to her on a plane from Redmond (Oregon) to San Francisco.
  • She’s had to revise plans a couple of times because of the ups and downs of finding the right employees.
    • “I’ve been learning,” she said. She thought she wanted people with sales experience, but it turned out she needed a special kind of sales experience, people comfortable with outbound selling rather than people used to waiting for customers to appear.
    • She’s also had to deal with letting people go, which is, in my opinion, one of the hardest parts of running a company. One person in her 40s was full of advice but “she started telling me how to run the business,” which became awkward.
  • Her latest burst of entrepreneurship is the idea of virtual accounts, meaning people who can’t get to the existing locations in Bend, Portland, or Dallas. Virtual customers can work with Skype or similar Web facilities.

And in the meantime, although the investments have been less than planned, sales are better than planned, so Joanna is moving forward.

This is what bootstrapping and entrepreneurship is all about.


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