Welcome to Trading Places, a small-business series that takes a look at entrepreneurs who have successfully transitioned from working in the corporate world to founding their own business. If you have such a story you'd like to share, please email me.
At 35, Doug Finke was putting in 70-hour work weeks as a manager at a local Peterbilt dealership in Fargo, N.D. With a wife and two kids at home, Finke worked hard to establish a career, but bonuses continually decreased and promotions fell short of expectations.
When Finke unexpectedly found himself without a job, he decided he had had enough. Instead of searching for a way to get back into the shuffle of corporate America, he was ready to be his own boss.
For Finke, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, working in the fields was a labor of love: the love of being outdoors, working with his hands and working for his family. So he bought an 80-acre piece of ground and took to farming.
: Car parts and service manager
: Founder and owner of
Finke's Berry Farm
: The first year Finke and his family paid their dues. "We planted everything we could, but only sold $300 worth of cucumbers," the entrepreneur says.
By the end of the year, both Finke and his wife were jobless with $410 to their names. "I got a part-time job for a while and every nickel we could put into the farm, we did," Finke recalls. "Our friends knew better than to call us for an evening meal or anything because they knew we didn't have the time or the money to do it."
The Finkes quickly learned that growing various different types of fruits and vegetables was not profitable and eventually settled on strawberries, a market with growth potential. With meager start-up capital, the farm grew slowly.
But once everything started falling into place a few years later, Finke says it became energizing to put all his effort into his own venture. As the business grew, so did the perks. "Now, if I want to take an afternoon off to play a round of golf, I can do that," he says.
: Finke paid $45,000 for his farm 22 years ago. Other major first-year expenses included $4,000 on machinery, about $1,600 for plants and seeds and $5,000 for an irrigation well.
"We've since invested around $60,000 to $70,000 in irrigation and have about $100,000 tied up into five different tractors," the businessman says.
His company's edge
: "It's purely about customer service," Finke says. Also, his strawberries are high-quality and pesticide free, a value which has started to resonate with the growing number of health-conscious people in the past few years, he says.
What he wishes he knew before
: "The physical demands of the work," Finke says. "When you're pushing 60
the demands become way more noticeable than when you're in your 30s."
Finke also wishes he understood the importance of water earlier on, which would have helped in preventing fruit spoilage. "We're on a sandy soil and first you have to frost protect," Finke says. "In the spring when the strawberries are blooming you have to run irrigation all night if it drops below freezing."
: The farm's clientele is "across the board," Finke says. It's like asking who goes to
The majority of customers, the ones who come to pick their own strawberries, are in the 60- to 70-year-old bracket, he says. Then there are the childless double-income couples who come to buy the fruit that's already been picked.
: In the beginning, Finke planted everything he thought he could sell: pumpkins, cucumbers, sweet corn, melons, tomatoes, gourds, strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. Now his farm sells strictly strawberries, he says.
: "You really have to want to start a business because it's full-time work and part-time pay for a long time," Finke says. "There's a cash-flow shortage constantly and you have to be able and willing to cope with it."
About 95% of small businesses that fail do so because of undercapitalization, he says. So take the time to understand your budget before you go into business.