Brian Rist, president and founder of Southwest Florida-based Storm Smart, had an early introduction to entrepreneurship. When he was in the eighth grade, his father—who owned a strip plaza in Massachusetts and a collection of small businesses in it—turned over a coin laundromat to Rist and his younger brother. “It was technically and legally our business,” Rist says. “We had to make sure the place was clean, make sure the machines ran, make sure we counted the coins.”
When it was time for the boys to go to college, they sold the laundromat and put themselves through school. The experience of running his own business gave Rist a foundation that would last a lifetime. “I realized early that I could work for somebody else or I could work for myself. I thought working for myself was a lot more secure.”
Rist started a number of businesses over the years, most centered around the construction industry—carpentry, framing, masonry. These were small-crew businesses, he said, that just paid the bills. His breakthrough
success came 25 years ago when he founded Storm Smart, a hurricane-protection company that offers aluminum shutters, fabric-based protective screens and impact-resistant doors and windows. Inc. magazine named Storm Smart to its list of fastest-growing privately held companies in the United States five different years. In mid-2020, Storm Smart’s business was already up 37% over last year. May 2020 was the best month for revenue the company has had in its 25-year history.
This kind of growth doesn’t happen by accident. Rist has been studying strong entrepreneurial practices all his life, and he’s put key lessons into play. One of his favorites: Market when times are good, and really market when times are bad. “When there are dark days—and there will be dark days—one of the first things business owners cut is marketing,” Rist says. “But that’s how you produce the leads that keep your business going.”
Another favorite: If you take care of your customers, your customers will take care of your business. But Rist likes to take it a step further. “We realized as we grew that if we took care of our employees, then our employees would take care of our customers. And our customers would take care of our business.” This is one reason why 62% of Storm Smart’s business comes from referral sales.
For rising entrepreneurs, Rist suggested keeping in mind that businesses don’t fail; people quit. “When you start a business, chances are it’s not going to be a grand slam in the first year. There will be a lot of tough days along the way. You might think of throwing in the towel, but as long as you don’t, your business will never fail.”