Small business smarts during career transitions

Published On: January 1, 2024Categories: Business

Our industry has many examples of successful marine fabricators closing their shops and becoming employees of larger companies. The specific lessons learned as a marine fabricator/business owner include time management, finances and accounting, and strategic sales and marketing—all critical skills that will help fabricators excel in the corporate world.  

Ironically, when you examine the reverse path—someone who moves from a large company environment and becomes a marine fabricator/small business owner—the transition can be more challenging. There is a steep learning curve ranging from critical marine fabrication skills to running all aspects of a small company—wearing all the hats from A to Z.  

This article includes strategies and advice from two marine fabricators and myself, who have made the transition from being corporate employees to being small business owners. These “lessons learned” can apply to either a supplier becoming a fabricator or anyone who would like to start their own small business.

Rick Berkey, Rick’s Custom Marine Canvas and Sail Repair, Cornelius, N.C.

Berkey spent 26 years as a biomedical photographer covering everything from the operating room to autopsies. He has been in the marine canvas business for 15 years.

One thing I learned early is to strategically resource/outsource products and services that are outside my core skill set. By focusing on what my skill set is and adding outside people and companies to fill in the gaps, I’ve become more effective overall. Examples of areas where I have hired outside resources include:

  • Qualified bookkeeper and certified public accountant (CPA). While I handle some of the basic financials via QuickBooks®, I rely on my bookkeeper and CPA to fill in the missing pieces and to provide help for proper classifications within QuickBooks entries to make sure my business finances are organized correctly.
  • Government forms specialists. Government forms, questionnaires and applications can be very time consuming both in terms of reading all the necessary documents and ensuring that you understand the consequences of particular rules and requirements for your business. During COVID, with all the changing guidelines, it was even more complicated and time consuming. As a sole proprietor, I had a very difficult time keeping track of all the changes, and many times I had no idea what the new forms were talking about. 
  • Professionals to help with legal filings and corporate annual reports required by the state.

Early in the business, I joined a business group run by a trained business coach. There were eight different companies of all types, and we shared our ideas and experiences. We set goals and reported monthly to the group on our progress. We held each other accountable and shared solutions to our challenges. It was a great place to vent frustration.

Jeff Viehmeyer, Alameda Canvas & Coverings, Alameda, Calif.

Viehmeyer spent 20-plus years working for small and large corporations and will celebrate the 20th year of his canvas business in July 2024.

In a corporation, you generally have resources to back you up—from actual production to sales, and back-office invoicing to purchasing. This allows you to focus on what you do best and have others on the team do what they do best for a successful business.

In becoming a startup marine fabricator, these functions still exist, but because they now have to be spread across a team or just one individual, it’s easy to get unbalanced. There is a tendency to either ignore some backend functions (invoicing, collecting payments, etc.) in the push to get sales and make the products, or try and replicate all the support systems you had in a corporation. You don’t have time to become an expert in everything, so here are my suggestions:

  • Write a simple business plan listing all the bases you need to cover. Then create a simple, effective process for each area so you can concentrate on running the business. Invest some time and money up front to get set up right. You won’t have much time later to go back and fix organizational problems.
  • Build in efficiency. For supplies and materials, pick a strategic vendor you can order most things from online with a minimum of hassle.
  • Use space wisely. Use all of your square feet each month to make money. Keep on top of cash flow and try to be profitable right out of the gate. Buy for each job and don’t stock much inventory. That can come later after revenue builds.
  • Push for productivity. While you need to be friendly to customers, too much chat can kill productivity. If your shop rate is $120/hr., every wasted minute costs $2. That can add up to a half day per week if everybody does it. One idea is to open your shop to the public an hour later than shop-starting time to get going on the day without interruption. 
  • The bottom line is you are going from a nicely crewed stately ship to a speedboat with one driver! Things happen faster and have immediate consequences. You need to stay on top all the time, adjust as needed and focus on using available energy and resources to generate revenue first. Setting up your support systems in the beginning allows this without neglecting those systems. A lack of revenue can cause you to fail, but disorganized backend systems can also cause a slow death.

W. Derek Robinson, Fabric Tattoo-Graphics Your Way, and Safety Grip-The Original Handrail Cover, Burlington, N.C. 

Robinson was in corporate jobs from 1985-2019, with the final job lasting 31 years.

My business is different from most marine fabricators because I sell directly to my customers (consumers and resellers) through my website. The challenges of getting website sales and the back-office financial aspects to work together were my largest coordination hurdles.

The first website for my company ( was designed and built on WooCommerce/WordPress. This platform is very popular because it is open source, stable and experienced.  

  • Challenge #1: How to get paid online with a customer’s credit card. One option was to get all sales over to QuickBooks and allow QuickBooks to handle credit card transactions. Instead, I decided to use my bank’s “merchant account.” To make this work, I used an app called that links the website to the merchant account. Once it’s set up, it runs automatically. 
  • Challenge #2: How to link with QuickBooks. Since I wanted to see my QuickBooks accounts from different computers (work, home, mobile), I elected to go with QuickBooks Online. There are many WooCommerce/WordPress third-party apps that will work with QuickBooks. I was specifically looking for an established company, and I found MyWorks Software to be a great solution.   

Overall, this approach with WooCommerce/WordPress has been positive with a few minor issues, including the need for a web developer to make any changes to the website and dealing with malware. If you go this route, make sure you have high-quality malware prevention software and your website host runs constant backups. My second website is and I’m evaluating Shopify for web development.

Future challenges 

My next hurdle is to learn more about Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance. This is about taking credit cards as a form of payment and what you must do to be compliant and protect your customers’ information. A key consideration is whether to store customers’ credit card information for future transactions. Currently, I don’t store customer credit info due to the possibility of a malware attack. 

I hope the advice in this article is helpful. There is no doubt that being a small business owner is challenging, but I think the other fabricators featured in this article would agree that it is also very rewarding. 

To reach Derek Robinson, email him at or