How Two Guys With No Business Experience Now Compete With The Big Dogs In Town

by Tim Jahn on August 13, 2010

Have you ever worked at a job and thought “I could run this place better”?  Robert Groth and Carter Robins did just that.

Robert and Carter are technical theater guys (not business guys).  They work on the magic that occurs behind the scenes to make theater happen.  While working on a show 3 years ago and seeing how much the company they were working for was making off their work building the set, they realized they could make more money and do a much better job if they opened their own shop.

So they did.  Three years ago, Robert and Carter opened Crosstown Scenic, a shop Chicago that builds scenery for theater, displays, television shows, and movies.

How did two guys with a background in technical theater and zero business knowledge successfully open their own scene shop and become their own boss?


Robert Groth: We build scenery for mostly theater, get a couple of display jobs…willing to do anything that develops scenery.

Tim Jahn: So when you say build scenery, you’re talking about the actual, from scratch, the wood, the paint, everything.

Carter Robins: Yeah.  We do contract work and somebody will call us or send an email like we need this built for – sometimes it’s the client coming to us, sometimes it’s the designer themselves.  And we kind of take a look at what it will take to make that creative design happen.

Tim Jahn: You said when you started this, it was like, oh we can do this better.

Robert Groth: Yeah.

Tim Jahn:
I mean, that’s – how did you just go out and all right, let’s start a scene shop?

Robert Groth: I mean, that was kind of it.  It was frustration at that moment, at the show that we were working that we honestly had found the bid sheet from the company that we were working on and saw what they made for the set that we were fixing for a fraction of what they got paid.  So it was like, it really was kind of frustration at first.  And then we actually thought it through and like, oh we really can do this.  So –

Tim Jahn: What are the biggest challenges of starting your own company from scratch like that?

Carter Robins: Not going to business school is the main one.  That’s pretty much it.  Yeah, all the – we’re good at what we do as far as our technical director job titles are concerned.  But it’s a steep lined curve going from that and doing that job and also managing the taxes and the accounting and the marketing; all those aspects.  But I think we have a knack for finding people to help us out.

Tim Jahn: So what keeps you guys coming in everyday?

Carter Robins: It’s not the money.

Robert Groth: No, it’s generally ambition to get this thing to work.  And I – its definitely interesting work.  I don’t think I could say that I’ve been bored in the last three years.  I – yeah, just ambition to make this work and not to give it up.  That’s what keeps me going.

Carter Robins: Yeah.  I just want to be my own boss.  So I’ve got to keep coming into work.  I wouldn’t want to have myself fired.

Tim Jahn: By yourself?

Carter Robins: Yeah.  We kind of got into – when we started the company, we were competing against one other shop that I had worked for before.  And I thought we could do a better job.  And then we kind of immediately jumped past them and started competing with larger shops.  And now we’re competing with the larger shops in the city.

And that’s just been really – I’m impressed with how quickly we rose to that level.  And now we’re all mortal enemies I guess with these other large shops.  And they started out sending us work, stuff that, the scraps that they didn’t want or whatnot.  So it’s – now there’s a real competition like specifically with these large shops.

Tim Jahn: So what’s your number one piece of advice for someone that did what you did, saw a need, started a company, solved that need?

Carter Robins: Don’t mess with us.  No.

Robert Groth: Yeah, I mean, you, if you do it the way we did it, you really got to be prepared for some hardships.  But I don’t know, according to the business school type rules we should not have done things the way that we did them.

But you know, I don’t know if the passion would have stayed around to do it if we would have tried to you know, set up everything absolutely correctly and do the proper business model and all of that.  So you know, I think you just have to follow your heart.  Do what makes you feel good.

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