Monroe entrepreneur crafts a safety net for small businesses

When it comes to building a business, some entrepreneurs mistake success with size, assuming that bigger means better.

Donna Maria Coles Johnson, founder and CEO of the Charlotte-area-based Indie Business Network, wants to dispel that notion. Nothing wrong with growing big, she says, but size alone is not the measure.

“There are different definitions of success,” said Johnson, 51, in a recent interview with ShopTalk, “and more and more people are feeling the freedom to define it on their own terms.”

Johnson, a former corporate attorney, may be her own best example.

After more than a decade in law, including a stint spent in South Africa, she resigned in 1995 to follow her passion – soap making – which caused her father to question whether his daughter had gone insane.

But soap making was not to be for Johnson. After one year, she said, she realized that her soap products were not as good as those her competitors made.

She returned to law for a while. But after a few years, she realized that she had a penchant (and a love) for small business.

That’s when the Handmade Toiletries Network – later renamed IBN – was born.

Johnson says the network today has about 1,000 members spread over all 50 states. Nearly all make and sell their own lines of products – candles, cosmetics, jewelry, etc. – or offer supplies or services to those who do. About 95 percent of her members are women.

In 2006, Johnson moved her family from the D.C. area to Monroe, citing the lower cost of living and a better lifestyle. (She went to school at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, so she felt familiar with the area.)

Johnson says that over the years she has resisted the financial urge to add unrelated industries.

“I embrace the idea that whoever we attract we want to be able to serve,” she says. “I would rather get two more sugar scrub manufacturers than five plumbers.”

By sticking to what she does best, Johnson says, the network has been better able to meet its members’ needs, which has resulted in better word-of-mouth and member loyalty.

That, in essence, is the advice she offers to IBN members. In a recent column posted to her website,, she admonished members to “drill down into a niche,” “resist bright and shiny things” and “add new revenue streams carefully.” She titled the column “Six Keys to Going Big Without Growing Big.”

So, what’s wrong with being big?

“It’s a bad thing for you if you can’t run a big business,” she said, “or if it takes over your life and you end up hating it, or if you don’t know what you’re getting into.”

IBN member Jennifer Devlin, founder and CEO of Celtic Complexion Organic Skincare, which is based in Raleigh, said what she gets from IBN is well worth the $150 annual membership dues.

“When you are an entrepreneur, you completely feel that you are alone,” she said. “It’s nice to have a network you can access and get information from.”

Devlin was one of about 30 IBN members who joined Johnson last month on a working cruise that made stops in Jamaica, Haiti, Grand Cayman. Devlin says each day was filled with workshops, speakers and networking along with lots of food and fun.

“It was great to have the camaraderie with other members and be able to brainstorm,” Devlin says. “It motivates you.”

Curtis Durham, co-founder and co-owner of Bath Nation of Littleton, Colo., says he didn’t make the cruise, but like Devlin he said IBN members are known for helping one another.

An aerospace engineer by training, Durham says he and his wife launched their line of lotions, gel cleansers and body butter without fully understanding all aspects of the business, especially the selling part. So he turned to fellow IBN members when he needed help building his sales structure.

“There are tons of people to draw on for all aspects of the business,” Durham says. “Everybody is in the same boat, and everybody shares their knowledge and experience and lifts everybody up.”

Johnson says what she likes best about IBN is that she gets to work with others who share a passion for small business. When she’s not coaching or consulting businesses, she writes a regular column and even hits the speaking circuit.

“It’s important to me that entrepreneurs, at whatever stage they are in feel like their business is important,” she says. “I don’t want smaller entrepreneurs to feel that, just because they are profitable on a smaller scale, that their business is not important or that it doesn’t matter or that it’s not worthy of being on the cover of Entrepreneur Magazine or The Charlotte Observer.”

Johnson’s advice to entrepreneurs: Set goals but enjoy the ride.

“You’ve got to be in the black – sustainable,” she said. “But as long as you’re beating inflation and you’re selling products and your customers are happy, then you have a business.”

As for her decision to walk away from corporate law:

“Yes, I have looked back, but I’ve never looked back thinking that I will stop,” she said. “I’ve looked back because it’s hard. I’ve looked back thinking, ‘It was real easy as a lawyer.’ I also look back because it has affected my family. Entrepreneurship is tough.”

And as for her father, who died in 2007:

“Shortly before he passed,” she said, “he did tell me that he was proud that I had done what I wanted to do.”