Starting a Christmas business

Balancing a startup with a fulltime job

In the last three editions of PlanetChristmas magazine, I’ve written about sequencing a display for others, planning your own large scale display and a behind the scenes look at two large commercial displays. This month I’d like to take the column in a slightly different direction by sharing with you why I started a Christmas lighting business and how I balance a start-up opportunity with a full time job.
Ask twenty owners of small businesses why they started and you are likely to get twenty different answers. Most will say they wanted to control their own fate or they had such a passion for their hobby they built and executed a business model to support it.

The decision to start Synchronized Christmas was actually a pretty simple one; I was tired of hearing the same ten songs at Christmas every year.

At the time Synchronized Christmas was started I was working part time at an ice skating rink that had a large 95 foot tall animated Christmas tree placed on the center ice every year. The songs used to flash the lights to music had been played since 2000, which means for seven seasons (2000-2006) I had to listen to that music over and over and over. The thought of going another year with the same tunes wasn’t something I was looking forward to experiencing and it was obvious the only way to change what that giant tree was playing was to do it myself. So in this case a business was started for purely selfish reasons. Thus began my quest to start my own Christmas based business, and hopefully get some new songs for that tree. With the help of another vendor, I was able to get my first real paying job in the Christmas lighting business reprogramming that giant Galleria Dallas tree.

However, with this first job came the responsibility of properly setting up a business. This is where the real research took place, as I had to educate myself on the various incorporation and tax laws within the state of Texas. After a while I decided that it would be best to enlist the help of an attorney and CPA (Certified Public Accountant) so as to avoid any critical steps in the creation of my business. While this was not cheap, it does give me some peace of mind that the paperwork is in order. If you ever decide to start your own business, please give serious consideration to getting professional help in these areas. Unless you are a lawyer or CPA, there are bound to be laws and regulations that you simply don’t know about.

With one successful display to my credit, I began to think about what direction I wanted to take my fancy new company called Synchronized Christmas. I suspect that many people who start a business do so with a goal of working for themselves one day. I gave this a lot of consideration but I already had a full time job with the security and benefits that come with it. I’ve always enjoyed that job as it has enabled me to gain a wealth of knowledge in both the datacenter and network engineering fields. Did I really want to leave a secure job to work for myself full time? After lots of thought I figured I could do both.

The next obstacle was figuring out how to handle two jobs while not neglecting one or the other. While my boss at my full-time job enjoys hearing about my various lighting projects, it doesn’t excuse me from being late on a project that’s due for him. Thus, I had to come up with a business plan that afforded me some flexibility in how I go about Synchronized Christmas.

Here’s the trick I finally figured out to have the best of both worlds. Synchronized Christmas does not offer installation services. I only do design, consulting and programming/sequencing. In limiting the number of services offered, I’m better able to manage my time and focus on the aspects of the business that I truly enjoy. For the most part, this has allowed me to stay at home during the month of November instead of traveling and setting up various displays around the country. I typically meet with clients in late spring/early summer to review their display area ideas and discuss with them what they want to achieve. I’m able to work on their design and programming during the evenings and weekends as time permits (and of course, around the demands of my full time job.)

While this business plan allows me to build Synchronized Christmas at the same time as working a full time job, it does have some challenges. The biggest drawback is the majority of my vacation time comes near the end of the year. I’m fortunate in that I get a little more than the average two weeks of vacation, which helps; however on average my first day off isn’t until the Memorial Day weekend at the end of May. When I do take time off, it’s to either meet a client in their city or to simply get ahead in some of the design and programming work to reduce stress later in the year.

The other drawback is that I’m limited in the amount of work that I can take on each season. It’s painful to turn down a project, but I’ve had to do so in the past because the size and scope was too large when put up against the calendar. Most of the projects that I turn down are when I’m approached in the last quarter of the year and a client wants me to design a display from the ground up in two weeks.

Then there’s the biggest challenge: the busiest time of year in the Christmas business is the same time when everyone else is decorating, enjoying the holidays and wanting to be with the family. I’ve been asked in the past what my family thinks of the business and if they are okay with the amount of time it requires. I’m fortunate to have a wife who enjoys the lights as much as I do and doesn’t complain (much) when I’m buried in Christmas light projects instead of being with her. She knows that come Christmas time the house will have lights on it and she’ll get to show it off.

Given the fact that I have a full time job, why do I continue to run a business that takes up so much of what should be free time? I enjoy the work. I’ve met some great people in the Christmas industry while at the same time laying down a foundation for the business to grow and making my family’s future secure.

Don Teague is the owner of Synchronized Christmas, Inc., which provides design, consultation and programming services for residential, commercial and municipal displays featuring synchronized Christmas lights.


This article was included in the March 2010 issue of PlanetChristmas Magazine.

By Don Teague

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