Like many self-starters, Susan Reese doesn’t put much stock in the word “can’t.” As owner and president of Los Angeles-based Paper Trail Litigation Copy Service, she has successfully become the only local African American female contender in the niche market of legal reprographics.
But getting there was no easy task, especially for a woman. At age 15, she had her daughter, Monique, and was forced to go on welfare. Although she went on to wage an uphill battle with bad credit in subsequent years, she refused to continue living on handouts. “Removing my name from the welfare rolls was one of my most gratifying experiences,” says the 38-year-old.
For several months, Reese worked as a temp for various companies. In 1991, with no college degree or assets to fall back on, she left her job and took the entrepreneurial plunge. “I had everything to gain by starting my business right away,” says Reese, who contends that many aspiring entrepreneurs suffer from “ideal-time” procrastination.
With a $40,000 investment from a cousin, Reese set up a children’s clothing company. Within months, it went bust due to lack of planning, finances and incentive. Shaken but unwilling to accept defeat, Reese regrouped and searched for new ideas.
This time, after eyeing the success of retail reprographic outlets such as Kinko’s, she did extensive online and library research. She discovered that the niche market of legal reprographics was a highly specialized, $90 billion business that caters to the high-volume copying needs of attorneys and paralegals.
She wrote a business plan in eight months and secured $15,000 in startup capital from her sister, Margaret Floyd. “If your business plan is solid and makes sense, you will find investors to give you money,” says Reese, who had easily convinced her sister. Paper Trail was launched a month later in late 1995.
During the first few months, Reese made some radical changes to her family situation. She sent her daughter to live with her father and moved into the Paper Trail headquarters. “I literally lived at the office so I could save money to reinvest in the company,” she says.
She was able to garner the support of Kirkland & Ellis, a law firm she had worked for years ago. The company used her services, giving credence to her establishment, thereby attracting other customers, says Reese, who works with local law firms and top global companies such as Price Waterhouse.
She has since reaped the benefits of her sacrifice and determination. Paper Trail’s first-year sales in 1996 exceeded $300,000 and nearly doubled last year. Reese oversees a staff of 16, including 23-year-old Monique.
This year, Reese projects sales of $1.5 million, thanks to the addition of two new account executives. She is currently negotiating a franchise agreement with Nancy Denise Davidson, an African American colleague from her days in the garment industry, that will result in a second Paper Trail office in the Century City area of Los Angeles.
Proving life doesn’t have to end because of dire situations, Reese mentors teenage mothers, teaching them to draw