A Legacy Continues
John and Caroline LaHood talk about their adventures in family and business
Jennifer: Would you like to start off by just taking a couple of minutes and just telling us about yourselves?
John: It's been kind of a journey. I think balancing work life, especially working with family, it's important to be mindful of what you're doing and how you're doing it. It's been a great experience all the way around. We work with my brother and my dad closely with the restaurant and they've been really fabulous bosses to allow us to do Colorforge on the side. It's been a really fun experience and a fun journey.
Jennifer: You guys are in a lot of different projects so I want to get into all of that. But let’s start with the beginning.
Caroline: John's dad has done a lot, even before like LaGondola. He had teenage nightclubs, laundromats and another pizza place, so he definitely has a ton of experience that he brings to it. Very interesting man, and just the tenacity to keep sticking with small businesses, which is just a tough route. We've been so lucky to watch him and have him guide us through our journey.
Jennifer: What kind of kid were you?
Caroline: I grew up in a family that was very nine to five, my dad is a teacher, a high school teacher and my mom was able to balance staying at home and working on the side bookkeeping, which is actually what I do for the family too. So I kind of followed her route, working from home and having those big green ledger books all over. Entrepreneurship is always completely new to me. My dad always says he admires how brave Jon's family is to just take these routes that are kind of uncharted. There's a lot of advantages to that and there's a lot of disadvantages to that kind of family life. I grew up having dinner on the table at five o'clock, but our kids usually eat at 8:30 at night. So definitely a different route.
Jennifer: What's your favorite part of the business?
John: I would say it's become the schedule. Early on, I would say it was difficult always working on the weekends and working nights because that's when people are normally off. I think I've grown to like that. I've enjoyed being off in the mornings and sometimes in the afternoons and having that schedule where you work at night and work weekends. You get used to it after a while but it's our schedule, and it's just kind of fun being different than what everybody else is doing.
Jennifer: Being an entrepreneur, you get to make your own rules and do your own projects.
John: Yep, for sure. You can have a side project, you get that time to work, you get to schedule out your mornings, and do things on your own time for something like Colorforge or other side projects that we've worked on in the past.
Jennifer: How did Colorforge come about?
Caroline: It's one of my favorite stories to tell. Some of the background is that John has seven sisters, and one brother and they're all very artistic people. His sisters are amazing at makeup, so he grew up with a lot of makeup, and always kind of waiting for his sisters to finish getting out of the bathroom. He was always exposed to it. And he's also a maker, he always has some crazy craft or side project he's doing. We have a lot of expensive toys, I would say like laser cutters and CNC machines, and a couple 3D printers. So when we got married, we had three kids right away. So after our third, we wanted to get away and we ended up in Hell's Kitchen, at a 3D print conference with a six month old baby. That was my first time in New York City and it wasn't super baby friendly, but while he was at this conference, he had the idea running in the background.
Jennifer: So from the Hell’s Kitchen visit, how long after that did you guys start setting things into motion?
Caroline: That was our third son Clark, he's nine years old now. Right after we got back from that trip, John started doing some background on Binder Jet. All these patents were expiring in 2010, so that's why 3D printing really took off in the last 10 years or so, because the patents were available. Now you could use the process. So John got on eBay, and he found a 25 year old Z-Corp printer in Kentucky for $5,000. So we loaded up the same baby into a borrowed truck and trailer and we went down to Kentucky and they were selling it on a horse farm. I had the baby in the car while John spent five hours with a notebook just learning how to run this 25 year old printer.
John: Looking back, it was kind of crazy because the machine was finicky, to put it lightly. There were a lot of tricks to keep it running. So we worked on that machine for about three years in the basement, and were able to slowly learn how to sort of hack the materials to create what we wanted.
Caroline: He would work the dinner shift and come home, eat dinner, put the kids to bed and go down til four in the morning. Our whole house was covered in these paper plates with just different samples of products, all over the house. We had a workman come down to our basement. It was full of powders, and shady looking equipment. And I'm like, it's all legal down here. But yeah, it was years. And during that time, too, he filed for a patent. And he wrote the patent for the most part where we had attorneys help him but John, he's self taught. He was able to put that together and file for a patent. That was in 2014 and it was approved in 2018. It's a very long process. To get approved for that from our basement was really cool, a big achievement.
Jennifer: I feel like sometimes people will look at someone successful and they'll think it happened overnight. Did you have points where you felt like giving up or is this even worth it? What did you do?
John: It happens a lot and I think the mindset to keep going is a gift. And I've heard Caroline describe it that way, it is challenging at times. For me, it's a cyclical routine. There are times when we'll hit a roadblock, and I'll get frustrated for a day, and maybe I won't work for a day or two, but then I'll have that push to get back to it, and achieve the goal.
Jennifer: Do you feel like that time to step back is helpful in clearing your mind and helping you see a solution?
John: I do think it's helpful to step back and take a bigger look. You have to take a break every once in a while, too, but I think the struggle is real. Not that we're successful yet, but I think that the path to success, this type of story is the rule not the exception. You read about successful business ventures and it almost always goes on a very long journey.
Caroline: We were like everyone else in 2014. We're like, “By 2015, we'll be doing this.” And here we are in 2023. The route we took was windy. I look back on things that fell through and I thank God, they did fall through because they weren't the right decision at the time or the right situation. The best part of all this is our kids have been watching this whole time. They're very proud and they're very invested. They've gone through the hard times where we thought we were done and they watched John climb back up every time. I think that the character formation that they're gaining from this is the best gift Colorforge has given us.
Jennifer: They say 95% of family owned businesses fail. There's two family dynamics. I want to ask you guys about the husband and the wife, and then the brother and father relationship.
John: My family dynamic, my brother and my father at LaGondola, to put it simply, we're just really fortunate. We have a great familial relationship. My brother Richard is my best friend. My dad is my best friend and greatest mentor I've ever had. We were just very blessed. I see a lot of those family businesses where things have a tendency to end in a fight. I've never really felt that temptation to have that. And I think that's mostly because of my dad, the way he approaches business, the way he approaches family, your family is always first. The support for that trip to New York City, he was the one that pushed us to go on that trip. For our marriage more than anything, he said, you guys, go get away. So my dad, he's always been there. He’s a great mentor and a great example of a dad and husband. Same with my brother, Richard, he's 17 years older than I am. So in some ways, he's a father figure for me as well. He gives me advice and everything.
Caroline: Then as far as the husband and wife, I always say that it's not just Colorforge, it's not just LaGondola. We're running a business within our household, too. So it is definitely a lot to balance, but all we've ever known is this small business. My parents, I always watched them, and they were a team. They're just so much a team and I always wanted that. Everything we do, we have to talk to each other and communicate, and all these things that lead to a successful marriage, we have to also do for a successful business. It's kind of like we're forced into probably too much communication or too much time. But we're also best friends, we were friends before we started dating. If you can balance all those different relationships and different roles in each other's lives, it's not always easy, but luckily, we don't get sick of each other either.
Jennifer: Is that something you intentionally do? Do you set aside time to talk about issues? Or is it like a maintenance thing?
Caroline: No, it should be probably, but I think it would be nice if we had more dividing lines. I'm like, Okay, now it's LaGondola time to talk and now it’s Colorforge time. We're a little bit better about Colorforge. We have a preschooler, so now she's off at school. So this is our time for meetings and things like that, or we'll go to a coffee shop and get out of the house, because even the LaGondola bookwork is happening in our house- payroll, and things like that. But I think we've just learned through bad times, and good times, what works and what doesn't work.
Jennifer: Who is your biggest mentor?
Caroline: John's dad, definitely in everything. John's dad is always that mentor. But I think my parents have always been my biggest mentors, I wanted what they had growing up. I loved how they treated each other with respect and teamwork. They instilled in all my siblings and I this work ethic, which even at the time, I don't think a lot of kids were growing up with. Along with that, we both come from faith backgrounds, like we're both Catholic. We met at the Catholic dorm down at U of I. When you have that aspect of faith and moral compasses growing up both of us, we had kind of the same expectations and we're on the same page with our kids too, which helps a lot.
Jennifer: What is the biggest challenge that you guys have had to overcome in the business?
John: As far as LaGondola, that business has been so well established for such a long time. When I got out of college, it was basically a turnkey business for me to just step into a role. A lot of the hardship was taken out of that for me. Richard and Dad really did all the work, and really all the work of establishing a brand for years ahead of that. With Colorforge, I describe it like a roller coaster, there's been some incredible highs and some incredible lows.
Caroline: There's been a lot of no’s and a lot of not understanding what we do, doors that keep getting shut. It's so cliche, but really another one will open. Part of it is going to look for that door and thank goodness, one door closed and a better one opened. And it's also just having the understanding of the time that this wasn't what was intended, it's gotta go somewhere else. I would say the last couple of years have been tough with COVID. We've been so fortunate from the beginning, as difficult as it was to balance like elearning and running Colorforge and to keep Colorforge going.
Jennifer: My kids were not interested in elearning.
Caroline: No! We ended up buying a house in March 2020, we were renovating a house. We were really fortunate at LaGondola. We have the best staff because they not only allow us to do this to be here today but at the time, we were able to keep the doors open and keep going. There've been a lot of good lessons, a lot of good pivoting that we've had to do like every small business in the last couple of years. And that translated to Colorforge.
Jennifer: What advice would you give to maybe a son or daughter coming up in a family business that wants to do their own thing?
John: It comes down to prioritizing your job number one, but also making time to follow your passions, even if that's just learning. For years, Encyclopedia was my best friend, learning about chemically bonded ceramics and ingredients that go into a product, and cosmetic production. You can do that now on your phone, which is not how it was when my dad was young.
Caroline: A lot of LaGondola is if it's not broken, we don't fix it because it has been such a successful business. I actually went to the University of Illinois and studied hospitality management; I've never had a job outside of restaurants. I really love my father in law's mentality of simple and not overextending and to be boots on the ground. To watch him do that, in a local way, was huge. There's been things we've had to add over the years and I think I pushed it through like online ordering or DoorDash simply became a necessity. I was able to help spearhead those things because it was closer to things I understood. But as far as the rest of it goes, we keep our menu simple. We've learned to not overextend what people like.
Caroline: I grew up going to Peoria LaGondola and Leonardo's. John's dad had started the original Leonardo's way back in the day and then sold it and went on to LaGondola, so it's always fun to have someone come in and say, “Oh, I used to come here,” “We had our first date in that booth.” And then I can tell them, “My father in law was running it at the time,” and “that's my husband in the kitchen,” and “That’s my son over there folding pizza boxes.” We take a lot of pride in how local we are and how family run we still are.
Jennifer: A lot of businesses that have been around a long time in Peoria are family owned businesses.
Caroline: Exactly, they know what works. I think there's a lot of beauty in just sticking to what works. You do have to pivot a little bit. The last couple of years have thrown more at this industry than ever before. But still sticking close to your roots and not only that, but by not taking the shortcuts, the quality is what you'll see in all those other restaurants or those other family businesses, they stick to the quality and not the shortcuts, and that pays off in the long run.
Jennifer: And it's your family name. Your legacy.
Caroline: Yeah and we've been lucky that we have a lot of family that works for us or people who have become family. So our employees carry that same kind of value and every customer hopefully, it sets the tone and I think people pick up on that.
Jennifer: You guys are in the hospitality business, but no matter what business you're in, having that mindset of treating your customers with a high hospitality mindset goes a long way. A good experience is with a company that just took care of you from beginning to end.
John: It's definitely hiring the right people and people who want to be there and want to provide that service. I'll give a shout out to Wiley Knight, who has been with us for over 15 years, coming up on 20. You recognize what people are good at on the first day. Everybody who goes to our store will know Wiley because he's always sort of the guy who works in the front. And you recognize that he's really good at it, he loves to deal with customers. He loves to provide good customer service and so we say “Wiley, stay on the register, that's what you're good at.”
Jennifer: What about when you have someone, they may be new or new to the position and it starts feeling that maybe they're not the right fit? What do you do?
Caroline: We're very intentional in our hiring process. So many of our employees when they first started, I remember being like, I don't know, but I think it's working with them, training them, seeing what talents they have, and then finding that position. So many have really blossomed. We're lucky where we get high school kids and looking back the last 10 years, seeing what they've done with their lives. Not to say that we had anything to do with it, but just having expectations, “Okay, this is what we expect from you, this is what we think you're good at and make it your own.” And that goes a long way, I think in raising this next generation,
Jennifer: I know you have a lot of goals for Colorforge, what does that look like?
Caroline: Our prototype printer is finished. We're working on an eyeshadow demonstrator product. Right now, you talked about COVID supply chains, we’re waiting on a hardware upgrade for a printhead. So we're a little bit stalled out on that. But using that opportunity to just keep growing, making connections where we can. So really focusing on that and I think within a couple months, we'll have that product.
John: Yeah, and the demonstrator product is what we've been working towards for years, literally. That is essentially a makeup product using all of the same materials that are currently used in the industry to make products. Once we have that, that should be a big step for us. And we're planning on hopefully establishing a brand partner at that time, and establishing a go-to market strategy to scale up printer production to enable the manufacturing to go to market. We're coming up on this stage where I think we're going to start to put a lot of things into motion
Jennifer: What advice would you give a new business owner? Caroline: Just keep pushing forward. I think that's the name of the game, really.