Fencing Match

A frustrating experience trying to buy a home inspired Toni and Bill Supple to launch Picket Fence Preview, a South Burlington magazine of homes for sale by owner.

by Portland Helmich

Toni and Bill Supple started Picket Fence Preview with $20,000 they'd saved for a down payment on a home. "If we'd done a business plan," says Toni, "we never would have gone through with it."

When asked, most business owners are apt to tell you that preparation was an essential ingredient in the realization of their professional goals. After all, people don't just get an idea and then go about starting a business without a solid background in their prospective trade or any semblance of a financial plan, right?

Wrong. For Toni and Bill Supple, owners of Picket Fence Preview, a monthly publication of for-sale-by-owner homes (as well as land, investment, and commercial properties) in northern and central Vermont, ignorance was a blessing. "If we'd done a business plan," Toni says, "we never would have gone through with it, because you couldn't make money doing it the way we thought we'd have to. When we were forced to figure out another way, we did."

The familiar adage, "Necessity is the mother of invention," applies not only to how the Supples have sustained and grown their business, but also to how they started it. It was the spring of 1993 when they with their infant daughter in tow began searching for their first house.

"We got frustrated," Bill remembers. "We were looking with a Realtor and being dragged to places that clearly weren't appropriate given what we'd described. As soon as you walk in the door, it's a 'Brady Bunch' house with orange counters and green walls, and you flip right around and leave. We asked why we couldn't see pictures of these places before making trips out to them, and we were told, 'That's not the way we work.'"

"At the same time," Toni continues, "we were trying to sell our condo. We'd put an ad in the paper, but felt that if we could just show people how spacious and nice it was inside, we could sell it."

Driving home from another unproductive outing with their Realtor, the couple began talking. "We said: What if you could see multiple photos of these places and save yourself wasted trips?" Bill recalls. "That was when we began to think there might be a better way to do it."

Instead of putting the $20,000 they had saved into a down payment on a house, the Supples stayed in their condo and put their money into launching Picket Fence Preview. The reason they were willing to take the financial risk, they say, is that they were infatuated with the idea and in need of a change.

A neuroscientist at the University of Vermont who preferred classrooms to laboratories, Bill says he spent more time "locked away in labs with animals" studying brain behavior than teaching students. Toni, on the other hand, enjoyed working as an account executive at Macro International, a market research firm in Burlington, but her entrepreneurial yearnings weren't being addressed. "I was at a point where I wanted to have my own business," she recollects.

With little more than a desire, a willingness to work and some of Toni's marketing and advertising skills under their belts, the couple rented office space, acquired estimates from printers and made cold calls to individuals advertising for-sale-by-owner homes in the newspaper to inform them of their new publication, which featured 1/2- or 1/4-page ads (customers have the choice of various sizes today) with interior and/or exterior photographs.

Unclear as to how many magazines they needed, the Supples distributed 50,000 copies of their first issue, which came out in September 1993 and served Chittenden, Addison and Franklin counties Today the publication also covers Washington and Lamoille counties and the Northeast Kingdom. Twenty-two homeowners advertised in the first Picket Fence Preview; four sold their houses within a week.

Roger Olson distributes Picket Fence Preview to locations around Chittenden County. The magazine publishes and distributes more than 30,000 copies per month.

Good news, but the Supples were already out of money. "It cost over $10,000 to print the first issue," Toni notes, "and by the time you pay for rent and computers..."

"We were way in the hole," Bill interjects. "We'd done a lot of work and felt as if we'd made a mistake."

"He's speaking for himself," Toni says, jumping in. "I never felt that way; I was still confident."

Bill might have been discouraged, but the soft-spoken neuroscientist had become hooked. Pointing to a photograph in the first issue, he says, "This guy here sold his place and came in and said, 'Thanks.' In science and teaching, very few people say that. I think it meant something to me to feel appreciated like that."

Less appreciative of Picket Fence Preview were local Realtors, who the Supples say were not thrilled by the publication's existence. "We learned to ignore it," Bill says.

"Yes," Toni nods. "We just concentrate on our business."

Unseasoned but determined to provide an alternative to homeowners wanting to save money on real estate commissions that hover around 6 percent, the budding entrepreneurs didn't give in. For a year, they lived off credit cards and discovered less costly ways to run their business: cheaper printers, photographing homes themselves and desktop publishing, which Bill taught himself. "We kept squeaking by," Toni recalls with a chuckle.

The Supples knew they were filling a need because word spread rapidly. They weren't prepared, however, for the myriad questions customers were asking about the for-sale-by-owner process. To become informed and satisfy their clientele, they began holding seminars, inviting real estate appraisers and attorneys, mortgage bankers and home inspectors to field questions and give advice.

It was obvious to the fledgling business partners (who met on a blind date in 1991 and married the same year) that Picket Fence Preview needed to provide education as well as advertising. In 1994, the Supples compiled the information they had gathered about selling homes by owner and teamed with a professional videographer to produce a video that would replace their monthly seminars. Though they hoped to sell the product to a wider market, it wasn't to be. "The problem with videos," explains Bill, "is that you can't refer to them readily."

Books are a different story, however. Based on a script from the video, Bill wrote How to Sell Your Own Home, which he and Toni self-published in 1996. Today, the for-sale-by-owner guide is the best-selling book in its category on Amazon.com and is offered free to homeowners who choose the Supples' two-month advertising package. The package ranges from $370 to $590 based on the size of the ad and includes free sales contracts, property disclosure forms, Internet advertising and a yard sign.

Other educational offerings can be found within the free publication. Columns like "Across the Picket Fence," in which readers' questions are answered by the legal, appraisal and financial experts with whom the Supples consult, provide homeowners with more assistance. "The business keeps evolving based on need and demand," Bill says.

What has also evolved is a change in the way people view "for-sale-by-owners.""When we started," Toni says, "there was the perception that they were cheap and difficult to deal with. We feel that that's no longer there because we've given them a high-quality outlet."

"We've made saving money chic," Bill adds, "and we've helped to demystify the notion that selling your home yourself is difficult."

Toni Supple shows Rachel Poulin the Picket Fence Preview advertising package, which includes How to Sell Your Own Home, the for-sale-by-owner book that the Supples published in 1996. Today, the guide is the bestselling book in its category on Amazon.com.

Diane Ravenscroft, owner of Ravenscroft Management Consultants in Essex Junction, would concur. In May 2001, she and her husband took advantage of what she describes as Picket Fence Preview's "excellent marketing" and put their home up for sale. "We had an offer in 48 hours on the Web for our exact asking price," Ravenscroft declares. "I believe the ability to show photos of each room and give potential buyers the sense that they're having a walk-through really helped."

"There's very little to find out about buying or selling," Ravenscroft continues. "Their book took us through the paces and reaffirmed for us that we wanted to sell our home on our own terms in our own time frame." That time frame was much shorter than expected, so Ravenscroft and her husband proceeded to "plow through"Picket Fence Preview, where they found their dream home in less than a month.

As a business owner, Ravenscroft says, she appreciates the manner in which the Supples interact with customers. "They give you their full attention," she says. "Anything that takes them away from you is an interruption."

Another value the 40-something couple shares is independence. "Bill and I prefer to do things ourselves," Toni says. "We aren't good about delegating or training others. We like that our business is a hands-on operation that requires minimal staff. That way, we spend more time interacting with clients and producing the magazine than managing employees." They employ only one part-time customer service assistant.

"She's more the art, and I'm more the science," Bill says, pointing out his role as publisher and Toni's as editor. "She's responsible for the overall look of the publication, and I do the behind-the-scenes technical thing."

"The bulk of what I do constitutes simply running the business," says Toni. "Paying bills, hiring, managing distribution of the publication, customer service, advertising and marketing, and general office management. Likewise, Bill does whatever is necessary to keep the business running smoothly in addition to the production end of things."

Given their backgrounds, it makes sense. Most of Toni's professional life has revolved around sales and marketing. After traveling solo throughout Africa for nine months after high school, Toni, who was born in Burlington and grew up "up and down the East Coast," attended the University of Vermont. She studied nursing, but later opted not to pursue a medical career. Instead, she went to live near her brother in Vail, Colo., where she spent a year as sales manager at a local resort.

After returning to Vermont, she was hired as a copywriter and account executive by Sandage Advertising & Marketing in Burlington. Toni also spent a year as director of public relations at Smuggler's Notch. She had been at Macro International for six years when she and Bill embarked on self-employment.

The more unlikely magazine publisher, Bill grew up in Fishkill, N.Y., and attended Marist College in Poughkeepsie, graduating with a psychology degree in 1981. With an eye toward becoming an undergraduate professor "at a quiet university in the middle of nowhere," he obtained a Ph.D. in psychology and neuroscience from Dartmouth College in 1986. "To get a college job, you need a Ph.D.," he explains, "and to get a Ph.D., you have to do research." Bill's area of study learning and memory had become popular; thus, subsequent jobs at Yale University and the University of Vermont required that he work more often as a scientist than as a teacher.

Sitting in their South Burlington office, which boasts a play/sick room for their three children, the Supples are at home. It's clear that the rewards of creating a livelihood together from nothing more than an idea have been worth the struggle. "When you start out," Toni says, "you can't see the end point, and sometimes you just have to trust that you'll figure it out as you go along."

The Supples have franchised and licensed their idea in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

As these seasoned magazine publishers ease into their ninth year in print, their jobs keep evolving. The Internet has become a larger component of their business, so Bill updates their site on a daily basis. "It allows us to remove any competitive edge that a newspaper may have over us," he explains, "because now we have a daily publication, too."

Moreover, the couple is involved in setting up Picket Fence Preview franchises. "A lot of people who use us move out of the area, and they're looking for a business opportunity," Bill says, beginning to laugh. "At least we can guarantee they won't make the same mistakes we did." The Supples oversee a franchise in White River Junction serving southern Vermont and western New Hampshire; they've also recently trained a Picket Fence Preview licensee in western Massachusetts.

"There's not a lot of money in it," Toni admits, "but it's the satisfaction of seeing something grow that makes us want to do it. We really like what we do."

What ever happened to the Supples' dream of owning a home? Two years after they started their business, a woman walked into their office wanting to sell a house they loved. The couple bought it without hesitation.

Their condo? Well, they followed their own advice and put it on the market themselves. "We sold it to the first person who looked at it," Bill remembers. "It's deceptively simple." •

Originally published in April 2002 Business People-Vermont