National Small Business Week Spotlight: René Polin and Balance

Now in its 53rd year, National Small Business Week celebrates the positive impact entrepreneurs and small businesses have on the economy. In honor of this week, we’ll be profiling a group of local scaleup businesses that are connected to our work. These scaleups are established small businesses who have made it through the difficult startup stage and are now pursuing continued growth through innovation.

Cleveland scaleup, Balance, is no stranger to innovation. Over the last twelve years, the company has evolved from traditional industrial design to a full-service product and experience innovation firm. We spoke with President and Founder, René Polin, who shed light on the importance of pivoting, the challenge of keeping Balance alive during the Great Recession and what it means to grow his business on home turf.

Tell us about why you started your business?
I started Balance with the philosophy that everything in life needs the perfect balance, especially in the world of product design. I’d seen many products too heavily focused on aesthetics and some too heavily focused on engineering or cost. Great design needs to be somewhere in the middle. Balance takes a bottom-up approach that truly pleases the end-user, all the while keeping an eye on efficient manufacturing and the bottom line of our clients’ businesses.

How has your business grown or evolved since you first opened your doors?
We started as a traditional industrial design firm focusing on product design, engineering and prototyping. But we’ve steadily evolved to become a full-service product and experience innovation firm. We added research and strategy to the front end many years ago, and now have the ability to also provide go-to-market strategies and services to the back end.

One of the major shifts for Balance has been our strategic approach to the physical/digital convergence in product development— think seamless physical product design combined with digital interfaces and applications. And in the last twelve months, Balance has successfully created an innovation program that we can bring to any type of business to help them think differently and build their own culture of innovation.

What kind of challenges have you faced as a small business owner?
As with any small firm, and particularly a service firm, we are always faced with capital-raising challenges. Sales and marketing are continued challenge as well, because when you focus so much time serving your clients, you sometimes forget to focus on promoting your own business.

What will your business look like in the next five years?
Balance will look very different in five years. As markets, manufacturing and technologies continue to change, our service business must stay ahead of trends and pivot appropriately.  One major focus in our business is the development of our own intellectual property assets. We are assessing our deep library of IP here this year with the goal of patenting and commercializing dozens of products over the next two years. This may include licensing or the establishment of spin-off companies.

Why did you choose to start your business in Northeast Ohio?
I was born and raised in Northeast Ohio, and have a fierce devotion to this area. This region reflects my personality, as I come from a blue-collar, hard-working family. My Cuban-born father suffered through many cold winters working on the train yards of Whiskey Island to support our family. The people here are like my father, and have a deep pride and never-say-die attitude. It’s just the kind of thing that empowers and inspires entrepreneurs like myself.

We ask all the entrepreneur we profile to give us examples of failures or setbacks they’ve experienced in order to inspire others and show them that every business deals with adversity. Anything come to mind for you?
Balance hit its five year anniversary in 2009—right in the middle of the Great Recession. I had to make some tough decisions that year to make sure we survived. We did, and thrived afterward. We’ve experienced and overcome some high hurdles that include an office fire and the loss of our largest client at one point. If a business owner doesn’t know how to make tough decisions and pivot quickly, he or she will never make it forward. You’ve got to have a thick skin, and make sure to ‘balance’ your work and personal life just right.