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An interview with Keith Leaphart of Replica Creative

Keith Leaphart is the owner of Replica Creative, a design and print firm based in Philadelphia. As simple as that statement was, the story behind the company and its owner is far from simple.

Keith Leaphart is the owner of Replica Creative, a design and print firm based in Philadelphia.  As simple as that statement was, the story behind the company and its owner is far from simple.  First, Keith Leaphart is a practicing physician at Bryn Mawr Hospital.  Secondly, the business is growing in a society that seems to use paper a lot less than it used to.  Third, Keith Leaphart is a doctor and a business owner who also happens to be a husband and father.  It's difficult enough running a successful business without other "distractions" and industry hindrances, so one can assume that it takes a special kind of person to do what Keith is doing.

In the interview below, Dr. Leaphart discusses how he began with Replica Creative, his advice to aspiring entrepreneurs and what he's doing now that's never been done before.  Enjoy.

CC: Can you please introduce yourself for those who don't know?

KL: Keith Leaphart, Owner & Brand Manager at Replica Creative.  I'm a physician by training; entrepreneur by birth.

CC: Physician by trade.  Can you walk us through how you went from being a physician to an entrepreneur?

KL: Since the age of 5 years old, I wanted to be a physician.  But as I got older, the doctor I wanted to be when I was 5 wasn't the doctor I could be when I was 25.  Medicine has totally changed from more of a free market system where you used to have a pay-as-you-go type of thing and you could really interact with your patients.  Now it's an insurance driven industry that isn't really for someone like me who is more entrepreneurial.

So I did a medical MBA program back in 1998 and finished in 2003.  And the main reason I did it was to show other young African American men who grew up similarly to me in the city, that you could do it.  I didn't want to get to a point in my life and say I should've done it, or question whether or not I could've done it.  So it was really at that point, it was about accomplishing a goal that I set at 5.

As I went through medical school, I had multiple business ventures.  One was a commercial cleaning business and the other was an event planning business.  And I always jokingly say I partied my way through medical school.  I planned a lot of big events and I had a lot of fun.  It was a nice balance and a good way to make money and connect with people.

After I finished medical school, I did my residency at Thomas Jefferson Hospital but I never thought I would be practicing for a long time.  I did think I was going to be the CEO of a hospital.  But I realized that the entrepreneurial calling was there and I didn't want to be stuck in a suit and tie all day.  I don't have a problem with a suit and tie but it wasn't the way I wanted to live my life.  This business here really just fell out of the sky onto my radar and I decided to acquire it.

CC: So this business was already established before you became involved?

KL: When I acquired it, the business had been around for 30 years.  We're now in our 34th year.  It had a great track record; it just needed to be repositioned.  It was more of a traditional printing environment; somewhat old and dated.  Now we've transitioned to a more creative brand; very contemporary.  Our business is all about being warm and comfortable, not transactional.  We want you to come in and spend time with us.

CC: Did you alter some of the services?

KL: We didn't have to alter the product because the quality of the product was excellent.  I wouldn't have bought a business if the quality of the product wasn't excellent.  But what we needed to do was change the face of the brand.  We needed to change what people thought it was.  When you're in an old dirty print shop, people are going to think you're an old dirty business.  We had to change to a more contemporary look.  As you can see in our space we have an 8'x10' movie projector and flat screens all over the place.  You don't see any paper, you don't see boxes, you don't see any printing machinery.  You see contemporary creativity.  And we've expanded the services to include custom wallpapering.  But we had a great client base so what we focused on was strengthening the relationships with our clients and that's how we've been growing our business.

CC: So let's rewind a little bit.  Now when you say you purchased the business, to a young entrepreneur, readers might be thinking, "Oh he's rich. He must've come in and dropped a million dollars and now he owns a business." Can you clarify the process?

KL: Well I was definitely not rich.  I'm still not rich.  But when I purchased the business, I had to borrow the money to do so.  The business acquisition cost was $850,000.  I had $75,000 in private capital on my own when I got into the business.  I borrowed $600,000 from an angel investor and had the seller keep a note for $250,000.  So I used the $75,000 for working capital to start.  So I had about a $30,000 per month note on day one and that came out before staffing, overhead, rent, equipment, or machinery.  But I got the seller out in 2 years and I got the angel investor out in 4 years.

CC: Some people might look at that as risky because you're taking on a lot of debt, so how do you manage that risk and still be profitable?

KL: It's definitely risky but now I realize why I went to medical school.  I didn't want to live off the business.  I told my angel investor that I wouldn't take any money out of the business until he got his money back.  I was preparing myself to live off my income from medicine.  I'm currently still on staff at Bryn Mawr rehab hospital at night and on the weekends.

CC: Wow.  So you're managing both.  How does that work out with your personal life?

KL: I have a very understanding family.  And there is nothing else besides work and family.  I don't play golf.  I don't have a lot of other activities that get in between that so it's a nice balance for me.  When I go to work they want to get rid of me anyway and when I come home, they want to see me.

CC: What advice would you give a young entrepreneur who's trying to manage working a 9-5 while building a successful business?

KL: There are a couple things involved with being successful.  I think everyone has ideas but everyone doesn't execute.  So you have to have ideas, a plan, and be willing to execute.  Then you have to have an unbelievable work ethic.  I never considered myself to be the smartest in the room but I should be the hardest working.  You have to have the mindset that this is no short-term strategy.  If I'm going to do this, it's not about me getting paid today.  It's about building a brand and building something that hopefully, down the road, will allow me to have a good life.

CC: Any last words of advice for personal growth?

KL: Get a great team of mentors.  Sometimes people look for mentors in the same space that they're in but sometimes it's better to look for mentors outside of the space you're in.  If you're an aspiring person in the insurance industry, sure it's great to have someone from the industry tell you about what to expect.  But it's also great to have people outside of that who just know about business and who don't look at you as competition.  Be committed to something.  Do what you say you're going to do.  Have integrity.  And just as much as your business brand is important, your personal brand is just as important.

CC: What's next for Replica Creative?

KL: I'm super excited because we just opened the first of it's kind; a new location of the business that combines design services with a barista/café located in University City at 3711 Market Street.  We're branding it as the Creative Café at Replica.  Like I said earlier, we don't want to be transactional, we want to be relationship driven.  So what better way to get to know our clients than over a cup of coffee?  We always considered ourselves the Starbucks for designers without the coffee so now we have the coffee.