Young and entrepreneurial: a tale of prejudice and profit

25-and-under SW business owners say they love the work, but hate the ageism

Many people in their early 20s can't imagine owning their own business at that age. But a few young entrepreneurs in Southwest are doing exactly that.

These eager businesspeople -- all 25 or younger -- are proving they can be successful in Southwest, whether they're running a retail store or a masonry contracting business.

Most of the young business owners acknowledged that their age gives them a few advantages in the business world; however, many said it's been more of an obstacle and a

hindrance to success than anything else.

Show me the money! Nicole Wersal, 22, owner of Tidbits, 3010 Lyndale Ave. S., opened her home-accessories store in September, following college. She said that because of her age, she could never have started her business without the help of her family.

She said she had a lot of retail work experience and always thought she could create a successful store, but felt that it wasn't a possibility until she was older. "Who is going to give someone my age money to start a business?" Wersal said.

But after approaching her family with her dream and a business plan, she said she was able to start up her business with their financing and some merchandising help from family friends with retail connections. She said her parents have owned a paramedical insurance business for 12 years, so owning her own business seemed natural. "I grew up with it," she said.

Wersal's commercial neighbors, Jason Cohen, 25, and Ryan Bloch, 23, own The Loading Zone, 3008 Lyndale Ave. S., a coffee and tea bar with high-end computers networked for gaming. The Loading Zone opened last May. Cohen and Bloch said they also had a rough start because of their age.

The driven duo had started a computer company named Fourth Dimension two years earlier; Cohen said he and his partner were savvy in the ways of business and proposals.

But he said when they sought $70,000 to start The Loading Zone, they were laughed right out of the bank. "They thought we were 12," Cohen said.

So to get their business off the ground, the two also went to their parents. Bloch said they then also decided to lease their business equipment instead of buying it, since leasing companies were more responsive.

After getting start-up money, the two searched for computers to stock their business. At the first place they went, Cohen said, a salesperson wouldn't see them. "They didn't want to have anything to do with us because we're young," he said.

You're the boss? Not everyone hits up mom and dad. Wes Durand, the 22-year-old owner of Stonepointe Masonry, was able to save money for his company's start-up on his own. He said he also encountered ageism -- especially when dealing with customers.

An entrepreneur at heart, Durand owned and sold an Internet company by age 18. He said after working with a masonry contractor and learning about the business, he decided to try it out. At 19, he did home repairs and remodeling for a summer, and it went so well that he turned his enterprise into a company that almost exclusively serves Southwest residents.

Durand said although his work experience gave him a great portfolio of completed jobs and good references, he still has problems with customers because of his age. "There's an image that to be a mason you have to be over the age of 50 with a pot belly and a bald head, and I'm not that," he said.

On the job site, Durand said clients sometimes scoff when they meet him because they're unsure about trusting their house -- the largest investment they have -- to such a young person.

To counteract that, he said he would show clients his portfolio of previous jobs and encourage them to call references. But then, he said, he faced a challenge getting some clients to pay for work he had done.

"To get the money I had to be an ass," Durand said. “I don't like hostility.”

After three years in the business, he said the second-guessing has gotten too frustrating, so he'll sell his company soon and pursue another line of work.

Tidbits' Wersal said her age was a particular problem when dealing with a customer complaint or merchandise representative. "It was a 'let me talk to your manager' type of thing," she said.

Because of this attitude, Wersal said she was often forced to be aggressive in business deals. "I've had to be just a bear, but learning that has been good for me," she said.

Jolane Dahlheimer, 22, owner of Plan B Coffeehouse, 2717 Hennepin Ave., got a bank loan and purchased the business where she had been working when she was 19. She said she has also found that product solicitors are harder to deal with.

Dahlheimer said a few times they haven't take her very seriously, because she's young and female. She said despite repeated requests to leave, many solicitors returned to hock their cleaning products and candy for bogus charities. But she said she doesn't view her age or gender as a weakness because she's assertive and direct.

Young is good Dahlheimer said she's tried to use youth as an advantage to make her business grow.

She said because of her age, she was more enthusiastic and driven to accomplish her career goal of owning her own coffee shop.

Growing up in Anoka, Dahlheimer said she never had a cool coffee shop such as hers to hang out in. She said her youthful perspective doesn't drive the shop's ambiance, but does affect the amenities such as an Internet kiosk with a digital camera.

Cohen said his youth has been an advantage for his business, because starting out at such a young age allows more time to get failure out of the way: "We have more time to lose, so if we fall on our butts, we can get right back up."

Bloch said it also helps that they can still survive on only six hours of sleep.

He added that because the target market is 16 to 21, their ages have helped customer relations, because many like owners their own age, and the shop has a more comfortable atmosphere. "Kids know what it's like to be ignored in a store," Bloch said.

And Cohen said because they play a lot of the same computer games as their customers, they know what's popular and are better able to tailor their store to patrons.

While these businesspeople found money to start, they all said it's taken a lot more than that to stay afloat.

Support Cohen and Bloch said they've found longtime clients and other small business owners have been good sources of business advice and even financial support.

Dahlheimer agreed, and said when she has a business question or needs help, there is always someone she can talk to. She said the key is not being too intimidated to ask questions; the previous owner of her coffee shop was particularly helpful showing her how he ran the business.

She also joined the South Hennepin Business Association, which she said has been a good way to stay connected to nearby business owners and local news.

Cohen, Bloch and Wersal have all joined the Lyn-Lake Business Association. They said being in a group gave them a sense of community and helped get their names out.

Aside from the support of her family, Wersal said having support from other young business owners such as Cohen and Bloch has been especially helpful. She said it helps to talk to them about what does, and doesn't, work with their businesses. If she's having a rough day, she adds, they can relate. Wersal said it's been motivating watching them succeed in business. "It's been encouraging to see that the boys next door can make it," she said.

The Loading Zone, 3008 Lyndale Ave. S., 824-2302 Tidbits, 3010 Lyndale Ave. S., 825-9229 Plan B Coffeehouse, 2717 Hennepin Ave. , 872-1419 Stonepointe Masonry (operates in Southwest, headquartered at 7326 Claredon Dr., Edina), 952-200- 2476