Year One // Part 4
Rolling with the punches
Year One entrepreneurs cope with the challenges of navigating the first year of launching a small business
For our final installment of our “Year One” series tracking 10 small startups in the city, we asked the entrepreneurs to reflect on lessons learned in 2010 and share their outlooks for 2011. We appreciate their willingness to let us chronicle their first year in business and admire their determination.
David Schuster and Cullen Donovan, co-owners of The Lost and Found Thrift, recently sat down to watch a movie with a group of friends.
It doesn’t matter what movie it was; the point is they spent most of the time talking about the clothes and outfits on screen. Among the others in attendance — those not trying to make a go of it in second-hand fashion — there was a lot of eye rolling.
For Schuster and Donovan, it was business as usual. Or life as usual; the two are hard to separate these days.
“This is life,” Schuster said, sitting behind the counter of The Lost and Found on a Tuesday in mid-December, what should have been his day off.
Friends since high school, the two opened the store together in mid-2009. They stuck together through the trials of running a start-up business, including an unexpected 60-day shutdown in late summer when torrential rains collapsed the shop’s roof, leading to weeks of negotiating with their landlord, insurance agency and roofing contractors.
They reopened in October, having missed both back-to-school shopping season and the annual changeover to a fall wardrobe. Still, they made the most of a bad situation, spending much of the two-month hiatus organizing their basement stockroom.
“It was chaos down there,” Schuster said, adding that now it would be much easier to restock items on the sales floor.
It reflects a key lesson the two learned since opening The Lost and Found: the importance of good time management.
Donovan and Schuster focus their attention on building the business: advertising (cheaply, whenever possible), improving their inventory and finding inexpensive materials to spruce the place up, like free track lighting rescued from the garbage heap. They “outsource” other projects, like installing new mirrors near the fitting rooms, to friends, Donovan said.
“We’ve got lots of ideas and we’re only two guys, so we need some help sometimes,” Schuster said.
Those ideas flow constantly. They talk about borrowing design elements from favorite bars and restaurants, what’s happening in other local thrift shops and boutiques, where to distribute flyers for a December sale.
It can be hard to stop the shoptalk, especially since they began sharing an apartment in the fall.
Said Donovan: “We actually have to make time to not see each other.”
— Dylan Thomas
The Lost and
Opened May 2009
2524 Nicollet Ave. S.
A sweet niche
Whatever it was — the visual appeal of her smartly decorated shop, the foodie fervor for her hard-to-find gourmet treats, the recession-inspired trend for cheap indulgences — Joni Wheeler hit the sweet spot with Sugar Sugar Candy.
Wheeler’s tiny shop drew an outsized amount of attention almost from the moment it opened its doors, including a mention last spring in USA Today. That, and the steady stream of customers walking through her door, is enough to judge Sugar Sugar Candy a success.
And that, for a first time small-business owner, feels really, really good.
“It’s a big ‘Yes’ that doesn’t come in any other way,” Wheeler said.
Success comes at a cost, of course: six days a week behind the counter at her shop, endless hours trolling the Internet for new and unique candies and chocolates and the stress that comes with betting it all on yourself.
“It’s all-consuming,” Wheeler said. “I eat it, no pun intended. I sleep it. I wake up at three o’clock in the morning thinking I should do this or I should order this.”
She’s learned some lessons along the way, too. Among the most important lessons has been the power of social networking for small businesses.
Sugar Sugar Candy’s Facebook page “has been the best thing for me,” said Wheeler, describing how she uses it to connect instantly with customers. If a shipment of new chocolates arrives from Europe, she can have pictures online “within 15 minutes” of opening the box.
The store’s website is little more than a placeholder, for now, with store hours, contact information and little else. But Sugar Sugar Candy’s Facebook friends chat with Wheeler online, ooh and aah over new arrivals and make special requests — all 1,000-plus of them.
“That’s pretty good for a little joint,” she said.
Wheeler’s shop is a one-woman operation (for now, at least, since she hopes to hire an employee in 2011) but she often relies on the advice and business acumen of her husband, the general manager of a local retail chain who Wheeler refers to as “Mr. Common Sense.” He’s a counterbalance to Wheeler, who often operates on instinct.
“Most of the time, I fly by the seat of my pants,” she said.
So, Mr. Common Sense, what do you think of a Sugar Sugar Candy mobile food cart next summer?
Think about it.
— Dylan Thomas
Sugar Sugar Candy
Opened October 2009
3803 Grand Ave. S.
Keeping the big picture in mind
It took about 13 months to happen, but business at Ollu, Jodel Fesenmaier’s self-serve dog wash and grooming salon, finally hit a lull.
“We’ve been slower than I’ve ever experienced, except for that first month of being open,” Fesenmaier said during the first week of December. She shrugged it off as a typical dip in the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But still, for a business that has been mostly successful since it opened in October 2009 — following a spike last spring, Ollu has enjoyed a high plateau all summer — the drop-off can be alarming.
“I get really stressed out if I focus on the day-to-day of it,” Fesenmaier says.
And that, she points out, is one of the biggest lessons she’s had to learn as a new business owner: Don’t panic over the week-to-week drama. Predicting lulls and surges can be maddening. A snowy weekend can mean big sales, as dogs get dirty romping around in the slush. But a deluge of the white stuff — like the ones that hit Dec. 4 and 11 — can bring business to a halt.
So Fesenmaier tries “to focus on the big picture” — especially since she’s about to get a new competitor. A new dog grooming service is opening up in the West Metro, she says.
“So that’s a whole new challenge. So I just keep my eye on my business, on what’s working and what’s not working, and not get bogged down looking at other businesses.”
Any other advice she’d pass along to fellow entrepreneurs?
“Customer service,” she says. “When people come here, they’re dropping off essentially their child, so they’re really concerned with the care. And we’re offering a very high level of care …When I answer the phone, sometimes people are shocked that the owner is here, working every day. I think that instills a little bit of comfort in them.”
Not that she’s there every single day; after 13 months, she says she’s now able to take one day off each week.
Also, be wary of advertising, she added. Fesenmaier, who’s long been leery of spending too much on marketing, recently paid for an insert in City Pages. The gambit hardly generated any business, she says. She’s had much better luck with word-of-mouth and referrals, both drummed up via Ollu’s Facebook account and customer e-newsletter.
“I could dedicate my whole week to doing marketing,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like I get bogged down doing that. You could spend thousands, easily, in a month on it. And I think in a small business you need to watch that, because it can put you out pretty easily.”
— Gregory J. Scott
Opened October 2009
221 Main St. SE
Committed to positive thinking
Lisa and Curtis Sanford are optimistic about 2011, but getting their new veterinary hospital off the ground has not been an easy task by any means.
When asked about key lessons learned, Lisa Sanford, the office manager behind the business, said trying to keep upbeat despite setbacks has been crucial to weather the challenges of the first year of their venture.
“The number one lesson that we learned through this whole process is to keep a positive attitude when times get rough,” she said. “With the whole uncertainty of the economy, it is easy to bring yourself down and wonder if you are doing everything possible to make your business a success.”
Another key lesson, according to the Sanfords, is being wise about advertising.
“You are bombarded with people trying to sell you advertising spots here and there and it could get away from you pretty fast if you are not careful.”
The veterinary hospital in the Bridgewater building in the city’s Mill District serves all kinds of animals, but primarily dogs and cats. Curtis Sanford specializes in stem cell therapy for arthritis in cats and dogs. The couple also works with two animal rescue groups — Pet Project Rescue and Underdog Rescue.
As for the most satisfying aspect of their work, Lisa Sanford said they have been blessed to meet many great people. Some have become good friends.
If they were asked to offer advice to people contemplating launching a business in these especially challenging economic times, she said a clear business plan is very important and a reserve of cash to help weather tough spots.
“Having a cast iron stomach is also a plus,” she said. “It is not easy and it will test even the healthiest of relationships. Dr. Sanford and I have been married for over 20 years and it has been an education and test of wills.”
As for 2011, the Sandfords are hopeful and confident their business will keep growing.
“We look forward to a busier year filled with challenges and rewards,” Lisa Sanford said.
— Sarah McKenzie
Minneapolis Veterinary Hospital
Opened November 2009
1030 Washington Ave. S.
‘Just wasn’t the right time’
When Desiree Ahrens says the timing was bad, it isn’t a cop-out.
Just months before she and her husband Joe opened their neighborhood gym at Lyndale Avenue and Lake Street last February, Ahrens found out that she was pregnant with twins. The news threw a big monkey wrench into the already difficult process of launching a new business. Right off the bat the Ahrens had to hire an additional trainer, to cover the position that Desiree had planned to work.
By the end of May, the Ahrens had closed the gym, consolidated LynLake Fitness into their previous business, a one-on-one personal training facility on south Nicollet. Then that facility shuttered on Nov. 1.
Finding affordable daycare was a big part of the decision, says Desiree. The south Nicollet location, she says, “was doing okay, but to make it really work, I would have to go back to working long hours. We decided it wasn’t worth it and closed.”
Desiree still works as a trainer, hosting former LynLake clients in her home from 6–9 a.m. The schedule allows her to spend all day with her twin 6-and-a-half-month-olds, after Joe watches them during the morning hours.
“I love my new schedule,” she wrote in a recent e-mail. “I never thought I would want to stay home with kids, but once they got here everything changed. We are very happy with our decision.”
Desiree also says she and Joe underestimated the amount of start-up money needed to launch a business. She urges would-be entrepreneurs to plan on more funds than they think they might need.
“We were trying to run our business on slightly less than the start up money we had planned for,” she said. “That combined with our personal situation forced us to close.”
— Gregory J. Scott
Opened February 2010
Former location: 4804 Nicollet Ave.
It’s been a rough first year for Rove Arounds, a custom clothing boutique for women and children at 43rd & Upton in Linden Hills.
Owner Tamah Burke said despite a number of changes made since opening in November 2009, she hasn’t been able to break even, much less turn a profit. Eternally optimistic, she’s not planning to shut the doors of her tiny shop yet, but she said closing could be a real possibility if the holidays don’t bring out customers.
“It’s pretty uncertain as to where it’s going to go,” she said. “We’re kind of letting the last bit of this last quarter determine some of our fate. It’s not been predictable, obviously, given the weather and all sorts of stuff.”
Inconsistency has been an ongoing challenge for Burke. She’s had stints of success followed by surprising slumps.
She started with a strong focus on custom clothing for children, then began featuring more offerings for women and eventually launched her own women’s clothing line, Sumptuary Apparel. She also added trunk shows for groups of up to six women. The events have been successful, but they’re not enough.
As a former restaurateur, Burke said she knew launching her own business would be risky. She made conservative projections for her first year, but has fallen about 30 percent below them.
She said her biggest lesson learned is that Minneapolitans, at least those she’s encountered, don’t seem to support the shop-local ideology as much as she thought they might. Customers come in, browse, comment on how nice everything is, but often don’t make a purchase, she said. In some ways, she added, her store feels like a tourist site; a novelty.
“People like the idea of local business, they like the idea of handmade, they like the idea of supporting it, but I think that that ideology hasn’t really become part of practice yet,” she said.
Burke also mentioned that traffic in the area has dropped since the Linden Hills Co-op moved to the west end of the neighborhood. Still, she’s hanging on. She launched a 20-percent off clearance sale to help boost holiday traffic.
“I’m going to remain optimistic until the end of the year, until I know better,” she said.
— Jake Weyer
Opened November 2009
4305 Upton Ave. S.
Coping with winter
Since opening C&G’s Smoking Barbecue with friend Chris Jackman back in June of 2009, Greg Alford said there’s really only one aspect of the business he wasn’t prepared for.
“I’m realizing the winters are going to be kind of slow and with the snowstorms it don’t help,” he said.
This is C&G’s second winter, and just like last year, things slowed when the barbecue season ended. But C&G’s has developed a legion of regulars and Alford said the big picture is looking good.
He’s tweaking the menu a bit, as he did last winter, to help bring in more customers. The newest offerings are a turkey sandwich, a smoked burger and red velvet cheesecake. Peach cobbler is next.
Though C&G’s is the first restaurant venture for Jackman and Alford, Alford said it was easy to pick up.
“Basically, I just do my thing the way I always have,” he said. “I cook the way I do at home, so that part is kind of natural to me.”
Alford, who had been working seven days a week, recently decided to close the restaurant on Sundays. C&G’s has several employees, but Alford does the cooking and doesn’t feel comfortable having the business open when he’s not around.
“It’s hard to teach somebody what I know,” he said, noting that his skills came from years of backyard barbecue experience. “You get somebody in here and then all the food starts tasting different and it’s going to change things, so I know how to keep it exactly the same.”
He plans to reopen on Sundays during the spring and summer.
Other than some new equipment including a second smoker, C&G’s is doing what it has from the beginning and Alford said the feedback is positive.
“I’m thinking we will really grow a lot this summer,” he said. “I think it’s really going to jump off this summer to the point where it’s going to be a lot greater than last summer.”
— Jake Weyer
C&G’s Smoking Barbecue
Opened June 2009
4723 Nicollet Ave. S.
Organic salon catching on
The massive snowstorm that hit Minneapolis the weekend of Dec 11–12 kept many residents off the roads and bundled up in their homes.
But some of them didn’t let the 17 inches of snow stop them from getting to Kasia Organic Salon’s scheduled holiday sale.
“We had people snowshoe in and ski in,” owner Kassie Kuhl said. “We had a couple clients hitchhike.”
Kasia, 822 W. 50th St., will celebrate one year in business in February, and Kuhl says sales have continued to increase over the past 11 months. Kasia offers haircuts, ammonia-free hair coloring, hair masks and treatment, skin care, custom organic facials and waxing and massages, among other services. The salon also has its own line of organic household products.
For Kuhl, the past year has been one of hard work and lessons learned.
She works six days and 70 hours every week, she estimated.
“Most of my time has been spent on the business this past year. I’m very committed to making it work and investing in my team,” she said.
Kuhl says the most important lesson learned she learned in 2010 was to find trusted people for accounting and bookkeeping. She had issues with someone she hired out for some of those services.
“Just having good people that you work with and trust,” she said.
Kuhl also suffered through bad news within the first few weeks she opened her store last winter. Five businesses across the street, including popular restaurants Heidi’s and Blackbird Café, burned down and the lot remains vacant.
Still, signs point toward Kasia having a good 2011, Kuhl said.
Early on, the salon mostly attracted women, but now Kuhl is cutting men’s hair more often as wives tell spread word to their husbands.
“Things are still going great. Honestly, I can’t complain. The community continues to pour in,” she said.
Customers also continue to buy Kasia’s organic products. The salon started by offering just two products, but has since expanded to 10. Kuhl launched a line of essential oils in the fall and in December she launched her soy candles.
Not only does she sell her products online and in her salon, but two other small salons in the Twin Cities are selling her products now.
Kuhl said she anticipates continued growth in 2011, allowing her to add another staff member and possibly make upgrades to the salon.
— Nick Halter
Kasia Organic Salon
Opened February 2010
822 W. 50th St.
For a man who has spent the past year managing three businesses and raising three children with his wife, Eric Muchowski sounds remarkably calm and put together.
That, in itself, is something of an accomplishment.
Muchowski runs Dovetail Design, custom cabinetry and woodworking business; Golden Leopard, a martial arts school; and a chiropractic office.
Trying to live in the moment was a key focus for 2010.
“I think a quote I recently heard sums it up very well,” he said. “There is a limited amount of time in a day. If you focus on trying to manage your time you will most likely fail. You need to focus on your life and activities — that is all you can really manage. Everyone gets 24 hours in a day — no more, no less.”
When asked what was most satisfying for him in his life and work the past year, he said seeing his kids and family grow. “On the business side, I would say the most satisfying part of the year has been seeing all three businesses if not grow, at least hold ground. Especially with the continued slow economy, I feel it shows that I’m offering services that are valued,” he said.
At times, finding the energy to accomplish all he would like to has been challenging, as one would expect. He says his martial arts training has helped him go with the flow.
“Even the things you love will feel hard at times, so you just preserve and push forward,” he said. “It also helps to not look at things as good or bad, they just are what they are. It may be painful at the moment, but with time that will change.”
As for 2011, he’s hopeful. He’s planning on expanding his Kung Fu classes and this winter is turning into one of the busiest seasons he’s had for his woodworking business.
— Sarah McKenzie
Dovetail Design and Golden Leopard Martial Arts Center
Opened October 2009
3920 Nicollet Ave. S.
It’s hard to walk into a watering hole in the Twin Cities these days and not find a Fulton Beer tap handle.
Since hitting the market in October 2009, Fulton Beer has gone from four guys brewing beer in a Southwest garage to a burgeoning company that is launching advertising campaigns, preparing to open a spiffy new brewery in the North Loop and tapping kegs at bars all over the metro.
One of the four owners, Ryan Petz, wrote in an e-mail that Fulton hopes to have beer brewing in the company’s newly-leased brewery at 414 6th Ave. N. by late summer 2011.
That will allow Fulton to expand its production and begin bottling its beer so it can be sold in liquor stores.
“We’ve also been getting a lot of requests for bottles — which believe us, we’d love to get them on shelves right now, but we currently just don’t have the capacity,” Petz said. “When the new brewery is online, we’ll have more capacity, so bottles should be available shortly afterwards.”
The new brewery will also bring another benefit to North Loopers and Target Field goers. Fulton will be holding brewery tours and selling 64 oz. growlers from the facility.
Petz said an un-anticipated affect of the business has been stronger friendships between him and co-owners Jim Diley, Peter Grande and Brian Hoffman.
“It’s really brought us closer as friends — we really consider ourselves more of a family now, though thankfully we’re not required to attend all of each other’s family functions yet. Just some of them,” Petz said.
While running a business has been a time-consuming effort, Petz said it’s worth it.
“It has affected nearly every aspect of our lives in some way, mostly for the better, thankfully,” he said. “It certainly consumes a lot of our time, but we feel very fortunate to be able to spend so much of our time doing what we love to do.”
Opened October 2009
Location: North Loop