Why entrepreneurs pursued their dreams and how they made them work | Recession proof businesses
By KRIS HILL
Covington Reporter Assisitant Editor
July 26, 2012 · Updated 11:57 AM
Editor’s note: this is the second of a two-part series which explores how businesses survived or even opened and thrived during the recession which began in 2008.
In the depths of the recession some saw opportunity.
Despite the difficult economic climate, the challenge finding financing for new businesses, drops in benefits and extensive work force reductions, this environment created chances for people to redefine themselves even if some of their friends and family wondered about their sanity.
Sue VanRuff, executive director of the Greater Maple Valley-Black Diamond Chamber of Commerce, wrote in an email interview that it makes sense that some new businesses have opened up during the past few years and thrived.
“For many entrepreneurs, the recession began as a nightmare but ended up as a dream come true,” VanRuff wrote. “What I hear most often is people were almost pushed in to it because their former employer downsized or outsourced their job and there was nowhere to go. But that’s where outsourcing is a double-edged sword — their previous job was outsourced but that company still had the need for someone to do that work —what an opportunity to become that outside independent resource/contractor. The bonus with that is the independence, freedom, and flexibility that self-employment offers.”
Chuck Reger, who lives on the Auburn-Black Diamond border, has been in consumer lending with various banks prior to industry-wide layoffs in 2008.
“I had interviewed with some banks and things over the last couple years and was becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of work in my career path so I was very motivated to find another option to I turned to the franchising option,” Reger said.
He had tried with some success the small, home-based business model to pay the bills such as an ATM operation as well as selling service warranties for cars.
Earlier this year, Reger encountered the ProTect Painters franchise opportunity, and decided to give it a shot.
“It is a home-based business, that was first and foremost,” he said. “It was like my other career, where I worked out of my house, I liked that. No brick and mortar, to no overhead costs. I was a home improvement lenders, so, I knew something about the home improvement businesses.”
With his knowledge of contractors and the industry in general, Reger said, it seemed liked a good fit.
Still, it wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when he began researching business ideas.
“I didn’t really search out a painting franchise, it kind of found me,” he said. “There’s a lot of deferred maintenance and (homeowners) may have been holding off on working on their properties, especially painting.I thought this was something I would enjoy doing talking to homeowners and helping their own properties while looking for a source of income while running my own business … and this is fairly low-risk investment.”
Since opening up his franchise, ProTect Painters of Covington, Reger said business has been good.
It’s been a pleasant surprise.
“I thought that there would be a lot of business when the economy turns, but, there’s been a lot of business going on this year,” he said. “Right now I have four different crews, they’re subcontractors that are all vetted, so I check everybody out to make sure they’re legitimate and insured then match them up for the job that’s most appropriate for their crew. That way the homeowner doesn’t have that worry, gosh, I hope I picked the right painter, I take care of that and then I project manage. It’s about producing a good project and outcome that people are happy with.”
Even still, VanRuff said new entrepreneurs should be careful, because “there are no guarantees, no silver bullets.”
It’s important to have a business plan, she wrote, to avoid getting caught up in the emotion of starting a new venture.
This is particularly important for anyone starting up a brick and mortar store.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there can’t be success in that area, too.
“Retail ventures are usually launched because an aspiring entrepreneur saw a void in the market or a pent-up demand,” VanRuff wrote. “Historically, recessions have spawned new business models that were made possible only because of a down-turn.”
Curtis Lang, owner of Curtis Lang Custom Homes, echoes VanRuff’s advice to set emotions aside when opening a new business in a recession.
“In a climate where there’s a lot of business going out, I’m the kind of person who goes, ‘Well, that means there’s just that much more opportunity for me,’” Lang said.
Lang, who also counts Sawyer’s Village in Maple Valley as one of his businesses, knows something about starting a new business. Less than a year ago Ristretto’s, a coffee shop in Sawyer’s Village, opened up in the lone stand alone pad in the center.
At one point there had been another concept for the building, but, Lang’s vision for it changed and he decided to put his expertise in other areas of business into a new one.
“It made sense for us to do it,” Lang said. “The other users, the medical users and the business users, they were saying, ‘We need some food, we need some drink in this center.’ That wasn’t the only reason, but, it made sense to build my stand alone marquee building for that pad.”
And Lang saw a need in Maple Valley, especially given that the city considers that commercial center the third commercial zone along with Four Corners and Wilderness Village.
At first, the plan was to build then find a user.
“But, because of how I like to do things, I thought, ‘Nobody’s going to spend the money to do it the way I want it to look,’” Lang said. “So, we built it, and I said, ‘I think we also kind of know what’s missing out there.’ There was a need. I wanted to give them a place where people would want to go out on a date and have a nice place to hang out.”
Lang said it wasn’t just a decision to start a business he knew nothing about.
There was much more behind the choice to design it the way he did, to bring in a feel reminiscent of a lodge on a lake, to give it a cozy, warm atmosphere where customers want to sit, drink coffee, eat a sandwich, sip on a glass of a wine, all while having a conversation with friends.
“It was something that completed the center and in doing so it’s been a learning experience but it’s also been a lot of fun,” Lang said. “I think it’s also enhanced my building company. The people who come in and see, that has generated a lot of requests for what I really do, which is building and design. It has proven in the first seven, eight months to really have the potential to be successful and people really like it.”
Lang has advice for aspiring business owners from his years of experience running his own company.
“The key would be to try and keep your emotions out of it until you find out it’s something pencils out and performs,” he said.
Nicole Lucia and her sister, Celeste Palmer, made sure their business penciled out before opening up in November 2010.
Lucia and Palmer own Get Hot! Yoga in Sawyer’s Village and have had the opportunity to get advice straight from Lang, who is their landlord.
Both women, who grew up in Maple Valley, have practiced yoga since they were teens and both have led active lifestyles.
It was a dream for the sisters to open a yoga studio. Not a huge surprise they were inspired to become entrepreneurs, Lucia said, because they come from a family full of them.
CAUTIOUSLY FOLLOWING A DREAM
Still, that didn’t mean it was easy, especially during a recession.
“It always seemed far-fetched,” Lucia said. “Then things just fell into place. We got certified … we thought, ‘Why don’t we try to open a studio.’ We both grew up in Maple Valley and there was nothing out here. Maple Valley seemed to be a health conscious area.”
One thing they did before even considering opening a business was saved up money, Lucia said, then they found a small business consultant who helped them put together a business plan.
“He made us think of things we normally wouldn’t have thought of,” Lucia said. “It was really helpful to see actual numbers. He set up a graph in Excel that showed if you have this many students … he put us through the best case scenario and the worst case scenario and went from there.”
Another thing Lucia and Palmer did before they opened was get signs made once they signed the lease. The center the studio is in has high visibility on Kent-Kangley Road so there were banners hung, an A-frame sign on the sidewalk, just as two examples.
“The build out was a six month process so during that time we were talking to students,” Lucia said.
“It seemed actually pretty overwhelming at the time because we were still dealing with the build out and the start up costs and we were getting phone calls asking, ‘When are you opening?’”
Because they opened up as the weather was cooling off, Lucia said, the first few months went well which was good because when the summer months rolled around business tapered off a bit.
“We were open long enough before those first summer months hit to get regular students and build a strong base to get us through those slow months,” Lucia said. “About four months or five months after we opened a studio opened in Covington and we felt that for a few months but we think competition makes us stronger. So far, it’s gone very well and I have no complaints. It’s what we love to do and it doesn’t seem like work most days.”
Lucia suggests to anyone who is interested in opening their own business to be prepared, to consider it from all angles, because “at first, it can be really draining.”
“There are always little things that can pop up,” she said. “Really do your homework. There’s so many little details when it comes to having a business.”
MORE LESSONS FROM THE RECESSION
Ron Flores, owner of Bike Masters and Boards in Maple Valley, is a neighbor of Get Hot! Yoga. His shop has been open little more than a year.
Like the yoga studio, there’s a seasonal element to the business, something Flores knew about thanks to his years of experience in the industry which includes four years at REI, years at independent bike shops in Norther California as well as a stint as a volunteer running the American Velo out of Belgium.
Flores knew what he was getting into when he decided to open the store.
“Understanding that we were in a bad economic time and that the bicycling industry as a whole is a tough business to make a living in, I believe that you really have to follow your passions,” he said. “It’s who I am, really, it’s what I’ve always done, it’s what people know me for. I just decided to roll the dice. I believe that I’ve got the skills and the industry know-how to survive, put together a good business plan, tried to start off small and conservatively and grow from there.”
Plus, it was a good location. Cycling, particularly mountain biking, is popular in this area with the trails nearby in Black Diamond as well as a short drive away in area parks.
“This is a very good place for cycling,” Flores said. “It was underserved at the time I opened the shop. The cycling area and community is growing. Mountain biking is growing and we’re fortunate to have miles and miles of trails in the Black Diamond area.”
For Flores, unlike the yoga studio, business is better when the weather is nice.
“As long as the sun is shining, we’re doing very well,” he said. “Winter was slow, which is normal for this business. We have been moving according to market trends, adjusting toward customer needs, wants and desires.”
As he considered opening the store, Flores said, he sought out advice from other business owners in a variety of industries.
“Be flexible,” he said. “Don’t stick to your guns in the face of reality. I had plans going in thinking my store was going to be one type of store, it turned out the market needs were something else so I remained flexible. Take advice from everybody, filter it through your knowledge and do what makes sense for me in my local area.”
Flores also encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to start small and grow business from there.
Todd Hulbert, owner of Finally Found Books in Black Diamond, didn’t really start small.
Hulbert, who lives in Kent, like Flores had one plan for his venture but decided to go another route when the opportunity to take over Baker Street Bookstore from Bob Charles who decided to retire earlier this year.
Finally Found Books re-opened under Hulbert July 7.
“This is not the best time to be opening a bookstore because they’re closing right and left,” Hulbert said. “My original intent was to buy large quantities of books, sort through them and sell the more valuable ones online. I thought if I have to have a warehouse to store the books I might as well have a retail outlet. In the end I decided this was the place to be. The Maple Valley-Black Diamond-Covington area just aren’t served by a business like this.”
Still, that doesn’t mean Hulbert isn’t aware of the challenges of owning a bookstore, especially during a recession.
“The scary part is that so many people are moving over to the e-readers it’s causing many of the small, independent bookstores to go under,” he said. “It’s scary but I believe the community will rally behind us. The other thing we’re going to do is implement a buy local campaign and remind people that when they support their local businesses 67 percent of that money stays in the community rather than going to Wall Street.”
For Annette Cyr, owner of the Kid to Kid franchise in Covington, the recession seemed like the ideal time to open a store which offered values for families trying to stretch a dollar.
Cyr, a mom of two kids, also wanted the opportunity to run a business which would allow her to be a parent.
“It just seems like a necessary resource for families to have around,” Cyr said. “Covington’s very family dense. We’ve experienced a tremendous amount of growth even in the recession. Last year our average monthly growth was about 25 percent. My little store has become a top 15 store of the 72 that exists and we have one of the smallest stores. Kids don’t stop growing during a recession.”
Still, the economic climate has had an impact, albeit indirect, on Kid to Kid. Whenever gas prices increase, there’s a trickle down effect, because it drives up the cost of shipping, deliveries, and so on.
“We’re trying to fight that off as much as we can with our own sales,” Cyr said. “If you pay attention to the quality of items that you’re buying and selling, people gain confidence in you and shop there for one or two or three kids … we become their main source. It’s working out really well.”
Still, even though Cyr may have found a recession-proof business, she cautions aspiring entrepreneurs.
“Washington is a very expensive state to have a business in,” she said. “That was eye opening. You have to be realistic about what people are wanting in their area. You need to tread carefully because people lose their shirts on business ideas all the time. That’s hard because people want to follow their dreams.”
Contact Covington Reporter Assisitant Editor Kris Hill at email@example.com or (425) 432-1209, ext. 5054.