Small Businesses, Big American Dreams

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles,   From Issue 768   By: Matt deHeus

18th April, 2013     0

This has always been the land of dreamers.  Whether indigenous people who fashioned the first dream catchers or the European pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic in search of the freshest of starts, there is story after story about our ancestors and their quest to make the products of their imagination real.
 
Dreams differ.  For at least a few generations the American Dream was pretty simple for most people.   A good job, a family, a house to live in and a few luxuries that made it seem like the good life.  It was a model that was envied and emulated around the world; an example of how to raise the common ground on which all of us base our existence.
 
Another common version of “The Dream” has its roots in the same independence exhibited by nearly all of the early inhabitants of the territories that evolved into the United States - the idea of “making it” and, not only that, doing it on your own.  One seminal theme in the “American approach” to capitalism is autonomy.  Doing your own thing, as they eventually said in the 60's and 70's.
 
In my own case, I had firsthand role models for both camps.  My Dad, for instance, worked over 30 years as a civil servant for the Army / Air Force Exchange Service.  It might not sound like the most exotic thing, but it was the kind of job that allowed him to see the world, help put three kids through college and - partially because he stuck it out in one place so long - retire at a fairly young age.  He might laugh at this and I am by no means trying to shortchange any of the missteps that add color to his story, but it is basic American Dream stuff.
 
One clear memory I have in this regard was when I was at a family gathering at my grandparent's house in the early 1990's.  We were standing in the kitchen, talking about a new job I had taken.  My grandfather mentioned that he'd really only worked for one place.  At that point we did some quick math and realized that between my grandfather, my father and my uncle, they had nearly 100 years of experience with exactly three employers.  And I was already on #2 in five years. 
 
As it turned out this wasn't the only family tradition I eventually broke and in actuality I was in the same boat as a lot of people of my generation.  It was the first of many indications that something was happening to change this version of the dream. 
 
My mother, on the other hand, was somewhat of a serial entrepreneur.  From early childhood, I never remember a time where she wasn't self-employed - something that was very unique for a woman of that period.  I remember the early part of her career being very rocky, as some efforts paid off and some didn't.  Whether it was shoes or water or carpet or apartment buildings, my mom was always bustling.  From the time I was a kid right through the moment she finally retired last year, I knew I could find my mom at work.  It's a story that the family of any entrepreneur will recognize.  And though she might laugh at this characterization, it looks like all that effort worked.  Despite the stiff punch to the gut that the Bush Financial Crisis of 2008 gave to her portfolio, she made it.   All by herself.
 
With all due respect to the hourly worker - you know I have your back - in this edition we are going to take a look at some people that are following my mom's model.  Local entrepreneurs, bootstrap businesses and the brave souls that help keep our local economy vibrant at its grassroots. 
 
There are many stories like this locally that I wish I could tell.  Here are three.
 
The Enterprise - Black Eye Eyeliner to Black Ink
 
Probably the funniest moment in the interviews conducted for this piece was when I asked Justin and Shannon Rodriguez the question: “Is there any particular image you want me to help you present?” 
 
Given that we were sitting in Voodoo Tattoo, their successful Columbus Street body art parlor, the query elicited a bit of a laugh from all involved.   In fact, when you are with Shannon or Justin, you should plan for the fact that you are going to laugh.  With them.  At them.  At yourself.  At the situation in general.   It's one of many gifts.
 
This exchange led to the much better follow up question, “Is it fair to say that you have found a way to try and monetize your lifestyle?”   To which Shannon responded with an immediate and enthusiastic “Yes!”  While the actual quote was longer and much more interesting, it's probably just as fair to say with the black hair, black eyeliner, black clothing and a splash of ink for contrast, it's easy to realize these two are not just the owners of this business, they are fully invested in it.  It's a trait they gladly share with their growing customer base.
 
Over the last 8 years, the “Voodoo Enterprise” has grown to include the shop, which offers the full range of modern body art, Cara Mia's Night, specializing specialty sewing (“from costumes to couture”) to the recent launch of Dark Candles (locally produced in original “gothic” scents).  
 
The last year has also seen the team branch out into event management, including such ventures as bringing the Hellzapoppin' side show to Bay City (April 27 at the Prime Event Center).  Members of the Voodoo staff also take on contract art projects for posters, logos and advertising campaigns for an array of local organizations.
 
Early in our meeting, I shared my impression with Justin and Shannon that they seem to organize and run Voodoo and it's offshoots like a much larger business.  It's growing and diversified, but extremely focused in a particular niche at the same time.  This was an observation they readily accepted.
 
Shannon explained, “We decided right from the start to run it like a “real business.”  Customer service was going to be everything.  When customers walked into the shop, we were going to stand up, walk over and great them.  We were going to support them through the whole process, even though that is not always the way it is done in tattoo shops.”
 
Justin added to this, “We really wanted to make people feel they could trust us.  A lot more people are getting tattoos and piercings now.  We try to make sure that everyone that comes in feels comfortable, whether it's younger people who come in with a parent for a piercing or an older person who decided to get their first tattoo at sixty.”
 
Since opening their first shop in 2005, the pair have become fixtures in the South End of Bay City, where they live in a stately historic home with their babybat, Christina.  You will also find them serving in various local initiatives, such as the Columbus Avenue Citizens District Council, the South End Citizens District Council and the annual River of Time festival.
 
Proof of the value of this integration into the community was offered when I asked Shannon to recall the most surprising thing that has happened to them since they first opened the business. She immediately went to the 2006 fire, which destroyed the building that housed both Voodoo and a bridal boutique.  “It wasn't surprising that people came out in force to help people affected at the bridal shop.  That's easy to understand and everyone's heart goes out in that situation.  Ours did, too.  What surprised us was how much support there was for a tattoo shop.  People held fundraisers.  They dropped off donations.  There was a silent auction.  It made us value giving back even more.”
 
Modern Business, Old Fashioned Charm
 
Necessity, as they say, is the mother of all invention.   And, if you need further proof, you can find one such fable on the website of K & D Cobbleshop.   As the story goes, company founder Dayna Fournier needed a desk to fit in a small space, so she could study for her college courses.  She didn't have a lot of money, but she had some spare materials, the necessary carpentry skills to do something with them and, with that combination, a desk was built and an idea was launched.
 
With her husband Kris, Dayna has built a small business that very well could be a model for artisans hopeful of capitalizing on their ingenuity and skill.  The pair now produces a unique line of custom furniture and home décor, all of it produced from recycled and repurposed materials.  You can find them working local art fairs, craft shows and festival events or online (http://kdcobbleshop.com).
 
This venture began in earnest when the couple made the decision to make a few pieces and see if they sold.  When good fortune led them to an old barn that needed to be razed, a ready stock of raw materials was in place.  To me, this was one of the most interesting features of their business - resourcefulness. 
 
Most new businesses actually find some comfort in a consistent supply chain, with replenishing the coffers with raw materials as simple as completing a purchase order.  When I inquired about this aspect of the business, Kris indicated, “We know we always have to be on the lookout for materials.  We also have 'spotters.'  It takes a certain person to look at a pile of materials and realize what they might be worth.”  So, broken hockey sticks, interesting plumbing fixtures, rusty saw blades and cast iron roosters can take heart. There may be a second act, after all.
 
Another unique feature of the K & D Cobbleshop model is how they divide up responsibility,  Kris makes it immediately clear that Dayna is the President and the main force behind the business  Interestingly enough, Dayna's other key contribution is her wide range of carpentry skills.  While Kris will contribute in the shop or in the conception of a product, he concentrates many of his efforts on the website and the commercial aspects of the business, which include a consistent stream of custom orders and a growing export business.
 
Putting on my small business consulting hat for a moment (freewillinc.net), there are a lot of things the pair are getting right that contribute to their success.  It starts with a good product at the right price.  The items produced by the business on speculation for display in a vending tent or online perfectly straddle the line between an impulse buy and “Oh, I've been looking for something just like that.”  The modern / vintage blend - such as paisley on a barn wood bench - is consistently executed and something a lot of people find they can work into their décor. 
 
These stock items also often ideas up, being the basis for an idea for custom work, as new or existing customers bring an existing thoughts or even a personal item they would like worked into a piece of furniture or wall art.  As Dayna put it, these requests range from very tedious and specific to 'Here are the measurements.  I've seen your work.  I trust you.'  It feels like we are able to meet their expectations most of the time.”
 
Time was another key theme in our discussion, especially as the two are planning for a new baby that will join the family this year.  If the pair was going to offer one piece of advice to other potential entrepreneurs, it would be “this isn't a 9:00 to 5:00 job.  You might find yourself up at 10:00 in the shop, finishing products for a show and up at 5:00 A.M the next morning, packed and ready to go.  You have to like what you do.”
 
Synergy On Center Avenue
 
One of the “must reads” of the last 15 years is a book called “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell.  It is largely a book about trends, how they get started and the people that start them.  With examples new and old, he breaks down what separates the fabulous from the flash in the pan.
 
One of my favorite archetypes in the book is that of the “maven.”  As described by Gladwell, this person is a facilitator, the person who makes connections and brings people together, using their truly unique networks to create opportunities and bring together solutions where a gap previously existed.  They often fulfill the role of matchmakers in the world of supply and demand.
 
Darraugh Opelski, through her enterprise and alter-ego East Bank Market, is a maven.  She brings people together who, in turn, bring out the best in each other.  Building on over 15 years of experience in the downtown business district, she now has taken on the role as the manager and main coordinator behind the summertime series of open-air markets. 
 
Entering their third year in Unity Park (on Center Ave, across from the Delta College Planetarium), the East Bank team has formed a fun and funky grassroots operation that draws heavily on the co-op model for its execution.  As Darraugh is quick to remind anyone who asks, “East Bank is very much a group effort.  There is a core group of vendors who share the hard work of organizing and promoting our events.  What we all have in common is we really love downtown Bay City and we want to see it thrive.”
 
At any given market, you will find an eclectic group of cottage industrialists, from custom jewelers and original fashions to authors and locally produced art.  This year will likely see the addition of fresh foods. Core to the business model is the creation of opportunities for micro-businesses to display their wares and get exposure to the shoppers who visit Bay City in the summer time. 
 
In addition to the regular Saturday schedule, which runs from 10:00 AM - 4:00 PM every Saturday, the Market will also be adding dates to coincide with the regular “First Thursday” events which take place every month in the Washington Street shopping district.  East Bank will also feature fundraisers at the Thursday markets, starting with the Human Society on May 2nd.
 
The connection with the City and particularly the traditional business districts is clear when you talk to Darraugh about her efforts with the Market.  “Our goal is to support downtown Bay City and to help give people another reason to come into town and try something new.  I've spent my whole working career in this area and would like to help give something back, to help be part of the revitalization of the town.”
 
Last year, East Bank took another step in its growth, when it organized the Bustle By The Bay Holiday Festival.  Modeled after similar celebrations in Europe and cities along the US East Coast, the festival brought lights, color, old world charm and over 6,000 holiday shoppers and visitors to town over its four day duration.  Plans are underway now to bring the festival back again this year, potentially with a longer run and new features.  Said Opelski, “We learned a lot in the first year.  Holding an outdoor event in the Winter is always going to be a challenge, but there was far too much positive feedback and support to not try and make this an annual event.”
 
As the de facto “den mother” for a weekly gathering of small business people, Darraugh is in a unique position to comment on what attribute is possessed by her most successful vendors.  “It's the way they present themselves.  You have to be inviting and present an appealing image.  It is not easy to get people to stop at your booth and shop.  It's often just an attention to the details.  You can't just sit there and hope to be a success.”
 
You'll Never Fail If You Never Try
 
I wish all of these entrepreneurs the best.  I've often joked that in my own “out of the box” endeavors, I often hear “Wow, you are really brave.”  Funny how you never hear, “Wow, you are really smart.” 
 
Joking aside, it takes a different type of soul to give up the security that would come with a traditional career to jump on the roller coaster that is small business ownership.  I've been lucky to have a lot of variety in my work-life and included in this are six different small business start-ups.  Most met their objectives; one didn't.  In fact, it went down in flames, almost taking me with it. 
 
It's from this experience that I offer my own advice for those that might choose to start down the path to self-employment:   Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't and it isn't always a function of how skilled you are or how hard you worked at it.  You can't plan luck and sometimes, no matter how hard you wish, time is just not on your side.
 
But, when you can begin to feel the fall and you become pretty certain you are going to go under, just lay back and enjoy the splash.  I won't call the feeling gratifying, but you should be able to survive it due to the gristle you built up as you powered your own personal grindstone. 
 
And, when you do resurface, do yourself a favor.  Paddle you backside off.  Remember you still have to breath.  And do your best to lean back and take a good look at the sky. 
 
It belongs to the dreamers.

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