Every business starts somewhere – these area owners/directors/volunteers share their experience in making it work.
Compiled by Aryn Henning Nichols
So you want to Be Your Own Boss. Exciting! I firmly believe it’s in tough economic times like these that the most creative visions come to fruition: If you can’t find a job, make one!
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Yet it’s certainly not as hard as you might think either. There is a lot of work that goes into starting your own business, but it’s often the fear of the unknown – not the actual work – that keeps a person from moving forward. We here at Inspire(d) want to help you overcome those fears – ‘cause being self-employed is pretty awesome most days, and your Big Idea might be the Next Big Thing.
We tracked down a handful of businesses and non-profits in our region that are celebrating a milestone anniversary – in increments of five, of course – and asked them some questions on how they got started, what they feared, what they celebrated, and how they stay motivated. Even those with 20, 35, 80 years in business under their belts started with someone saying, “I have an idea” and “Why not?” (See my editor’s letter for some of the thoughts going through my head when we began Inspire(d) with just an idea five years ago.)
The cold days of winter provide a perfect time for planning, and New Year’s Resolutions offer great motivation. Make 2013 the year you take a leap and your life in your hands, and follow your dreams. Maybe in 20 years you’ll be looking back, remembering the day you went from “I have an idea” to “I have a business.”
Slant Avenue Mercantile, Lanesboro, Minnesota
Patrick Danz, owner
Slant Avenue Mercantile lives on – you got it – a slanted avenue in tiny Lanesboro. Inside the shop, you’ll find all sorts of amazing things: from old school-style toys to organic lotions to amazing art to press on tattoos, and lots more, of course. There’s always an air pot of delicious coffee going and the best chocolate bars and hard-to-find candy too. Upstairs is Patrick’s home and future studio – yep, in addition to branding and creating a new store he hopes to completely renovate the building and create a space where he can design and build products to sell downstairs. Cool!
Business: La Rana Bistro
Names: Mark Smeby/Joanie Sheahan, owners
La Rana Bistro was the first place I (Aryn) worked when I moved back to Decorah. That was five years ago, when Mark and Joanie were just five years in to running the business. Now, at their 10-year mark, they’re even more fully embedded into Decorah’s foodie community (heck, you might say they created it). Their space is beautiful, their menu boasts delicious new American dishes that focus on local ingredients, and the detailed touches – fresh flowers, great bathroom soap and lotion, cloth napkins, efficient bar space – show off all that they’ve learned over the years.
Toys Go ‘Round Toy Lending Library (non-profit organization)
Kathy Barloon, a TGR board founder
What kid wouldn’t like a library that’s all about lending toys?!? A group of in-home childcare providers knew children benefited from playing with a wide variety of toys, but they also knew they didn’t have the funds to purchase them, nor the storage…thus began Toys Go ‘Round. The Decorah Public Library offered up some unused basement space on an in-kind basis, and that’s where TGR and its inventory of over 1,000 toys have been housed ever since. A recipient of an Iowa Community Betterment Award and Iowa Volunteer Award, TGR’s future and past success is due to dedicated volunteers and supporters. They love seeing children and families take advantage of the toy library –even grandparents who were members when their children were young have come in with their grandkids!
Gail Bolson-Magnuson, owner
Many folks will be familiar with Agora Arts, housed in the Hotel Winneshiek in downtown Decorah – it’s hard to miss such a beautiful storefront on Water Street. Owner Gail Bolson-Magnuson brings regional and national art and fine craft created by over 250 American artists and craftspeople – from handcrafted jewelry to prints to pottery to furniture – to her loyal customers and fans. Check out the Steel Cow Mini Moos or StoryPeople cards or Carl Homstad prints here, and watch for special events like book signings or holiday open houses!
Daniel Rotto and Scot Idstrom, owners (along with others)
Hometown Taxi has been getting people where they need to go – with a smile and an open ear – for a quarter of a century! Amazing! Seventeen total partners have worked with the company through the years since 1987, and their first two vehicles were 1979 Honda CVCCs. There are currently seven partners – five of them drive and manage the business, two are mechanics. But all of them maintain a positive attitude about their business as they become practically family to their regular fares, and helpful guides at the very least to their out-of-town riders.
The Pump House Regional Arts Center (non-profit organization)
Judy Bouffleur, long-time Pump House volunteer and advocate
The Pump House, directed by Toni Asher, is a cultural center that promotes a wide range of visual and performing arts activities from performance to appreciation. It began in 1977 when Western Wisconsin Regional Arts (WWRA) obtained a lease to restore and remodel the original Pump House – built in 1880 by the city of La Crosse – for its present use as a regional arts center. At first, the Pump House was a resource center for the tri-state area. The La Crosse Symphony’s office was in the Pump House, and the La Crosse Society of Arts and Crafts and the Eastbank Artists had galleries. Today, the Pump House contains three visual art galleries, the 144-seat Dayton Theatre, art education classrooms with kiln and ceramics workspace, a conference room, and meeting areas.
Bruening Rock Products
Duane Bruening, second-generation owner
Leo Bruening started BRP in the 1930s with one truck. He hauled coal from the railroads and grew his business to four trucks in his first five years of business, adding lime excavation and eventually crushed rock. ?In 1954, Leo’s oldest son, Duane, took the reigns of BRP after returning from the military where he served as a Captain in the Marines. Over the next 20 years, Duane helped grow the family business to over 30 employees, multiple quarry sites throughout the state, and three milking operations with over 120 head of cattle. Duane’s to-the-day memory of events of the business and his life is impeccable, and his attitude about Being His Own Boss is great – he really loved his career. Duane’s two sons, Greg and Keith are still running the operations of Bruening Rock Products as they celebrate their 80th year in operation.
Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum (non-profit organization)
Steve Johnson, Executive Director
Vesterheim is so much more than a museum – they preserve a heritage and past that can tell us a surprising amount about the lives we live today. They also host tons of youth programs – the Pioneer Immersion Program for fourth graders, the WOW program for third graders, Barnetimen Children’s Hour for pre-school children in cooperation with ArtHaus, and their summer theater program in cooperation with Upstart Crow Theatreworks. They’re constantly trying to think of creative ways to connect with everyone – such as through group tours like the recent Sámiland trip to Norway and WWII tour to Norway set for 2013. Of course, they’re still a museum, and a great one at that. They change their exhibitions regularly – way more than you think – so it pays to visit often.
What was the scariest part about becoming an entrepreneur?
“Deciding to take my life savings, at a time when the economy was uncertain, and move to a new town and buy a derelict building to start a retail shop and home.” – Patrick Danz, SA5
“How involved the relationship with the government is, dealing with legalities of having employees, and understanding all the regulations of owning your own business.” – Mark Smeby and Joanie Sheahan, LR 10
“Knowing that it was something that I had to stick with for quite a while to see results. I am a person who loves to brainstorm, plan, and start things, but once they come to fruition, I have a hard time sticking to the day-to-day commitment.” – Gail Bolson-Magnuson, AA20
“In my opinion, the scariest and most exciting part of being an entrepreneur is the same – having to decide the direction of the business for ourselves.” – Scot Idstrom, HT25
And the most exciting?
“Building it and putting it all together!” – LR10
“I was one of the original owners [of Hometown Taxi] and driving the day we opened for business. It was scary and exciting. We spent the evening before we opened driving around town, just trying to get familiar with where the streets were. Then our battery-operated phones ran out of a charge by noon the first day.” Daniel, HT25
“Being your own boss – I always loved what I was doing. People work their whole life to retire and do what they want. I felt like I was already doing what I wanted every day.” Duane Bruening, BRP80
How long did it take to feel like you’ve “made it” (or do you feel like you have yet)? Was there a specific moment that made you think, “Yes! Success!”?
“I think the feeling of ‘success’ actually arrived about now, at the 10-year mark. We are no longer in debt and we feel we have a strong customer base, with the local community accepting us as an established restaurant, and tourists returning to Decorah are happy to see that we are still here!” – LR10
“I can’t think of a specific moment, but knowing that I have customers who come from Minneapolis, Chicago, and even as far away as New York to buy their jewelry and gifts here makes me happy!” – AA20
“We tend to be busier in the winter than the summer and I remember after a few years, we actually paid ourselves through the whole summer, just like the winter. That felt like an accomplishment. Also, recently, I found an old ride sheet, listing the rides for one day, and written on the top was, ‘30 rides, WOW!’ Now we typically do over 100 rides a day and 130-160 when it’s busy. Sometimes lately the taxi company just feels like it runs itself, like it’s magic. I suppose that is a measure of success. We have a system and it works.” – Daniel, HT25
What was the most surprising thing you found about running a business?
“The Time Commitment with all the “hats” that I have to wear – sales clerk, bookkeeper, buyer, stock boy, marketing director, maintenance man, barista – but also the extraordinary fees charged to small business owners by credit card companies (merchant services) and banks.” – SA5
“How much I love it. I wasn’t sure that I could do everything that is involved, and it’s a LOT – much like above – not to mention the number of computer programs and software that are involved such as a POS system, accounting software, web site, Constant Contact… there’s never a shortage of new things to learn. But that keeps me interested!” – AA20
“In our business, people will ask us to do the most unusual things. I guess they come to know us well and when they need help, they’ll call us up, sometimes just to ask what day it is.” Daniel, HT25
How do/did you stay motivated to keep things rolling forward every day?
“Lanesboro is this amazingly, beautiful area that draws people from all over and every day is a new adventure. Each morning, I’m motivated to open the doors with the prospect of meeting new people from so many different walks of life.” – SA5
“We remind ourselves that we created something that is our own, that we are our own bosses, and that we offer something to the public we are proud of.” – LR10
“Finding new artists with brilliant new work keeps me motivated. I love it when I see something that I’ve never seen before, that is fresh and new and that I can bring back to the gallery to show my customers.” – AA20
“I’d like to say it’s all about the money, but, really, helping people feels good and we spend all day helping people. Plus, some of the most interesting people who live in Decorah take the taxi and we have the chance to get to know them.” – Scot, HT25
“One of the fun things is talking to people from all around the world who visit Decorah and take the taxi when they are in town.” – Daniel, HT25
“You know what the best way to eat an elephant is? One bite at a time. The same goes for a business. You just take things each day as they come to you.” – BRP80
Do you have any advice for folks hoping to start in as entrepreneurs themselves?
“Research, research, research – know the market and do a thorough business plan and keep a solid cushion to help you through the slow months, but most importantly make sure it is something you have Love for and really enjoy.” – SA5
“Follow your dreams, but do your homework. Running a business takes more time than one can imagine. And embrace your insurance company.” – LR10
“It’s not a job for everyone; not everyone is comfortable living with the number of ‘unknowns’ that you live with as an entrepreneur. You have to have a lot of self-discipline and have a pretty thick skin. You have to make difficult and possibly unpopular decisions sometimes. You have to have confidence in what you are doing but still listen to honest criticism.” – AA20
“I always say being friendly has no cost. It’s one of the best things you can do for your business.” Scot, HT 25
“1. Good workers are important. Make sure you hire the best workers and take good care of them. Sometimes that means your family gets shorted on things for a while but you need to have faith that things will get better.
2. Do something you like – don’t make money your God. You gotta have money, but you don’t want to chase it down all the time. Stay a little under your means. Borrowing is the easy part – but remember you always have to pay it back. That’s the hard part.
3. Don’t get too excited or worked up – let things come to you. Enjoy life and by happy.” – BRP80
How did people come together to get this vision off the ground?
“The old saying ‘Many hands make light work’ has been true for the success of Toys Go ‘Round. I have been amazed at the talents that have come to us through the years. We didn’t know how to go about setting up a toy library; we were just convinced that it would be a huge benefit to the children in our care. I have often said that if we had known then what we know now – that Toys Go ‘Round would still be going strong 20 years later, would have won awards and had people from all over the United States ask us how to start a toy library – we would have stopped before we started, because we would have said “We can’t do that!” – Kathy Barloon, TGR20
“[At The Pump House], hundreds of hours were spent cleaning, obtaining woodwork from the old La Crosse Post Office torn down in 1977, constructing walls, painting, scraping, cleaning the yard, etc., etc., etc. Volunteers came out of the woodwork to offer their time, talent and treasure so the plans for the arts would come to fruition.” – Bouffleur, PH35
How did you set out to raise funds/awareness and keep the motivation to make things work?
“When we opened our doors, we had 50 toys on milk crate and board shelves. Each time a new member enrolled, we bought more toys. Many local businesses donated toys with many others donating cash so we could buy more toys. We are also an agency served by United Way. That funding is an integral part of keeping the toy library open 14 hours a week during the past 15 years.” – TGR20
“One of the first fundraisers was the Annual Pump House Radio Auction. Banks of phones and lots of volunteers spent a weekend in April each year raising money for the Pump House. The Radio Auction has continued all these years. For 15 years the Pump House had a booth at the Oktoberfest Heritage Night. We served tabouli and kibi and put the Pump House on the map for lots of people.” – PH35
What’s the most surprising thing about running your non-profit?
“There is always a new challenge along the way, but what we have also discovered along the way is the talents and dedication of many active board members who believed in the mission of enriching the lives of children and their families or caregivers. We are a very live and vibrant organization who continues to grow to meet the needs of the community.” TGR20
“The incredible number of ways that people can find to connect with their past and bring it to life in the present. All of our visitors have special stories that are ignited when they visit the museum. And even though I’ve been at Vesterheim in various capacities since the 1970s, there’s always something new that startles me and takes me back. Just when I think I’ve got it down, something new happens.” V135
Memorable/successful moments that stick out?
“One of the most exciting moments for me was when I called Hasbro toys and asked for a donation of toys. The lady was enthusiastic about Toys Go ‘Round but could not give us any toys without a 501(c)3 non-profit status. At that time, it was going to cost $150 to apply for the status and that was money we didn’t have. The woman from Hasbro toys promised us that if we got the non-profit status, she would more than triple that amount in toys. We raised the money and I completed the many-paged application with lots of confusing questions. We received the status on our first try and Hasbro Toys stayed true to their promise and shipped boxes and boxes of toys!” TGR20
“Memorable events that come to my mind: The Rembrandt Etchings, Hallmark Summer World, Pottery, art and music classes in the old basement, Bill Miller performances, Wilma Scheffner’s River Town Revue each year, School District art exhibits, Chocolate Soirees, and on and on and on!” – PH35
“Several visits from members of Norway’s Royal family; our youth education programs; and the great exhibitions we present, like the Sámi exhibition that opens in December and the upcoming Jan Brett exhibition next year.” – V135
Do you have any advice for folks wanting to direct/start a non-profit business themselves?
“Believe in your mission, whatever that may be arm yourself with lots of knowledge about the subject and surround yourself with people who are as passionate as you are and are willing to help you meet that goal – one step at a time!” TGR20
“The arts are the glue that holds communities together and I believe that even in the most difficult economic times the arts are so important that people are willing to give their time and treasure to ensure that culture and history are preserved for all. My advice for people is a quote from Helen Keller, “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement! Nothing can be done without hope!” – PH35
“You don’t do it for the money. You do it because it feels right. And it is very satisfying. It’s stewardship – a service for others, a way to create a legacy for future generations.” V135
Aryn Henning Nichols can’t believe Inspire(d) is five years old. Her advice for those thinking about starting a business? Don’t think about what you don’t know. You’ll learn as you go – on-the-job training is the best there is – and generally the worst thing that could happen is really not all that bad. And you can most definitely handle it.