From Rags to Riches: An Entrepreneur’s True Success Story

Homeless entrepreneur Jason Mercado's rags to riches story

Jason Mercado started his business, Just Cookies, when he was homeless.
Learn how he persevered despite the overwhelming odds against him. Image via Flying Kite Media

When Jason Mercado found himself in a dire situation, he had a choice: become consumed by negativity, or try and find a way out.

After being laid off in 2011, and finding himself homeless during the height of a national economic downfall, he did the last thing anyone would have expected: he decided now was the perfect time to open a small business.

“I thought, well, I love to bake. This would be the perfect opportunity to start my own business.”

Everyone told him he was crazy; that opening a small business would be impossible because he had no money and no place to stay. But he was determined to make it happen.

Ready for one of the most inspiring rags-to-riches stories we’ve heard in a long time?

Check out the story of Jason Mercado, CEO and founder of Just Cookies, below:

Starting a Business From the Streets

Jason’s first order of business was to gather as much information as he could about opening a small business, including marketing, business plans, and how to sustain success.

To do this he sought out free business classes at Entrepreneur Works, a Philadelphia based non-profit corporation that provides support to emerging entrepreneurs and small business owners.

Next, he had to find a place to cook.

The Friends Center provides conference rooms and office space to organizations in Philadelphia, and Jason reached out to them about using their kitchen to bake up his delicious treats, and they were open to the idea.

Armed with a business plan and a place to cook, Jason began the unending task of marketing his small business.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

rags to riches story of Just Cookies

Just some of the delicious treats you can order at Just Cookies.

Jason began baking regularly, and passing out samples to everyone he met, encouraging word-of-mouth marketing buzz in his local community.

“I think my biggest hurdle was initially getting people to believe in me. I was homeless and talking about wanting to start a business!”

But instead of listening to every doubtful voice that came his way, he made it his mission to turn every new acquaintance into a believer.

“For me, I’m a very outgoing. No matter where I’m at, I always make some kind of attempt to talk about my cookie company. I’m always networking,” he said.

That networking paid off by turning his cookies into a popular local favorite. He thanked his community and those who believed in him by holding a Just Cookies launch party at the Friends Center on June 1, 2012.

“I think, for me, I was determined that this is something that I’ve wanted to do, and now is the time to do it, because I don’t have anything, and at the end of the day, I have nothing to lose.”

From Homeless to Hollywood

rags to riches

Jason with some Just Cookies fans at an Oscar’s after-party at the W Hollywood Hotel.

To keep his business moving forward Jason created a website and got active on Facebook. Posting enticing pictures of cookies began to pay off as he saw more regular interaction with his fans. His non-stop networking eventually led to another huge win for the cookie company.

“I recently had the opportunity to make cookies for one of the Oscar’s after-parties,” he said, for which he earned a good deal of positive press.

Since then, Jason has relocated his business from Philadelphia to California, and presently works on an order-only basis. To make things even sweeter, Jason is no longer homeless and living in a sober living apartment community until he can afford to live on his own.

But instead of simply basking in success, Jason has come full circle in his experiences and plans to turn his business into a vehicle to help others.

“When I initially started the company it was kind of a selfish thing. I wanted to do this because I wanted to make sure I had a place to stay and I wanted to draw some income,” he said.

“But I asked myself, if I’m going through this, I wonder how many other people are going through the same thing who don’t act because of all the negativity?”

Never Letting Struggle Limit Success

Rags to riches

Just Cookies was able to get off the ground thanks to the essential qualities Jason’s
entrepreneurial spirit contains: drive, focus, and the determination to never give up.

Jason wants his rags-to-riches story to serve as an example to others who might feel that their situation is equally as hopeless as his was.

“My eventual goal with the company is to use it as a way to teach at-risk youth and young adults to become entrepreneurs. With me being homeless before, I understand all of those components. What you did in the past is your past. Let’s talk about what you want to do today,” Jason says.

Thanks to his enthusiastic fans submitting recipe requests on his Facebook, Jason is up to 14 recipes from his original 8, and is hoping to eventually open a dedicated storefront for Just Cookies, and expand to different cities across America.

He’s also thrilled to announce that he has acquired full use of a kitchen in Huntington Beach, California, which enables him to do full production, accommodate larger orders, and even start accepting online shipping orders.

With all the good that’s come from Jason starting his business, it’s pretty safe to say that entrepreneurship has played an exceptional role in bettering his life. And he’s more than ready to pass on the lessons he’s learned while working relentlessly to make his business a success.

“I want to use the same model of teaching youth, young adults, at risk teens, and ex-felons how to work and become entrepreneurs.”

A Happy Beginning

There’s no better rags-to-riches story than one where the main character finds success, but Jason has one-upped even that. His desire to pass on his hard-earned wisdom so others can improve their lives through entrepreneurship is admirable and very telling of his giving personality.

And while we use the phrase “rags to riches,” throughout this blog post, we don’t necessarily mean Jason is rolling in the dough quite yet, so to speak.

Still, he was able to create a successful business even when all the odds were against him, and that’s pretty darn rich all by itself if you ask us.

What is the most inspiring rags-to-riches story you’ve heard?

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How a Local Brewery Builds Loyalty One Beer at a Time

customer retention through charitable events

How does local brewery O.H.S.O., located in Phoenix, AZ, continually fill their seats with new and regular patrons alike? Learn owner Jon Lane’s secrets for boosting customer retention levels at your business.

Ever wondered how to increase your customer retention levels? Well wonder no more, friends, because Jon Lane, owner of independent eatery and nano-brewery O.H.S.O., located in Phoenix, AZ, has it down to a (hop-filled) science.

Through a shared love of his city and the people who inhabit it, Jon has been able to create a successful business fueled by the strong customer loyalty he receives from his beer-loving patrons.

And customers who are not only satisfied, but return time and time again, are something all small business owners strive for, but don’t always achieve.

How does Jon keep his patrons coming back for more? Keep reading to learn his secrets!

Teaming Up for a Good Cause 

customer retention through charitable events

You think these chocolate and peanut butter Buckeye candies look amazing? Wait till you try the Buckeye Milk Stout at O.H.S.O. on March 22, whose flavor the beer was modeled after!

When you make it a point to become deeply tied to not only your local community, but your patrons too, you automatically give your business a strong edge over chains.

So it makes sense, then, that Jon would team up with loyal patron (and beer aficionado) Shad Bowman to throw an event benefiting a local breast cancer charity.

Well, maybe “team up” is the wrong term.

Jon, a Michigan fan, and Shad, an Ohio State fan, made a bet on the titular match-up between the two schools.

And when Ohio State won, Shad was given free range to brew a beer of his own creation at O.H.S.O., with proceeds going to a charity of his choice.

Since Shad is a member of the Young Buckeyes of Phoenix Alumni Club, he immediately suggested that all proceeds of his custom beer go to the Buckeyes’ own charity, Buck Breast Cancer. Buck Breast Cancer’s goal is to raise funds and strengthen the awareness about the prevention, detection, and treatment of breast cancer.

Shad then invited his beer-loving friend (and fellow Buckeye and Buck Breast Cancer board member) Terri O’Shaughnessy, who also just happens to be an O.H.S.O. regular, to be a part of the brewing process and event.

The final result, a peanut butter and chocolate beer called Buckeye Milk Stout, will make its debut at the Buckeye Milk Stout Tapping Party at O.H.S.O. on March 22, with all proceeds from the Buckeye beer sales benefiting Buck Breast Cancer.

How Giving Back Provides “Lager” Than Life Results

customer retention at OHSO brewery

Terri O’Shaughnessy helping O.H.S.O. brewer Jeff add hops to the chocolate and peanut butter Buckeye Milk Stout at O.H.S.O.

This isn’t the first non-profit event for Jon at O.H.S.O. In fact, he holds, on average, one event per week for charitable and non-profit organizations, and last year gave $120,000 back to the community.

“I grew up a poor kid who was taken care of by the community, so I wanted to give back,” Jon said.

“We fulfill 90% of requests for gifts to charities,” he continued, with organizations ranging from animal welfare, schools, and cancer awareness.

The support varies as well. Sometimes it’s fulfilling a request for a donation or gift basket, and sometimes he does events similar to the Buck Breast Cancer event where a representative from the non-profit organization brews a specialty batch at Jon’s bar, and all of the proceeds from that batch go directly to the charity.

When you give back as often as Jon does, whether it’s directly to charities or through beer-centric events, you naturally build positive word-of-mouth promotion, which boosts customer retention and helps you draw in a new crowd year-round.

Making the Patrons Part of the Business

customer retention at OHSO brewery

Key ingredients to the Buckeye Milk Stout.

And it’s not just charities that can brew up a frosty cold beer.

Jon offers a brewing class where you can work with one of O.H.S.O.’s brewers to create an original flavor, which we’re sure plays a pretty hefty role in building loyalty and boosting customer retention. After all, who doesn’t want to learn how to make their own frothy brew?

In addition, Jon has also developed an app that lets customers schedule a brewing class, or simply see what’s on tap right now, putting convenience right at patrons’ fingertips — another way to keep customer satisfaction levels overflowing.

O.H.S.O. gives back to the local community, loves dogs, and teaches people how to make beer; sounds like the perfect recipe for success to us!

AZ locals: Make sure you attend O.H.S.O.’s upcoming Buckeye Milk Stout Tapping Party on Saturday, March 22nd from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 100% of the proceeds of the Buckeye Milk Stout will go to local charity, Buck Breast Cancer.

What is your best tip for increasing customer retention levels?

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How to Get Your Business Poppin’ With Ecommerce

niche products

Small business has never been so delicious! Find out how one small business owner brought a niche product to the masses.

Popcorn, anyone?

If you happen to be in Scottsdale, AZ, this craving can be answered at My Popcorn Kitchen, a small business that specializes in gourmet, and totally inventive, popcorn creations.

Beer Cheddar, Spicy Buffalo Wing, Toffee Almond, Cheesecake, Grape, Confetti… the list of wild flavors goes on and on.

Opened by Kim Brush in 2012, My Popcorn Kitchen combines a number of tactics to get her tasty treats into the public eye.

Beginning with a physical store and ecommerce site, Kim shares with us her experiences of taking one the most niche products out there – gourmet popcorn – and bringing it to a mass audience, one kernel at a time.

Creating a Popcorn Destination

As a first-time small business owner, Kim did a fair amount of research before settling on popcorn.

“We looked at several franchising options, but none felt right. A friend introduced us to a gourmet popcorn store in Texas, we talked with the owner, and decided to open our own.”

From there it became a balancing act of operating a self-sufficient storefront and creating an online presence for her niche products.

“After careful study and researching other similar operations, we learned the business was driven by several factors: foot traffic, online sales and distribution, holiday or seasonal, business gifts and corporate events, commercial and private specialty events, resorts and hospitals,” Kim said.

“We decided our primary targets would be business/corporate and specialty events, internet sales, and impulse purchasing.”

Kim opted for a strip center location for her physical store, which she felt would provide easier access to her core customers. Because gourmet popcorn is more of a destination product, she said, reliance on foot traffic wasn’t a huge issue for her.

Once the storefront was set up, a plan for growth was laid out.

“Getting the store established and self-sufficient was the first task; marketing and sales growth come next which is where we are now. Currently we have our website, social media and SEO.”

Popcorn That’s Only a Click Away

niche products

Chef Drew of My Popcorn Kitchen tends the caramel and vanilla batches. Is anyone else getting hungry?

Branching out to ecommerce has proven to be very successful for My Popcorn Kitchen, and Kim describes it as a continual process.

“It took far longer than we wanted to launch our website (it launched almost a full year after we opened) because we wanted to fully investigate the ability to offer all our flavors in the tins, which we learned was a problem when we were originally set to launch the website 6 months earlier.”

The longer wait may have been worth it, however, as the website not only works the way she wants it to but continues to grow their business.

“Ecommerce is an essential part of our business. Our target percentage of business from our website is 25%, but we’re not there yet.”

But, as Kim describes, one of the biggest hurdles to ecommerce is getting customers on her site.

“The challenge to online sales is getting people to the site. Currently, most of our consumer awareness is limited to in-store customers and gift recipients; what I call first and second generation traffic.

“What we need now is to increase consumer awareness of both our concept and our store and grow our top-line sales. SEO is essential in getting a website on page one of search engines.”

As with most businesses, the initial growth was spurred by word-of-mouth reviews and referrals. However as sales have grown, Kim has recognized the need to incorporate new tactics for finding customers.

“We’ve done remarkably well and thus far our entire business has really been organic, walk-in/word of mouth. We now need to take it to the next level and create additional awareness and demand.”

Flavors You Never Would’ve Imagined

niche products

Even if you hate beer, you’ll love beer cheddar popcorn.

According to Kim, inspiration for new popcorn comes from many sources.

“Customers, grocery store shopping, things popping into my head, the upcoming holiday, available ingredients.

“For instance, for Valentine’s Day, I thought it would be great to make a chocolate popcorn version of Red Velvet Cake.”

And while she can make a few flavors herself, Kim hired a chef to handle the popping and more advanced fruit flavors.

“In the beginning, I was making the cheeses and chocolates. I trained several of our staff members to make these flavors so they can be made on demand.

Inventory control is one of the benefits of making everything in-house. We don’t make more at any given time than we need.”

What’s Next?

Aside from the ever-present need to grow one’s business, Kim hopes to continue to grow her social media presence, and improve her online sales.

Although niche products can seem like a harder business proposition at the outset, it can actually be to your advantage to sell unique items. After all, you’re able to define your own rules, goals, and means to success.

You may not be ready to create a popcorn empire like Kim’s, but it’s helpful to know that with enough determination, any small business idea is more than possible!

How would you sell niche products? Share your thoughts!

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Creating a Thriving Online Business with Puppies & Products

online home business

The Natural Paws team at one of the many community events they regularly attend. Find out how Elyse Horvath grew a small idea into a thriving ecommerce business.

From home, to online, to getting your product on the shelves, every small business follows a different path. And as common as this particular story sounds, it all started with a four-legged running partner.

The original product we created, which I named Sweet Pea’s TenderPaws, was really created because of our dog, Sweet Pea,” said Natural Paws owner Elyse Horvath.

“She was my running partner, and her paws became really dry and rough. I was looking for something safe and natural to use on her pads to relieve the dryness, which was causing her to lick her pads a lot, and I also wanted to give some nutrients and strengthening so that her pads would stay healthy and strong.”

And what did she find?

“There was literally nothing available on the market to use.”

For some, that would have been the end of the search. But for those with an entrepreneurial spirit, not being able to find what you’re looking for is the starting point to creating something new. Which is exactly what Elyse did.

“So, I put in the time and research to create the perfect balance for her.”

Armed with a will and a cause, Elyse began the long journey toward entrepreneurship. Deciding to put the time and effort into creating a new product, and then taking that product to market, is a huge undertaking.

Find out how Elyse went from a pet owner looking for a solution to the successful owner of an online home business.

The First Hurdle: Making the Actual Product

Before the marketing and sales, the product has to be refined and tested, which can come as a challenge to a new entrepreneur. Elyse took her idea and teamed up with knowledgeable partners in order to create the best product she could.

“With my research, I quickly became an expert on which essential oils and herbs were safe for dogs. But I did need to team up with someone who was an expert on product formulation, how to infuse the ingredients, how much to use, etc.”

“I teamed up with a peptide chemist who specializes in creating natural products for people, and together we worked on Sweet Pea’s TenderPaws for about two years before getting it just right.”

Selling Online & Getting Social

online home business

Sweet Pea, the CAO (Chief Aromatherapy Officer), Elyse’s pet and original inspiration behind Natural Paws.

For some small business owners, ecommerce can get put on the back burner indefinitely. But Elyse saw the value in it early on, and utilized an online presence as her main source of sales.

E-commerce is actually how we first started selling our products! It wasn’t until we had been selling online for about 18 months that we ventured out to the brick and mortars to see if they were interested in us.”

For a new online home business, it can be hard to break through the clutter and get your name into the marketplace. But because Elyse makes products for pets, it’s only natural that she used social media to build a loyal fan base.

We use social media quite a lot in our business. It not only gains more exposure for our brand, but it also keeps our current customer base engaged and thinking about us. Plus, it’s fun to hear about the different ways people end up using our products! We’ve found so many off-label uses for each of our products this way, some of which have now made it to the label!

“And I’m starting to schedule Facebook posts, which is great to free me up from getting lost in Facebook for an hour here and an hour there when I wasn’t planning to.”

Getting Your Products On Their Shelves

Once she established her customer base online, Elyse began the process of getting her products into retailers in her area.

I get my products into the brick & mortars one at a time, the old fashioned way. Usually I’ll get recommendations from existing customers; people will say stuff like, ‘You should really get your products into this store, they always carry natural products like yours!’”

And because her products concern the health and well-being of animals, she was creative in branching out beyond traditional stores to sell her products.

“We’ve had veterinarians take on Natural Paws’ products in their practices, which is a great way to educate pet owners on the products, while also making them comfortable with the effectiveness of our herbal approach. A veterinarian practicing western medicine, who has natural alternatives to things like steroid treatments or medicated ear washes, can be a great relief to pet parents.”

Keeping Up With The Community

online home business

Elyse and Sweat Pea at the Villa La PAWS Training Center in Phoenix, AZ.

For an online-based business, it can be exceedingly difficult to establish an offline presence. So Elyse makes it a point to not only attend festivals and events, but devote her time to the causes that matter to her and her customers.

“It’s absolutely crucial to get as much offline exposure as we can manage. It’s also important to me personally to support the community. So, the natural way for us to gain our own exposure is to get involved publicly with what’s important to our dog-loving community, and that is animal rescue. We do anywhere from 6-10 animal rescue events within the community per year, and we make product donations to several local and national organizations each year as well.”

Staying Relevant With New Products

online home business

Elyse’s products include a variety of paw therapy for dogs and cats, as well as the newly created ear therapy spray.

“I’ll continue using my dog’s needs to create new products; it just makes sense,” Elyse said.

“We use our original inspiration to discover new product ideas: our dog, Sweet Pea.

“For instance, Sweet Pea has had recurring ear infections for her whole life, and we decided that we really need to create a better way to cleanse her ears.

“So we created a natural, herbal ear wash that can be sprayed into the ears. Using less product without the discomfort makes us all happy.

“I’ve kept her ears infection-free with it as well, and didn’t have to use the medicated wash to do so,” she said.

Innovative ideas like these are sure to keep Natural Paw in business for years to come, and keep the local pet-owning community very happy.

From a dog with cracked paws to a thriving online home business, Elyse has filled a space in the pet market, and continues to find success through ecommerce, community outreach, and the ability to recognize the types of products that her consumers want.

Do you own an online home business? Tell us your story!

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How These Small Business Owners Rocked Facebook

marketing strategySo there you are, minding your own business, scanning a few small business articles that tout the benefits of social media, and suddenly you think to yourself, “Wait a minute, what do these writers know about owning a small business? How the heck would they know how hard it is to handle social media ON TOP of all the other responsibilities we have? What a bunch of nerdy posers!”

OK, maybe we do spend a bit too much of our time reading books and watching silly TV shows, but when we talk about effective social media practices, it’s because we’ve seen it done – in real life!

We make it our mission to get to know as many small business owners as we can, and we’ve heard countless stories on how dedicated social media drives customers (and sales!) to your store.

So this time we’re going to pull back the curtain and let you in on the everyday social media practices of a variety of small businesses. From home-based, to selling out of a physical location, these entrepreneurs understand the value of a healthy social media marketing strategy and are here to share their insights!

Social Media In The Real World

We think social media is pretty great for building your business. But between the customers, online orders, and work/life demands, it seems like the first thing that is left by the wayside. What do actual business owners think?

marketing strategy

Check out this fabulous cover image by Ruby Mae Jewelry! A good cover image transforms your business from small fries to fashion mogul.

I really enjoy social media and have completely embraced it. I hired a social media consultant about a year into my business, and she has shown me the ropes and I’ve done exactly what she taught me. I think some artists underestimate the impact of Facebook & Twitter. I don’t. I think they are great. I work on social media throughout the day, not at a set time.

- Leah Williams, Ruby Mae Jewelry

Because Leah recognizes the impact of these social outlets, she constantly tries out new ways to engage her fans. Things as simple as this great product shot can garner all sorts of engagement, and keep your fans restless for more!

marketing strategy

Oh, you tease! Leah shows off a completely new item and gets her customers excited about it before it’s even on the shelves!

What can you learn from this? Customers can be fickle, so you have to keep reminding them that you’re there, and that’s exactly what social media is for. If you haven’t developed a new product yet, don’t be afraid to let your customers behind the scenes to witness your creative process. Whether you’re a baker or jewelry maker, sharing your activities with your customers is a great way to build a relationship.

We Never Said It Was Easy

marketing strategy

Kim Kendall of Closet Minded uses her Facebook to not only show off products, but to promote small business events she is engaged with.

Social media is time-consuming stuff. Posting regularly can take time out of an already busy day, and even the best business owners fall behind. And because it is so time consuming, many business owners try to identify the right amount of time every day to get the most out of it.

Kim Kendal of Clothes Minded uses Facebook regularly to communicate with fans, but still sees many areas for improvement:

I wish I was a little more deliberate about this. I should devote a certain time limit to each social media outlet, because it can take up a lot of my time. I have tried to devote a lot of time to growing my business through social media, but engaging with my audience is something I could improve upon.

- Kim

 What can you learn from this? It’s not enough to post every day. You must also devote energy to actually engaging with your fans. That is, asking questions, responding to comments, and jumping into conversations in your Facebook news feed. Just because you’ve set up a Facebook fan page doesn’t mean the fans will flock to your business – you have to go to them first.

For Online-Only Businesses, It’s An Absolute Must

Most business owners seem to recognize the importance of an active social media profile as a part of a larger small business marketing strategy, especially those who are online-only. When you don’t have regular opportunities to interact with customers face-to-face, your Facebook becomes the personality of your business. More than a website, regular Facebook posts allow you to speak with customers in an easy, informal tone.

marketing strategy

A great themed cover image from Closet Candy Boutique. Just look at all those likes!

Christina Smith of Closet Candy Boutique is an online-only business owner, and as such, she recognizes the power of online interactions:

We post throughout the day and we of course have peak times where sites are more active. We can also schedule posts to go out during times that we want to announce new arrivals or times that we know are “prime.”

- Christina Smith, Closet Candy Boutique

What can you learn from this? Facebook is a powerful tool for learning about your customers. Recording what kind of posts they respond to the most, and what times work best, will allow you to better tailor your content, and ultimately your products to your customers. You can learn how to easily schedule your posts here.

Somehow, Someway, You Must Post About Animals

marketing strategy

Just check out that interaction! Shares, Likes, and Comments – this is what engagement is all about.

OK, so we can’t all have adorable animals in our product shots, but Holly Pace of Happy Tails Barkery does well to appeal to her audience and inject personality into her business by featuring her dogs and cooking routine in her Facebook posts. By giving this glimpse into her life as a home-based baker, she is displaying transparency and building trust with an audience that cares about feeding their pets quality treats.

Even more important is the frequency with which Holly engages her fans. She usually posts daily and mixes up her topics between her products, random questions, and funny dog images. Here’s her take on how social media fits into her business plan:

I love being active on social media. I want to engage my fans as much as possible when something comes to mind and I feel like sharing. I try to post every morning before the day escapes me. I think Happy Tails Barkery has a good connection with our fans. We are all about our dogs and strive to treat them like family.

- Holly

What can you learn from this? Use whatever angle you can find to mix up your content and post regularly. Because your fans don’t want to talk about your products every single day and will get pretty annoyed if every one of your posts is about you. Mix it up, and most of all, stay engaged by responding to their comments.

How Do You Like Me Now?

So there you have it! These interviews with small business owners on their social media tactics prove just how useful it can be. It turns out we weren’t just spouting lies when we said that social media is a necessary addition to any marketing strategy – it actually works!

The next step is to get social. But don’t make a mountain out of social media, just start every day with small, achievable goals that will help you establish a better online connections with your fans. First, make sure your Facebook cover image is clear and beautiful. Then, make a posting schedule with topic ideas to help you on your busier days. Then, download this totally free, totally fabulous resource to get ahead on Facebook. And then … start posting!

What is your social media marketing strategy? Share below!

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A Day in the Life of a Small Business Owner

own your own business

From home-based jewelers to clothing boutiques, all business owners deal with similar stresses in different ways. Get inspired from their stories!

The particular mixture of excitement, stress, and all out joy of owning a small business is hard to describe to outsiders, and yet felt to some degree by all local business owners. From early starts to working through the night, the thrills of developing a product and getting it to the market can be indescribable.

And however different one business might be from another, some aspects of running your own business remain the same. To illustrate our point, we spoke to a few different entrepreneurs to get an inside look at the day-to-day life of a small business owner and, not surprisingly, they all faced similar management struggles.

So if you think you’re the only one with a certain problem and are unsure how to proceed, check out our ‘day in the life’ for firsthand accounts from entrepreneurs just like you on what it’s like to own your own business.

How Do You Start The Day?

own your own business

An order of freshly baked dog treats from Happy Tails Barkery awaiting shipment.

Coffee, of course!

Seriously, I can’t live without my caffeine. Once the kids are off to school, it’s time for my fix.

- Christina Smith, Closet Candy Boutique

When you run a home-based business, like local dog treat bakery Happy Tails Barkery, the home and work aspects of the day can become meshed together, and a certain degree of routine is needed to maintain productivity.

I get up anywhere between 4:30 and 5:00 am, have a couple cups of coffee and check emails on my smartphone (if I sit in front of my computer, I’m done!). I walk my pooches, and when we get back, I prep for baking and packaging online orders.

- Holly Pace, Happy Tails Barkery

How Do You Create A Good Work/Life Balance?

One of the common struggles when you own your own business is the assault it lays to your personal life. From dawn to dusk, it can feel as if your life is consumed with the business, turning ‘a day in the life’ into ‘what life?’

And when your business is also your livelihood, it’s hard to argue against putting all of your energy into it. How do actual business owners feel they handle the work/life balance?

I’m not so sure I do yet. I’m still figuring all this out. My son is my priority so I will call in my wonderful employee, Felicia, when Riley has a baseball game or conference. But I generally work at home on my computer before I come to the store and I work until late at night at home on my computer. My husband has started cooking more and we go out to eat a lot, always making local establishments our priority!

- Kim Kendall, Clothes Minded

Really, we should be better about this, but I think any successful entrepreneur will tell you that it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to grow your brand. Our kids are part of the team; they have their own lounge at the office where they can do homework and watch movies if we have to pull a late night.

- Christina Smith, Closet Candy Boutique

Routine? What Routine?

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Kim Kendall of Clothes Minded Boutique shows off new products in front of her store.

Although it can feel like you play a new game every day when you own your own business, all entrepreneurs seem to have a somewhat standard routine, however loosely it may be followed.

I am not a list-maker, I keep it all in my head. I handle incoming orders first thing every morning when I open. I don’t order a lot of any one item, so it’s important for me to keep track of my inventory. I also have to make the adjustment on my online site, so it is a continuous process of monitoring.

- Kim

For some, their online business is in addition to a full-time job elsewhere, which can create unique challenges when trying to deliver attentive customer service.

I have a totally separate career, but I work on my business 7 days a week, and I do something different each day. I perform better with a varied schedule.

- Leah Williams, Ruby Mae Jewelry

Listening To Customers

While the daily demands never let up, remaining flexible and seeking out customer feedback is always top of mind for small business owners.

We send out hundreds of orders every day and we receive new pieces and restocks five days a week! So we are always busy processing and sending out orders Monday through Friday, plus checking in on all of the new shipments and planning for photo shoots, styling looks and editing photos, and of course picking out new pieces! There is always so much to do!

I am extremely OCD, so I like having processes in place, but my analytical side is always adjusting and changing things to help us operate and perform better. We listen to staff and customer feedback and make changes whenever needed.

- Christina

When The Going Gets Tough, How Do You Continue On?

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We love a good Facebook contest like this one from Closet Candy Boutique!

Entrepreneurship isn’t for the faint of heart, and it can be hard for even the toughest small business owner to overcome setbacks. Some find inspiration from successful business leaders, others repeat a mantra for inner peace over and over. How do these small business owners stay positive?

Actually, I love what I do so much I don’t consider it working at all. I am blessed and fortunate to be able to do what I’ve always dreamed of!

- Holly

I love being able to do what I love!  It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve found out many things I’m not good at and many things I have to learn.

- Kim

The first few years you work as much as possible, the end goal being to enjoy the fruits of your labor down the road. It’s great being able to work the schedule I want. I may work a lot, but I make time to go to the kids school functions, the gym or even an occasional afternoon movie!

- Christina

So What’s The Lesson?

It’s just as we suspected: being a small business owner is challenging, exciting, and incredibly rewarding!

So no matter what type of business you own, and whether you work from home or have a physical store, there are others who are dealing with the same obstacles you are. And we can’t think of a better way to deal with difficulties than to learn from the lessons of others, and share your stories with them. So don’t be afraid to reach out and make a connection – chances are you’ll have a lot to talk about!

What’s it like to own your own business? Share your story below!

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Local vs. Big-Box: How One Small Business is Winning the War

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Changing Hands co-owners Gayle Shanks and Cindy Dach, posing in their bookstore for the cover of Frontdoors magazine.

How’s this for a great story: it’s 1974 in Tempe, AZ, and a few elementary school volunteers from nearby Arizona State University are sitting on the steps of the school, chatting with the teachers about their ideal jobs and, almost inevitably, the idea for a bookstore arises.

“We wanted to have a used bookstore. We thought it would be really neat to recycle books,” said Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore.

The idea took hold, and nearly 40 years later, Changing Hands remains a book and event destination for the entire Phoenix area. Through the years, the owners have changed locations and adjusted their business plan multiple times, and weathered the storm of the bookstore apocalypse. And even though she lost a small battle with a corporate bookstore chain, she appears to be winning the big-box war due to her diligence and customer service.

At a time when independent bookstores are struggling all over the United States, the team at Changing Hands is preparing to open up their second location. And they’ve done it simply by listening to their customer base, taking charge of their online presence, and reading as many books as they could.

Find out how you can build your business using this same successful strategy!

The First Store, The First Fight for Small Business

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Changing Hands Bookstore’s first location in Tempe.

While the idea of opening a bookstore may have been simple cocktail chatter at the time, a few years later one of the founders, Tom Brodersen, noticed a small bookstore for sale. He quickly confirmed that Gayle and another friend were still game for the idea, took a $500 loan out from his dad, and purchased the store.

Things went well, and within a few years they outgrew the original 500 sq. foot space, and moved operations to Mill Avenue, where they eventually expanded to a three-level book paradise. They hoped to expand again on Mill Avenue, but instead got their first taste of battling the presence of a corporate chain, an experience all too common when trying to build your business in the shadow of big-box retailers.

“The developers there offered Borders Bookstore the same space at a substantial amount less than they were offering to us, because they felt like they wanted a chain. I fought tooth and nail to keep Borders out, and I lost.”

This signaled the beginning of a change on the classic downtown stretch of Mill Avenue, when the unique community of shopkeepers began to transform into a row of corporate retailers.

“Those were the days of the ‘glory of the chain.’ City people weren’t tuned into local, or keeping money in the local economy, they just wanted a chain. And now none of those chains are there anymore except the restaurants,” Gayle said.

So instead, in 1998, they made their first expansion, opening a second location in Southern Tempe, the location they still operate today. Coincidentally, shortly thereafter the Borders closed.

  • What’s the takeaway? Battling chain stores is an ongoing struggle for small business owners, and one that is best handled through education. You have to continuously engage your customer base, community, and elected officials on the positive economic impacts of supporting small businesses versus corporate chains.

Growing a Loyal Fanbase

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Grumpy Cat visits Changing Hands – and doesn’t care.

Struggles against chains aside, Changing Hands has consistently maintained a rabid fan base. Even as their long-lasting Mill Avenue location closed down, their customers followed them to their current location.

“We have over 350 events a year. The difference between buying a book from us and buying a book on Amazon is that you can meet an author in our store, you can talk to a bookseller who can recommend a book to you based on something you read, not on an algorithm.”

Gayle grew up reading, and would spend Saturdays at the library with her sisters, developing a love for reading that she attempts to impart upon her customers every day. “We’re trying to make our store a place where people want to be.”

“We’re constantly trying to improve our customer service, the look, feel, sound, and smell of the store when you’re here. I want a customer’s shoulders to drop two inches when they walk in,” Gayle said.

The sense of community is what Gayle works the hardest to maintain at Changing Hands, with their workshops, discussion groups, and author events, including a wildly popular visit from local resident Grumpy Cat.

“As long as people keep supporting Amazon, they’re going to lose out on a lot of what makes a community unique. I’m always on that soapbox.”

  • What’s the takeaway? Creating a welcoming atmosphere in your store has long-lasting positive effects on business. Even more than a sale or one-time event, ongoing gatherings that speak directly to your customer base will turn your business into a popular destination.

Giving The Customers What They Want

build your business

Construction continues on the new location, which will be an adaptive re-use of the iconic Beef Eaters restaurant building in central Phoenix.

As the influx and expansion of metro Phoenix made it harder for customers to drive across town her to bookstore, Gayle began considering a second location, thanks in no small part by the urging of her customer base.

For the past 5 years, Gayle said the team has been looking for a new building. When a Borders closed in the same part of town, it seemed like there was a bookstore void in the central part of Phoenix. They zeroed in on an unused restaurant building that had been empty for some time, and began the process of talking with developers and establishing partnerships. And instead of demolishing what was already there, they wanted to maintain the integrity of the original building while making it workable for a bookstore.

“There’s not a lot of money to be made, and the competition is really intense with Amazon. So we really had to work with developers who understood our business, and have a rate structure that we could afford.”

As we all know, one of the most productive ways to build your business is to establish partnerships with your fellow small business owners. For Changing Hands, it seemed only natural to partner with local restaurant Beckett’s Table and local mobile meeting space The Lively Hood, to create a mixed-use space that will be grounded by the bookstore. Gayle said they will also begin offering beer, wine, and coffee to invite readers to unwind with a book.

“In the early years, we were a destination for the entire valley, and it didn’t take an hour to get to us. But it’s harder to drive now. So we’ve spent a lot of time looking for the perfect location.”

Located near a popular stop on the city’s light rail, the building is also situated in an area flush with locally owned restaurants, clothing stores, tattoo parlors, and grocery stores.

“Our idea is that it’s going to open up all of Camelback, from 7th Avenue to 7th Street,” Gayle said of the location. “We’re looking to revitalize the neighborhood. Fortunately, bookstores all over the country are really good at that.”

  • What’s the takeaway? Joining forces with other small businesses can increase your potential for growth. Maintaining a small business is hard enough, so make the expansion process easier by partnering in any way you can.

Success In a Volatile Industry

build your business

From small beginnings to a book lover’s destination, Changing Hands has evolved while maintaining a focus on the customers.

“One of the things I think bookstores can do is remind people how valuable books and reading are, and then make the experience of finding that next great thing that they’re going to read an addicting experience,” Gayle said.

Although a good book can sell itself, the team at Changing Hands is committed to maintaining a fantastic online presence. With a responsive website and active Twitter and Facebook accounts, they communicate regularly with customers and keep them informed of the next big event at the store. To Gayle, these things are key for small bookstore owners to maintain and grow their customer base.

“I think they have to be extremely responsive to what their customers are telling them they want in a bookstore. They have to have an active website, and a huge number of social media fans. The way we communicate with our community is through our website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, monthly newsletter and email blasts,” she said.

“You have to remind people that you’re there.”

For Gayle and her co-founders, their business plan has always been centered on her love of reading. Creating a sense of community around books, and making their stores a destination for customers, are the goals that drive them still.

“We’re trying to grow readers. I want children to be reading books,” Gayle said.

  • What’s the takeaway? Social media makes a difference. Your customers aren’t thinking of your business all the time, so you have to work to gain their attention by providing regular social media and email outreach updates.

 What strategies do you use to build your business? Share below!

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Barking for Business: How to Succeed in the Pet Industry

pet industry

One of Jeanie’s Great Danes, also known as the quality control officer for Dog Cheap Sleeps.

Owning a dog isn’t all games of catch and talking trash about cats. Just ask Jeanie Eischens, owner of Dog Cheap Sleeps, whose adorable, and quite large, Great Danes pushed her to create a dog bed that could withstand the wear and tear of bigger breeds.

And although this particular idea was borne out of necessity, the thriving dog bed business that Beth turned it into has been the product of hard work, collaboration, and a commitment to quality products.

This story is a familiar one in the pet industry. And with an expected $881 million in sales throughout the pet industry by 2014, it seems like a welcome market to pet-loving entrepreneurs.

So just how did this long-time entrepreneur go from sleepless dogs to perfecting her own model of waterproof dog beds? Grab a treat and settle in for the tail! (Get it? Tail?)

Every Good Dog Deserves a Good Bed

As with any business plan, identifying your goals is the first step to success. And as for Jeanie, that goal was simple: create a waterproof bed that dogs will actually use.

Her first action toward realizing this goal was to design and create a prototype for the perfect dog bed. Just what makes a good dog bed?

Something the dogs will actually use, she says, and that will stand up to the pressure of larger breeds.

She quickly partnered with manufacturers in her local area to create a prototype bed, and then handed it off to her testing team – her dogs. This, along with her own rigorous testing to ensure the product was completely waterproof, has helped her achieve the product she set out to.

“It does what we say it should do, it looks good, and dogs like them,” she said. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Quality is ensured as our dogs test the products. We high-pressure wash the beds to make sure no water gets into the foam inside. We also have a unique closing system that is waterproof so that dogs can’t get to any part of it.”

Like Dogs, Businesses Are Social Creatures

As every small business owner knows, having a great product is not enough to generate sales. Getting your product in front of buyers takes dedicated marketing and outreach. And once she perfected her dog beds, Beth set out to market them on multiple platforms.

To this end, she utilized the power of YouTube by creating a handful of marketing videos showing off her products and adorable dogs.

“We’ve had some success with YouTube doing “infomercials” and “spokesdog” short videos,” she said.

Additionally, they also utilize the traditional outlets of Twitter and Facebook to remain in constant contact with their client base.

Jeanie also uses Google Blogger to speak to their specific audience of dog lovers and owners.

“We’ve found that blogging is how we reach the broadest audiences, and have had contact from many countries all around the world, as well as having been viewed from nearly every state in the United States.”

Now that’s some tail-wagging proof that blogging works!

The Future is Bright (and Furry!)

Jeanie’s commitment to quality dog beds bodes well for her future success in the pet industry. As word-of-mouth reviews about them continue to spread, she maintains her focus on manufacturing to a very high standard.

“We make the dog beds ourselves here in our shop in Phoenix, Arizona. We have cultivated a good relationship with our vinyl supplier and our foam supplier,” she said.

And her advice to entrepreneurs who are trying to decide on whether or not to open their own small business is simple: just do it.

After all, you’ll never know until you try. By looking around your life and identifying what needs you personally have, you could also discover an item that is sorely needed in the market.

As for Jeanie, her goals for the future are equally clear cut.

“Sell many more dog beds!”

We love an entrepreneur with big goals!

Would you ever go into the pet industry? Share below!

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Relocating Your Business: How to Keep Your Customers

business relocation

The team at Two Plates Full, a small handcraft business that has seen its share of change.

Special announcement: Scott’s Marketplace will be celebrating the grand reopening of Two Plates Full at their new location by holding a Ladies’ Day Out cash mob! RSVP and join us on Saturday, October 19th from 2 p.m. – 5 p.m. (map) to support a great local business. We’ll be giving away a $100 gift card and gourmet food and drinks! See you then!

After 23 years of owning a small business, Terri Weisz knows a thing or two about dealing with change. Fresh out of the catering and hotel business, the single mother of two decided to open a kitchen store before kitchen stores were a thing – 23 years ago to be exact.

And before Crate & Barrel and the other big chains moved in, Terri found that the market for handcraft and gift items was building more and more momentum, prompting her to shift tactics from kitchen-focused to handcraft products, including furniture and art. This change helped to shape the business that she still owns today: Two Plates Full.

And through multiple moves, a volatile market, and a campaign to save her shopping center from developers who wanted to tear it down, Terri has grown her business and sustained an eclectic clientele that includes regulars and out-of-town visitors. Her most recent business relocation was a success through the power of word-of-mouth marketing and targeted advertising.

First the Product, Then the Customers

Business relocation

A non-traditional wine bottle holder from Two Plates Full. It’s interesting products like this that keep Terri’s customers happy.

An attention to the details of every product in her store helps Terri maintain the level of quality that her customers have come to expect. She quickly found that the more adventurous she became when finding items to feature, the more positively her clientele responded.

“Doing handcraft and gift items, it seemed that the more wild stuff I bought, the more people loved it,” she said.

She also maintains a commitment to finding affordable items, bucking the trend that home goods are traditionally pricey.

“When a lot of people think of handcraft galleries, they think of really expensive stuff. But I like to search and find stuff that anyone can buy.”

Embracing An Unforeseen Business Relocation

business relocation

Terri at her new store location – an unplanned move that turned out to be a great success.

Terri has moved her store a handful of times, but none of the moves have been as fraught as her most recent relocation, prompted by a new landlord intent on tearing down the building and turning it into a condominium complex.

When an out-of-state developer bought the center where her local store and countless others had been residing, she suddenly found herself in an unforeseen situation. Terri and her fellow business owners began a campaign to fight the issue and the impending zoning vote from the city, even creating a website where they chronicled the issue as it progressed.

While the stores in the center fought valiantly for their businesses, the re-zoning vote put forth by the city passed, and the shopkeepers were suddenly out of luck. And although these weren’t the best of circumstances, Terri made the most of it by carefully going over her options. After considering closing completely, she, instead, decided to focus on a business relocation plan, eventually finding a great new location to set up shop and continue the business she started so long ago.

“My customers were asking if I was going to close, and I just was not ready to give it up yet.”

During the transition, she set about informing her customer base of the impending move by utilizing a variety of marketing tactics.

“Because we have a lot of out-of-town business too, we put signs on the door to let people know we were moving. We also used an email outreach campaign to notify our client base, as well as actual advertisements saying we were moving.”

In the end, all of this outreach paid off and her business relocation went smoother than expected.

“A majority of them followed us over to a new location,” she said.

Identifying Your Customers & Going After Them

business relocation

Second Sunday Art Fest held by Two Plates Full features local art and music. Events like these bring small business owners closer to the community.

Every business has a different set of clients, so no two marketing plans will ever be exactly alike. After looking for the best fit for her products, Terri found that in addition to regular craft shoppers, out-of-town visitors were an untapped realm of possibility.

She began advertising in hotel magazines to catch the eyes of wandering travelers. And these ads did more than just attract new customers, as most of the return visitors made it a point to come back to her store.

For the locals, she relies on word-of-mouth and online marketing to reach her audience. She also collects customer email addresses in order to build a contact list to keep her clients informed of new products or events.

She also builds ties with the community and her fellow local business owners by holding an annual festival featuring local art and music on the second Sunday of every month.

Showing Our Support

To celebrate Terri’s successful move, we’ll be holding a cash mob at Terri’s new location to remind the community to support independent business. If you’re in the area, come out and show your support! In exchange you’ll get complimentary gourmet food and drinks, a chance to win a $100 gift card, and and the opportunity to browse all of the unique finds at Two Plates Full!

How would you handle a business relocation? Tell us below!

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How to Sell an Uncommon Product, Uncommonly Well

subscription servicesWhat’s more mortifying than buying lingerie for yourself or your partner at the store with everyone watching (and judging) you? Not a whole lot. But it was this nightmare scenario that brought two entrepreneurs together to create a unique kind of company.

After having a son, Liza Noland decided that lingerie could help her regain her body confidence, but was disappointed at the selection and depersonalized experience of attempting to find the right item.

“When I decided to try lingerie, I was disappointed to find that the options in the catalogs were rarely available in retail chains. It felt like I was buying one of four outfits every other woman had chosen.”

At this point, she took matters into her own hands by creating a company that could provide upscale, boutique-style lingerie with a uniqueness of products that can’t be found at the average mall.

Launched in 2013 by Liza and her business partner Angel Martinez, Alley Rose Lingerie brings a new twist to the lingerie business with their unique online shopping experience and personalized subscription services.

“After years of fighting through the frustration of very few designer lingerie options and overall diminishing quality, the idea of a premier lingerie club came to light,” Liza said.

“I envisioned a discreet, personalized environment where my customers could request any styles, shapes, and colors of lingerie they would like – as often as they would like – and I would ensure they’d get it.”

The Online Experience

subscription servicesThe online shopping experience begins with the consumer identifying what type of lingerie would best fit their personality. After filling out a questionnaire on the website, a lingerie style is generated based on a person’s answers.

“You are first walked through an interactive questionnaire that will determine your personalized lingerie style and thus, corresponding lingerie outfits chosen just for you. Our mission is to reignite the passion in relationships and encourage self-confidence and positive self-image through a personalized, discreet relationship with our members.

“On a larger scope, we hope to begin to shift the understanding of the purpose and importance of lingerie and pleasure products, because they’re not just for Valentine’s Day and birthdays anymore.

“Lingerie can be powerful for self-image, self-confidence, and feeling passionate in your relationship. If lingerie can begin to be seen through this perspective, we believe women will feel more contentment within themselves and their relationships.”

Sweet Nothings in the Mail

subscription servicesThe duo has also created subscription services to complement the online aspect of their business, offering clients customizable order packages. The delivery service itself is also flexible, with the company offering monthly, quarterly, or one-time mailings. The final step is an electronic communication with a few hand-selected items for a customer to choose from.

The idea of a mail-order lingerie service is not the most common business model. So Liza has employed interactive marketing techniques, with an emphasis on social media, to educate consumers on her product.

“Focusing on SEO has shown the most positive return through web traffic. Facebook, Twitter, charity events, and even a live-chat feature we’ve added to our site have all given us a more personalized voice to our clients. We also have very supportive designers that utilize their marketing channels to promote our company as well.

“We’ve had a very positive reaction to our idea and our product collections, and we’ve also adopted many of the ideas that have come from our clients. There is definitely an interest in personalized lingerie styling, but you have to also build trust.”

Getting Physical

In addition to the subscription and online ordering components, getting her products into physical retail locations is Liza’s next goal on the horizon.

“The quality of the lingerie we sell translates best when the softness of the silk, the intricacy of the lace, and the beauty of the designs can be seen and felt, as does our enthusiasm and passion for our products. We feel there is a huge gap in lingerie boutiques that offer personal, comfortable service and unique lingerie pieces. We intend to market our online boutique nationally, gain knowledge and consumer understanding through our clients, and eventually open boutique shops in areas where we have a strong following.”

Giving Back

And it’s not all lace and silk for these new entrepreneurs. Their commitment to restoring confidence and self-empowerment to women has inspired them to partner with non-profit organization Free the Girls, which works to provides job opportunities to women rescued from sex trafficking in Africa.

Alley Rose will provide the women with bras to sell for additional income, as bras become a much sought-after item in the used clothing market around the world. They will be asking for bra donations from customers, and will award $1 in credit toward their purchase for every bra donated.

“Our mission as we entered the lingerie industry has always been to shift the perspective of lingerie and the power it has on self-confidence. Bringing the support of our clients, our company and Free the Girls together to make a difference gives us the opportunity to continue our commitment to this powerful message,” Liza said.

So how can small business owners utilize subscription services for their business?

“Consumers are constantly looking for convenient ways to purchase products they use on a regular basis. Subscription services satisfy this need, and if done correctly can provide a more personal, customized experience than you’d find shopping on your own,” Liza said.

“My advice to small businesses looking to move into the subscription market would be to focus on a niche that you’re passionate about, and embrace personalization.

“Understand that you’re going to have to build trust, so you may not want to offer the subscription as your only option at first. Give your clients the opportunity to experience the quality of the product or service you provide. If you’ve planned correctly, they’ll see no other reason to buy your product from anyone else.”

Would you use subscription services for your business? Share below!

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