When the going gets tough, microenterprises get going. The down economy is proving a great time for entrepreneurs to take business into their own hands.
By JON BELL
| Cami Oetman and friends at her Yuppy Puppy Boutique in Salem.|
PHOTOS BY LEAH NASH
It’s not a new story that the economy has been tough on businesses in Oregon, that layoffs have touched everyone from Intel to OHSU. Nor is it breaking news that banks are having a tough time, that credit is still tight or that unemployment is rising.
What is interesting is to see that amid such turmoil entrepreneurs across the state are still giving it a go. And that some of them are doing OK.
There are 300,000 microenterprises — businesses with fewer than five employees — that call Oregon home. They comprise 86% of all registered businesses, according to the Oregon Microenterprise Network. The network has seen a huge spike in demand for its services in the past six months, including a 60% increase for its market research assistance. Part of that is a direct result of higher unemployment, as laid-off employees try on the role of sole proprietor.
But there is, of course, more than unemployment that drives people to own their own business. There’s fate and circumstance, luck and skill, drive and dreams. We found five solo entrepreneurs who bucked the downturn and decided to become their own boss.
“It’s pretty much all about the bling.”
The way Cami Oetman sees it, people may be willing to tighten their own belts when the economy slumps. But trim spending on their pets? No way.
“People always want the best for their pets,” she says.
And that bodes well for the 36-year-old Oetman, who in October opened Yuppy Puppy Boutique, a luxury pet store in Salem full of everything from plush beds and nail polish to crystal collars and doggie tiaras.
Oetman found her way into the $43-billion-a-year pet industry via a master’s in social work and a job counseling hospice patients. Always a cat fan, she actually fell for one of her patient’s dogs and ended up getting two of her own.
Oetman then came up with the idea for Yuppy Puppy as a way for her not only to spend as much time with her canine kids as possible, but also to fill Salem’s pet boutique void.
“People told me you had to go to Portland for places like that,” she says, “but I said, ‘What about all these people here who have dogs?’”
Lots of research, lots of saving and a family member who invested in her idea helped Oetman land a prime spot in downtown Salem. She’s differentiated her store by focusing less on big bags of dog food and more on things like doggie earrings and designer pet carriers.
“It’s pretty much all about the bling,” she says.
Oetman, whose first revenue goal is to match her income from her days in the hospice world, plans to add online shopping to her website soon. And she’s already thinking about store number two.
“Pets are a constant,” she says. “Whether the economy is up or down, your pet doesn’t know, and they don’t care if you lost money in stocks.”
“Whatever. People still need cheap jewelry.”
Twenty-eight-year-old jewelry designer Betsy Cross spent last fall cranking out handmade earrings and necklaces to gear up for the coming holiday season — economic meltdown be damned.
“I just anticipated having a really busy season, even in the face of this economic downturn,” she says. “I said, ‘Whatever. People still need cheap jewelry.’”
And apparently they do. Cross, who used about $3,000 in savings to start up Betsy & Iya Jewelry in Portland last March, found herself busier than she’d ever expected with shows, retail and wholesale business and a growing online presence.
A Virginia native who once thought she’d put her master’s in theater to use as a college professor, Cross dabbled in jewelry while working for a bead store in California. She also worked with a well-known jewelry rep in Portland, which helped teach her the business behind the glitz, and then with a local designer.
After the designer gig ended, Cross contemplated life in academia, different fields altogether like pharmaceutical sales, or making a go of her colorful, sometimes-sassy, sometimes-sophisticated jewelry. She took a successful studio opening last spring as a sign to go with the latter.
Most of her business comes from local and national wholesale clients. When she first started, revenues were coming in at about $3,000 a month; now she shoots for $5,000 and says she’d be happy — and not too surprised — if her second full year hit the six-figure mark.
To get there, however, Cross will likely have to bring on another person.
“I can only go as far as my hands will take me,” she says.
Cross hopes to continue growing the business by adding more wholesalers, bringing more local people on as needed and eventually hitting the big-time world of jewelry trade shows.
“It’s funny,” she says. “This was never a dream of mine. But it is now.”
“I wonder if I was insane for ever doing this.”
Ask Dawn Lynn, 34, what motivated her to open her bookstore, Reading Time Books, in Dallas last fall, and she’ll tell you: It was a joke.
For nine years prior, Lynn had been a self-employed cosmetologist. But years of repetitive motion had strained her elbows to the quitting point. As Lynn sat at a computer one day looking yet again for a part-time job close to home — and not finding one — her mother half-jokingly suggested she start her own business.
And so she did.
Lynn enrolled in a training program at Chemeketa Community College, and landed a loan from OMEN. She found an ideal space with discounted rent in a historic building in downtown Dallas, amassed stacks of used books — “They’re like rabbits,” she says, “they multiply like crazy” — and opened for business last September.
Today, in addition to new and used books, Reading Time also boasts a café, local art and live music.
Business has ebbed and flowed so far, and there have been weeks when Lynn’s kept her fingers crossed.
“It’s been scary,” says Lynn, whose husband works for the city of Salem. “Some weeks, I wonder if I was insane for ever doing this. Others, it picks up and we’re fine.”
Foul weather dented holiday sales a bit, but Lynn is optimistic that the teeter-totter will level a bit once people get comfortable with the new White House. She also takes heart that what she sells is within reach for most.
“I have books that are affordable, and people enjoy things that are affordable right now,” she says.
Ideally Lynn would like to see the business flourish to the point that either her kids could take it over or she could sell it come retirement. Until then, though, she’s keeping her ambitions fairly practical.
“To hopefully still be here in a year is definitely in the plan,” she says.
“People said this was a meat-and-potatoes town.”
When Suzie Porter and her husband, Asinete Tibwe, first started talking to people about the idea of a community supported agriculture farm in Myrtle Creek, the response was a bit tepid.
“People said this was a meat-and-potatoes town and that nobody would go for the whole CSA thing,” says Porter, 35, who grew up on an organic farm in California.
But just a month after they began promoting shares in Big Lick Farm for 2008 — CSA’s find people to buy advance shares and then enjoy weekly deliveries — they’d sold out entirely.
“There hadn’t been a CSA in Douglas County for 10 years, and it turned out that people were really supportive,” says Porter.
Porter and Tibwe met when Porter was teaching English in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. They got their 2008 start thanks to the sale of 30 full shares at $520 each and 18 half shares for exactly half the price. That money — just over $20,000 — and assistance from the Umpqua Community Development Corporation helped the farm take root.
For their first season, they grew everything from bok choy to ornamental corn on land Porter’s parents and neighbors own.
In addition to being the couple’s sole source of income, the money generated through shares also goes toward seeds, tractor repairs and other necessities on the farm. They’ve also applied for a small business loan, which will help them purchase more fruit trees and a much-needed deer fence. That assistance will prove valuable for Big Lick — named for the road the farm is on — because Porter says the economy has hit its shareholder base.
“We are seeing effects of that this year,” she says. “People have turned to half shares instead of full. So far we’ve got 28 half shares and just eight full shares for this year, so we have to figure out how to sell more full shares … and how to really dial in on what we have to offer.”
|Ryan Lynn opened East Side Guitar Repair in southeast Portland right as the economy tanked.|
“I started wondering what the hell I was doing.”
Ryan Lynn opened East Side Guitar Repair in southeast Portland right as the economy tanked.
Ryan Lynn wasn’t really planning on opening his own guitar repair shop when he walked into U.S. Bank last summer.
The 33-year-old luthier, who by then had been fine-tuning guitars for various music shops for nearly 10 years, really just wanted to see if he could even qualify for a loan, just in case he ever did decide to give it a go.
He walked out of the bank, however, with a $12,000 small business loan in hand.
“I realized right then that my life was going to change in some pretty drastic ways,” he says. “I was definitely a little nervous, but when I weighed the pros and cons, it was worth it.”
Lynn quit his job at a local music shop and found a spot for his East Side Guitar Repair in southeast Portland. Then, in the midst of pre-opening construction, the economy tanked.
“I started wondering what the hell I was doing,” he says, “but I was at a point where I couldn’t turn back — and I didn’t.”
Lynn opened his doors in November to a slow but steady stream of Portland musicians with axes in need of love. The down economy, he says, may actually be boosting his business because instead of shelling out big bucks for shiny new Les Pauls, people are fixing up their old gear.
Though instrument repair is a fairly niche business, Lynn says Portland’s vibrant music scene is full of potential clients. He’s also already built a solid reputation in town — and put in time as a guitar tech for the likes of The Decemberists and M. Ward — which is helping spread the word.
He says it’s too early to know what kind of revenues he’ll be generating, but if business continues to grow, Lynn hopes to expand his space, add more retail offerings and perhaps hire on a second set of hands.
“I went into this with success in mind,” he says, “not failure.”
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