April 30 begins Small Business Week. And though much like National Donut Day and International Pork Belly Week, nobody’s getting any time off or tax breaks for it, at least it gives us all a chance to sit back and appreciate the hard road small business owners have to travel to find success. And though it’s a tough road, it’s also one that can be unbelievably rewarding. So we talked to five successful small business owners in a bunch of different fields – from naturally-sweetened water to crime scene cleanup – and they told us all about how they got started, and got their now-thriving businesses off the ground.
Miami Beach, FL
Owners: Shennon Olson and Ana Lessa
After working for years as a celebrity stylist in Los Angeles, and for the famed stylist Oribe, Shennon Olson wanted to bring that level of service to his adopted hometown of Miami. Seeing that the city was transforming from a seasonal, snowbird-filled locale to a real city with full-time residents, he looked to open a salon where clients who might otherwise wait from trips back to New York or LA could come to get their hair cut.
Though Olson had the creative vision, he needed someone with the business sense to help him succeed. Enter Ana Lessa, who met Olson in LA and realized he had a great idea. The two pooled their savings to start Atma, and Olson credits Lessa’s business acumen with much of the salon’s early success.
“If you don’t have solid business experience, go into business with somebody who does,” he says. “You can be a creative mind, but if you can’t make the numbers add up it doesn’t matter how incredible the idea is. You won’t make money.”
A year and a half in, Atma has been a roaring success and is soon expanding to create a medical spa. Olson says that partnering with other small businesses in his Sunset Harbour neighborhood has been one of his greatest marketing tools. And whether that means leaving fliers at the trendy Lucali Pizza or partnering with yoga promotions at Green Monkey, being around and working with other small businesses is a great way to get off the ground.
Owner: Bill Creelman
As a lifelong Diet Coke addict, Bill Creelman never thought too much about what went into his beloved artificially-sweetened caffeine fix. But when his kids started asking if they could have some too, he got a little concerned. He wanted a sparkling drink that was sweetened with real, natural fruit, and found none. So he took out a second mortgage on his house, got fruit from some family farms around Western Massachusetts, and took the fresh-squeezed juice to sweeten and flavor the sparkling water that would become Spindrift.
The name comes from Creelman’s days as a charter captain in Nantucket, referring to the white caps at the crest of a wave. Creelman took this name and some samples on the road to offer stores and restaurants around New England.
“I would load my Prius station wagon with samples, create a map of every sandwich shop, burrito joint, pizza place, specialty and natural food store that cared about real ingredients, and hit the road. I would drive until I was out of samples then head back and do it all over,” he says.
His hard work has paid off, as Spindrift can now be found in places like Costco, Trader Joe’s, and Target. Sales doubled from 2015-2016, and though he can now afford to let other people pack Prius’ with samples, he still feels passionate about his work and enjoys producing Spindrift every day.
Crime Scene Cleaners Northwest
Owner: Chris Vegors
Most kids don’t grow up saying “Ooooh, I wanna clean up crime scenes!” Then again, you’d be hard pressed to call Chris Vegors a normal kid. The former Marine who spent part of his childhood in American Samoa found himself happily married with children driving a truck for Budweiser, when he bought his wife Alicia a book called “Mop Men,” by Alan Emmins. The book is about people who clean up unsightly crime scenes, and Alicia was immediately captivated. The couple soon started siphoning money from their day jobs to fund their budding crime scene cleanup business.
‘I don’t think she knew exactly how bad bodies smell when they’re decomposing,” Vegors says. “Or how wrecked family members are going to be when they’re initially coming to terms with a sometimes-violent death.” So Alicia worked the office and administrative side, and Chris did the cleanups.
Of course, getting the word out that you clean up the nastiest scenes on earth isn’t easy.
“How does one convey, ‘Hey, I can clean all the grossest stuff you’ve never contemplated, but at the same time help you through the roughest emotional state you can imagine’ in a Google AdWords campaign?” Vegors says.
Most of his initial business was acquired through law enforcement he knew form his time as a driver and in the military. Within 15 months weeks they had a contract with the Washington State Patrol, then later with the Tacoma Police Department to clean vomit out of police cars. And though sadly Alicia has passed away since the business began, Vegors says the experience has given him empathy with families he encounters, and makes his business that much stronger.
Owner: Danny Serfer
Necessity is the mother of all invention, so the saying goes. So the logic might follow that desperation might be the mother of greatness. Such was the case for Blue Collar, a restaurant that in five short years has become one the most beloved restaurants in the notoriously brutal restaurant world of South Florida. When Danny Serfer moved back to his hometown of Miami from New York in 2011, nobody would hire the talented chef. So, lacking any job, he took his savings and opened a 22-seat restaurant on the ground floor of a seedy Biscayne Boulevard motel.
“I was fortunate enough to be living with my sister rent free and could eat at the restaurant. This allowed me to put the financial needs of the employees and restaurant (repairs, updates, etc.) first,” says Serfer.
Serfer’s knack for social media (“I twittered the (heck) outta that place”) combined with his connections in the local neighborhood kept the place packed from the very beginning. With few seats to fill, it was easy to look busy, and once word got out about the braised meats, hearty sandwiches, and Cuban spring rolls, finding a seat at Blue Collar became difficult. As the restaurant thrived, the neighborhood around it came back to life, and many credit Serfer’s restaurant as one of the big reasons the MiMo area has become one of the hottest culinary neighborhoods in Miami.
New York, NY
Owner: Anthony Moniscalco
After working for a decade in the high-intensity world of New York corporate finance, Anthony Moniscalco had had enough. As an athlete in high school and college, fitness was his true passion so he moved into the wellness industry, managing and re-branding a number of gyms. Finally, in 2011 he decided it was time to open his own gym, one that could offer high-intensity classes at affordable prices to people in his blue-collar community of Long Island City. The result was Crank, an indoor cycling (or “spinning” as you may know it) studio offering 45 and 60 minute classes for as little as $99 a month.
Initially, Crank was funded by Moniscalco’s own money, and as such he spent countless hours in the gym, building relationships with new riders and showing the extra level of attention only a small business can give. He offered pre-sale discounts and free introductory classes to Long Island City residents, and once inside they were hooked. As the business grew, investors saw the potential in Crank and have joined Moniscalco in expanding to the studio’s first Manhattan location in the Upper East Side.
All of these are fantastic stories of success, but perhaps you have one better. Or encountered some challenges these businesses didn’t. We’d love for you to share your story with us, so other small businesses can learn and be inspired too. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you might be profiled on a future BFS Capital post.