A determination to succeed and a passion for the business are among
the traits that help entrepreneurs keep their startups going the first
By DENNIS LARISON, Business Editor
Getting a small business off the
ground and keeping it afloat can be a daunting task in the best of times.
According to the Small Business
Administration, less than 70 percent of new employers survive the first
two years and only a little more than half — 51 percent — are still
in business after five years.
Throw in an economic downturn on
top of that, and it can be tough.
"The recession, that's been
the scariest part," Darlene Umble said of her five years as owner
of Olde Peddler Wools along Route 23 in Caernarvon Township. She celebrated
her shop's fifth anniversary in September.
"The whole economic downturn
is really a heartbreaker," said Jocelyn Wolff, owner of Apron Strings,
which opened in the Hager Arcade in downtown Lancaster the same month
Umble opened her shop.
"This past year, and even 2008,
it was really scary," she said.
Yet, both Wolff and Umble said their
businesses have been doing well despite the downturn.
"I have the most lovely group
of loyalists who are extremely supportive," Wolff said. "They
just really, really want to see the small [business] people survive."
Umble has her own loyal customers,
although she has noticed many of them are not buying in the same quantity
they once did.
"Maybe because of the recession,
I haven't been growing as much as I'd like," she conceded. "[But]
just going through a recession makes you more determined to figure out
how to do well in spite of it."
That kind of tenacity is what pulls
many owners through the startup phase of their businesses, said Jim
Eshleman, whose own firm, Strategic Endeavors, 805 Estelle Drive, helps
owners sell their businesses when they're ready to retire or move on.
"I see an awful lot of small
businesses and ... how successful they are, and what does and doesn't
work," Eshleman said.
Passion and commitment are at the
top of Eshleman's list when it comes to qualities that enable entrepreneurs
to survive. The owner has to believe in the business, he said, and then
have the determination and persistence to see it through.
"That's the entrepreneurial
spirit — people just refuse to fail and are determined they're going
to make it," he said.
A recession can really put that
spirit to the test.
Chris Ditzler, who will be celebrating
the fifth anniversary of Slugger's Pizzeria, 701 N. Queen St., later
this month, said he's seen a lot of other pizza shops come and go in
the few years he's been in business.
"We were on an upswing until
February of '08 when we started to see things level off and even drop
off a little," he said.
"Once this recession is over,
hopefully we'll flourish rather than just survive," Ditzler said.
"But survival is the name of the game right now."
Successful startup business owners are usually the ones who stick to
the basics and concentrate on what they do best, Eshleman said.
Ditzler, for example, grew up in
the pizza business working for his uncle and cousin, Dave Groff senior
and junior, at Papa Dino's.
Ditzler went on to become a computer
systems analyst for eight years, a profession that he said required
him to fight for his job every six months as contracts expired.
"At that point, I wanted to
control my own destiny and [running a pizza shop] was just something
that I knew," he said.
Umble and Wolff had also had other
careers before opening their shops, both working for a time as high
But Wolff, whose Apron Strings is
a combination retail store specializing in gourmet foods, cookware and
dinnerware, and a sandwich shop/salad bar, had previous experience in
retail and catering.
"I have a decent retail merchandising
background. I learned a lot from that," she said, working at such
places as Boscov's, Bon-Ton and RB Shap.
"I do take a lot of time to
hand-pick my stuff," she said. "I go to shows, and I taste
everything before I put it on the shelf."
Originally in the back of the Hager
Arcade, Apron Strings moved a couple of years ago to the front corner
of the building when Wolff incorporated the Center City Deli into her
business and started selling breakfast and lunch fare.
She said her interest in preparing
food began when her husband, George, had a job that required him to
entertain a lot, which in turn grew into a small home-based catering
"I really, really love food,
and I love giving a party," she said. "Even now, I wake up
and think there's really nothing I would rather do."
Umble, on the other hand, said she
had never knitted a sweater before opening her shop, although she did
have a passion for wool, dyed it at home and supervised a spinning and
weaving club at Lancaster Mennonite High School when she taught math
Her passion, she said, is in seeing
wool turned into something useful.
"I liked the fact that you
could go to something so basic as a sheep on a farm and turn [its fleece]
into fabric," she said.
Olde Peddler Wools carries almost
everything that could be used in that process — from the fleece itself,
to spinning wheels, to little bags of fibers, to yarns and the woolen
fabrics used for hooked rugs. The shop also holds classes to teach people
how to use the materials.
"I love it. I love everything
about it," Umble said. "It's just that it requires a lot of
Another quality that helps many entrepreneurs keep their startup businesses
alive, Eshleman said, is frugality.
During hard times, businesses need
to conserve cash to survive, he said, and they can do that by cutting
expenses to the bone and finding ways to leverage their existing assets.
Ditzler, for example, credits cash
control as being one of the biggest reasons Slugger's Pizzeria is still
in business after five years — that and controlled growth.
"I saw a lot of pizza shops
come in and drop a lot of money" promoting themselves, he said.
Rather than trying to fill his place
up from Day 1, Ditzler said, he tried to build the business slowly,
concentrating on putting together a good staff and getting workers trained
so they could handle the crush of customers when that time came.
"If you're not putting out
good food, people won't come back," he explained.
Another big thing, he added, is
that he's always resisted the temptation to offer special discounts
to drum up new business.
"When you do that, you tend
to devalue your product," he said.
Still, holding the line on expenses
has been difficult during the past couple of years when flour and cheese
prices were going up, he said.
One thing he did do last summer
when gas prices topped $4 a gallon was invest in a motor scooter for
deliveries. Besides economizing on gas, the scooter had the added advantage
of becoming one of the pizzeria's signature features.
"Obviously, the scooter doesn't
make the pizza taste any better," Ditzler said. But inexpensive
gimmicks like that, he said, can trigger a customer's memory and set
Slugger's apart from its competitors.
Over the horizon
As gratifying as it might be to a startup business owner to survive
the first five years, recession or no, that's only the first step to
cultivating a successful business, Eshleman said.
He recalled one business he helped
sell, in which the owner had been very good at taking a small staff
of unskilled workers and training them to sell his products through
"In a couple of years, he had
built up 3,000 accounts," Eshleman said. "He had the skills
to get that business off the ground [but] not the skills to take the
business to the next level."
The next owner, he said, was able
to build on that initial customer base by putting in a distribution
center and carrying more inventory.
Some people, Eshleman said, are
very good at starting new businesses and may end up with serial startups.
Others can make the transition and grow a bigger company.
"You have to find what works
for you and do it. It has to align with your skill sets," he said.
"As the demands change, if
the owner can't step up and make the transition, it starts to get uncomfortable,"
Eshleman said. "They start to get bored or burned out, and that's
how they know" it's time to move on.