All successful small business start in a place like Seattle or Silicon Valley or New York, right? WRONG. Costs like rent, supplies, and labor are so expensive there, that you already can’t afford to work for yourself before you’ve even begun. The best place to get your business started is right where you are.
You don’t have to go off your island. You can do it right here.
You already live on Whidbey or Camano. You know who to ask to join your business or give you a loan. You’ve already got people ready to help you. What else do you need?
Do you need specialized equipment, or can you work with what you already own? Do you need retail space? High speed internet? Manufacturing space? Whidbey and Camano Islands have different type of spaces to fit every small business need. Don’t know how to find it? Give us a call at (360) 678-6889.
But WHERE do you do business?
You already live somewhere. Can you set up your business out of your living room, front room, or spare room?
On the up side:
- Cost: Without added rent, equipment, and travel, you’re not going to find a cheaper place to work.
- Familiarity: You know the quirks of your home. You can tune them out and get right to work without the adjustment or setup time.
- Flexibility: You can get work done whenever you need to, without worrying about open hours or other scheduling problems.
- Distractions: At home you’ve got family, TV, games, internet, everything else. Focusing on work in this environment can be tough. Set aside a space to work, and ban distractions while you’re focused on business.
- Equipment: Depending on what kind of business you want to open, you might not have the equipment available at your home to do it. Or even worse, you might not be allowed to do the type of business you want where you live (a tricky thing called zoning). Find something you can do from home, or look into any modifications you might need to make to be successful.
- Access to Customers: Depending on where you live, it might not be easy or even feasible for customers to come to you. Unless you work very hard, they might not even know you exist. It takes some creative working, or certain types of business, to work from home.
Worry less about where you’re going to do business, and more about where your customers need you. Don’t ask them to come to you—go to them.
On the up side:
- Cost: When you don’t need a physical space, you don’t have to worry about rent or utilities.
- Competitive: Going to your customers instead of demanding they come to you gives you a competitive edge. When they don’t have to make time in their schedules to come to you, you’ve taken away one more excuse for them to say no.
- Travel Costs: Traveling to other businesses takes a reliable car (with insurance!), gas, and any equipment you need to bring with you. Make sure to have room in your budget.
- Schedule: When you go to your customer, you need to be ready to work around their schedule. Sometimes that means showing up first thing in the morning, or on the weekends, or in the evenings.
- Travel Time: Every minute you’re driving to or from a job is time that you’re not spending on another job, or on any of the other things you need to do for your business. Make sure you either limit the distance you’re willing to travel, or factor in your travel time to the cost you charge your customer.
Take your show on the road! There are farmers markets, trade shows, street fairs, and festivals that have space for you to drum up some business at a booth.
On the up side:
- More Marketing Power: When you have a booth at a show or festival, you are tapping into that event’s marketing power to draw people to the area. You can boost it with your own marketing, or just focus on getting people who walk by to come to your booth.
- New Pool of Customers: If you go to a variety of shows, you’ll meet a new group of people each time. Customers who haven’t yet heard of your great company, and don’t yet have what you’re selling.
- Control Your Schedule: When you sign up for a show, you know well in advance when it will be happening. If it fits into your schedule, sign up! If not, wait for the next show to come along. Shows and markets are probably one of the easiest ways to fit a business around your school schedule, since most happen on the weekends or the summer.
- Costs: Every show or fair requires a vendor fee. Sometimes this is a flat rate ($20/day), sometimes it’s a percentage of sales (10%), sometimes it’s a combination of the two. Read the vendor application closely to make sure you know what you’re getting into. You will also need to bring your own tent setup. Speaking of…
- Storage & Transportation: You need a car or truck that can carry your tent, tables, chairs, and all of your product you want to sell. And you need to have somewhere to keep that product when you’re not out selling it.
- Not Year Round: Sometimes you’re stuck out in the rain, wind, cold, or even extreme heat. With a few exceptions, most shows only happen between May and September. If your business can make enough money in a limited time frame and you can tough out the weather, shows are an easy place to test-run your business.
Have something you can get other people to sell for you? You can do that. Places like the Goose Grocery in Bayview or many of our local Chambers of Commerce like to carry local products.
On the up side:
- No rent: No dedicated space for your business means that you don’t have to pay all the rent and utilities that go with it. The business that is carrying your product does that for you.
- Existing Customers: The store carrying your stuff already has customers that regularly shop there. Getting your stuff on their shelves is a great way to tap into their loyal customers, and make them your loyal customers!
- Experience: Someone who already owns a shop has great ideas on where to place your stuff to get the most attention, what catches customers’ eyes on the packaging or other display features, and how to promote your product. Don’t be afraid to ask them for advice. If they agreed to carry your product, they already want to make sure everything sells.
- Competition: If you’ve ever been to the grocery store, you might have noticed that there are a lot of different brands of the same kind of product. You’ll be jumping into that competition. Make sure your packaging and branding is the best it can be before you get it on their shelves.
- Profit Margin: When you sell your own stuff, you get to keep all the money. But when someone else does that work for you, they take their cut. This is called a markup. You have less work to do, but you also have less potential profit. Make sure you build that markup into your price.
- Advocate: You’re super passionate about your product! Unfortunately, the employees at the store might not be. Even if they are, they can’t afford to pay someone to stand in the aisle and tell everyone about your business as they walk past. You will need to think of some other ways to get the word out and the excitement up.
Rent a space on main street, and you’ll be what most people picture when they think “business.” Catch people as they walk by, fill those parking spots near your front door, and be the boss of your own space.
On the up side:
- Visibility: You’ve been in a store. Maybe even today. The best thing about having your own storefront is that it’s the most visible place to have your business. All good storefronts have dedicated parking spots, busy nearby roads, and plenty of foot traffic.
- Convenient: When you rent a building, the landlord is responsible for painting, repairs, and all the messy parts of owning a building. When you’re just starting out, it’s one more thing you don’t need to worry about.
- Control: You get to decide how you want the store to look, how you want to use the available space, and how you present your business. You’re the boss, and no one can make the decisions for you.
- Rent: Of all the places we’ve talked about having a business, this is the most expensive for your new company. You have to pay for dedicated space for your business, which can be anywhere between $500 to $5,000 a month, depending on where it’s located and how big the space. You also need to budget for utilities, taxes, and other related expenses.
- Landlords: As much as we would like to say otherwise, there are some not-so-great building owners around. If you’re not careful, they may charge you more than the space is actually worth, not perform maintenance on the building, or cause some extra headaches for you. Before you rent a space, ask to speak to the former tenants, and talk to your parents, mentors, the EDC, and the Chamber to make sure you’re finding the best place to start.
- Contracts: Contracts are boring and full of legalese, but they are binding. You need to read your contracts thoroughly before you sign anything, to make sure you know all of the fees you will be expected to pay, or to make sure you’re not getting locked into paying for a space for five years when you might have to close or move your business in 6 months. If you’re under 18, you cannot legally sign a lease by yourself, and will need an adult business partner to sign for you.
Online sales is one of the fastest growing businesses. You have low costs and a low entry point (if you can click and drag, you can create an online store). Start small and experiment.
On the up side:
- Cost: Almost every option for an online store is free or low-cost upfront (pay attention to fees and markups, though!). Etsy, Amazon, or your very own site and store, they all have their own requirements but there are lots of guides on the internet on how to make the most money.
- Scale: You can adjust your product production as you need it. List products one at a time as you finish custom-making them, take orders by commission, or mass upload a large amount of product: the only limit to how much you want to sell is how much you can make.
- Convenience: No need to worry about operating hours. Run your online business on the weekends, during lunch hour, or at 2 AM when you really should be sleeping but aren’t. You set the schedule.
- Competition: The trickiest part of selling online is that you go from competing with other business in your town to competing with others around the world. It can be easy to get lost in the noise of the internet. You’ll need a strong marketing strategy to bring in sales.
- Shipping: If you have a physical product to deliver, you need to be ready to pack, process, and ship every order. Do you have easy access to UPS, USPS, or FedEx? One of the tricky parts of living on an island is that it can delay your shipping time a day or two. Give your customers reasonable expectations.
- Returns: Returns are very common with online stores. Whether they changed their mind, a mistake was made, or their color levels on their screens was off, be prepared for some of your product to come back. Will you be able to resell those items? Will you have to mark them up at a discount, or will you have to toss some of the returned product? Make sure to build a buffer of lost or replaced product into the cost of your regular product, so that you don’t take the hit when something can’t be sold.
See It In Action
In 1989, local South Whidbey student Dan Ollis purchased an espresso cart and spent the summer attending local fairs selling premium coffee drinks, starting Whidbey Coffee. Now he has over 15 locations, a sister brand, and coffee in a major national hotel chain.
Dan started on Whidbey because it’s where he’s from and where he lived. For good or ill, it was all he knew, and he has no regrets. Why did he keep the name? “I have staff, I have customers, I have all this effort put into a name, why would I change it? I, me, Dan Ollis will always be a product of Whidbey Island. That’s not to say I haven’t run into issues from time to time, but all in all, it’s a great name and has done pretty good so far…”
Jennifer, Jessica and Roshel, are the 3 Sisters the farm is named after. The farm The girls grew up on the farm and have always been involved in the production and sales on 3 Sisters Family Farms. The 3 Sisters are the fifth generation to live on our Whidbey Island farm! The farm has been in the family for over 100 years.
Raised on the Oak Harbor farm, they made it into their own by converting it from a dairy farm to beef and other livestock for meat. They keep it in the family, not just in the workers, but even in their customers.