STORY BY DANNY SEO ✷ PHOTOGRAPHS BY JONAS JUNGBLUT
It should come as no surprise that when I asked small business owners in Portland, Oregon—home to the behemoth Nike Corporation—for their best advice on starting a small biz, the responses boiled down to this familiar slogan: Just Do It. There’s never a perfect time to take that leap of faith and chase that entrepreneurial dream, they told me. So, if that fire is burning inside of you, it’s time to stoke those flames and make it happen. I sat down with all types of folks—a chef, a potter, a jewelry designer, and even an herbalist—to find out where that leap landed them. I had a few more burning questions, like: “Why did ya start this? How did you do it?” And even: “What was your worst mistake and why?” Here are their revealing responses.
Roots & Crowns
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 6
WHY DID YA START YOUR OWN BUSINESS? I love interfacing with actual people in my apothecary instead of just sending orders out on the Internet. I love having a beautiful space that makes people say: “Ahhh…I like how it feels in here.”
BIGGEST CHALLENGE? The fear of failure. At the end of each month, I always feel like Oh, I made it. But then the next month it’s like, Will I again? It does get easier though.
HOW DO YOU COMPETE WITH THE BIG GUYS?
I’m really lucky that my customer base is loyal. They see value in what I create with my own hands. They trust me and the quality of the ingredients. They know there’s a difference. They like coming in here trusting that I actually know the ingredients in their skincare jar.
BIGGEST MISTAKE MADE AND WHAT WAS LEARNED? Opening a business with a friend and using that as a catalyst for opening a space. That creates complications with friendships, and I really should have trusted I could have done it on my own.
YOUR BESTSELLER: Rose face serum. It has my own garden roses in it and there’s magic in that.
MUST-HAVE BUSINESS TOOL: A bookkeeper. Big time. You think you can do QuickBooks yourself, but nine months later you’re scrambling and it’s a nightmare. A bookkeeper catches things that can also save you money.
Cydnie Smith-McCarthy And Rich Bunch III
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 1
WHY DID YA START YOUR OWN BUSINESS? Representation in Portland is important and that’s why I started this; a lot [of Black-owned businesses] were pushed out of due to gentrification. There aren’t a lot of wellness options in the Portland area for the black community. My dad passed away in 2018 from heart disease he didn’t know he had. He passed away without being treated. He’s my inspiration.
HOW DO YOU COMPETE WITH fast-food chains? Because we’re different. We’re super inviting and we have an edge to us. The community likes supporting a woman-owned, black-owned business. They like the shop, the history, and that there’s a story behind the brand. We use character branding to reel in our customers and we make people feel part of the process.
THE BEST ADVICE TO OTHER POTENTIAL BUSINESS OWNERS? Just do it. You’re going to learn a lot and you’re going to fail a lot. Work as hard as you can. Go for it and see what happens.
YOUR BESTSELLER: Our #1 juice is MAJIKAL, a pineapple-based drink with E3 Live (spirulina), mint, and alkaline water. It’s blue. It’s sweet and minty at the same time. People love color.
MUST-HAVE BUSINESS TOOL: The Square app. I check that thing three to four times a day to see what’s trending. It’s our eye in the sky. It tracks everything; it tells us what sold at what time and how things do week to week.
Betsy and Lya
Will and Betsy Cervarich
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 13
WHY DID YA START YOUR OWN BUSINESS? I knew that I needed to make my living doing something creative. My background is in theater and I fell out of love with it. I have always had a love for adornment and thought I can make money through jewelry-making—even though I didn’t have any training.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE? Forcing myself into areas I do not excel at. Trying to juggle all the roles: marketing, bookkeeping, designing, selling, customer service. The CEO of Spanx said “Hire your weaknesses.” And excel at what you are best at.
HOW DO YOU COMPETE WITH THE BIG GUYS? We are small enough to follow our gut and to have a close and real connection with our customers in a way data will never be able to supplant. We talk to our customers. We’ve cried with them. That connection is central to what we do. It’s just how we are as people.
THE BEST ADVICE TO OTHER POTENTIAL BUSINESS OWNERS? It’s never ever going to feel safe and certain. There will always be the feeling that you have to leap. You’re at the cliff and can see the other side…so you have to try. You’re close enough that you’ll probably make it, but YOU HAVE TO JUMP.
YOUR BESTSELLER: The Fremont Bridge Cuff, which has a realistic representation of a bridge. It has that special thing we offer: “I came to Portland and this reminds me of it.”
MUST-HAVE BUSINESS TOOL: Asana project management software. We would have meetings with action items and by the time the next meeting happened, nothing had been done. It’s taken time off meetings.
Gurton’s Plant Shop
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 4
WHY DID YA START YOUR OWN BUSINESS? I was a pediatric nurse and didn’t realize how stressed I was until I went on maternity leave. Then I realized I was passionate about plants because my family had a long history of growing plants and I loved being around greenery. It was time for a reset. I started with an $800 tax refund and bought the minimum amount of plants and opened a pop-up space. I worked every day growing and getting more customers to buy more plants and it steamrolled.
HOW DO YOU COMPETE WITH BIG-box retailers? We’re the Cheers [like the TV show] of plant stores. We’d have people here for hours discussing plants and building the kind of community you can’t get from a Home Depot.
BIGGEST MISTAKE MADE AND WHAT WAS LEARNED? Listening to too many people telling me it was a bad idea to start a small business. I’d hear, “What do you mean houseplant shop?” It prevented me from doing what I love for lots of years.
MUST-HAVE BUSINESS TOOL: Get a bookkeeper. You want to focus on what you love without the stress of having the IRS shut you down.
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 2
WHY DID YA START YOUR OWN BUSINESS? I had a pop-up for about two years, and I saw the potential of what it could be and what I could be as a chef. I really wanted to take the next step. The cuisine was the opposite of what the trend was, but it was the type of food that always resonated with me.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE? I came from Los Angeles and San Francisco, which didn’t resonate with Portland; this city is anti-tasting-menu. So, the challenge was creating something true to me and to my training, while adapting to make it successful in Portland.
HOW DO YOU COMPETE WITH THE BIG GUYS? Staying personal. My being so small and being personal and intimate really separates me from large restaurants. It’s rare for guests to engage with the chef/owner. Even at the bakery, I work the window.
BIGGEST MISTAKE MADE AND WHAT WAS LEARNED? Thinking because I came from a big city and am a product of talented chefs, I would have immediate success. It wasn’t the case. I learned that failure is an opportunity to grow and I have to be open-minded.
MUST-HAVE BUSINESS TOOL: TOCK is a reservation system. It’s huge for me because people have to prepay. That reduced the likelihood of people canceling, so I knew exactly how many people were coming. You can open a restaurant without any money because it’s all prepaid.
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 6
WHY DID YA START YOUR OWN BUSINESS? I wanted to open a coffee shop where everything was made in-house including the ceramics. I’m also super chatty and I love people.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE? Delegating. If you’re like me and you’re on a very lean budget, you don’t want to let yourself make mistakes. So, you make up for it by doing it yourself. But I should have hired out earlier. Stop worrying if you’ll actually “make it.” Having extra people and a team will always be more beneficial.
HOW DO YOU COMPETE WITH THE BIG GUYS? I just try to stay out of it because there will always be a big corporation selling a ceramic mug for $5. If you’re more people-focused and your customers’ ethos is to shop local, they’ll support you.
THE BEST ADVICE TO OTHER POTENTIAL BUSINESS OWNERS? Plan ahead. Do mood boards. Keep changing things until you’re really in love with it before it’s ready to pitch to an investor. Go into something confidently.
BIGGEST MISTAKE MADE AND WHAT WAS LEARNED? Not trusting my gut. I question myself and I think, Is this crazy to do? Be brave. Trust your instinct and be passionate about it.
MUST-HAVE BUSINESS TOOL: Instagram! It’s my number one business tool for having conversations with people and about 90 percent of my business comes from Instagram. There’s an ice cream shop in Japan that I follow and I love they found me on Instagram. I’m making their mugs now!
Jeff and Bonnie Kelly
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 102
Note: Jeff and Bonnie Kelly are a little different from the other profiles in this feature. About two years ago, they purchased the legacy independent furniture retailer Schatz. They viewed themselves as becoming the new gatekeepers and protectors of this beloved Portland institution.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE? Every day is a new challenge. You have to create your own place in the market, so the question you ask is Why your store? What’s the proposition to the customer? You do it with service.
THE BEST ADVICE TO OTHER POTENTIAL BUSINESS OWNERS? You have to be all in. It’s not a hobby. If you’re going to start a business and it remains a hobby—that’s not a formula for success.
BIGGEST MISTAKE MADE AND WHAT WAS LEARNED? Trust your gut. I learned that lesson the hard way. If it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t get right. It has to be good for everyone involved: community, customer, team members, vendors, and owners. If you have alignment with all five, then run full speed.
YOUR BESTSELLER: Upholstery. Performance fabrics such as Crypton. They’re easy to clean, wear well, sustainable. And everyone has pets and kids, and they are looking for a product. You can order a white sofa and not worry about it.
HOW DO YOU ENGAGE YOUR COMMUNITY? If you see a need and there’s a way to do something good, you do it. Sometimes it’s small, sometimes it’s a check, whatever it is, it has to be good. We love to support other small businesses and we pay our employees to go volunteer.
MUST-HAVE BUSINESS tool: Find someone who balances you. Find a sounding board.