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|Wednesday, February 01, 2006|
In the thick of it
Everyone says your life will change when you start a business. For once, everyone is right.
By Greg Netzer
If you’ve read this magazine regularly for the past 10 years, you’ve likely seen my name attached to reports on Oregon businesses, particularly small ones, whose prospects I’ve tried to gauge with something approaching precision. For much of that time I’ve also worked for the Oregon Entrepreneurs Forum, a nonprofit whose mission is to help startups succeed. All of which is to say that I’ve spent a lot of time over the past decade thinking about how companies can start, grow and prosper.
So I should have known what I was getting into when my wife and I decided to start a family business.
Do you like chocolate? Of course you do. Everyone I know does. This is good for my wife, Sarah Hart, because she’s a chocolatier. She’s so good — our daughter calls her “an artist who’s found her medium” — that in mid-2004 she decided to start an artisan confection business. Alma Chocolate LLC, named after Sarah’s grandmother and the Spanish word for “soul,” was soon testing the market with small batches of truffles, toffee and molded figures she gilds with edible gold leaf. We held a holiday sale that December for friends and acquaintances, hoping to cover costs; when we sold 300% of our goal, we realized we might be onto something.
To market to a larger audience, we opened a ooth at the Portland Farmers Market on Saturday mornings on the Portland State University campus. Sarah worked part time for a public relations firm, and I worked full time at OEF, so production occurred at night. Friday nights we packaged the goods; Sarah would leave for PSU at 6 a.m. Saturday. After cleanup and breakdown, our weekends shrank to Sunday afternoons. Family time at night all but disappeared. We didn’t see many friends, either. And I won’t even go into how lax our housekeeping became.
Still, Alma gained loyal fans, and we were soon hampered by our inability to meet demand. We needed to increase capacity beyond our state-licensed home kitchen if the company was going to grow. And that’s when our 8-year-old son, Owen, and I stumbled onto a vacant storefront in Northeast Portland.
We’d wanted a commercial kitchen, not a retail space, but we ran the numbers and gut-checked the idea with dozens of customers and friends, and heard the same answer repeatedly: a perfect location. Next thing I knew it was October and we were signing bank papers, negotiating a lease and ordering kitchen equipment.
Then the fun began.
The City of Portland’s permitting process, true to its reputation, was confounding. The sanitation inspector mandated four extra sinks to accommodate our manufacturing process; the environmental bureau said that since we were adding four sinks, we’d incurred a sewer load charge of $2,300. Seating for customers? That’s a $10 per square foot transportation charge. In one memorable two-hour stretch, Sarah was told our budget would have to absorb $18,000 in extra fees and equipment.
Building out the kitchen tested my patience and character. The contractors did such poor work that I had to redo much of it. The plumbers broke the water main and failed inspection four times. To make the space presentable for a reprise of the holiday sale, I worked nights and weekends at the space for weeks.
Meanwhile, Sarah quit her job to work full time on Alma, feverishly running between the bank, the city, and the restaurant supply, making chocolate when she could. I couldn’t remember the last time our family had eaten dinner together. Owen began calling my cell phone to say good night. Sarah and I spoke to one another in clipped, tense sentences.
Yet what happens to your life when you start a business is that it grows in unexpected ways. Yes, our cupboards went bare from neglect. Yes, we made entirely too many mistakes.But our children, despite the changes they were enduring, bragged about Alma to anyone who would listen. Dozens of friends offered help. We fell into bed at night — exhausted, but energized.
Does it matter that we didn’t get done in time, or that we had to move production equipment back to our house? Does it matter that our sewer line collapsed five days before our holiday orders were due? No. What matters is that the orders came in: On the first weekend in December, we held the holiday sale in the store anyway. Customers loved the “in progress” feel of the space. And they bought chocolate — lots of it, enough to surpass our ambitious goal of 270% of 2004’s sales (taking the sting out of the plumber’s bill). And they told us they eagerly anticipated our grand opening, which is just in time for Valentine’s Day.
And us? We’re excited, too. It hasn’t been easy, but suddenly our little company has repeat clients, increasing revenue and growth potential. We’re still not quite sure what lies ahead, but we’re hopeful that it’ll be easier to handle than another sewer load charge.
Monday, July 07, 2014
BY TOM COX | OB BLOGGER
Named after the 2010 experiment by Thomas Ryan, "Robin Sages" are fake social media profiles designed to encourage linking and divulging valuable information.
Monday, July 14, 2014
BY TERRY "STARBUCKER" ST. MARIE
I really didn’t know that much about angel investing, but I did know a lot about the entrepreneurial spirit.
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
BY TOM COX | OB BLOGGER
When I say, “Your Employee is Always Right,” I do not mean “right about the facts,” but rather “right about how they feel” and “right about how they want to be led.”
Thursday, July 10, 2014
BY TOM COX | OB BLOGGER
Tom Cox interviews Dr. Mark Goulston, author of Just Listen, Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone.
Thursday, June 26, 2014
BY ERIC FRUTS | OB BLOGGER
Last year, the housing market in Oregon—and the U.S. as a whole—was blasting off. The Case-Shiller index of home prices ended the year 13% higher than at the beginning of the year. But, was last year a blip, or a trend?
Monday, August 18, 2014
Portland is in the middle of another construction boom, with residential and office projects springing up downtown, in the Pearl and Old Town. OB Web Editor Jessica Ridgway documents the new wave.
Friday, June 27, 2014
BY JASON NORRIS | OB BLOGGER
Over the last several months we have seen a wave of cross-border acquisitions, primarily U.S.-based companies looking to purchase non-U.S.-based companies. There are a few reasons for this, but the main culprit is the U.S. corporate tax system. The United States has one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world.
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