By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC
SEQUIM, Wash. – Theresa Rubens is a third-generation resident of Sequim whose grandchildren attend the same schools she and her husband once did. She knows as much about her community as anyone, but she didn’t know where a visitor could buy a Sequim souvenir. And that, she said, was a problem.
When a 1,000-square-foot retail space became available in the main downtown core, just two doors down from her women’s boutique and retreat, Solar City, she knew the time was right to create a shop for Sequim-branded souvenirs and gifts, Forage Gifts & Northwest Treasures (http://www.foragegifts.com/).
Building a strategic team
Despite a 15-year track record of running a downtown boutique and more than 20 years in the hospitality industry, Rubens knew finding financing for her shop would be a challenge.
But as much as she needed financing, she needed a sounding board more. So in December she made an appointment with Kevin Hoult, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC).
“I didn’t have anyone else to brainstorm the idea with,” Rubens said. “I can talk to my husband or my friends, but they are not business experts.” She wanted to develop a team that could help her make informed, strategic decisions – and Hoult was the first recruit.
The Washington SBDC (http://wsbdc.org/) is a network of more than two dozen business advisors working in communities from the Canadian border to the Columbia River. Hoult meets with clients in Port Townsend and Port Angeles to provide no-cost, confidential, one-to-one advising to small business owners who want to start, grow or transition a business.
The Washington SBDC is hosted by Washington State University and receives funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration and other institutions of economic development and higher education.
Distinctive space for specific retail
Rubens had benefited from SBDC advising years ago, so calling an advisor to talk about her new venture was on her to-do list. When Hoult showed up at the Sequim Valley Chamber of Commerce to give a presentation in December, she thought, “Okay, this is a sign.”
At the first meeting, and the second, Rubens talked and Hoult listened. The target market at this new store would share very little common ground with her first store, which mostly catered to locals, she said.
She wanted the new store to be vintage Sequim, with t-shirts, hoodies, candles, walking sticks, pillows, vintage postcards, soaps, laser-cut wood ornaments and more. She wanted to highlight the mountains-to-sea beauty of the area, both in the items for sale and the way the store looked.
“If I was going to do this right, I needed to have another store,” she said; it wouldn’t work to try to shoe-horn Sequim souvenirs and gifts into her existing boutique.
Hoult agreed, but they still looked at market research, financial projections and other data to make sure her idea penciled out on paper as viable. Rubens also moved quickly to lock in the space at 126 E. Washington St.
Fortunately, the building owner was Rubens’ landlord, so they already had a good relationship. When she told him about her plan for a Sequim-centric gift shop, he was all in. He agreed to make major updates to the building’s electrical and plumbing systems, and Rubens’ husband Jeff, a contractor, did interior renovations to give the space that Pacific Northwest look.
Financing found through non-traditional lender
Rubens’ next challenge was financing. She and Hoult agreed that traditional banks would be a hard sell, so he talked with her about non-traditional lenders. He helped her refine her business plan and they discussed her strategy going forward.
One huge problem was that it was already January and Rubens needed to have the store open by late spring or early summer to hit the peak tourist season.
High-interest lenders were offering her fast cash, but she knew better than to go that route, even if she was desperate to get started. In February she met with Gerad Nucci, a loan officer with Craft3, a non-traditional lender that was at the top of her list.
Again she and Hoult went through her loan application to make sure it was as strong as it could be and that the vision in her head came alive in her business plan. By March she had her loan.
Then Rubens kicked it up another notch to make sure she’d have the inventory she wanted ready to go on opening day.
Her husband tackled interior renovations to create the look and feel of a 1950s lodge on the Olympic Peninsula. They used Dungeness Valley river rock for a fireplace hearth, a huge slab of redwood for a mantle and recycled railroad ties for the shelving units. They even recreated an entrance to the nearby Tubal Cain Mine where children can forage for small souvenir rocks.
Free advising a boost for entrepreneurs
On a recent day in June Rubens said a local resident going to Norway stopped in and bought a variety of small items to take with her as gifts. Another customer was a visitor from Japan who was shopping for gifts to take home with her as hostess gifts.
“That’s exactly the market I was targeting,” Rubens said.
She said she just couldn’t face another summer without having someplace in town where a visitor could buy a Sequim t-shirt.
“All small business owners wear many hats,” she said, adding that it is costly to work with business financial advisors, attorneys or CPAs, especially when an entrepreneur is trying to get a business up and running. “If it weren’t for entities like the SBDC, I am not sure where business owners could turn to for help.
“SBDC advising gives you that step up and over the hump of creating that business and putting that dream into action,” she said.