First-Time Business Owners Find Challenges Turning Passion Into Livelihood

By John Hageman
Grand Forks Herald.

It’s been one obstacle after another over the past year, but Michael Pence hopes to finally open his business in the coming weeks.

After changing his location and a few months of construction, Pence is preparing to make the jump from stay-at-home dad to owner of a homebrewing supply shop, HomeBrew U, in Grand Forks. The shop, which will sell brewing kits, equipment and other supplies, is an extension of a hobby that he loves, but the process of opening his first business has been a challenging one.

“I keep telling myself that there will be an end to this,” he said while standing in what will be his shop on 32nd Avenue South next to TJ Maxx. “It’s getting there. I’m ready to move forward.”

Pence isn’t alone in learning lessons in opening his first business. Others in the area who have made the transition from another career or job have learned about the legal obligations of starting a business, the logistics of ordering inventory and hiring employees, among the litany of other tasks.

“Everybody has the technical experience, if they’re a carpenter or something like that. But they need experience in some of the business skills to go with that,” said Eric Giltner, the senior area manager of the local Small Business Administration office. “One of the things that we see is that people like to do what’s most fun.”

Kathy Klath had worked in the insurance industry for nearly two decades. But after walking through a Mainstream Boutique, a women’s clothing store, she started to think about switching careers.

“I just fell in love with the concept of the uniqueness of the clothing, the smaller atmosphere,” Klath said. “And I just felt kind of a calling that this is something that would be fun for me to think about.”

She’s opening a Mainstream Boutique potentially by mid-March next to the HuHot Mongolian Grill on South Columbia Road.

Klath said it can be “overwhelming” trying to stay on top of everything she needs to do to open her business, but she’s had some help from Mainstream’s corporate employees in ordering inventory and instructing her on getting the proper permits.

Pence shared a similar sentiment. He called a number of people who are already running their own homebrew stores before pursuing his own, and said he was surprised by how much advice they gave him.

“The most important thing is talking to people who have done it,” said Timothy O’Keefe, the interim director of UND’s School of Entrepreneurship. “The value of a network cannot be overstated.”

For Alissa Larson, starting a business took more paperwork than it otherwise would have because of its proximity to the state border. As an interior designer based in Grand Forks, she does work in both Minnesota and North Dakota.

“They have their own little hoops that you have to go through,” Larson said. She started Slate Interior Design last summer after working for Braaten Cabinets.

Larson said she did “quite a bit” of research before launching her business. But no amount of research could have helped her foresee every detail. She eventually hired an attorney “to get everything done the right way” and save herself the headache.

“That again is an expense that you don’t necessarily plan for,” she said.

O’Keefe said first-time business owners often underestimate how much time and money it takes to start a business.

But he also said they might misunderstand the need for their product or service in the market. In that case, entrepreneurs should be flexible about what they’re offering, which can be difficult.

“First-time entrepreneurs can get so passionate about their product and their belief in it that it’s difficult to make that switch,” he said.

Pence is not worried about that last point. The booming craft beer industry has helped spur more interest in homebrewing, he said, and there aren’t any shops that are similar to his nearby.

“The interest is there,” Pence said.

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