By Tommy Wood
Greeley Tribune, Colo.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) While Julie Blehms business is rather unusual (she creates and sells parachutes), the issues she is confronting as a business owner regarding business expansion are quite universal.
Greeley Tribune, Colo.
Julie Blehm never forgot the first time her business got stiffed. It was 17 years ago. She had just bought the parachute manufacturer Spherachutes and had her first child, and the client asked her to sew a 40-foot chute to cover a patio at a golf club.
She delivered but didn’t ask for money upfront. She never got paid.
That was a hard lesson for the chipper and passionate Blehm, now a mother of five in Greeley.
Since those turbulent early days, Blehm’s parachutes have safely borne rocket engines and weather balloons back to earth. They’ve been used by entities from NASA to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the X Games.
Blehm is the only employee of Spherachutes. She bought it because it let her make a living on her own schedule while she raised her five children. Now that her kids are grown, Blehm has the time to make her business into whatever she wants it to be.
“Every entrepreneur hits a ‘T,’ where they can choose to either go with the flow or to expand,” Blehm said. “It’s going to take some real soul-searching, because if I want to do that it takes a paradigm shift.”
Blehm’s grandmother taught her to sew when Blehm was a little girl in Silt. Since then, sewing has fed her soul.
She made her own clothes in high school. Blehm is creative but also has a mind for math and problem-solving. Sewing gave her an outlet for both.
She did a year of college, decided it wasn’t for her and went back to Silt, where she answered an ad for a job sewing sea anchors in Glenwood Springs.
She got married and worked there off and on until a couple offered to sell their business, Spherachutes, to Blehm’s boss. Instead, he loaned Blehm $3,500 and the company was hers.
Blehm and her husband came back to Greeley. Those early years were rough, especially after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which brought nationwide restrictions on the rocketry motors that had provided much of Blehm’s business.
She kept Spherachutes alive through word-of-mouth, and that word traveled. She sewed a chute that dropped a replacement window for the submarine Alvin, which was used to discover the wreckage of the Titanic, into the ocean.
Not long before this year’s solar eclipse, Blehm got a call from an engineer at the University of Montana who had received a grant to study the phenomenon with weather balloons. They needed 55 parachutes. Then more and more orders for weather balloon chutes for the eclipse started pouring in — dozens, then hundreds.
She shipped the last chute in the mail on her way to York, Neb., to watch the eclipse, which was Aug. 21. When the moon blotted out the sun, more than 300 of Blehm’s chutes were waiting to carry data from weather balloons back to earth.
Now she’s at the point where she can hire other people — engineers, sewists — to help expand her business.
Deciding whether to do so is the hard part.
“What I make is perfect,” Blehm said. “I know it’s perfect because I make it. It’s hard for me to give up that control.”
That’s the crossroads at which Blehm finds herself, with a 17-year-old business that has only scratched the surface of what it can be.
“The question’s not, ‘Can I do this?'” she said. “It’s if I want to.”