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sheville-area entrepreneurs put in long hours to succeed

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6/8/2011 - Asheville-area entrepreneurs put in long hours to succeed
by Dale Neal

In this touch and go economy, reinventing the way you may think about earning a living may just be a "must"...here's a great article about entrepreneurs in Asheville, and how they adjust their lives to be successfull here in the Land of The Sky - Western North Carolina...

 

                   ASHEVILLE -- With jobs hard to find in a tough economy, many workers are reinventing themselves as entrepreneurs, finally launching that dream shop or restaurant or service.

It sounds good: be your own boss and set your own hours.

Just forget about that old 40-hour work week or those extended vacations.

"Small business isn't for sissies," says Carla Baden, the sole owner of Sante Wine Bar. Asked how many hours she puts into her downtown Grove Arcade business, which is open seven days a week year round, Baden laughed. "I try not to count."

Baden concedes she comes into the bar's office even on her days off. Most weeks turn into 50 to 60 hours of work.

It's a life more Americans share as the economy increasingly relies on small businesses to generate jobs.

Nationwide over the past decade, about two-thirds of all jobs have been created by businesses that were less than 5 years old.

The vast majority -- 97.7 percent of Buncombe County's 7,436 businesses -- employ fewer than 100 people. More than half of all Buncombe businesses employ only one to four workers.

Baden's workload is by no means unusual for anyone launching or keeping a small business on track, according to Robert Carton, director of entrepreneurship in the College of Business at Western Carolina University.

"Entrepreneurship is almost a way of life, and 50 to 60 hours a week is certainly normal, then you're going to dream about it at night. If you're not passionate about what you're doing, then starting a business is probably not for you," Carton said.

Call it sweat equity

Usually with little capital to put into a start-up business, most entrepreneurs have to rely on their own labor to keep a store open or a service operating before they can think of hiring anyone to share the workload.

Even reaching the point of success of taking on employees raises the bar for a business owner, Carton said.

"You start assuming responsibility for other people and their livelihoods," he said. "I don't know of any successful entrepreneur who takes that lightly. It's not a job. You can't just go home and think it's somebody else's problem."

Of course, there are some people who start up small sideline businesses for a little extra cash, like the stay-at-home mom who sells items online on eBay.

"That's not all consuming. That's more of a lifestyle business," Carton said. "There's a difference between creating a job for yourself and creating a business. Real entrepreneurs aren't just creating a job for themselves."

While entrepreneurship may not be for everyone with those typical long hours, it's a good bet that small businesses can create more jobs.

The Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce is retooling its support for small businesses, trying to link new entrepreneurs with mentors and resources they need to grow their companies and thus new jobs, said Ben Teague, the chamber's executive vice president for economic development.

But building a small business "isn't for the faint-hearted," Teague admitted. "Your professional and personal lives bleed into each other. It's who you are."

Building a brand

Daniel Sanders and Marylou Marsh have been in the organic fabric business for 25 years, launching the Spiritex clothing store, first on Lexington Avenue and then Haywood Street.

They still operate an artist design shop MIA (Made in Asheville) down on Lexington, and operate a sewing and design studio out of their home's renovated garage in East Asheville.

Daniel Sanders also relocated yet another fabric company, NearSea Naturals, from Santa Fe, N.M., to here, along with five jobs, marketing those products online from their home.

"I'm working more than I ever have," Marsh admits. A typical day starts at 9 a.m. and perhaps won't end until after midnight.

The economic downturn has affected their businesses, forcing them to give up some rented space downtown even as they try to build a lasting national brand out of their original, locally woven and sewn clothing.

But theirs is not a sweatshop existence, the Sanders insist. It's just life and work bound up over seven days a week.

"You can't call it going to work. It's not work. It's going to problem-solving. It's going to joy," Marsh said.

The reward isn't about money, but about building a brand that is of value to people.

Instead of pulling in or hunkering down during the bad economy, the couple is trying to expand their opportunities locally, a necessity to business survival, let alone business success.

"They say 'If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.' New York is easy. Try Asheville," Sanders said.

He measures success not so much by making money but leaving a legacy of value to customers.

With sales up around 20 percent this year at the Spiritex store even as consumers recover from the Great Recession, Daniel Sanders calls that a barometer of success.

They don't talk much about burnout, but Marsh keeps her creative juices going by saving Sundays for painting, but ideas spill out nearly 24/7.

Both of them concede they are somewhat obsessive -- a trait they see as common among successful entrepreneurs. "The more you do, the more you do. The less you do, the less you do," Marsh Sanders said.

Sanders agreed that her workload would be overwhelming with young kids, but her children are of college age and now actually pitch in with the family businesses when they are home from school.

Balance is also key for Baden at the Sante Wine Bar. In addition to keeping her business open seven days a week, o verseeing a staff of eight and ordering wine from around the world, Baden commits to an additional five or so hours weekly as a yoga teacher.

Baden readily admits she couldn't see working her long hours if she had children to care for.

Sacrifice for success

"It's hard," said Annice Brown, who counsels would-be entrepreneurs at the Small Business Technology Development Center at Western Carolina University.

"I have seen when a husband starts a business, he's never at home or able to spend time with the kids. It's a sacrifice on the family. I come from a family of entrepreneurs myself. We usually saw my father only on Sundays."

Brown recently counseled a couple who have owned a small business for the past two years and were debating whether they could take a vacation, leaving work to a pair of employees. "They weren't sure it was worth it."

More than a few would-be entrepreneurs rethink their dreams after checking in with Brown.

"We ask them why they want to start a business. What's their passion?" she said. Then she makes them do market research into their particular field and the realistic opportunities.

A few years back, many people came up with the idea of opening a coffee shop in downtown Asheville, but banks weren't lending.

"I've had a massage therapist who wanted to open a studio, but how many of those do we have in the area?"

The biggest myth in starting a business is "if you build it, they will come," Brown said. "If it were that easy, I wouldn't be sitting here counseling people how to do it. But if you can do it and be successful, it's one of the most rewarding things you can do."

With all her expertise in start-ups, Brown is often asked by friends why she doesn't start her own business.

"No way," she says. "I'm not willing to put in 80 hours a week. Not now at this time in my life."

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