JUNE 4, 2018 - VOL. 54 No. 8

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Working for yourself

By Jodi Schwan
For the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce

People go into business for a lot of different reasons.

In some cases, it's about seeing how big a big idea can grow.

But in many cases, it's about creating the type of lifestyle an entrepreneur is seeking.

As many businesses are finding out in Sioux Falls, that can still lead to growth: Just not at the rate or scale that classic startups tend to target.

"Although Zeal's model is designed to support entrepreneurs aspiring to launch the next killer app, there are no doubt more and more people leaving their day jobs to be a part of the 'gig' economy and/or other forms of self-employment," said Michelle Gjerde executive director of the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship.

"In fact, a recent report from Harvard found that 94 percent of net job growth in the past decade was in the alternative-work category. Of this, 60 percent was due to the rise of independent contractors, freelancers and contract company workers. Perhaps some choose this route during a certain phase of life before making the leap toward their ultimate business dream."

That was the case for Cole Weller, who started Weller Brothers with his brother Brent in 2001 when they were high school students mowing lawns to make spending money.

Both spent time in college but ultimately circled back to the business they had started as teens.

"We've grown tremendously since then," Weller said. "We probably have 20 employees year-round and swell to 50 or so in the busy season."

This time of the year finds them working on a mix of landscape design and building projects along with serving maintenance customers.

The business has evolved to the point that three-quarters of its revenue comes from landscape design and building.

"On our journey, we sold off the maintenance division in 2010 to a competitor," Weller said. "We had a three-year noncompete but then got back in that business a few years ago just because of demand from customers."

Weller Brothers now offers a wide array of services, from snow removal to fertilizing, weed control, mowing, brick masonry, hardscape and softscape work. It has evolved with the owners' stage in life, Weller said.

"When we were in college, it was beer-drinking money at that point," he said. "Then, of course, you get married and start having kids and have to turn it into something. At that point, we made a decision this was really what we were going to do, and we're all in on it."

A few years ago, they decided to focus more on the trajectory of the business and emphasize growth. Increasing sales hasn't been hard, Weller said, but finding people to do the work is more challenging. They hope to expand to markets beyond Sioux Falls.

"It's still a lifestyle for Brent and I," he added. "And also for our employees. We get to employ a lot of people who are passionate about the industry and about trees and plants and outdoor living environments, and we get to help people optimize and enjoy their space. So as much as it's about me, it's about them."

Capturing a dream

Starting a business was nothing short of a classic American dream lifestyle for Sinan Taskin.

The native of Bulgaria grew up in Turkey and came to the U.S. during college, where he spent summers working at a resort in Michigan and interned in the credit industry in Fargo.

After college, he worked as an electronics engineer and received his green card through a lottery. He moved to Fargo and started looking for a job.

"I tried to get jobs in my profession, and I think my university didn't mean anything for the companies because it's in Turkey," Taskin said. "So I decided to start my own business."

He rented a kiosk at a mall and developed Agua Fresh, inspired by fresh, healthy restaurants he had experienced traveling in New York and California.

"I was eating really healthy in Turkey, and in the Midwest it was all burgers and French fries," he said. "So I started Agua Fresh as healthy food with no sugar and fresh-squeezed juice."

He moved from North Dakota to the food court at The Empire Mall in 2016, where his menu includes panini sandwiches and a variety of smoothies and juices.

"It's been very successful," he said. "Our sales grew 20 to 30 percent compared with last year without any marketing."

Now, he has started to market, taking a modern approach on social media and using YouTube to teach people how to make smoothies and take photos of food.

"I was working in my business for the first year. Now I'm working on my business because if I concentrate on business development, it will grow more," he said.

"I started with a minimal budget, $2,000, and was working day and night. I'm just taking time off now, maybe one day off. It was hard at the beginning, but it's exciting."

Agua Fresh has grown to seven employees. Taskin would like to add a downtown location at some point and is considering franchising the concept.

"I like the Midwest," he added. "I never thought about going to New York or California. The big cities for startup companies isn't really a good choice because you're dealing with giant competition. But people here are so nice, and it makes me feel at home, like family."

Starting small

Sometimes, an industry is the right fit for a businessperson, but being the boss allows for a new approach.

That was the trigger for CJ Wehrkamp, who worked in the fitness industry for six years before he started Sioux Falls Fit Body Boot Camp in 2015.

"I never felt that the member or client was truly the focus of the gym," he said. "I wanted to be able to offer a place that really had more involvement with the client past Day One, to help coach and guide and help with goals and mind-set."

He was 25 when he brought the franchise to Sioux Falls at 3504 S. Minnesota Ave.

"So I was kind of scared, anxious, nervous, and I heard from a lot of people I should go work for someone else, someone established," he said. "For me to open another one and actually make it work was pretty against the odds."

After the first month, with 15 members, he acknowledges it wasn't easy.

"The stress of trying to make everything happen and not knowing what's next can be a fear factor, but it's definitely been fun to make the calls and take the risk and know nobody made the decision but you," Wehrkamp said.

"And I've always had a passion for helping people and being able to guide them, so being able to have my own business helps me do that every day."

He knew the model wouldn't work unless he could members and staff, though. He's now up to seven employees and 200 members, with a goal of getting to 300 with staff to support that.

"We want to make sure we're reaching out to members and following up, so their only contact isn't just at their workout session," he said. "It's calling them and meeting in the office about nutrition and helping them reach their goals that way."

He's also rolling out Fit Body Forever, a program aimed at people 55 and older, and hopes to have three locations in Sioux Falls by the end of 2020.

"Another reason I wanted to do my own thing was to provide a lifestyle for my family that was meaningful, so we can spend time together," he said. "My wife stays home with the youngest and picks the kids up after school, and I feel like that would not be an option had I not started the business. For the first two years, that really wasn't an option, but now within the last year it's been able to become an option, and that's been a true blessing."

Sharing the wealth

Karl Titze could be an auto mechanic at a lot of businesses. But his approach to service is different. It's one that's best served by being the boss.

Technically, Karl's wife, Sondra Titze, is the boss at Titze's Auto Repair. She and her husband co-founded it in 2000 after being in business with a friend for several years before that.

"After we split ways, Karl went to work for somebody else, and I said, 'This is not you.' Karl was in business to help somebody at the lowest cost possible. And he was coming home depressed."

She decided to start the business at 3900 N. Cliff Ave.

"I'm 100 percent owner. I own it," she said. "I do the hiring and firing and payroll. I like the variety and don't want to feel bored."

She worked with the U.S. Small Business Administration, got a bank loan, and "I felt like I was doing the right thing," she said. "And my husband's knowledge really helped out."

The business has six employees, and the approach to sales suits the Titzes' values.

"I'm a giver," she said. "I wanted to give people who could not afford a lot of things the chance to get their vehicles fixed without having that high cost of repair or replacement and be honest doing it."

She does no advertising but stays busy thanks to word of mouth. The goal is not to scale the business but to work at something she and her husband enjoy that brings them satisfaction.

"My husband is a very good, down-to-earth mechanic, and I feel like if you treat your employees the way you feel about life and work in general, you will keep your employees forever," Titze said. "We like to offer high-quality service to our neighbors and community at a low cost."

The variety of small businesses in the community is healthy, said Gjerde, at Zeal.

For those looking to pursue a similar venture or for small businesses in need of additional resources, the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship offers a co-working membership that offers a good entry point. It includes work space, access to meeting space and all the expert resources and events provided by Zeal.

"One of the challenges for small businesses is they have their specialty or trade or profession, but no one is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to business," Gjerde said.

"The challenge can be understanding the ins and outs of finance and accounting and making smart decisions so they don't regress and make sure they have their families set up and are thinking about taxes and a financial plan. And there are things like legal issues and marketing, where there are examples of similar businesses and templates to follow. We can help them have access to fill in the gaps where they're not as strong."

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