In the world of small business, the entrepreneurial spirit is the same, but the faces are changing.
More minorities are starting businesses, people are starting ventures from home because of technological advances, and displaced workers – because of forced layoffs or personal decisions – are plunging into the brave arena of being their own boss.
Nationally, the percentage of minority business ownership grew to 14.6 percent in 2012, compared to 11.5 percent in 2007, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, an agency in Washington, D.C. (The agency defines a small business as an independent business having fewer than 500 employees and noted that small businesses make up 99.7 percent of U.S. employer firms.)
The increase reflects the fast growth of the Hispanic labor force spurred by overall population growth and increased immigration, according to the agency.
Meanwhile, more people 50 and older own a small business, according to the agency, and this could in part be a result of former corporate workers striking out on their own. Statistically, 50.9 percent of owners were 50 and older in 2012, compared to 46 percent in 2007.
“We are seeing more people looking for counseling to open their own business because sources of funding that weren’t there a year or two ago are perceived to be there now,” said Carlton R. Raines, chairman of the Lehigh Valley chapter of the Service Corps of Retired Executives, a national nonprofit association that offers counseling and mentoring services. “Usually what happens is when you see the industry cut back, they [entrepreneurs] will go into business at that time. You tend to see that every time there’s a recession.”
And anecdotally, others are choosing to start a full-fledged business from home, thanks to technology that allows them to re-create office-like communications and production in their kitchen or den.
Yes, it’s a new landscape for small businesses. And whether they arrive from other nations to find success here, use technology to be always on the go or adapt to work on a smaller scale after being displaced from years at a large company, small-business owners in the Greater Lehigh Valley are at the cusp of that change. They share common traits of creativity, resilience, a belief in their own abilities and, of course, a willingness to take risks.
As the backbone of the business world, these entrepreneurs are driven by passion that fuels their work and makes them feel deeply satisfied in what they do. It can be seen in their products, their employees, their customers and themselves.
Here are five of their stories:
Express Business Center in Trexlertown is now a certified minority-owned business, a designation that carries weight with those who do business with the small full-service printing firm.
“We went through a lot of trouble to get our certification,” said Murtaza Jaffer, co-owner of Express Business Center. “The whole idea is to recognize it as a minority-owned business.”
Benefits abound for other companies who use minority-owned businesses, a designation achieved through the state Department of General Services, Jaffer said.
“A lot of companies like to support minority-owned businesses,” he said. “There are also some tax benefits on their part.”
Also, some companies have policies that state a certain percentage of the suppliers they use must be minority-owned, he added.
The company, which Murtaza founded with his brother, co-owner Mustafa Jaffer, employs 10 people and began in 2002 as EBC before changing to Express Business Center in 2010.
As EBC, it was a smaller commercial printing business that aimed to discover the needs of businesses in the area.
Murtaza Jaffer likens it to a business that combines the benefits of FedEx, Kinko’s and the post office into one shop. All products are designed, printed, finished, packaged and mailed from one location.
“It’s an ever-changing business,” Jaffer said. “The printing business is not a dying business. You have to keep educating your clients on trends in the industry. If you can’t serve the client’s needs, there’s no point in you being in business.”
Now, the firm can gear its services toward any industry, from health care to manufacturing to education, and print materials on demand. The company prints everything from menus to signs, catalogues and brochures. Also, many pharmaceutical companies use Express Business Center to promote packaging materials and for prototypes, Jaffer said.
Companies can reduce their warehouse space when materials they’ve ordered are shipped all over the world, direct from Express Business Center, Jaffer said.
Print on demand technology allows Express Business Center to streamline orders for any type of marketing product that a client wants and to ship the orders, Jaffer said.
“We used to work corporate jobs,” Jaffer said. “Working with my brother [Mustafa] has been great. He has an accounting background, estimation, management. My job is to be the face of Express Business Center, PR, sales and marketing.”
As a small business, the center has challenges, including the need to find the right, qualified people who know the technology from a software and production standpoint, he said.
The brothers enjoy being part of the community, which helps them connect.
“This market is very loyal; our competitors [other printing/shipping companies] have been here a long time,” Murtaza Jaffer said.
Often, adversity opens doors.
When Dina Valentini Wanamaker was laid off in 2009 from FL Smidth in Bethlehem, she was devastated.
“I was a corporate training coordinator, but in 2009 when the rest of the world imploded and people started getting laid off, I was among that first wave,” Valentini Wanamaker said.
“It was a really huge learning experience that I’m not sorry I had,” she said. “I left that job and, like most people, started feeling useless.”
But it turned out to be a good thing.
She started cooking more frequently and hosting more parties, where she served her fresh creations, including a menu for a five-course rustic Italian dinner at Monacacy Park in Bethlehem.
“It was spectacular,” she said. “I knew at that moment that I wanted to do this forever.”
She then began catering more events, including a dessert display for 700 people for FL Smidth.
By 2011, her business was born.
She is now the chef/owner at My Grandmother’s Table, where she provides a service of catering private dinners and writes a blog, My Passionate Kisses Cakes and Catering. She lives in Allentown and works out of the kitchen at My Grandmother’s Table in Bethlehem.
The family-style dinners she provides are the base of her business for My Grandmother’s Table, and she can set them up in people’s homes or at other venues for a maximum of 24 people. Many of the dinners are themed, such as a re-creation of the menu from the film “Chocolat,” and are considered “experiences” that last several hours. She provides everything, including food, service and cleanup.
Valentini Wanamaker can coordinate dinners at parks, businesses and homes. She also provides weekly dinner deliveries.
“It’s amazing how food brings people together,” she said. “The day-to-day business is just me. My husband will be a waiter, my kids will help occasionally, and friends will pitch in. I work with a lot of local farmers because to me, it’s the epicenter of our food.”
However, like most small business owners, she is not without obstacles.
The biggest challenge is marketing, she said. Her business is not just about the food, but the experience. She also tries to keep costs low so people can afford to participate.
Many potential small-business owners are too afraid to strike out on their own or think they are going to fail.
Failure, at times, is going to happen, but it also means you’re learning and it’s nothing to fear, she said.
“You’re going to win next time,” she said.
Like most things in life, if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting the same results. In the business world, this adage holds especially true for marketing.
When Amanda Kaiser noticed that a lot of companies were doing the same marketing but not getting the results they wanted, she found a niche she could fill – and the best way for her to do it, through technology.
Kaiser started her marketing consulting business, Smooth the Path, last year using her smartphone, tablet and other devices to work with clients directly out of her home near Schnecksville and via her mobile office. For Kaiser, technology is liberating in that it helps open new markets for her and lets her interact with clients much easier and quicker than before.
She works with nonprofit and for-profit membership-based organizations such as associations, museums and zoos. She also writes a blog, publishing four articles each week on her website, keeping the content relevant to what customers want. Kaiser also found Twitter to be an effective networking platform and incorporates all of this technology into her work.
“I think there are a lot of organizations that don’t know exactly what their customers’ problems are,” she said. “There’s a push in marketing for more storytelling.”
Marketing is much more than just promotion, she said. The key for any company looking to market itself is to frame the company story based on its customers’ programs and goals, Kaiser said.
“A lot of organizations could become experts in content marketing,” she said.
This would help with their marketing strategies because they could use blogs and articles that directly interact with their clients. It helps, too, if the companies continue to communicate with their clients through these outlets because it builds a platform and establishes a deeper relationship.
Previously, Kaiser was director of marketing for the National Association of Colleges and Employers in Bethlehem and began her career in brand marketing at Crayola in Easton, where she worked for nearly eight years.
Making the jump to becoming her own boss is not without difficulties.
While technology is good, challenges arise when it does not work properly.
“If you are not an IT [information technology] person, it takes a long time to fix something that goes wrong,” Kaiser said. “Some of the nuts and bolts of IT are tough if you don’t know what you are doing. …
“On the other hand, the technology is fabulous,” she said.
Misfortune often puts you on a better path.
As a small business owner, Antoinette Little understands this well.
For years, she had been working 80 to 90 hours a week in New Jersey. As director of administration, she oversaw several law firms, including two in Roseland and one in Morristown. But eventually, even though she enjoyed working, the many hours took their toll on her health.
“I never had a vacation without a cellphone at my hip, so it was not a very restful time, but an exciting one,” Little said.
When her blood pressure rose to dangerous levels, she found herself displaced.
“The choice was not mine,” Little said. “The doctor told me if I didn’t leave, I would be dead.”
She started Antoinette Chocolatier in 2003 and opened the chocolate-making business on South Main Street in Phillipsburg, N.J. It turned out that her legal experience proved beneficial in helping her establish the business, as did help from friends and colleagues in the legal field.
Her husband Joe works at Antoinette Chocolatier part-time, but otherwise, it’s just her operation.
“I actually have a lot of pressure now, too, but I put it on myself,” Little said. “It can be very stressful, especially if you don’t have a backup salary. You have to be willing to put in a minimum of five years to get a paycheck.”
Success will not happen overnight, she added, and it helps to have enough money saved before starting a small business.
Challenges also exist in getting people in the community to know about her business, she said.
Her business offers online shipping and also holds chocolate-making classes; two offerings that help boost her business. Giving back to the community through benefits and donations is also important to Little and another way for small businesses in general to get name recognition, she said.
She specializes in dark chocolate. Some of her top sellers include individual chocolates, truffles and chocolate-covered pretzels. Chocolate sculptures are another one of her popular creations.
Little attended a French culinary school for pastry-making. Having always loved to cook, she enjoys having a job where she is her own boss and can set her own hours.
“I like what I’m doing,” Little said. “What other job do you have where if you make a mistake, you can eat it?”
If you have a passion for what you like to do, you never know where it will take you.
In the case of Nigerian-born Afolabi Oyerokun, CEO of Trillion Source Inc. in Macungie, it led him to learn how to source products from Asia while working out of his home in the Lehigh Valley.
He began the company in New York City in the late 1990s and moved to Macungie in 2004, where he lives with his wife, Adeola. Since then, he’s found that working out of home allows him to be more productive.
“I really like it because it helps me focus better,” Oyerokun said. “I feel more comfortable in a home environment. I don’t have the pressure to drive somewhere to get work done. It [working in a corporate office] doesn’t give me a sense of freedom.”
A sense of freedom and creativity is what drew him to this field. With a degree in product design, Oyerokun always was interested in sourcing the products he designed.
The business got its start when he designed a pair of sneakers and couldn’t find a company that would manufacture them. So he boarded a plane to Taiwan, got the sneakers made and sold them on Amazon.
Now, Trillion Source helps clients develop, manufacture and import products from China and other Asian countries, including Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. The company also designs high-end interior furnishings that go into upscale townhouses, offices and apartments.
“If someone has a product, we take an existing idea and make it better; this way, small businesses can compete,” Oyerokun said.
He has one person working for him, while his wife helps as well. He projects growth so that over the next eight months, he plans to hire six to seven people who will work remotely.
Technology is, of course, crucial to the growth and also the ease with which he can operate his business. He often uses Skype to interact with clients overseas and WhatsApp, a cross-platform mobile messaging application for smartphones.
“I pretty much work out of my phone, my tablet, my computer,” Oyerokun said.
He plans to open an office in Hong Kong in the next few months to oversee manufacturing and quality control.
The biggest challenge he faces, however, is finding someone he can train to work for the company. The time zone difference in working with international clients also is challenging. As an example, most of the work he does for his clients in China is done at night.
However, being a small business owner in the Lehigh Valley makes it worthwhile.
“The business climate here is very good,” Oyerokun said.
For a small-business owner to succeed, the most important thing is to find a niche, he said.
“We really set ourselves up to help small businesses with their ideas and their inventions,” Oyerokun said. “Don’t try to do what other people are doing. Find out what you are passionate about and turn it into a business.”
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