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Small Business Center

The Moments That Made Them: Pivotal Lessons from Successful Small Business Owners

April 25, 2023

Every successful small business is unique, just like the stories behind them. From a spark of inspiration to a stroke of luck, each entrepreneur has a defining moment that set them on their path to success. These moments can be exhilarating or seemingly inconsequential in the moment. Below are pivotal lessons that helped determine the paths of four successful small business owners. These stories provide valuable insights into the realities of entrepreneurship and the resilience, creativity and bravery it requires.

Working with Male Pro Athletes Gave a Stylist the Confidence to Open Her Own Women’s Retail Business

Erica Hanks is the owner of Showroom, an omnichannel women’s retailer with brick-and-mortar locations in Austin,Texas, and on Kiawah Island in South Carolina. Before she started her small business, Hanks worked as a stylist for professional athletes from NASCAR, the NFL and the NBA. She built a name for herself dressing hard-to-fit athletes for TV interviews and events like the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. But as a professional woman herself, she knew there was an unfilled niche for flattering clothing designed specifically for professional women, and she had a hunch this might be a good career direction for her.

When deciding whether to take the leap, she channeled the voices of the athletes she worked with. Hanks explained how their confidence inspired her own:

“As women, we’re a little bit more timid and we’re a little bit more people-pleasing. Working with these athletes, they taught me through the years to find my voice, to stand up for myself and to believe in myself and my talents. They’re all Type A, so you’ve got to match that energy. You cannot be a shrinking violet when you’re telling a 6’4” man: ‘You have to put this on.’”

So even though Hanks had doubts about leaving a successful styling practice in the middle of COVID to start her own business, she boldly started emailing well-known designers with her vision. She was excited when a few responded encouragingly.

Today, Hanks’ stores — which feature collections from internationally known designers like Victoria Beckham, Derek Lam and Rachel Gilbert — have been profiled in publications like Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily, and Harper’s Bazaar. “We’re at the point,” she said, where “we have designers telling other designers about us, and we’re actually turning away some designers that aren’t quite what we’re looking for.”

But just as important, Hanks has received hundreds of messages from professional women thanking her for understanding their needs. “They tell me: ‘I feel really good in what I’m wearing.’ And that’s just the best satisfaction,” she said.

Working at a Food Co-Op Taught a Future Grocery Store Owner to Give All Employees a Voice

Before opening Jimbo’s Naturally, a chain of natural foods grocery stores in California, Jimbo Someck worked at a food co-op, helping to run its business operations. The co-op’s policy, when it came to business decisions, was that each member had one vote, regardless of how involved they were in the operations.

Someck’s time there shaped how he would run his own business. “Even though I thought it was inefficient the way they made decisions, I believe that it’s important to hear everybody in making decisions,” he said.

Today, as a business owner, “I certainly can make whatever decision I want, but I sit in meetings and hear what people have to say,” Someck said. “Even if I don’t agree with them, if I feel it’s not going to be totally disastrous and it’s going to really impact the person more than it is me, I’m prone to say: ‘OK, here are my concerns, but if you feel strongly about it, go ahead and do it the way you see it.’”

It’s reasons like this that Jimbo’s has such an enviable employee retention rate. In an industry with high employee churn, “40% of our staff has been with us over five years,” Someck said.

A Mentor Helped a Small Business Owner Transform Anxiety into Excitement

Nakija Mills owns Lekker Choco Treats, which sells chocolate-covered strawberries, Dutch pancakes and edible bouquets at CBL’s Laurel Park Place in the Detroit suburb of Livonia, Michigan. But she almost didn’t sign the paperwork to open the store. While on a tour of the vacancies in the mall about a year ago, she told her mentor she was feeling anxious about the whole enterprise. She wasn’t sure she should go through with it.

His response would change her life: “Nakija,” he said, “that feeling that you’re feeling is not nervousness. It’s excitement. People get confused with the feelings of nervousness and excitement.” He explained that the only real difference between them is the story you’re telling yourself.

He added that this confusion has caused many not to go through with their dreams. Mills just needed to reframe her thoughts. “He pushed me, and he was like: ‘You’re going to make it,’” Mills recalled. “He said: ‘Just buckle down, stay focused and do what you have to do, and you’re going to make it.’”

Mills signed the paperwork, and today, she’s looking for a location for a second shop.

This Entrepreneur Overcame Transatlantic Supply Chain Hurdles to Fulfill Her Dream

As Giulia Zhou grew up in China, her parents ran a wholesale and retail business selling luxury Italian goods. After she graduated from college in Italy, they wanted her to take over the business. Instead, Zhou moved to the U.S. with her husband and decided to open a luxury Italian boutique in Birmingham, Michigan, close to where they lived.

At the time, Zhou said: “I knew nothing about American customer behaviors, the American market or how American people dress.” But her parents had found a niche selling Italian goods to the Chinese market in the early ’90s, and she had a feeling U.S. customers similarly would respond to beautiful, luxurious European items — that a taste for comfort transcends continents.

To provide her customers with an authentic experience, Zhou shipped her inventory directly from Italy to America. A few months before her store was to open, she hit a snag. A container carrying custom furniture from Milan, got held up at Customs for three months. The delay, she estimated, cost her about $50,000. “It was so stressful,” Zhou recalled. “There was nothing I could do, just wait. It was totally out of my control.”

As the months ticked by, Zhou despaired, but she never lost faith in her vision. “I think the American market is the best market in the world,” she said. “I believed there was a need for a beautiful store like ours.”

And her instincts proved right. Via Manzoni opened on Dec. 22, Zhou’s birthday, to rave reviews. Just as the high-fashion street in Milan after which her boutique is named draws traffic, people have come from across Michigan to shop — and ogle — her Italian luxury goods. The experience has proved to Zhou that sometimes you just have “to trust your instincts and take action,” she said.

By Rebecca Meiser

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today and Small Business Center

Small Business Center

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