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Monday, March 29, 1999
1999 Small Business profiles

Growth opportunity

Her friends were skeptical, but Linda Keene and her business partner Susan Lytle took the plunge anyway

by Linda Keene
Seattle Times staff reporter

It's hard to pinpoint just when the crazy idea of starting a business took root, but here I am, looking at a three-inch stack of tax forms while ignoring skeptical looks from friends.

Although I've always been independent and even reckless at times, this was over the top. I am, after all, a single mom and, hold on, there's a runny nose that needs wiping. . . .

Moreover, I have to cheat at flash cards because I'm so bad with numbers. And I really don't like to work on weekends. So why, on God's green Earth, did I open a small garden and gift store in Fremont, called Dig It?

Excellent question, especially now that I've been at it a year. The bags under my eyes are exceeded only by the slack in my wallet.

And yet, I'm glad I listened to those voices in my head that kept insisting: Carpe diem. You only live once. It's only money! Being the owner of a small business is exhilarating, in a free-fall kind of way. And I'm hoping this story will offer either encouragement or the appropriate terror to those who are hearing similar voices. At the very least, it should provide comic relief to all those who said I shouldn't open my own business.

With all due respect: neener, neener.

With help from my business partner, Susan Lytle, Dig It is humming along, paying taxes and growing toward its second year in a courtyard setting behind the statue of Lenin. (No self-respecting business would let an opportunity like this slip by without plugging the location.)

Small businesses are a powerful force. They account for the majority of all new jobs and add character to our neighborhoods. Imagine a world without them. No local barbershops, no used bookstores, no Dick's for God's sake!

I mean, small businesses - right up there with schools and churches - are the soul of a place. Let us pray that:

  • More people start to appreciate their importance.

  • More people start to patronize them.

  • More people stop shopping at corporate chains.

    There. Now that I got that off my chest, here's a look at the most important things to consider before launching a small business.

    First of all, do you have the right temperament? If your past employment record is orderly, predictable and reads like a business manual, then you do not. Starting a business requires nerves of steel and a vision well into your next lifetime. (Because you will die a million deaths in this one.) Even tiny ventures suffer setbacks and unexpected downturns. It is not possible to map out every move beforehand; stuff just happens, and you will have to roll with it. Flexibility and mid-course corrections are essential to surviving.

    For example, I was thrilled to find a space for Dig It in Fremont because I thought Fremont was super-hot, hip and bursting with walk-in customers.

    Well, it is. But mostly on weekends. The midweek pace is considerably slower. So, basic assumptions about foot traffic were off, which meant basic assumptions about sales were off, which meant I was not going to be shopping in Europe this year.

    Which brings us to another important issue: money. The "creative dreamer" in you needs an evil twin, the "money manager." No amount of luck will offset a poorly financed business. There will always be unexpected costs and delays. In fact, the best rule of thumb for planning a start-up is to write a budget, then double it.

    The last thing you want to experience is an empty bank account. Remember, the term "bank account" actually means "accountable to the bank." Banks do not look kindly on overdrafts, nor will they give you a loan. In fact, most will not even talk to you until the second year of operation, and even then they'll want to see a pattern of success, not failure. Unlike most entrepreneurs seeking their help, banks are not risk-takers.

    So, even though I had a "personal banker" at Seafirst, he wasn't about to approve a business loan. Instead, he suggested a personal line of credit or home-equity loan. Both would have worked, but I found a cheaper way to get money: I refinanced my house, taking advantage of low interest rates.

    Another thing to consider before launching a business is basic but often overlooked: Are you offering something that is needed? A lot of people dream of opening a cozy little coffee shop, for example, but really, does the world need another one? It's more important to fill a niche, even a weird one. Remember water beds?

    That said, be wary of trends. If I were the owner of a tattoo shop, for example, I'd be getting nervous about now. Not only is the market saturated, but it's becoming too mainstream - even Barbie has one.

    If that doesn't scare you (and it should) then you just might be daring enough to try your own business.

    Carpe diem!


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