Launching a new business is like venturing on a cross-country road trip, but in pre-GPS days, without the luxury of Siri telling you your next move.
Daunting, I know. With endless possibilities, it’s overwhelming to think of what needs to happen between packing your bag and arriving at your final destination, or in business terms, fashioning an initial concept and flinging your doors open to gleaming sunshine and singing birds on opening day.
Hats off to the brave souls who have navigated this uncertain terrain successfully. We spoke with three Harrisburg entrepreneurs with very different businesses to learn how they began and what advice they could offer to those just beginning their journeys.
Know Your Abilities—and Challenges
When Urban Churn owner Adam Brackbill decided to take a dip into the ice cream business, he did so with a family history of ice cream churning behind him and a “why not” mentality in front of him.
“We had a churn at my grandmother’s cottage, and, at every family gathering, my great uncle would make ice cream,” said Brackbill, a serial entrepreneur who also co-owns the co-working space, StartUp, and has his own Web development company. “I thought that there was nothing like that in Harrisburg. So, I started doing research and bought five small churns and began experimenting with flavors.”
His experience with ice cream made his start a bit easier, but it definitely did not eliminate the challenges. These included a lack of funding and confusion around what type of licenses he needed, especially since he was venturing into the regulated terrain of manufacturing and selling food. All five original churns also broke, thanks to an overzealous owner experimenting with flavors.
Like Brackbill, Ivan Black of Next Step Performance built his business off of what he already knew and loved—fitness.
“I’m a life-long athlete, and I couldn’t find anything else that fulfilled me,” he said.
A veteran trainer, Black had years of experience working the floor with clients, but not with the ins and outs of a business venture.
“The business side of things has been the new challenge, but my best asset is my ability to work with people, and that’s been paramount in opening a business,” he said.
To help overcome his perceived weaknesses, Black asked for help and advice.
“I never held a management position with any of the big corps I’ve worked for,” he said. “So, I talked to my coworkers and people who have held those management positions. I talked to them about the business management side of things, which was helpful.”
Those business items included navigating through payroll and learning how to add schedules to a website, he said.
On the other hand, Ruth Prall, co-owner of note. Wine Bar and Bistro, built off of her base of expertise from a previous life as an accountant. She self-identifies as the “spreadsheet queen” and leveraged those skills to work through projections, projections and more projections.
“This is definitely my first business,” she said. “I don’t want to say I don’t recommend it, but I’d say being older and having gone through so many experiences put me in a much better position to do something like this because you just learn over time.”
Prall’s prior career as a nurse also came in handy.
“Being a registered nurse, you learn the experience of dealing with people and dealing with stressful situations,” she said. “So, nothing could be as critical as the things I did before in that job. I could deal with somebody being unhappy with their meal.”
Given that philosophy, Prall confidently launched into her new venture.
“I knew I wanted to run a business that had to do with hospitality, and, through the course of a couple of years, I was planning and thinking and testing other things out through traveling,” she said. “The road kept narrowing until I came to this concept of a wine bar.”
Know the Terrain
As you may imagine, opening a business in Harrisburg is different from opening a business in Philadelphia or even Lancaster. The opportunity to create a unique business—one different from those around it—was something that all three entrepreneurs identified as a positive for Harrisburg.
Brackbill led me through his thinking when he considered starting each of his three businesses.
“For a co-working business, it made sense because there’s no co-working spaces in Harrisburg,” he said. “For ice cream, it made sense because there were no ice cream places in Harrisburg. For Web development, that was just because office space was very affordable in the city.”
Prall also felt that her concept of a wine bar and bistro was unique compared to other restaurants in Harrisburg. In addition, she felt an emotional attachment to the community that is her lifelong home.
“I grew up in Harrisburg. I’ve never lived anywhere else,” she said. “I was one of the complainers about how there’s not much to do around here, but it wasn’t until I moved into Midtown that I spent so much time in this area and realized what a fantastic neighborhood it was.”
This enthusiasm for the community is something Brackbill identified as a common thread among Harrisburg business owners.
“The biggest reason why I’m able to continue doing what I’m doing is because of all the friends I’ve made,” he explained. “As long as you make a big enough noise and try to get involved and try to get to know people, and you’re friendly and you want to be friends rather than just trying to find people to use them, then you’ll succeed.”
New to the capital city, Black did not have the advantage of strong, established relationships here, but he recognized it as something that he needed to build.
“In the beginning, I didn’t have a network here,” he said. “I didn’t train in this area for years on end. Anybody would tell you I was crazy. You don’t open a business in the area unless you have a solid product and a strong way of reaching people. I believed in the product, and I figured I’d reach people eventually.”
Upon arriving in Harrisburg from Washington, D.C., Black immediately joined a baseball team to meet people and started networking every way he could, and he soon started to feel the warmth of the neighborhood.
“Harrisburg has been good,” he said. “I’ve had people who have been supportive of the project.”
Many of his Midtown neighbors are now his friends and clients. But he especially recalls one guy who resisted his exercise pitch.
“He said, ‘I’ll never work out, not here, not there or anywhere, but as a Harrisburg Midtown resident, I wanted to thank you for bringing your operation here,’” Black said. “It was really heartwarming, and I then knew that my business was all about the community.”
Map It Out & Look Ahead
Research, research, research. All three entrepreneurs put in hard work and planning before starting their new businesses.
“Do your research first,” Brackbill said. “I’ve always been a go-with-the-flow type of guy, but that could land me in hot water. So, you can’t just go with the flow. You need to make sure you’re doing everything correctly. Keep learning and ask questions.”
Beyond friends, family and the Internet, Brackbill—to his surprise—found the government to be helpful.
“When you’re trying to be sure that you’re doing everything correctly, the state and the city really help,” he said. “I thought the government would be snub-nosing and slapping your wrist all of the time, but I didn’t find that to be the case. They help a lot. They want to see you succeed, and part of their job is to see that business excels in the state.”
Prall, too, had a hand from a third party, a fellow successful restaurant owner, who, she said, helped her confidence and credibility as a restaurateur. Remember those projections that Prall worked endlessly on? She projected down to the day what she could potentially make in the business to see if it was feasible.
“I really spent two solid years planning,” she explained as she listed off questions she would ponder. “What kind of food would I serve? What feel would the restaurant have?”
Prall remembered one specific moment while obtaining her liquor license.
“I came up with a business plan that was pretty impressive,” she said. “I was pretty proud that the business plan that I had was good enough for them to say, ‘You can feel relatively confident that you’re going to get your money back.’”
Still, she knew that planning wouldn’t make her journey flawless.
“I understood that you might do absolutely everything right and still fail because of the market or a wave of crime or those things out of your control,” she said. “I had a plan. If it failed, I had another plan, but I certainly didn’t want to fail.”
She laughed briefly, then added, “I feel like I’ve been pretty consistent in life with things so I was like, ‘Let’s not fail.’ And so far, so good!”
Black, too, stressed the importance of pre-planning to help avoid mistakes.
“When you’re learning on the fly, in the time it takes you to learn, you could mess up and that could be bad for you,” he said. “But there are so many resources out there for you to do your research. If you have a dream, just go for it. There are some fantastic people doing fantastic things.”
To learn more about these businesses and their owners, visit:
Next Step Performance: www.nsp.fitness
note. Bistro & Wine Bar: www.notewinebar.com
Urban Churn: www.urbanchurn.com