Owning and running your own small business — whether it’s a piercing studio or a dive shop — requires a flexible mind that can adapt to many different jobs
BBJ Photo/MARK MALIJAN
|Davis Campbell, owner of Steel Expressions Studio, said that owning a small business takes discipline and a willingness to learn a host of jobs-within-the-job, from human resources and accounting to purchasing and customer service.|
Today, sitting in the front lobby of his sleek piercing shop — which features blood-red colored walls adorned with local artists’ works — Davis Campbell is wearing his public relations hat. After this interview, Campbell — who owns Steel Expressions Studio in Bellingham — will likely put on his managerial hat, and then perhaps his human resources hat. Who knows what other hats he’ll wear before the day is finished?
Such varied headwear is a matter of course for small-business owners. Most of the time, these owners have to learn on the fly when it comes to figuring out their different roles, especially during the youthful days of a growing business.
For those who do hold a variety of posts, this forced education can lead to a mixed bag of reactions, such as stress, anxiety and fatigue — but also a deeper understanding of the company as a whole at every level.
Follow your passions
For Campbell, his business venture — a piercing studio and art gallery in Old Town — is an extension of himself and his interests.
“If you like fine art, if your passion is fine art, you should work in a museum,” said the 29-year-old entrepreneur. “If your passion is golf, you should be a professional golfer. This is my opportunity to do something I love, something that is actually a part of me. And I get to do it day-in and day-out. And even during the slow times, it’s still completely and totally worth the experience just because this is what I love.”
At the time Campbell started the business last year, he said he had about a decade of piercing experience under his belt. When he first started piercing in college, he said he didn’t know he wanted to have his own business.
“I wanted to be a piercer to help pay for college, and I got a job sweeping floors in a tattoo shop,” Campbell said. “I didn’t go there with the idea of learning how to pierce.”
However, he found out quickly that piercing was good money — enough to help him fund his associates degree in criminal justice.
“I actually got into the law enforcement field, and I did that for a while, and I realized that my passion was piercing,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun to find out where the DUI started than where it ended.”
And so he got back in the field, and has been in it ever since. However, he said he only decided to start his own shop within the last three or four years.
“I love it,” he said. “When I was young, I always wanted to be the guy that was constantly busy and his cell phone was going off and everything was going nuts. And now I’m there, and I wish I could take a break.”
The first year has been a year full of learning.
“You know, I wish there were some things I would have taken into consideration before signing that business license,” he said. “I’m not much of an accountant.”
But he — as all small-business owners must do — had to start learning all the tools of the trade in rapid fashion.
The learning curve is steep
When she’s not in the waters of Puget Sound, Charlynn Sutton can be found involved in the many tasks of running her diving business, Gone Diving. Sutton started the company in January 2006, and since then has worn a variety of job-related hats.
“We had to do our build-out, so of course I kind of had to be a designer/layer-outer to lay out the floorplan,” she said. “Then I had to be the buyer because I had to purchase and buy everything that we were going to sell.”
She is also a dive trainer, an accountant, a marketing specialist and a Web site designer — among other things.
“I’m slowly farming everything out,” said Sutton of her many roles. Being required to do so much may be tiring, but it has its advantages, she said.
“You never know what you are getting into until you start doing it, and then after a while you realize, ‘Well, it’s not that hard. I can do that, and I understand how it works and how it affects everything else down the road,’” she said.
Before Tracie Barrick started her Fairhaven business venture, the bunch, she said she tried to prepare in a number of ways, including meeting with a representative from SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives. The counselor helped her formulate a business plan, and gave her a crash course in marketing. Since then, she has had to wear many of the company’s hats without assistance — which has been both positive and negative, she said.
“Once you start delegating things, it’s great because you don’t have so much pressure and you don’t have so many hats to wear, but at the same time, you lose control over certain things,” she said. One item close to Barrick’s heart is the look of the store, which is something she has received compliments about. “If I were to hire a full-time employee, the look of the store would probably change a lot because I wouldn’t be the one doing the merchandising anymore.”
One business hat seems to lead to another, said Campbell.
“After a busy day, you head to the bar, and the next thing you know — yada, yada, yada — your $500 day went down to a $75 day,” Campbell said. “And everybody at the bar loves you, but the bills are due. Learning how to manage your money — and it’s not just your money, it’s the government’s money, it’s the city’s money — and learning how to basically be a responsible business owner … I don’t think you can learn it unless you do it. It’s been challenging.”
He said larger businesses have the luxury of hiring an accountant, which would be out of the question for Steel Expressions at this point.
“We are small and we can’t afford that kind of stuff,” he said. Learning to market and advertise has also presented challenges, he said.
“I’d say the hardest part has been the hit or the miss with advertising. What do you spend your money on with advertising? What don’t you spend your money on in advertising?” he asked. “In the very beginning, we were (advertising) in everything. We were on the radio. We were everywhere. But it just didn’t pay off. Now we don’t do anything, and business has perked up.”
Another hat: workaholic.
“A lot of business owners will say, ‘I work 100 hours per week, and I’m the worst boss I’ve ever had.’ I don’t think that’s accurate. I’m never not working,” he said. “I’m perpetually working, whether I’m home or at the mall or shopping, I am constantly working. I’ve never worked this much in my life.”
Much of his work is spent on human-resources issues, he said.
“You have to be very understanding, and very mellow with people,” he said. “There is no yelling or screaming involved.”
And then there are the vendors.
“Dealing with vendors is the single-most annoying thing in the world,” he said. “You will order your appropriate amount of (stuff), and it will show up wrong and you’ll have to deal with them and they are eight states away. Dealing with vendors is the hardest part for me, because when they don’t live up to their end of the bargain, it causes weeks of backup.”
Which leads to the role of customer-service representative.
“People will spend really good money on a quality piece of jewelry, and they expect it here in a week, week-and-a-half, and it’ll take a month or month-and-a-half to get here sometimes,” he said. “Customer service, right there. I can’t just say, ‘Screw you, I’m a piercer. Leave me alone.’ I have to say, ‘Your complaint is valid, and I’m really sorry.’”
The easiest role he has had to play — ironically — has been that of a piercer.
“I think I’ve had a hard time with every aspect of the business, with the exception of piercing,” he said. “Learning to run the business has taken some time, but I feel like I’ve got it down.”
Campbell suggested that business owners stay aware of local resources that can help them wear their hats more effectively, such as community college classes on accounting, business management or marketing, as well as online resources and computer programs. Tax seminars and free legal assistance are also beneficial, he said.
Campbell said the experience hasn’t gone exactly as planned.
“It has but it hasn’t,” he said. “I knew it was going to be hard. I didn’t think particular situations would be as hard as they are. But any small business takes three years to become healthy. Hard times within those three years have to be expected and planned for.
"It has been a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, but we are still here, so that says something.”