Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

March 24, 2013

Small businesses fill vital need

— Recently, I was able to attend a conference where the main focus was on helping small businesses. With all the talk about what these businesses need, there are two things that everyone seems to agree on: small businesses are absolutely essential the economy, and small businesses are extremely difficult to maintain successfully, especially in the current economy.

I was in middle school when I first started to notice a big “shop local” contingent in my hometown. A lot of small businesses — some of which had been operating since the early days of the Reconstruction — were banding together against the local mall and big box stores, which they felt were infringing on their ability to do business. Cheaper prices and flashier ad campaigns had caused a lot of local shoppers to veer away from local small businesses where there was plenty of know-how and friendly faces but not a way to buy a watermelon, laptop, toilet plunger, birthday card for grandma and get a hair cut all in one trip.

There were giant billboards towering over the shopping complexes as well as tiny marquees in front of smaller businesses reminding people to do their part by buying things from locally-owned stores. These smaller stores weren’t able to advertise as forcefully as some of the bigger stores on their own, but when they worked together they put together a nice little campaign to remind our city which stores had built the community up in the first place.

While we shopped at those bigger stores like most families, there were some things my parents just would not buy at a big box store. There was a hardware store my mother still hit up on the city square, which has been in business for generations. They had double the inventory of any big store and probably ten times the information on how home improvement projects. Often, they would have that one part or piece no other store had, so they were always the first stop for our family’s hardware needs.

There were plenty of other small businesses we frequented either because we knew the owners or because they had developed a good reputation in our city. Beyond occasionally eating at local restaurants, Mom or Dad would often stop by a local store or boutique for a unique gift. We always had our hair cut by someone in our neighborhood and whenever my mother needed a cake for a party in her classroom she tried to pay someone she knew to make it rather than order one from a chain store.

The one lesson I got in running a small business came early and in the same way it comes to most children: selling lemonade and cookies. To make a little extra money, my parents allowed me to set up a stand to sell lemonade and home-made chocolate chip cookies during a weekend garage sale.

Like any kid, I was anticipating bringing in a lot more money than I really did. I had a big imagination but a small attention span, which didn’t help much. It was a little frustrating that my fledgling business wasn’t doing as well as I had hoped, especially since I was doing my best to look little and cute.

As most childhood stories do, the story of my lemonade stand took a turn for the worse when my little brother entered the picture. Unbeknownst to us, he was coming down with a stomach bug. Right in the middle of consuming a cookie — and right in front of one or two potential customers — he informed our dad he “didn’t feel so good” and promptly expelled the cookie he was eating on the driveway.

I was extremely upset that my brother had effectively scared all my customers away and after an hour or so with no sales, I gave up the food stand business entirely.

I was pretty angry at my brother for ruining my business, though my mother kept insisting he couldn’t help it. Years later, I realize this but I still hold a bit of grudge. Of course, that grudge is because he still laughs at how funny it was that he destroyed my bake sale in the way only a little brother can.

I cannot say that early brush with business failure was what made me give up on the business path entirely. I think the fear of winding up in a cubicle coupled with my lack of basic math skills probably did in any dream of corner offices and successful franchises. I guess I really never had a head for business.

However, I do have respect for those who are willing to go out on that limb and risk it all to pursue their dream or help give others in their community something they feel the area needs. Without them, the rest of us would not be able to grow.

Kate Coil is a reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at kcoil@bdtonline.com.

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