Having worked at area coffee shops for eight years, Federal Way resident Rena Poppell finally felt prepared to turn her passion of brewing coffee into a personal business.
The Ink Online Coffee House, previously Caffe Lietto, is Poppell’s first business.
After four years of searching for a place that suited her needs, Poppell established her own private coffee spot in downtown Seattle between 1st Avenue and Stewart.
“It’s all about finding the right location and having total love for the space,” Poppell said. “It can be a very long process, but I looked into my instincts.”
While the joys of becoming her own boss are priceless, Poppell invested a lot of time researching and planning before going through with her dream.
Since Poppell began operating her coffee shop a month ago, her workload has been no less than 70 hours per week. She said, however, that part of what made the process go smoothly was that she hired an accountant — plus she also had enough money saved, perfect credit and a lot of equity in her house.
“Having an accountant is a very good idea because if you miss something, it could cost you more in the long run,” Poppell said.
Deanna Burnett-Keener, director of the Green River Community College Small Business Center (SBAC), said that the timeframe for starting a business depends on how long it takes each person to do strategic planning and perform industry research.
The future business owner must know how much money needs to be saved to get through the first year, Burnett-Keener said. In terms of paperwork, Washington state is among the least expensive, where business registration is $20 and the cost of a license, depending on the city, runs between $60 and $120 per year, she said.
Burnett-Keener said that the more things are done on paper, the cheaper it is to do business and planning. The longest part of starting a business is getting tenant improvements for a business site, which will vary by county or city; the same applies to obtaining a health department review, she said.
“It’s important to check the local building department to see how it typically gets things done,” Burnett-Keener said.
Poppell said that before going through with her idea of opening a business, there was some concern with the economy and gas prices.
To operate her shop, Poppell drives every day from Federal Way to downtown Seattle, and pays for a parking spot on top of everything else.
“When I have a part-time employee, I will start thinking about taking the bus, but now I just started,” Poppell said.
Poppell said she felt safe about investing in a coffee business because in the previous coffee shops where she worked, she did not see any downside.
“Coffee is part of people’s morning ritual of going to work and getting settled, and it’s still affordable for many to get a cup of coffee every day,” she said.
Burnett-Keener said anything that is consumed daily and has demand in the market is a safer business venture. The problem with coffee shops, she added, is that the market is becoming too saturated, requiring a tremendous need to look meticulously at location as well as direct competition within the shop’s radius. Negotiating a good lease and making sure it’s in a good location is probably one of the most critical and challenging pieces of starting a business, Burnett-Keener said.
Not only is Poppell’s shop located next to one of Seattle’s most valuable gems, Pike Place Market, but the 600-square-foot coffee shop gets a good amount of foot traffic, she said. Tourists also frequent the area.
“I really want to make it hip, since it’s a really hip neighborhood,” Poppell said.
Poppell not only performed detailed research, but had also the support of a lifelong mentor and friend who guided her through every step — as well as the economic support of her husband.
Poppell said that she got to a point where she felt she had all the pieces that were needed to make it work.
“I love this business. I tend to get really close to my customers and we become very close friends. That comes with passion,” she said.
And her number one piece of advice:
“Pick a business in which you don’t have to struggle with what you’re doing,” she said.
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Challenging economic times
Deanna Burnett-Keener, director of the Green River Community College Small Business Center (SBAC), said that the banking industry is repositioning itself because of the impact of problems such as mortgage lending as well as the cost of fuel and food.
“We’re going to need to put together very solid packages when asking a bank for funding. The loan will require to put at least 25 percent of the cost from your own money, and you want to have at least 10 percent of what you think your gross revenue will look like in savings before starting,” Burnett-Keener said.
She said that it’s always a safe time to invest in a business when good planning is involved, which typically takes from six months to a year.
Burnett-Keener also sees these challenging economic times as an opportunity for business owners.
“If you do the research, you can learn to be very competitive and figure out how to do a good business in challenging times, rather than businesses who open when the economy is booming,” Burnett-Keener said. “When there’s a change, these businesses are not prepared, whereas businesses who start up in challenging times have to learn to be very efficient and know what their customers want.”
The Washington Small Business Development Center is a nonprofit organization that provides free mentoring, counseling workshops and strategic planning development. The center also offers classes developed specifically to business industries and works with local banks, among other services. Visit www.wsbdc.org or call (509) 358-7765.
The King County Library System also provides an extensive amount of databases and research for aspiring business owners through the use of a library card that can be obtained for free at any of its locations around the area. To learn more, visit www.kcls.org.
Other helpful Web sites are http://access.wa.gov/business/, www.sba.gov and www.irs.gov/businesses/.
First-time entrepreneurs can succeed in these lean times