Opening a new business can be a daunting, stressful and exhilarating adventure under normal circumstances. Imagine adding a pandemic and a set of debilitating and ever-changing restrictions that come with it into the mix — not exactly an ideal recipe for success.
How do you build a customer base, get established in the community, or quite frankly, survive your first year while adhering to mandated guidelines and dealing with all the uncertainty that stems from COVID-19?
My Little Valley Customs & Tattoos, Yarn Bird and Green Motion EBikes were all poised to open their doors in the spring, armed with startup financing, business plans and, in some cases, lease agreements. The shutdowns ordered in March to prevent the spread of the virus changed their opening dates, but not their willingness to move forward as soon as guidelines allowed.
Recent rollbacks on restrictions to combat a statewide surge in cases hints at more challenges to come, but they say they are prepared to adapt.
My Little Valley Customs & Tattoos
Omar Valenzuela, owner of My Little Valley Customs & Tattoos in Wenatchee, was forced to delay his grand opening — originally set for January, he opened in September — scale down his original idea and even put his wedding on hold because of the pandemic.
“We were looking at a venue in Cashmere and were about to put a deposit down before COVID-19 hit,” said Valenzuela, who invested $2,000 of his own money and operates in a 420-square-foot space at the southern end of town with his fiance, and store manager, Tina Banuelos. “There were a lot of things that we had to delay. But once things started to settle down and (Gov. Jay Inslee) put out his guidelines, we just sort of took a chance.”
Three months in, he’s optimistic. Everything is by appointment only, and only one customer is allowed in the store at a time, but so far, business has been steady.
“We were really busy in late September and October,” Valenzuela said. “I think tattooing generally slows down around this time but we also have a backup with all the customization and online sales.”
Valenzuela, who also works in construction, said he fell into tattooing because he’s always liked to draw and was encouraged by friends who liked his artwork. He always wanted to be his own boss, so over the summer he and Banuelos “took a leap of faith,” got a business license and started looking for locations.
“This was the third place I looked at, and we actually live up the street so we drive by all the time,” Valenzuela said. “I spoke with the guy who was leasing out the space and he was all for it. Since it’s just me and my fiance, we didn’t need a big space.”
He decided to do hat, shirt and decal customization as well to help buoy the business and provide merchandise for hotels and some of the Mexican markets around town.
The most rewarding part for Valenzuela has been getting to spend more time with his family and work alongside Banuelos, who is also a certified nursing assistant (CNA) on the surgical floor at Central Washington Hospital.
“I get to make my schedule and I don’t have to be here all day. I’ll just schedule an appointment, go and do it and then go home,” he said. “So it gives me a little more freedom. The only downside has been worrying about following all the guidelines. Sometimes people want to bring their kids, but I can’t have any kids in here because they like to touch things and we want to make sure we keep everyone safe.”
He spaces appointments two hours apart to provide time to clean and sanitize between customers.
Once they make it through the winter, if regulations allow, they hope to expand, first with the addition of a tattoo apprentice. Ultimately, he and Banuelos would like to move into a bigger shop and start offering classes similar to ones done at Class with a Glass in Wenatchee.
“We’d teach people how to tattoo, not on themselves or anything but some kind of skin-like material while drinking a beer or having a glass of wine,” Banuelos said. “That was what we wanted to start with..."
“We had a vision,” Valenzuela interjected, “It just got smaller because of COVID. But we’re going to get there.”
Tracy Gausman planned to open Yarn Bird, located in the shopping center sandwiched between Ag Supply and the Red Lion Hotel, on April 1.
A knitter for more than 30 years and member of the North Central Washington Knitters Guild, Gausman had considered opening a yarn store for a few years after Knit One, Purl Two (K1 P2) closed in 2017.
“It was challenging not to have a shop in town, so I started thinking about it and got incorporated last fall,” Gausman said. “I started to learn about the business and leased this place in February; we started remodeling and purchasing inventory to get ready for April 1, but COVID shut everything down. Having to pay rent and not have people come into the shop was a scary time for sure.”
Even though things looked bleak, Gausman said she never hesitated when it came to opening up.
“I just felt so invested in it and there had been a lot done at that point, we already had inventory in the shop, which, thank goodness, yarn is non-perishable. But I still felt the community needed a knitting shop,” she said.
Gausman shifted the business online and created a website where customers could look at inventory and purchase skeins of yarn by phone or email.
“But knitting is such a tactile thing, people like to touch or see the yarn in person,” Gausman said. “You can photograph and put pictures online, but that doesn’t always transfer properly. Sometimes customers come in looking to match a yarn they have to another or get advice on different fibers, it just hurts to not have people come into the shop.”
Gausman was able to open her doors in June once restrictions on retail stores were loosened to allow in-person service at 25%.
Business has been slow but steady.
“There have been days where no one would come in and I would just be arranging or knitting behind the counter but we made a few sales and the business has started to grow steadily,” said Gausman, who invested $35,000 in the startup. “And it’s increasing, which makes me optimistic that I’ll get to a point where I could take a salary.”
Gausman currently has one employee, Theresa Binkley, who she hopes will get to teach knitting classes in the future when restrictions loosen and people can sit around a table and knit.
Yarn stores are common places for knitters to gather, share stories and projects and ask for help. Knitting, above all else, is a social outlet for people.
“That’s the one thing I would say we’ve missed the most,” Gausman said. “Limiting the number of customers and then you can’t have people sitting at a table knitting if you want walk-in traffic.”
While new restrictions were put in place mid-November, Gausman believes she’s better equipped to last through another shutdown (if needed). She produces a weekly newsletter, which gives updates on new products she might have in store, projects she or Binkley have been working on and highlights customers who have come in and shared their project. There is also a link to Berroco Yarns, where customers can go online and pick a project to have it drop-shipped directly to their home.
“The response has been really good on that,” Gausman said.
Gausman also signed up her store to participate in the Pacific Northwest Slow Crawl — essentially the yarn version of a pub crawl — that lasts May through September each year.
“It’s an organized group in Washington and Oregon where participants sign up for a $10 fee and get a passport,” Gausman said. “And then throughout the spring and summer customers can travel from store to store (even virtually next year) to get their passport stamped and receive other door prizes. Every shop does something different.”
While Gausman admits to facing some challenges, and she’s not entirely comfortable yet with all the tax structures/implications, she’s been learning on the fly somewhat as a first-time business owner. Overall, she loves knitting and helping people with their projects.
“There is just something relaxing about being in fibers,” she said. “I’m still really excited about it and happy to come to work every day. I love what I do and I’m ecstatic to be able to turn my passion into a job.”
Over the next year, Gausman hopes to continue to grow her business, expand hours and hire more employees. The goal is to turn the Yarn Bird into a knitting hub for the Wenatchee Valley.
Green Motion EBikes
Aaron Woodhead knew that e-bikes were going to be a potential new boom-industry after he purchased one a couple of years ago.
“I dropped 50 pounds in two months from just riding it,” Woodhead said in November. “Knowing there were not any affordable e-bike options in the valley, we knew it would be successful and a good way for people to get healthy.”
Woodhead and co-owner Kelly Delong, who owned Akerly’s Discount Furniture in Wenatchee several years ago, planned to open Green Motion Ebikes in the spring. They wanted to capitalize on the warm weather when people often flock to the Apple Capital Recreation Loop Trail in droves.
“And then, boom, we get closed down for two-and-a-half months,” Woodhead said. “It was like the worst possible timing. But surprisingly, the e-bike industry as a whole took off during that time. I think because it was one of the few things that people could do as an outdoor activity. And a lot of people wanted to use it to get to work.”
Before moving into their current location at the old Mills Bros building in downtown Wenatchee, Woodhead said they were able to operate in a temporary pop-up shop off of the Loop Trail and make it through the initial shutdown by opening for appointment only.
“We were busy enough to keep it going and then the business took off when things opened up a little bit,” Woodhead said. “I thought I would need to teach people about e-bikes a little but customers already knew. So that was a nice surprise.”
Over the summer Woodhead and Delong started looking for a more permanent home and landed on the historic Mills Bros building.
“I mean they were in business for 107 years, which I feel is good karma,” Woodhead said. “We got ahold of the current owners and went through our business plan. It's a 9,700 square-foot space, but we had a vision for the entire space with e-bikes on the main floor, discount furniture in the basement, and then I produce YouTube videos in the upstairs loft.”
Woodhead has been a self-described YouTuber for the past 10 years, getting paid by vaping companies to promote the use of electronic cigarettes and other vaping pens as a way to quit smoking cigarettes. He felt making the transition from e-cigs to e-bikes was a natural one.
“It’s just that next stage of living a healthy life,” Woodhead said.
His channel also gave him an in with e-bike manufacturers in China.
“I had worked with China before and been invited to go to Hong Kong in my previous industry, but I was able to use that to make connections with e-bike manufacturers,” Woodhead said. “So we get them directly from China, dropped right into Wenatchee Valley. That ultimately keeps the prices low compared to a distributor that would immediately charge a 50% markup.”
Woodhead said e-bikes at other stores can run as high as $6,000 to $10,000 elsewhere. GreenMotion E-Bikes run from $699 to $1,500 with a high-end option that is a homage to an old Indian Motorcycle for $2,500.
Even though it’s heading into the cold-weather season, Woodhead feels they are in a good position.
“I can tell this is going to be a big Christmas gift this year,” Woodhead said. “I already had one lady come in and buy a bike for her husband that she’s hiding at the neighbors. We’re hoping to get our website going also so we can sell e-bikes across the country. Long-term, I’d like to make the name GreenMotion synonymous with e-bikes.”