Business

An entrepreneurs' survival guide for the Corridor

Tips from the start-up savvy on how to succeed in business in the 21st century, post-Great Recession

Josh Krakauer

Sculpt
Josh Krakauer Sculpt
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Perhaps nothing embodies the American dream more than entrepreneurship. Being your own boss, attaining financial self-sufficiency, following your passion — it is the stuff that dreams are made of.

But according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, only about half of all establishments survive for five years or longer, and only about one-third are around after 10 years.

So how does a small-business owner keep the dream from becoming a nightmare? We turned to some Corridor entrepreneurs for their best tips, advice and lessons learned.

David Tominsky

Iowa Start-Up Accelerator

Tech recruiter turned business owner turned managing director of the Iowa Startup Accelerator, David Tominsky is a leader in the local startup community. In his current role, Tominsky manages an intensive structured program that provides resources and funding to select tech-related companies still in development.

On what it takes to start a new business, Tominsky observed, “Most of the time people immediately jump to capital, but so much stuff needs to happen before that.”

Before raising funding, he said, prospective business owners need to take time to discover the problem their business will solve.

“People are obsessed with solutions, but the focus needs to be on the problem,” he said. “If the problem’s critical enough, that’s when people want to give you money.”

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Tominsky recommended that entrepreneurs find people to help them think through the problem they are trying to solve for their customers.

“Know what questions to ask, and truly listen. Especially listen to what you don’t want to hear,” he advised. “If you’re not getting constructive critical feedback, seek it out. What you do with it is what’s going to determine your success.”

Josh Krakauer

Sculpt

Josh Krakauer, CEO of Sculpt, founded the Iowa City social media management business as a college senior in 2012 because of an issue he saw in the local business community — businesses not always confident in how social media was changing marketing.

Today, Sculpt works with clients at a national level, and Krakauer credits much of the company’s success with its agility.

“The tools we pull out of our tool chest are different all the time,” he said. “It’s true that a company should operate with consistent values. It’s less true that it should offer consistent services and products.”

Customer expectations change over time, Krakauer noted, and the businesses that survive are ones that invest in new approaches and are optimized for speed.

“The more quickly a business can move from idea to execution, the more likely it can adapt and thrive and grow,” he said.

To best position itself, Krakauer advised, a business should focus on becoming an expert in its customers, not its product.

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“The businesses and brands that win truly understand the customers’ motivations, pain and goals, and can speak to them in a way that shows they truly listened,” he said. “They gain the ability to build a better product.”

Jess Novotny

Prestige Dance Studio

As the offspring of entrepreneurs, Jess Novotny said opening her own business at age 26 wasn’t a scary thing, it was “what you do.” Now, as Cedar Rapids-based Prestige Dance Studio approaches its fifth anniversary, Novotny said her business success is due to a lot of hard work.

“It’s the constant hustle,” she said. “It’s saying yes to opportunities even as I’m wondering what I’m getting myself into.”

The mother of three likens her business to a fourth child.

“You have to care for it every single day,” she said. “You have to be 100 percent present when you’re there. You have to check in when you’re traveling.”

One thing Novotny said she has learned is to embrace feedback, especially negative feedback.

“It will come at the most inopportune time, when you’re looking for a pat on the back,” she said. “It took me a long time to be smiling on the inside, too, but now I really appreciate it.”

Another thing she has learned is the importance of self-care and scheduling in time for herself without feeling guilty about it.

“When I fill up my cup first, I can give so much more.”

Brooke Fitzgerald

The Early Bird

Brooke Fitzgerald has been filling cups since 2011, when she left the banking world to open the Early Bird in downtown Cedar Rapids. With the coffee shop now in its seventh year, Fitzgerald is ready to come up for air.

“When I first started, I was living and breathing the business every single minute of every single day,” she said. “Now the biggest thing is keeping my foot on the accelerator but being able to coast a little as well.”

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Within the last year, Fitzgerald started transitioning more of the daily operations of the business to her staff, which she said is a lesson she learned from her small-business banking clients.

“I watched so many of my clients get so far into the day-to-day operations of their business that they weren’t working on the business, they were working in it,” she said. “Everyone I saw in that position wasn’t doing well.”

Fitzgerald stressed the importance of building a good support system of employees and mentors, along with family and friends, because being a small-business owner can be a lonely prospect.

“Nobody cares as much about your business as you do.”

Zach Power

Daydreams Comics

Not all entrepreneurs become business owners via start-ups. Some, such as Zach Power, acquire an existing business.

Power, who’s worked part-time at Daydreams Comics since 2004, purchased a 50 percent ownership stake in the Iowa City business in 2010. In 2015, he purchased the other half.

In an industry that’s shifted from print to other media, Power said that his business has survived for 31 years because it has remained true to its roots — maintaining a large selection of comics and a focus on customer service.

“There’s something to be said for being able to consistently do a couple things really well rather than trying to do a lot of things OK,” Power said. “Some variety is OK, but if you can’t manage the core of what your business is built around, you’re not going to make it last.”

Power said he weathers bad times by keeping a close eye on inventory numbers and watching trends. He also maintains a commitment to finding whatever the customer is looking for, whether or not it’s in stock.

“Customer service is just as important as the products you sell.”

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.