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Cookies, comics, and chords
Three local entrepreneurs who have turned their hobby into a profession
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
How many times have you heard someone say they would love to have a job doing something they love? And I mean something they really love. Not just something they find interesting, challenging, or exciting — though of course, something you love probably involves all of those things, to some extent. But I mean something they really have a passion for.
A lot of us work and save our real interests for after business hours. For our feature story this issue, we talked to three people who turned their hobbies, their passions, or their obsessions into a full time, professional business. One of these companies just started, one is a growing business that’s been around for a few years, and the other is… well, frankly, enormous. What they all have in common is that they have their roots not necessarily as business ventures but as something these people loved to do.
Our interest in talking to these people was less in the mechanics of building their business as much as it was finding out how their relationship to their hobby/passion/obsession informed their decision to make a profession out of it, and how it may have changed now that they’re doing it for a living.
But, for those of you who want a little cheat sheet, here are some common things we found among the three company owners we talked to who turned their hobby in to a business.
1.) They all had an intimate, thorough knowledge of the particular field or industry they were entering in to.
2.) They all had some sort of business background. Even if they didn’t have a strict education in business, they at least knew how to buy, sell, and/or market their particular area.
3.) Their decision to start the business was based upon their experience as a customer. Basically, they looked at the business and thought “what do other people like me want?”
Lots of people like to cook. Jenni Voors really likes to cook. She’s been cooking since she was five, often for family events. “It’s more of an obsession, really,” she laughs. “I have huge stacks of recipes and cookbooks, probably more than the library. It’s insane. Anywhere I see a recipe, I have to stop and look at it. That’s what I read in the checkout line.”
Voors worked as a part-time cook or baker at a number of places — Breadcraft, the Three Rivers Co-Op, a local caterer — but her day job was in patient accounting at Parkview. She did that for 12 before she and her mother Cat Voors (formerly the director of the Fort Wayne Dance Collective) decided to open their own business late last year.
The result is Celebrations (www.celebrationsfw.com) , a specialty bakery and cafe located at 1123 East State Boulevard (near the intersection of East State and Crescent) that makes its own bread and desserts from scratch, serves breakfast and lunch, and offers catering and a number of other specialty services.
Voors and her mother had wanted their own business for a long time, but Celebrations came together very quickly. They found the location, and decided to do it. “I was working out of Breadcraft, and he decided to move away and sell his business,” Voors says. “I left Breadcraft October 31 and we opened December 4.”
Voors says they felt prepared for starting their own business — Jenni had an accounting background and was briefly in the School of Business at IPFW; Cat had run the Fort Wayne Dance Collective. “There’s a little bit of accounting in every recipe,” Voors says.
Still, there were some small things she had to give up now that she was no longer baking “for fun.” “I still keep it really high quality, made from scratch, but there are some things I can’t do when I’m doing mass quantity like this. It just takes too long. When I did it as a hobby, I would grind my own cinnamon. You can’t really do that when you make mass quantities of cinnamon rolls. I do still grind a lot of spices and chilies from whole, but cinnamon is one of the things that had to go.”
Of course, one of the keys to having a successful business is differentiating yourself from any competition. For Voors, that means not only using her own recipes and doing as much from scratch as possible, but offering the kind of customized catering she says she hasn’t found in many other places. So Celebrations doesn’t have a set catering menu; they write the menu for you. But this, of course, means more work. “They may want chicken, they may want shrimp… but every time I have to change it,” Voors says. “I still don’t want to set the menu, though. I don’t like that. I don’t want to pick from what they want to give me.”
“I do so many different things that it’s a little harder than I thought it would be.”
There’s also the day-to-day issues of running a restaurant-style business, like broken refrigerators, or the day the fire alarm suddenly went off (“You just have to roll with it,” Voors laughs).
But one thing that gratifies the cook and baker in Voors is how the customers have responded to many of her specialty items. She does admit that she’s added something to the menu that she didn’t really expect would be successful, but has really taken off with their customers. “Rhubarb pie,” she says. “I’ve always made it just because my mom likes it. But it goes over really well. Everybody loves rhubarb pie, apparently.”
Cameron Merkler is an avid comic book collector. It’s a hobby that started when he was seven, and hasn’t slowed down since. “I’ve just always liked the stories,” Merkler says. “It seems like they grew up and matured with me. They’ve gradually gotten better coloring and better paper quality, and have stories that relate to more everyday events… they’ve just grown up with me.”
But collecting comic books can be an expensive hobby. “I just wanted to find a place where I could get my comics and action figures and statues cheaper,” Merkler says. “There really weren’t any places I could find locally or online so I just talked to my wife and we figured out how we could make it work.”
Five years ago, Merkler and his wife Christina opened the Discount Comic Book Service (www.dcbservice.com). Just like the name says, it offers comics at a deep discount — 35 – 40% off most comic books. They do it through ordering in volume and keeping the overhead low. Indeed, for the first couple years of their business, overhead was very low. “We started in our basement,” Merkler says. “There was no overhead. It was almost zero to start out. There may be a few couple hundred dollars of investment, but it was very low.”
The Merklers moved out of their basement and opened up a “brick and mortar” store about three years ago, but Markler says that about 95% of their business is still done through the internet.
Merkler was an accountant at Lincoln, and kept his job there until about a year ago, so Merkler says he and Christina weren’t too nervous about the financial ramifications of starting their own business. “But from a time commitment stand point, it was kind of scary,” says Merkler, who estimates that for a long while he was working from about nine a.m. until midnight every weekday. “You have to do your regular full time job, and then you have this business which keeps growing and growing.” Merkler adds that his business has doubled several times since it began, and now employs 16 people, including part timers.
In addition to his background in accounting, Merkler’s years as a collector had taught him a lot about the comic book industry. But he admits there was one big gap in his expertise which would have come in very handy in the beginning. “Do you know what the biggest help would have been? If my background was in computer programming,” he says. “You can’t really grow a business these days without having systems in place, and that’s terribly expensive. So I think I would have traded my accounting background for a computing background.”
Discount Comic Book Service is now a recognized name in the industry. The company sponsors a number of comic book related podcasts, which puts them in touch with new customers and people in the industry. Merkler says the people he has gotten to know has been one of the most rewarding things about the business. “The people that want to work with you and see you succeed, and you kind of help them succeed… that’s been great,” he says. “Publishers will periodically give you a call and ask if you want to help promote a book. Seth Green from the Austin Powers movies called because he has a comic book that he pushes, so I talked to him for a few minutes. Strange things like that.”
Working in the industry where he was once a fan hasn’t dulled Merkler’s love for the books, though it has cut in to the time he can spend with them. “The biggest thing is that I don’t have as much time to read as I used to,” he adds. “I do make sure I carve out time to read, but it’s just not as much as I want to.”
Sweetwater, Inc.’s remarkable growth is now a well-known Fort Wayne success story. A retailer of professional music equipment and instruments, Sweetwater (www.sweetwater.com) boasts hundreds of employees, a customer base that includes some of the biggest names and companies in the music industry, and an outstanding international reputation. Last year, the company moved in to its new digs at 5501 US 30 West, a $30 million, 44-acre campus that include an expanded retail showroom, a state-of-the-art distribution center, auditorium, and a technical training center.
But 20 or so years ago, no one knew quite what to make of this small but ambitious company run by a musician.
When Sweetwater president Chuck Surack graduated from high school, he knew he was going to do something with music. “I’ve always been pretty passionate about doing music,” he says. “I guess I thought that in the short term, I was going to go on the road as a musician and playing nightclubs and college bars and that sort of thing, which I did do.”
Every band, if it’s lucky, has at least one technical guy, the guy who knows the equipment, knows how to run it, and can find solutions when it’s misbehaving. Surack was usually that guy in the groups he played with, and when he had had enough of life on the road, Surack decided to open his own recording studio. At that point, Sweetwater’s emergence as a retailer was still a few years away, but it was some of the frustrations Surack experienced as a studio owner — lack of dependable support for the equipment he was using, slow service — that would eventually lead to the company growing beyond its studio origins to become a sales and service provider for a wide variety of music equipment (that’s the abbreviated version of the Sweetwater story).
Being located in Fort Wayne was never a problem with Sweetwater’s clients, besides the occasional question of whether or not he was going to move Sweetwater to LA or Nashville or any other music mecca. Surack says Sweetwater’s customers always supported the company, and recognized that it didn’t matter where the company was located as long as it got the job done right. “I’m a little bit of a renegade and I will only sell things I truly believe in,” Surack explains. “There have been brands and specific products where I’ve told the vendor, ‘no, I will not sell that. I don’t think it’s right for our customers.’ What I tell all our new guys and girls is that what we sell is our credibility and our reputation. The products, in the 28 years I’ve been doing this, have changed dramatically. They’ve changed from analog reel-to-reel recorders to digital recorders to computers. What the constant is is the relationships we have with the customers and our credibility. I have customers that go back 27 or 28 years. So the products are less what I’m selling. It’s more the credibility and the relationship. I don’t want to do anything to damage that.”
Surack adds: “I won’t sell stuff that… you know, that’s got the 30-second window of flash. It’s got to be a good, quality sort of product. I don’t have a problem with inexpensive products that are a good value, but I have a real problem with products, whether they’re a little money or a lot of money, that are cheap.”
But if the professional audio community responded positively early on, credibility was a little harder to come by in another field. “What was different was the business world,” recalls Surack. “It was really hard to convince the banks and the attorneys and the accountants that even though I was a musician, I could be professional, and that my vocation and my avocation could work well together. That took a long time for me to get the credibility there, and honestly it’s only been in the last few years where the investment community and the bankers all go ‘oh, that’s a good business.’ As a musician, if I had told them that 15 or 20 years ago, they’d have said ‘no, you’re a musician, and you’ll never have a good business.’”
Surack doesn’t have that problem anymore, and though he says that what he does all day long has very little to do with music, he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. He still performs regularly with his band Prime Time (www.ptband.com), and says that he values getting up on stage and performing even more than he used to. “I really still love and enjoy actually playing. That’s why I still play all the time. My day job is having the relationships with the customers and selling the technology, my fun is still doing music.”