Four small businesses in southwest Minnesota are starting 2021 with a new game plan thanks to Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF) and Startup Reinvention, a 10-week workshop designed to lead small business owners through a hands-on collaborative process to help them navigate today’s challenging circumstances and create a new vision for the future of their businesses. SWIF sponsored current Microenterprise Loan Program clients Clay Coyote, Compass Occasions, Iron Jungle Crossfit and Historic State Theatre as participants in the Startup Reinvention workshop led by Betsy Bonnema of Redstar creative agency in Willmar.
“The world is changing, and having a mindset of reinvention is critical to our success,” Betsy said.
The process involved weekly online sessions where the group discussed hard questions, the new normal, customer evolution and business models. Participating entrepreneurs completed several hours of homework between sessions, culminating in a final virtual gathering where they shared their plans for moving forward.
“We all shared a lot in common as business owners,” said potter Morgan Baum, who owns Clay Coyote gallery and pottery studio in Hutchinson with her husband, Ian. “It’s kind of a tragic joke: A gym, a theater, a retailer and an event company walk into a pandemic and take a 10-week class together. I have felt for each of you every step of the way. Your journey is part of my journey.”
“There was a time during the pandemic I wanted to throw in the towel. I have learned so much more about my business. I thought I knew it all. People here want the movies. They want the theater to stay,” said Mike Schwartz, who owns Historic State Theatre in Jackson with his wife, Nikki.
After completing Startup Reinvention, Mike and Nikki are interested in finding local partners to help preserve the historic charm of the theater. And they want to incorporate new uses, including live events like dance recitals and plays on the stage as well as corporate meetings that could make use of the screen for presentations. While the new industry standard of releasing movies on demand has its challenges, it will also allow Historic State Theater to rearrange the show schedule to accommodate events.
“When things are open again, we’ll be rollin’. In the interim, I gotta figure out how to survive. Theater is a passion. I can’t shake it. It’s my ambition in life to make people happy,” Mike said.
For Compass Occasions owners and event planners Valerie Mackenthun and Kayla Zuidema, the five years since they’d started their business had been so busy that they didn’t have time or to dig into why they do it. The pandemic made them pause and reflect, and Startup Reinvention gave them structure to do that.
“The biggest thing we’ve taken away is the most important thing w” Kayla said.
pened a new leased venue space – Art’s Place in Hutchinson – during the pandemic and were able to plan and host several events there following state guidelines, when venues were not completely closed down. Turning that experience into a COVID workshop is one way they plan to move forward, lending their unique expertise related to parties during a pandemic.
“After 10 months a year of not being able to gather, that’s what people are going to be craving. Where you host your event is going to be a lot different in 2021. There’s a trend of a lot more intimate events and a lot more intimate space,” Valerie said.
They intend to highlight their adaptable space at Art’s Place on social media, and to add their first employee to the business in 2021.
“Hosting is an art, and like any other art from it needs to be practiced to evolve,” Valerie said. “We are ready to dive into this next evolution of Compass Occasions.”
Among the Startup Reinvention participants, Clay Coyote was the sole business able to remain open consistently while following safety guidelines.
“Our online sales four years ago were only 15 percent of our annual revenue. And this year during the pandemic, online was 60 percent of our revenue. Focusing on online allows us to reach a world of possibilities and so many more people with the pottery we make. We still care deeply about Hutchinson, but our customer that really loves our signature pottery is a global audience. In order for us to grow, we have to reach people all over the country,” Morgan said.
Morgan has already instituted several new strategies, including special soaps tucked inside shipped pottery to evoke the smells of cooking upon opening the box. She is also planning to launch a Clay Coyote cookbook that’s been in the works for nearly two years. And as soon as travel resumes, she’s taking Ian on a culinary adventure to bring back the next pot they’re going to launch.
“Our goal is to continue to make meaningful pottery that people love and cherish, and they start to think of them as little friends in their kitchen,” Morgan said.
Kirk and Amanda Hendrickson had an incredibly challenging year as owners of a gym – Iron Jungle CrossFit. Multiple closures crippled their business model.
“I’m just so grateful to be able to go through this (workshop) with all of you because it’s lonely enough the way it is,” Amanda told the group at a virtual gathering in December. “If we didn’t have all of you to support us along this journey especially the last four weeks being closed, I think I’d be in an even worse state right now.”
“Before COVID I think that we did rely a lot more on the message of CrossFit and how we achieved and helped people find some of those goals. We’ve had time to reflect, and it’s not about the fitness goals, the personal records, the weight on the bar. It’s about connecting to a deeper meaning. It’s about accomplishing things we didn’t think we were capable of. It’s about igniting old passions. It’s about reigniting things inside ourselves,” Kirk said.
Kirk and Amanda’s goal is to highlight more success stories of Iron Jungle’s members in marketing and to lean into the idea that it’s not about the building or the equipment, but about the people.
“I think that success is addicting, and happiness is contagious,” Kirk said. “We are going to help people live life more.”
At a December 2020 session, Jackie Turner, SWIF Economic Development Officer, thanked each of the participants for their time and trust in the Startup Reinvention workshop.
“This has been so amazing. To watch you go through the ups and downs and grow, it’s been amazing,” Jackie said.
After the final Startup Reinvention gathering, SWIF staff will continue to support these businesses through our Microenterprise Loan Program. Microloan clients receive free technical assistance from SWIF, including business planning and financials analysis, QuickBooks training, marketing assistance and other training opportunities for the life of the loan.
In the last year, Southwest Initiative Foundation has deployed $8.3 million directly to businesses in our region for COVID-19 relief and recovery. This includes funding from the Small Business Emergency Loan, Small Business Relief Grant, Small Business Loan Guarantee and Child Care Emergency Relief Grant programs.