Author: Lucy Rosen
Women start businesses for the same reasons men do: financial independence, control of work hours, and to do a job faster, better, or more cost effectively than their previous (or current) employer. But there are other reasons women start their own businesses: because they’re seeking a work/life balance and flexibility for school-aged children, spouses, and aging parents; or because they’re creators and dreamers who want to make a difference.
Recent statistics show that most women business owners start service companies, which makes sense because of low start-up costs and the challenges involved in raising capital. With that said, what types of businesses are being founded and operated by women here in the Hilton Head Island/Bluffton area, and why?
Emily Johnson is the founder of Polaris Investments and, more recently, the visionary behind the Johnson Urban Farm. Emily is a fourth generation Hilton Head Island native who realized “there’s no place like home.” Not only did Johnson return from Texas so she and her daughter could be close to a highly-supportive extended family, she returned because of what she calls “the many other gifts” that Hilton Head offers—from geography to diversity to education. “I’m constantly amazed at the wealth of talented people here who want to give of their time,” she said.
Emily has found success in playing with “the big boys.” Financial services, she says, plays to her strengths. “It’s always a competition, and that’s one of the things I love most about my field. It forces me to keep improving and learning and evolving.”
As if a thriving financial services business were not enough, Johnson is also in the process of revitalizing and reinventing a family business: Johnson’s Greenhouse (operated by her grandparents) is being transformed into Johnson’s Urban Farm. “The opportunity to build on that heritage of family by repurposing the greenhouse, stocking it with our own fresh produce, and offering classes on organic farming and wellness is a genuine dream—my other passion,” she said. “The whole experience has been an exercise in serendipity and highlights what makes Hilton Head so special: the tremendous residents who have offered their time and expertise to help get us off the ground.”
Maryann Bastnagel is another woman who chose Hilton Head Island as the location for her business. Maryann is the owner of IT Matters, LLC, a company that provides information technology consulting services to companies and organizations that can’t afford to employ full-time senior-level technology leaders. Bastnagel’s motivation to start a technology services company sprang from her belief that the right technology solutions have little to do with the actual technology and more to do with growing or transforming a business.
“Technology shouldn’t be scary or intimidating,” Bastnagel said. “It should be a tool that supports a business’s need to delight customers, gain efficiencies, drive revenue growth, or manage change.”
Launching IT Matters on Hilton Head Island was not easy, she said. “I spent a lot of time driving up and down Rt. 278 with my résumé and marketing materials, shaking hands and kissing babies, just to introduce myself to the business community.” So when the Town of Hilton Head Island solicited applications for candidates to serve on the board of directors of its new economic development corporation, Bastnagel was quick to apply. “I knew Hilton Head Island was a good place to start a business, and I wanted to be able to support other women who wanted to do the same thing.”
Fetching Manners, a clever name coined by a clever young business owner named Rebecca Gay, is a dog training/obedience service now in its second year of operation. “I love making my living through dog training,” Gay said. “The relationship between humans and dogs is intricate and bursting with potential. When that relationship is functioning well, the results are awe-inspiring, from complex obedience commands to powerful service and therapy work.”
Refreshingly honest, Gay says her biggest obstacle, at times, has stemmed from her own flaws. “It is easy to procrastinate, make excuses, or underestimate my abilities as a businesswoman,” she said. For that reason, she surrounds herself with people who motivate and challenge her. What’s next for Fetching Manners? “My passion is to find creative ways to use dogs in animal-assisted therapy and incorporate those ideas into the needs of the local community,” she said.
When asked why she chose the Bluffton/Hilton Head locale to start her business, Gay’s response is uncomplicated and enthusiastic: “This area is filled with life-embracing, fun-loving residents who make the best clients. It’s also dog-friendly and a fantastic place to call home!”
The good news for Johnson, Bastnagel, Gay and others like them is that support for women-owned businesses here is growing, led by organizations such as the Hilton Head Island Economic Development Corporation (HHIEDC). Don Kirkman, executive director, notes that a significant number of business owners and entrepreneurs seeking assistance from the HHIEDC are women. The HHIEDC provides a variety of services for businesswomen, ranging from assistance in finding appropriate office space to arranging introductions to representatives of other resource organizations who can provide critical expertise and skills to get a new business up and running. The needs of women-owned businesses, Kirkman says, generally mirror those of all small businesses and often involve developing business plans, securing capital, engaging professional services, and complying with Town of Hilton Head Island regulations.
Another invaluable support for start-ups or early-growth-stage businesses is the Don Ryan Center for Innovation (DRCI), located in Bluffton. DRCI recently added a woman-owned business, Shop 843.com, to its growing roster of innovators that share space and take part in a fast-paced business success program. “More and more women are calling the DRCI for assistance, guidance, and support to start and grow their companies, said David Nelems, who heads the program. Some of the ideas we’re hearing and the business plans we’re reading are positively brilliant.”
At the end of the day, while each business is unique, Gay, Bastnagel and Johnson all agree on a few success keys: a belief in themselves and an unwavering sense of commitment; support from family and friends; a solid network of service professionals; and an understanding that you have to spend money to make money.
As for lessons learned? Again, the entrepreneurs agree: it’s harder than it looks; you can’t do it alone; finding balance is difficult; and starting your own business is among the most rewarding of accomplishments. Oh yes, there was one more lesson these no-nonsense women learned: that (not including clients) they would never ever work for anyone again. Ever.
Lucy Rosen is president of SmartMarketing Communications, LLC and founder of Women on The Fast Track.