Tips to start a business offered at conference

Billings Gazette

by Jan Falstad

Good war stories can turn a potentially dry-as-toast business conference into an entertaining, funny and educational exchange.

The chemistry Friday among four successful Montana business owners kept nearly 90 mostly female business leaders at Sen. Jon Tester's Small Business Opportunity Workshop in Billings learning and laughing.

Their stories about fighting for money, learning on the job, occasionally losing everything and sticking with a dream came from the heart.

Kris Carpenter said an "entrepreneurial seizure" convinced her to start Sanctuary Salon & Spa in Billings 13 years ago, so women who wanted to treat themselves to a haircut, manicure, pedicure or massage wouldn't have to run all over town.

"I wanted to have a place where they (women) could stop the madness and come back to themselves," she said. "I'm really determined and I'll work harder than anyone."

In the midst of the Great Recession, Carpenter had two more "entrepreneurial seizures" and started two gift shops called Joy of Living and Joy of Kids.

"I just told my husband, remember our 401(k)? It's inventory now," she said.

Carpenter said she offers her staff retirement plans, health insurance, paid vacations and good wages because if her employees are happy, her customers will be, too.

"My average provider makes over $20 an hour and in my industry that really isn't expected," she said. "But they created this business, I didn't."

Women starting or trying to start a business should get top advisers, sound financing and borrow successful ideas from anyone they can, panelists said.

Jolene Rieck, a landscape architect in Billings, started Peaks to Plains Design in 2003. She advised business owners to stay honest, build strong networks of friends and practice integrity.

"Tell your clients what they need to hear, even if it hurts," Rieck said.

Sarah Calhoun, founder of Red Ants Pants of White Sulphur Springs, recalled wanting to design pants that fit women's curvy bodies, but not knowing where to start.

In 2004, she was in Bozeman reading "How to Start a Small Business for Dummies" when a guy noticed the title and struck up a conversation. He happened to have 20 years experience in production and design for Patagonia and became her mentor.

Red Ants Pants has yet to make a profit, but Calhoun started a foundation to launch the first Red Ants Pants Music Festival. Next weekend in White Sulphur, Lyle Lovett, Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark will play and the proceeds will go to help women in businesses and farmers and ranchers.

"Why have one nonprofit when you can have two?" she joked. "It's going to be a lot of money to a little town that's struggling."

To get free advice from some of the best business minds, Calhoun sponsors a fishing trip once a year and hands her mentors flasks with Red Ant Pants logos on them.

Her dry wit is reflected in the name she chose.

"In the ant colony, it's the female ants that do all the work. The male ants just breed and die," she said.

City Brew Coffee founder and owner Becky Reno also said she learned to fish in order to get some top-quality mentoring and recalled the time she let an adviser talk her into accepting a big investor's money to take her video store chain public.

"I used the stock certificates to wallpaper my bathroom. It's the only humor I could find, and it's the only thing he didn't take from me," she said.

The keynote speaker was Karen Puckett of CenturyLink, which just purchased Qwest Communications. Puckett said she outlines a common purpose for her team and sets realistic, but hopeful, goals.

"How do you earn trust? You do what you say you're going to do," she said.

Sen. Jon Tester was stuck in Washington, D.C., due to debt ceiling negotiations, but he spoke briefly via teleconference to the group.
Liz Marchi, fund coordinator of the Frontier Angel Fund and Innovate Montana out of Polson, stood in as moderator.

With U.S. unemployment sitting at 9 percent, the future will look very different, Marchi said.

"Montana has the 48th worst wages in the United States," she said. "All net new jobs come from new enterprises and most large companies are shedding jobs."