From hitting the books to balancing them

Daniel MacEachern
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Wave of city’s young entrepreneurs come to business ownership for variety of reasons

St. John’s Board of Trade president Steve Power

They’re cropping up all over St. John’s: businesses owned and operated by young entrepreneurs in their 20s, no experience necessary. Business education and experience are optional, but work ethic and ambition are crucial requirements.

Whether it’s to fill a void in the market, to pursue a personal passion or to avoid working for anyone but oneself, the latest crop of

St. John’s entrepreneurs have different motivations, but all share unshakeable confidence.

That confidence was born perhaps out of the city’s economic growth of the last few years: 6.9 per cent and 5.4 per cent increases in the city’s gross domestic product in 2010 and 2011 respectively — although some of that was recovery from the economic slowdown in 2009.

The Telegram spoke to several business owners to find out what motivates them, what they’ve learned and if they ever wish for a steady, eight-hour workday instead of round-the-clock responsibility.

David Bowden, 26, said until he’d actually opened his business, Post Espresso Bar, he hadn’t thought much about becoming an entrepreneur, and felt it was best to dive into it.

“I’d never thought of myself previously as going to open a business,” he said. “And as far as waiting to save up more money, I think if I were to think like that I’d be saving forever and I’d never just go for it.”

Bowden didn’t worry about not having any previous business experience, either.

“I felt confident with my ability with coffee, and I knew that if the product I was putting out and the craft and quality behind it were at the level I wanted it to be, I knew that everything else would fall into place.”

Mackenzie Geehan, 26, who opened Fogtown Barber and Shop with partner Chris Evans, said she wasn’t nervous about entering the business community.

“There was a need for a barbershop downtown, with family barbershops closing, and everyone will always get haircuts,” she said. “Even if the economy changes, people will still need their hair cut.”

Bowden, like many of the others, considered his lack of experience a plus.

“I had an idea of what it was going to be like, but not knowing a whole lot about it gave me that blind courage to just keep going.”

Geehan said it was her partner who was the nervous one when they decided to open the shop.

“He questioned everything, and I just didn’t think about it, I did it. I knew it would work,” she said. “I’ve never once thought of it failing or going under. I just think positive.”

Fogtown isn’t Geehan’s only work, though; she does hairstyling for film and television productions such as “Republic of Doyle,” and is currently working on the film adaptation of “Hold Fast” — giving her perspective on the pros and cons of both working for herself and working for others.

“I like working for myself more, but it’s kinda nice working with other people,” she said, adding that being part of a team helps inspire her creativity.

Jennifer Shears and husband Kerry Shears, both 28, are practically grizzled business veterans, with the recently opened NaturaL Boutique, which sells sealskin products in St. John’s — their third venture following the Gros Morne Wildlife Museum and Gift Shop and a taxidermy business in Rocky Harbour.

Jennifer says she doubts she would have become an entrepreneur were it not for Kerry pushing for it.

“He always had the idea that he wanted to make a living for himself and he didn’t necessarily want to rely on someone else to provide his paycheques,” she said. “His dad is an entrepreneur. He has a construction business, so that’s where he got that bit in his blood.”

Jennifer, in fact, does still keep a full-time government job with Parks Canada, operating their businesses in the evenings and weekends. Kerry works full-time at their businesses.

“I love what Parks Canada stands for, but if we get too much more on the go, I don’t know how manageable it will be,” she said.

Jennifer said they were both apprehensive of going into business, but her full-time job helped lessen her anxiety over the financial risk.

“It was great to know that I did have that regular income to depend on if anything did go wrong. But you never open a business hoping that you’ll have to close it or that it won’t go well,” she said. “But we also knew that we had the passion and the drive and the enthusiasm, and a good idea. That’s the big thing. We never once doubted that what we had in mind might fail.”

Neither of them have business training.

“The hard business schooling of real life, I guess,” she said, laughing. “You roll with the punches and you learn from your mistakes.”

Kim Sparkes, 25, owner of Whink, may have got the entrepreneurial spirit from her family, with her businessman father helping to show her the ropes.

“My father is my business adviser,” she said. “He helped me go through the steps (of opening a business.)”

Sparkes said she was nervous going into business for herself, knowing just what a commitment it would be and how much work it would entail.

“People say, ‘Oh, you own your own business, that’s so cool. It must be so easy,’” she said. “No, you work 24-7. Even when I’m sleeping I’m still working. But that’s what you get when you’re an entrepreneur, because your mind is always going.”

Steve Power, president of the St. John’s Board of Trade, attributes the wave of young business owners to a few factors, including the suggestion that Generation Y are “born entrepreneurs.”

“The research has shown that they’re very independent thinkers, they’re very plugged-in to what’s happening around them,” he said. “They’re well aware of what’s happening in the economy, in world news, in local news, in current trends.”

Younger businesspeople also tend not to distinguish between work and personal life, said Power.

“It all kind of melds into one,” he said. “It’s the nature of the generation.”

Local circumstances are also driving the trend, said Power.

“The economy is doing very well, but we still have a problem with youth unemployment,” he said. “So these kids are coming out of school with some pretty high debt loads. They’re looking to find their way, and they may be struggling to find that first job. So I think that’s getting them to think, ‘What can I do on my own? How can I create my perfect job?’”

Some say a person in their 20s is often better suited to open a business than someone who apprentices for a while at someone else’s business, or who waits a while, saving money to invest.

Bowden said he had nothing to lose: no children to support, for example, so he decided to just go for it.

He hasn’t regretted it, although he does acknowledge there is the occasional day when he wouldn’t mind having a regular job — one in which he could take the occasional sick day if he needed it.

“It’s always weighing on you, and you’ve always gotta be on, whether you feel like it or not,” he said. “There’s some days where you think it’d be nice to have a steady pay and just be on a regular eight-hour shift schedule as opposed to 12 or 13 (hours) some days.”

But he gets over it.

“I think about how I own it, and I’m working for myself, and this is my investment. You feel a lot better then.”

Twitter: TelegramDaniel

Organizations: Fogtown Barber and Shop, Parks Canada, Gros Morne Wildlife Museum Gift Shop Board of Trade

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