Ashley Drewes, Juda Leah Selkowitz, and Tyler Beatrice and Ian Flanigan own three new retail stores in the Village of Saugerties, each of which opened last November. But besides their synchronous timing, the four entrepreneurs have something else in common: they’re all 25 or under. While their relatively tender age has its advantages—such as being adept at using social media as a promotion tool—it also can present special challenges.
One difficulty is establishing credibility. “Some people are very skeptical with what we have to offer,” said Selkowitz, 23, owner of Juda Leah Atelier and Boutique and a fashion designer who returned to the mid-Hudson Valley after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology. “They have almost a fake enthusiasm for how young we are.”
Fortunately, the skeptics are in the minority, she added, far outnumbered by the people who are genuinely supportive—especially when they discover Selkowitz not only owns the business, but designs many of the clothes. “That you’re so young and doing all of this is amazing, they say. They’re really impressed by how driven we are.”
Tyler Beatrice, 22, an authorized Seagull guitar dealer who co-owns Root Note, said he’s also encountered doubtful customers. “You wonder if people are taking you seriously or not. Because we’re young, some people might think the service or quality might be of lesser value,” he said. “We have to do a little more to appease them.”
Beatrice added that “our store isn’t huge, and we aren’t rich.” And as a start-up, he hasn’t been able to stock every little part or accessory—a shortfall he and his partner, Ian Flanigan, 21, a trained luthier who does guitar repairs, try to make up for by doing a superb job. “We do the best job we can and are as accommodating as possible,” noted Flanigan. And ultimately, learning hard lessons and gaining experience now will give them an advantage: “In a way, we’re ahead of the game,” said Beatrice.
Dealing with suppliers when you’re 22 years old has been especially difficult, he added. “I wonder sometimes that because we’re young they think we’re not as experienced at negotiating. It’s kind of a biased market, and wholesalers try to take advantage of us.” Nonetheless, Beatrice added that in the end, the buyer still has the power. “We have a lot of say, and if they want us to spend $5,000 and we want to spend $1,000, we’ll still spend $1,000.”
Beatrice, who was a student at SUNY-New Paltz when he started the business—he’s taken a year’s leave of absence—acknowledged that sometimes it’s hard having so much responsibility. “I definitely feel tied down and limited in terms of freedom,” he said, noting that he spends 50 to 60 hours on the business. “Sometimes I’d like to take a break and go to California. I feel the pressure of staying open and serving the public. It’s sometimes a struggle.”
Learning the ropes
But in fact, few 20-somethings today have the luxury of kicking back and enjoying a freewheeling lifestyle, noted Drewes, age 25, proprietor of Sugartown Vintage Boutique, which specializes in plus sizes. “In this economy, the reality for recent college graduates is there aren’t a lot of jobs. It’s the status quo to be spending most of your time working as opposed to playing.”
Prior to opening her shop, Drewes said she worked multiple jobs (most recently, at Family of Woodstock, counseling homeless adolescents). She now spends 55 hours in her store each week and another ten buying and laundering vintage clothing and sitting at her laptop tending to her social media responsibilities. The thrill of being her own boss makes the long hours worthwhile, she said.
However, one difficult has been borrowing money, which she chalks up to lack of experience. Rather than apply for a business loan, she applied for a personal loan, which wasn’t easy. “I was declined for several loans, or wasn’t offered the best interest rate,” she said. “I also wasn’t aware of all the options, like a revolving loan. I might have been able to take advantage of this. It was trial and error.”
Drewes, who initially invested $20,000 in her store, said she did get assistance from a counselor at the Mid-Hudson Small Business Development Center, who helped her create a budget spread sheet and clarified the first steps she needed to take in establishing her own business.
In retrospect, she said that the timing of her opening late last fall was not optimum. “I was only a small part of the larger picture of what was going on in Saugerties,” she said, noting that Rock Star Rodeo and Juda Leah Atelier opened at the same time. In addition, Lucky Chocolates moved to the village from its location on Route 212, and a fire caused two other businesses to relocate within the village.
But it turned out there was a silver lining in having to meet the challenge of attracting customers amidst the shuffle in the down season: “Opening in the winter on Black Friday got me started in lining up events,” she said. “I had to find ways to bring people in and engage them.” Drewes has hosted two art exhibits in her store, which were a great success. She also holds Monday night poetry readings.
“Very early on I started to incorporate more of the local art community,” she said, noting that in general Saugerties doesn’t give itself enough credit as a community of creative people. “Artists are both my customers and largely my inspiration.”
As both a designer and boutique retailer showcasing other designers, Selkowitz concurred that the creative community in Saugerties gives the town an edge and was crucial to the success of her business. In fact, Selkowitz suggested the old model of finding fame and fortune in the big city no longer holds true, given the dearth of paid opportunities and high cost of living. Although she worked as an intern during her four years at FIT, she said that upon graduating, she and her classmates found that “nobody would hire us because we were too young.” Plus, many prospective employers didn’t want to pay a salary. After coming home, “I had the epiphany that I’d do my own thing.”
“It’s absolutely more realistic to [do] this upstate than in the city,” she said, noting that if she was still in New York, “I’d be sharing a studio apartment with a roommate and waitressing on the side.” And Selkowitz said that rather than feeling isolated, she’s discovered the city’s coming here. “Saugerties draws an urban crowd, people from Brooklyn and Manhattan who understands design and clothing. They find the fact that we’re from upstate very charming. We’re living up to our potential and it’s just a little less stressful.”
While Selkowitz said “it’s the easiest thing in the world to be creative” sometimes it’s exhausting also having to be the business brain as well—“keeping your creative energy up and being able to pay your bills and keep on top of tons of stuff.” (However, she noted that a lot of the business aspect “is just common sense.”)
Like Drewes, she said her clientele is not just her generation: she’s designed dresses commissioned by moms for their daughters’ proms and Sweet 16 parties as well as bridal and evening wear for older, more affluent customers. In fact, as a designer boutique, many of the clothes she sells are beyond the price range of most women her age. Yet “young people appreciate my designs. It’s nice to create a shopping experience that’s inspiring.”
Help from family
One advantage of being an entrepreneur in your early twenties is the greater likelihood of getting support from family. Selkowitz, whose parents are both artists, said a family member invested in her business. However, “I had to do a presentation as if I were going to the bank for a loan,” she said. “I drew up a business plan and got recommendations. I also got some advice from other family members about the business side of the industry.”
Beatrice also relied on help from a family member, getting a loan from his grandfather. Even so, he started with minimal funds—another disadvantage of being in your early twenties. “Being young obviously means you have limited capital to start up,” he said. “You don’t have the $50,000 everyone needs to get people to come into the store. I started with five guitars that I was selling on consignment. Now I have 20 to 25 and accessories and I’m getting people to bring stuff in consignment.”
He noted that he initially invested $1,200 when he started out selling guitars at Slash Root Café in New Paltz. While high-end guitar makers demand a substantial upfront investment from a new dealer, Seagull did not, creating an opportunity. “They brought guitars to me and asked if I could sell them on the spot. I didn’t have to pay for shipping, and they gave me a discount.” With that experience under his belt, and after earning $3,000 from a summer job at a camp, Beatrice was ready to go out on his own.
Partnering with Flanigan, a friend from high school who returned to Saugerties after training as a luthier in Colorado, was another plus. Flanigan does repairs, which is a perfect complement to Beatrice’s merchandise. “We share a space and help each other when needed,” said Beatrice. Plus, they get a break on the rent from their landlord, who is Flanigan’s father.
Because Flanigan works mornings in his father’s dry-cleaning business, Beatrice covers for him when someone comes in for a repair. “While Tyler has to get the new product, my part of the business is based on tools and time. Working with my father helps me save money and buy more tools,” Flanigan said.
Both men are musicians who play in the area, enabling them to meet other musicians and get out the word about their store. That’s a task that comes naturally; more difficult has been mastering all the red tape associated with owning a business. “Not being around for very long, I didn’t know all the rules and regulations regarding the state and federal government taxes,” said Beatrice. “I found out about the tax ID number when I tried to order from my suppliers and they said I needed a tax ID. I had to figure out what that is.” He added that keeping up with the new regulations is a constant job, which “involves a lot of research.”
Using social media
Being hooked into the youth and creative community is one of the pluses for each of these entrepreneurs. In addition, their ease with using internet technology, compared to many of their elders, enables them to take full advantage of the multiple marketing opportunities of new media .
Beatrice said he’s been experimenting with Facebook ads, which target a specific market. After putting up an ad on the pages of Facebook members based in Catskill/West Saugerties that costs him no more than $3 a day, depending on the number of clicks, he noticed someone from Catskill became a fan of his store’s Facebook page. And by typing in words related to a specific interest, such as guitar playing, he can gauge the market (in Saugerties, he’s discovered 240 people on Facebook play guitar, for example).
Drewes also has a Facebook page for her store and belongs to a number of aggregate web business sites, such as Bing, Yelp, Foursquare, and Etsy (similar to eBay, except the site specializes in vintage or handmade items). Selkowitz, who also is on Etsy, said her Facebook page is integral to keeping people up to date about new products and other breaking developments. Another business owner in Saugerties is helping her build a web site.
Despite the hard work and steep learning curve, all four entrepreneurs said they were glad they’d taken the plunge. “Anytime I start feeling bad because no one’s come into the store, I remind myself that I’m my own boss for sure,” said Beatrice.
“It’s a ton of fun,” added Selkowitz. “I wish more people, young and older, would just follow their dream instead of getting stuck and taking a job because they have to.” Noting her boyfriend is in the performing arts, she added that “it might suck sometimes, but we’ve created our own destinies.”