The New Entrepreneurs
Young Business Owners are Carving Their Own Paths
On any given Friday night you will find James Johnson at Gravel and Grind, the Downtown Frederick coffee-and-bike shop he co-owns with Tracy Hathaway. Thirty minutes before the 7 p.m. closing, a group of regulars walks in, a scene Johnson calls the favorite part of his job. “We are just hanging out, hanging around the coffee bar, trying out new drinks, talking about biking, talking about gear, planning a trip,” he says. During one of these regular Friday night visits, he “realized, ‘Hey. My job is to hang out at a bike shop and drink coffee and talk about bikes.’ It’s pretty awesome. It could be a heck of a lot worse.”
Johnson, 34, enjoyed bike riding throughout his childhood, receiving his first “real mountain bike” at age 15. He would work in bike shops through college and graduate school and dreamed of owning his own with Hathaway. “We really wanted to sell highly durable, practical, beautiful bicycles, and we also knew the bikes that we wanted to sell were not on everyone’s radar,” he says. “We needed another hook to get people in. A way to get people interested in these alternative bikes and that hook was the coffee. So we thought, OK, the way we are going to make our bike dream work is to make coffee part of the equation ‘cause coffee brings people together.”
But any business needs start-up money to get off the ground. Johnson took an entire 2015 approach to financing his dream by launching a successful GoFundMe campaign which earned enough cash to start the business in just two weeks. Working with the Frederick-based company Choco Sombra, Gravel and Grind’s high-grade coffee is bought directly from a farm in Peru. Since opening in early spring, business has been good with customers traveling from all over the region to drink coffee and check out bikes.
Some might believe you need decades of experience to open and run a successful business, yet many young professionals in Frederick County are turning that theory on its head, says Elizabeth Cromwell, president and CEO of the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce. “Chamber members span a wide array of businesses, not only in scope [and] services but also in demographic terms. When Chamber committees … work toward improving Frederick County’s business landscape, we benefit from having both younger and more-seasoned voices at the same table. … The success of today’s young business owners directly relates to the future of our community. These young business owners are growing into tomorrow’s community and business leaders.”
Johnson believes a benefit to being a young business owner is knowing where to look for what’s new, what’s hip and how to navigate social media, while someone with more experience may not, Johnson says. “I’ve been told before by people who, theoretically, are more knowledgable and older, that you should not have a Facebook page. It doesn’t do your business any good. You shouldn’t have an Instagram page. It doesn’t do your business any good, and that’s clearly not true. … We live off our social media accounts. That is why we are in business.”
Likewise, Johnson takes a nontraditional path in teaching his employees about the business. “If I just show them really quickly, I’ll make it look really easy, then they are still going to struggle and they won’t fully understand how to solve the problem, so I am always telling people to go look it up, go research it, go read about it, experiment, don’t be satisfied with your first outcome,” he says. “Honestly, I think that frustrates employees rather frequently because they just want me to show them, but I’d rather pay them to take longer to fully learn something than to just show it to them and immediately solve the problem. Their learning about it is going to solve the problem for me in the future. Then they won’t have to come and ask me again.”
“I didn’t realize you were going to be so young”
One struggle young entrepreneurs sometimes face is getting clients to get past their age, says Monica Kolbay, the 39-year-old president/CEO of Arachnid Works, a web design, internet marketing and graphics firm in Frederick. “It’s one thing to talk to people over the phone, to speak well and communicate your mission and get people jazzed about where you want to take their business from a marketing perspective, but I’ve noticed I walk into a room and I’m like ‘I’m Monica’ and they put the face with the voice and the name and they go ‘Oh’ and there is almost a little bit of a surprise in, ‘I didn’t realize you were going to be so young.’ That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just something I am aware of over the years as I walk into a room but it has not been a stumbling block for me or anything that has held me back. It’s just been a little unique to people.”
After graduating from Hood College with a bachelor’s degree in communications, Kolbay decided to start a side web design and marketing business while working full-time as a director of advertising for a large retailer. Over the years, Arachnid Works grew through word of mouth, taking on an increasing number of clients. In 2008, Kolbay left her full-time job to incorporate her Frederick-based company and put a staff together. Today, the full-service boutique advertising agency has a staff of eight, and while Kolbay is boss, she is quick to say her success is due to her team. “Everything functions because of them as a whole,” she says. “They allow me to do what I do in Frederick County on a community service level [and] on a civic level because they can run so many parts of the business effectively and competently.”
Kolbay encourages a freeing atmosphere in the office. “I’m not a micro manager,” she says. “I enjoy letting people take their creative freedom when it comes to the work that we do which is something that might be a little unique.”
Kolbay says a benefit to running her own business is getting to pick and choose work that she’s passionate about and represents her business mission. “It is not as easy to do that getting started,” she says. “You want to take everything you can and build the business as best you can with everybody and everything, but, at the same time, you still have a greater say in the sorts of work you will be doing and how you want to build the business running it yourself, versus working internally for an organization that has that sort of structure already in place.”
“Were you in diapers when you started?”
Tammy Feaster, 38, first began working at Spherion Staffing in 1994 as a part of an internship program at Linganore High School where students earn credit while working a job. After graduating, Feaster was offered a full-time position in the recruiting center. In 2009, the company’s owner planned to retire and Feaster was asked if she wanted to buy into the business. “The thought had never crossed my mind originally to own a business, but I had been doing this for” more than a decade, so I thought why not become a partner in the company and be my own boss?” Feaster manages four offices in Frederick, Hagerstown, Martinsburg, W.Va. and Chambersburg, Pa.
Like Kolbay, Feaster also sees an age gap reveal itself when meeting customers for the first time, so it’s important to gain their trust and show the level of expertise they are looking for in a staffing agency. “Even though I’ve been doing this for as long as I have, there is still a sense when I walk in to do business, ‘Gosh. How much experience does this person really have?’” But she is quickly able to prove them wrong. “I throw out the 21 years [of experience] part and they are like, ‘Were you in diapers when you started?’ I’m like, ‘No, I was 17.’”
One of the job’s perks is the sense of pride she feels by owning a business she has worked hard to contribute to over the years. Her favorite aspect of her job is receiving an email from an employer saying that a temporary worker Spherion placed is being offered a full-time position. “To me, that’s what we do,” she says. “We put people to work.”
Feaster says her managerial style is hardly old school. “What I mean by that [is] I understand what is going on out in the community,” she says. “Working an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. [job] is a great theory, but there are so many functions going on. There are so many things that people like flexible work schedules.”
She is also a big believer in living where you work. “I think it’s the future of the community to have young professionals plant roots to want to live and grow and establish in your own backyard. Young professionals that are coming in and opening up businesses or sustaining businesses or having the ability to come in with a succession plan and eventually take over someone’s business means that the work stays here. I think it can only flourish and make it a stronger community.”
“I can work whenever I want”
Mary Kate McKenna Battles fell in love with photography at a young age but didn’t see the hobby becoming a career. While studying abroad in Brazil, Zambia and Burma for her international relations bachelor’s degree at American University, Battles “wanted to tell the stories of the people I met there and photography” was the best way, she says.
When she returned to Washington, D.C., she took a job as a photographer’s assistant to make money and learn all she could, noting practices she did and did not like and then branching off on her own. After graduation, she worked as a contractor for a federal agency while doing photography on the side after she got off work (and often until midnight). In 2008, she and the other contractors at the facility were let go. “I just said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll try doing photo for awhile and then I will do it until I get another job,’ and that never happened.”
Today, Frederick’s Mary Kate McKenna Photography captures moments like weddings, celebrations, family portraits and more. “It is so special to be part of [a client’s] story and to tell their story,” says Battles, 32. “There is nothing better to me.” Her work has been featured in national magazines like The Knot, Bride & Groom and Brides.
She treasures the flexibility of her schedule. “I can work whenever I want,” she says. “If I want to work first thing in the morning, I can do that. If I want to work late at night, I can do that. If I want to have coffee or a long three-hour lunch in the middle of the day, I can do that. That’s a huge benefit for me.”
Besides photography, Battles also works as an editor for Sass Magazine, a quarterly publication dedicated to women’s lifestyle and professional interests. While working with co-workers, she will send out assignments with deadlines and allow employees to finish the work at their own pace. “I want flexibility, so I want it for my employees too,” she says.