Some got their start on $10,000 or less—and within the confines of their parents’ basement—but these now successful business owners prove a little money can go a long way.
Shortly after quitting his job as an Apple store employee and embarking on his dream of starting his own business, Jonathan Grzybowski had what can best be described as a “What have I done?” moment.
It’s the feeling that visits upon many an entrepreneur after they’ve given up the relative comforts of a steady paycheck and benefits for the safety net-less existence of a new small business owner.
“I had told myself I had three months to survive,” says the 25-year-old Grzybowski, who began running a marketing company out of his parents’ Cherry Hill garage more than a year ago. “I had enough money in my bank account to go completely broke in three months. … My back was completely against the wall, so I just had to move forward.”
Salvatore and Nancy Bellia had a little more cash in hand when they started their printing business—thanks to a $10,000 loan from their mother—but the risks were huge, especially with several children, all of them still living at home, to care for. Those first few years were tight, remembers Tom Bellia, their son, who joined the business in its second year and was followed shortly thereafter by many of his siblings. They skipped Christmas the first two years.
“It all went to the business, and we understood that,” says Bellia, president of Bellia Print & Design in Woodbury, now a third-generation business and one of South Jersey’s top names in printing. “There were times where you didn’t pay yourself. We knew what we were doing, what we were doing it for.”
‘It’s about my legacy’
Hard as it may be to believe, Grzybowski already had prior experience as a business owner when he started the marketing company. He’d run his own lawn mowing operation when he was just 14—his first employees were his best friend and brother—and kept it going for three years.
The business was doing well, making good money, he says. “But society told me you had to get a job. I thought I could be my own boss forever. It turned into, ‘What’s going to look good on your résumé?’”
So while he earned a business management degree from Rutgers – Camden, Grzybowski got a job with Apple, working out of the Cherry Hill and Marlton stores. Part of the job brought him into contact with small businesses, which may be part of the reason why that itch to be his own boss never left him.
He worked at Apple for five years, becoming increasingly unhappy, worn down by the constant stress of “the daily grind” to the point where it ruined his relationship with his girlfriend.
Grzybowski thought about quitting constantly the last several months he was at the company, until one day, he did. And then it was sink or swim.
But, he says, “My life had kind of prepared me for it … I knew it was going to turn out OK.”
Like Grzybowski, First Impressions Advertising President Nancy Sipera was motivated to start her own business by a miserable experience working for someone else’s—specifically, her father’s.
Sipera says her dad brought her on to help manage a restaurant he’d become a partner in and she “hated it. There was nothing about it I liked.” But she was able to do a little bit of marketing work for the eatery (pro bono), which caught the eye of a couple of her father’s regulars.
Later on, she worked for a printing business, which she was fired from for spending too much time talking to the customers.
“Basically they just wanted you to get the information and go,” says Sipera. “But everybody’s got a story. That motivated me to think, ‘I’d rather do something on my own.’ … You do it because you want the freedom to make your own decisions and run the company in the way you want to run it.”
So armed with little more than a laptop—“That was my big investment”—a membership in the Cherry Hill Chamber of Commerce and a plucky spirit, she embarked on a path that today, nearly 20 years later, has led her to have one of the most successful local agencies in the region.
Grzybowski is just beginning to build his legacy, but he made it past the three-month mark. Then six months. Along the way, Grzybowski joined up with Nick Groh and Khai Tran, young entrepreneurs who’d started a Web design company—whose stories were eerily similar to Grzybowski’s—and were initially a potential client.
Instead, the three twentysomethings joined forces to form online marketing company Dino Enterprises.
Today, all three are out of their parents’ houses and operating out of an office in Cherry Hill, where they serve more than 100 clients, including big names like Bancroft and Rowan University.
Grzybowski credits his success to “a ton of hustle.” He spent all his petty cash on the gas he needed to get to client meetings and attendance fees at networking events.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” he says, talking about how he wants to land a Fortune 500 company and establish Dino as one of the top marketing firms in the area. “I never want to be comfortable, because once you become comfortable, your work ethic starts to decline … I don’t care about money. To me, it’s about my legacy.”
Worth the struggle
Red, White & Brew owner Stacey Blacker knows all too well the early struggles that come with running your own business. She and her late husband borrowed every penny they needed just to get their Mount Holly-based boutique liquor shop started. It was made extra difficult by the fact that they needed even more seed money than a typical startup because you can’t finance a liquor license—you have to pay cash up front.
Even after 12 years, during which she’s cultivated a brand with a loyal customer base, Blacker says the job can still be trying at times.
“Absolutely,” she says. “I have a lot of friends who are small business owners, and it’s always a struggle.”
But it’s worth it for the one-on-ones with customers, the personal interactions that were the highlight of her job when she worked at other liquor stores—and the inspiration for opening her own.
“I always say the majority of my customers don’t come past the front counter because I find something for them,” Blacker says. “It’s personal attention. Even though it’s convenient to pick up a couple bottles of wine at the supermarket … when you want something of quality, I don’t think you’re going to go to a big-box store.”
It’s a cliché at this point, but every single one of these businesses has succeeded, at least in part, because of the personal attention Blacker mentions.
It’s like Sipera said: Everybody’s got a story.
“Caring about people,” Grzybowski responds when asked for his secret to success (if there is such a thing). “It sounds very naive, but caring about people is what I pay tribute to.”
Bellia’s simple advice for small business owners sounds like something his father probably would have said 40 years ago: “Just stick with it.”
“If you have a good idea and you’re passionate about it … and you believe in what you’re doing, then go for it,” says Bellia. “When (my father) decided to go into business, he went into it body and soul. It wasn’t just a commitment for himself. It was a commitment for our family.”
Sipera offers one last piece of advice for aspiring business owners: While starting a business no doubt requires a great deal of planning and organization, there can be such a thing as over-planning.
“Sometimes it’s better to go into it and not know all the things you need to know, because otherwise you wouldn’t do it,” she says. “It’s petrifying.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 4, Issue 6 (June, 2014).
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