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Jumping head-first into starting a business

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Starting a business can be a scary venture.

Is my product good enough? Do I know enough about running a business? Do I have enough money to get started? Those are some of the questions that run through the mind anyone who is kicking around the idea of starting a new business.

In Southern Illinois, there are many people, both young and old, who took the leap of faith into the business world. Some received help from the Small Business Development Center at Southern Illinois University and others developed their ideas through the Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities programs. And others just dived head-first into the marketplace on their own. Sink or swim.

No matter how they did it, each fledgling entrepreneur had to ask those same questions.    

Rule of Pie

Rick and Miranda Stapel had no intentions of becoming business owners.

Running a pie shop on Walnut Street in downtown Murphysboro was never a dream for the couple. But they had a feeling they had a hot product to sell, and those feelings were confirmed when customers started showing up every Thursday. The line stretched out the door. 

Now, the store is open three days a week. The Stapels are talking about a potential expansion to a brunch menu and occupying space next to their current location.

This all started at the Cannon Park Community Market in Carterville in the summer of 2013. Miranda was convinced to bake a few pies each week — about 10 to 15 — and she thought there was no way she would sell that many.

Rick said the pies were selling out each week, and the same people were coming back to their stand the following week.

“The thing that made me more encouraged about it was that we would have sort of a following at the farmer’s market,” Rick said. “If we saw you once, we usually saw you a second time.”

After seeing success at the market, Rick and Miranda knew they had a good product and decided they could cater weddings or parties on a part-time basis. The couple started a Facebook page with minimal effort, Rick says. People started seeking out the couple and asking what kind of pies they could make and if they were going to continue to be at the market.

When they noticed the popularity of the product, Miranda said she needed a facility where she could bake outside of their house. In November 2013, they purchased the building at 1308 Walnut St. for that purpose. But after realizing that a few tables could be set up for people who wanted to enjoy a piece of pie and coffee, they changed the recipe of their business plan.

“I think it was the excitement of the town itself to have a pie shop where people could come in and have coffee and pie,” Miranda said. “We thought that would be cool, but we didn’t know if Murphy(boro) would be into something like that.”

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Rule of Pie in Murphysboro.

As for operational expenses, Rick didn’t think it would cost too much, but they thought Miranda could work the front and back because there wouldn’t be very many customers walking in.

When the business opened on Thursday, July 3, 2014, the business plan changed dramatically.

“When we opened that Thursday, there was a line out of the door and a transaction every four minutes,” Rick said.

Miranda said those first couple of months she worked about 100 hours a week, which was a big transition for a stay-at-home mom with two young children. She said that in the beginning it was only she and her mother doing the cooking with Rick helping to run the front of the store.

Now, there is a staff of about eight people, but the business still isn’t at a spot where she can’t be there while it is open.

The business expanded to Friday after the couple realized it could handle the demand of customers and hire more of a staff, Miranda said. She said the expansion had to wait a bit because she had to make sure she had the right employees.

“It was a scary time as a new business owner saying, 'I can’t just grab 100 employees, throw them in my kitchen, and open up a ton more hours,' ” she said. “I had to make sure everything that went out of this store was done exactly the way it was supposed to be made.”

Rick said he thought the problem with running the business would be demand, not supply.

“We thought we could drive up demand by being exclusive and being open one day a week,” he said. “It actually worked. Thursday became a pie day.”

Now, the business has recently expanded to being open on Wednesday. He doesn’t expect to go to four days, but the Stapels also have an eye to the future. They recently purchased the space next door to the pie shop, but they aren’t sure what they are going to with it, yet.

For now, Miranda said it being used as storage. Because the storefront was never in the plans for the business, they bought the current space thinking they would have enough room.

However, the couple is toying with the idea of a truncated brunch menu and a liquor license for the current and new space. They both said there is no time table for further expansion.

Goeckner Home Maintenance

Aaron Goeckner knew he could make money with lawn maintenance, so by the time he had enrolled in the CEO program, he already had the business idea.

The CEO program offers students hands-on business experience and a chance to build their own start-up over the course of a year. Now at the age of 19, Goeckner is the CEO of Goeckner Home Maintenance and offers professional landscaping. Not bad for a teenager, who is also getting his degree in finance at Southern Illinois University.

While he is pursuing a career in the financial field, he likes what he's doing. And he's good at it.

He said it all started when a professor at North Carolina State hired Goeckner to maintain his property because the professor frequently traveled and could not do it himself. That's when the light bulb went on for the teen. 

“When CEO came and I had to start a business, nothing made more sense than to do that and get paid by multiple people, not just one,” Goeckner said.

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Aaron Goeckner of Goeckner Home Maintenance.

He targeted customers who had discretionary funds who didn’t want to mow the grass or pull weeds themselves. But after the first summer on his own, his business plan changed. One of his customers asked him to install a patio with a retaining wall, and he quickly realized that landscaping projects paid much more than what he was already doing. 

“It was a lot better market and a lot more money to be made,” he said.

Landscaping is a skilled trade, he said, and isn’t something that anybody can just do.

“If you want a professional landscaping job, you don’t do it yourself,” Goeckner said.

Now that he is enrolled at SIU, Goeckner is moving part of the business down to the southern part of the state. He started working for another landscaping company, but once the business owner couldn’t fulfill the contracts, he essentially hired Goeckner’s company as a subcontractor to finish those commitments.

Goeckner is building a customer base in Southern Illinois, but he’s not in a hurry to have a full roster of clients.

“I am busy enough for what I want to be,” he said. “I don’t want to work 30 to 40 hours while trying to be a full-time student.”

The experience is the big thing right now, he said.

“How many 19-year-olds can say they have employed six part-time employees?” he asked.

Odds and Ends 

Harley Jones has been a businessman most of his life, and he's had some successes and some failures. Now he has latched onto an idea that might be another success story. Plus, it's trendy, and he didn’t even know it was. 

Jones sells and sometimes builds what is known as tiny houses.

He keeps his buildings outside his other business, Odds and Ends, an antique store at 121 W. Main St in Du Quoin.  The tiny houses are 28 feet wide and 14 feet long, he said. There is one that is completely finished with a bathroom, cabinets and a working sink. The finished houses are about 392 square feet with a price tag of about $22,900. 

Jones typically sells for Cardinal Portable Buildings in Stonefort. But he has also built two tiny homes independently.  Most of the time Jones buys a new unfinished shell of a home and sells the structure that way.

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Harley Jones, owner of Odds and Ends in Du Quoin, has sold five tiny houses.

Jones had the idea to build a smaller house for an older person to live in about four years ago. He built his first one, unaware he was tapping into a national movement. He said he was showing the house several times a day. 

“People were crazy about them,” he said. “The way that it is built, you could put it down anywhere. It could be a house, storage space or even a man-cave.”

Jones said he has sold five buildings so far, with one being completely finished.

In April, the antique shop will have its four-year anniversary, and Jones says that without selling the buildings, including the sheds he sells for Cardinal, the shop wouldn’t be there.

He said he has sold 54 structures.

Jones, 73, and wife, Phyllis, started the business because he “couldn’t sit around anymore,” he said.

He was in the mobile home industry for a long time in Mount Vernon, and Phyllis had dreams of running an antique store.

“It is just the idea that when you get to my age, nobody wants to hire you,” Jones said. “They are afraid of your health and so I figured I’ll just work for myself.”

When asked if he could give advice to any younger business owners starting out, he smiled and said “The No. 1 thing is they have to like what they do. Because they are going to have their share of problems.”

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dustin.duncan@thesouthern.com

618-351-5823

on twitter: @zd2000

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