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Women’s Business Center welcomes fledgling entrepreneurs

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Allyson Swartzentruber started selling her art at the Glasgow High School Craft Fair and at New Castle’s Art of the Green Arts and Crafts Show. Photo by Eric Crossan.


By Kathy Canavan
Special to Delaware Business Times

Allyson Swartzentruber went to the Women’s Business Center in Wilmington for advice on how to
sell her art, and she wound up with a customer.

When Sara Crawford-Jones, who runs the center, saw photos of Swartzentruber’s canvases, her eyes
lit up. “This is gorgeous. Is it for sale? This is why you have to get into business.”

When she saw the price on the canvas, Crawford-Jones sounded like an Antiques Roadshow appraiser telling a hopeful heirloom-clutcher some good news. She told Swartzentruber: “Because you’re new, you don’t want to be so high that you price yourself out of the market, but you don’t want to be so low that you’re giving it away and, believe me, you’re giving it away. Your work is beautiful.”

Swartzentruber is taking what she describes as baby steps into starting business. She is also in the midst of a divorce, searching for a day job and running a side gig selling antiques and collectibles on eBay.

“This is something I really enjoy doing, but it does also need to be worth my time. It can’t cost me money to do it. Pricing is rough,” she said. “I don’t want to price myself out of selling anything.

She recently went to the Small Business Administration-backed women’s center for advice on sales and pricing.

Like many artists, Swartzentruber hates sales: “It can be scary, yes, daunting, yes, when you go to a craft show and you have these veteran crafters who have everything down to a science. They have their vans
and racks, and I’m there in my Ford Focus.”

She was happy that she grossed $254 at her first art show and netted $129, even after the steep $125 entry fee. When a woman bought one of her canvases for $120, she told herself, “She bought it. I think I
can do this.”

Schwartzentruber sometimes worries that she loves making art but she’s still not certain what will work for her: “I don’t know if other generations got this hammered into them, but I always heard if you don’t go to college, if you did not start your 401K before you are 30, you are just screwed.”

At 30, she’s just “dipping her toe” into the art business. That’s typical of many millennials, according to a Deloitte study. The Recession hit 22- to 37-year-olds particularly hard. They entered the job market when unemployment was high and many accepted jobs rather than pursuing careers in order to acquire health insurance, pay down high student loan debt or follow a spouse who was pursuing a goal.

Crawford-Jones said dipping a toe into business isn’t as expensive as it was even 10 years ago. She directs new entrepreneurs to Vistaprint for business cards – $7 for 100. She said Facebook shops, Instagram and art websites like Big Cartel make it unnecessary for fledgling artists to spend money to hire web page designers. “Social media now offers so many options. You don’t need to spend a lot of money because the world has changed and we’re all on these phones now,” she said.

Schwartzentruber’s mother-in-law, whom she describes as her best friend and advisor, came up with an idea she hopes to pursue – getting her artworks into restaurants. When Crawford-Jones heard that, she was full of suggestions to take that from idea to reality. She said Art Loop Wilmington would be a perfect fit. Artists ask downtown venues to sponsor their art and then art lovers who want to familiarize themselves with local artists follow a self-guided tour venue-to-venue the first Friday of every month.

Once an entrepreneur registers at the bottom of Women’s Business Center website at https://firststateloan.org/womens-business-center/, a counselor will call to set up an appointment for free one-on-one counseling supported by the U.S. Small Business Administration and a long list of free classes such as “How to Start a Business,” “Being Legal in Business,” “Becoming a Brand With Plan” and “Getting Paid: Optimizing Your Price Point.”

Most of the counselors at the center have started their own businesses. Crawford-Jones started a fashion business, so she knows how creatives think. She’s seen the look in their eyes when she mentions drafting a business plan – even one that’s one page.

“The hardest thing for the creatives is to be realistic in your goals,” Crawford-Jones said. ” We – because I’m one of them – just get so excited about what we’re doing that we just want to do that, but you have to be realistic. I don’t believe in if-you-build-it-they-will-come. That’s not true. You can’t get discouraged though. You have to have some tough skin. You have to work your business plan so that you can reach your goal and monetize your talent.”

The counselors can help along the way. If entrepreneurs share Swartzentruber’s aversion to sales, coaches will help them find comfortable ways to pitch their work. If they need to keep track of sales, there’s a class in Quickbooks.

If they hope to meet people who will promote their art, the center hosts quarterly networking events so they can meet other entrepreneurs, politicians, businesspeople and community leaders. “We’re like a family, so my feeling is not only to help start businesses but also to connect them so they continue to grow,” Crawford-Jones said.

John Fleming, Delaware district director for the Small Business Administration, said his advice to artists and others who are just starting out is keep your day job, start small, and, if you need capital, connect with a partner to help with costs so you don’t fall into debt at the outset. “You may find someone who will do 100 percent financing, but the rates they charge are just astronomical. We’ve had entrepreneurs start businesses on their credit cards and get in trouble that way.

He recommended entrepreneurs do what Swartzentruber is doing. “Start out small and go from there,” he said.

Fleming said the growing economy is supporting more startups in Delaware. Out of the 190 loans the SBA backed in Delaware this year, 140 went to startups.

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