Small But Mighty: Local Businesses Make Big Impact

Midlands small businesses at all life stages are making mighty marks on their respective industries and communities. Via U.S. Small Business Administration data, each year 1.5 million jobs are created by 32.5 million small businesses. Small businesses can go on to become fixtures that are immediately recognized in their respective markets and industries – and much farther afield.

Closer to home, take Lawlor’s, the custom sportswear business whose roots can be traced back more than three decades. The family’s retail roots go back much further – to the 1890s when current owner Pat Lawlor’s great-grandfather, Irish immigrant Nicholas Lawlor, set up a bicycle shop in Lincoln. 

Lawlor’s Custom Sportswear is one of the oldest family-owned sporting goods businesses in the U.S., established in 1896. 

“We quickly and reliably can produce extremely high volumes of custom apparel for any organization that needs customized apparel. We don’t miss deadlines. We stand by our product,” Lawlor said. 

Additionally, when asked to define what makes the company tick, Lawlor stated that they are a supplier of fan gear locally – for Creighton University and University of Nebraska at Omaha athletics – selling merchandise in-store, online, and notably at the games. 

The more things may change, the more they stay the same; as Lawlor put it, the family has remained in the sports business in some way throughout the company’s 127 years. Lawlor’s sister, Ann, has worked in the business since 1989 handling payables and taxes. Three other family members, niece Jamie Lawlor Carlson, sister-in-law Shari Lawlor, and partner Darcey Christian, serve as embroidery operations manager, work in embroidery, and are tasked as retail general manager, respectively.

Pat Lawlor, owner, Lawlor’s Custom Sportswear (Photo by Debra S. Kaplan)
Pat Lawlor, owner, Lawlor’s Custom Sportswear (Photo by Debra S. Kaplan)

“Our greatest strength is our family’s resilience,” he said. “We are not the flashiest. But we do understand satisfying customers is our No. 1 job and have committed ourselves to that for more than a century.”

His goal is for Lawlor’s to get “1% better every day” in all parts of the business.

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“So, we can serve our customers better,” Lawlor explained. 

Additionally, Lawlor spotlighted diverse investments in another automated T-shirt press, improvements to its website, and upgrades to its headquarters at 84th and J streets.

“A family business is, first and foremost, a family business,” he stated, when asked for “words of wisdom.” “Everyone’s livelihood is dependent on the business generating a profit. Family members need to lead by example and never ask someone to do a job they would not be willing to do themselves.”

Cultivating a Legacy

Medical Maize, LLC/Maize Consulting is a bio-tech startup and business development consulting agency, according to founder and CEO Amy J. Thompson. 

“I founded this company to help solve our nation’s health care supply chain challenges, by creating sustainable and more environmentally safe solutions to medical sterilization [and] by leveraging Nebraska-grown agricultural products,” Thompson said. 

Since starting late last year, Maize Solutions carved out a strategic partnership. 

“Recently, our company’s concept was selected by three chemical engineering students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for their senior capstone project,” she said. “The objective of the project is to design, simulate, optimize and perform a feasibility analysis for Medical Maize’s unique, open-ended chemical engineering process design problem.”

Thompson said this research will help to validate and support the company’s path forward, and has been an opportunity for students to gain experience and apply their knowledge to an emerging company.

Over the next 12 months, Thompson hopes the completion of the feasibility study will further inform plans toward commercialization, accruing local and national partnerships and investors. 

She offered advice to entrepreneurs looking to enter the agriculture technology and medical technology industries. 

“Give yourself grace. You’re not going to hit a home run the first time at bat, and that’s OK,” Thompson said. “Take the time to listen to the people who have had the success you want, learn from your mistakes, and let go of what doesn’t serve you.”

Shaking Up Senior Care

When asked to describe the heart of Superb, founder and CEO Molly O’Neil referred to its “turning the applecart upside down.”

“Superb came to fruition after I had experienced unsustainable pricing for ancillary nursing staff in the senior care space,” O’Neil stated. “It became my mission to ensure that technology was created to advocate for senior care facilities as well as health care workers.”

Superb, she said, allows health care workers to have the same “gig economy freedom” as an Uber driver. 

Sarah Wells-Britt is the founder and owner of Sarah’s Southern Comfort Foods. (Photo by Debra S. Kaplan)
Sarah Wells-Britt is the founder and owner of
Sarah’s Southern Comfort Foods. (Photo by Debra S. Kaplan)

“We believe in providing options and transparency for all parties involved, all while utilizing technology,” she said. “It is important for us to be innovative with the technology and still make sure we are prioritizing customer service for the health care workers.”

While a startup, Superb has managed to “hit the 2% club,” with O’Neil referencing a Forbes article that stated “only 2% of female founders will ever break $1 million in revenue.” This milestone occurred within the first 15 months of its product going into the hands of its first customer, which she credits to its partnership with Hillcrest Health Services.

Together, O’Neil said they have significantly reduced agency costs and are “shaking up” an industry ripe for innovation. In all, its month-over-month growth has averaged 30%.

“We are anxious to bring more clients onto the Superb platform and see how we can customize our technology to fit all senior care facilities,” she said. 

Over the next year, Superb is poised to triple its business and is taking on new customers, courtesy of a recently-launched version 2.0 of its product and with a significant increase in hires.

Fueling Entrepreneurial Success

A grassroots nonprofit focused on local foods/food security, training, jobs and entrepreneurship in the food space, No More Empty Pots is defined by the care and how the team “shows up,” according to co-founder and CEO Nancy Williams.

“NMEP knows that we cannot do all that is asked of us, but we do all that we can in collaboration with our partners,” she stated. “So, that each person we encounter is served equitably and with the intention of helping them articulate and reach their own goals.”

Threads bind those entrepreneurs who have achieved considerable success within NMEP’s operational model. They, too, Williams said, “show up.” They are also not afraid to be vulnerable and open, to take advice, work together, and put in the work.

No More Empty Pots currently operates from the No More Empty Pots Food Hub in Florence. (Photo by Debra S. Kaplan)
No More Empty Pots currently operates from the
No More Empty Pots Food Hub in Florence. (Photo by Debra S. Kaplan)

“These behaviors and actions also attract attention and more support from others,” she said. 

When asked about specific “success stories,” Communications and Engagement Manager Amy Zeller pointed to Sarah’s Southern Comfort Foods. 

Zeller said founder Sarah Wells-Britt started in 2019 by renting out commercial kitchen space. Since then, Wells-Britt has taken advantage of networking and coaching opportunities through NMEP, growing her business to include catering, pop-up events, and meal pick-up in Lincoln and Omaha.

“No More Empty Pots is my sanctuary,” Wells-Britt said. “I have seen my dreams come to live in that place. I go to the kitchen there to create and to pray. The kitchen and people there have been the place I come to safely operate and prepare food.”

To date, NMEP also represents Wells-Britt’s largest customer, having carved out a unique six-month partnership to prepare hundreds of plant-based meals each week in 2022 as part of its Community Harvest program. 

“The partnership with No More Empty Pots gave Sarah a learning opportunity and steady stream of income to help launch the next phase of her business to sustain its growth,” Zeller added.

Earnings will reportedly go to purchase a new grill, with plans in the works for a food truck and in the long term, a brick-and-mortar space.

Williams said NMEP plans to activate Seventy Five North’s 17,500-square-foot greenhouse in the Highlander Accelerator by fall 2023 to accommodate the year-round production of fresh produce and botanicals. The facility will feature a commercial kitchen, research lab, classroom space, and a “micro-market.” Its rebranded The Entrepreneur Journey program is also actively seeking entrepreneurs in both food and non-food industries. 

Pivoting to Move Forward

Owner of Innovative RX, Pharmacist Rachel Daly was named SBA Nebraska’s Small Business Person of the Year. 

“In a small business, you tend to put your head down and just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” she said. “So, receiving a recognition of this sort was very unexpected and humbling.”

Innovative RX Compounding Pharmacy Team. (Courtesy of Innovative RX)
Innovative RX Compounding Pharmacy Team. (Courtesy of Innovative RX)

Internally, Daly has chalked the compounding pharmacy’s successes up to multiple opportunities to collaborate with new providers and to help new patients.

“Whether it be feeling overwhelmed with which multivitamin is best for them, or struggling with a family member who is no longer able to get a medication they need from the commercial market, we’ve been able to remain busy helping to find the answers these people are looking for,” she said. 

Daly, too, has remained flexible and open to pivoting. For instance, the business was less than six months old when the pandemic hit. Without the medication refills to rely on, Daly began making her own hand sanitizer. With no employees at the time, Daly’s friend temporarily pitched in while she made batch after batch of sanitizer in the lab. 

“At every point of growth, there has been another person to help take over some responsibilities that I could no longer do myself,” Daly noted. “Not only have those people helped with the actual workload, but they have also brought along with them some great ideas to incorporate into the business.”

These ideas, she said, ranged from ways to boost provider/patient relationships to new in-lab ideas to help with medication issues.

Continuous Improvement 

Appsky co-owners Taylor Korensky, Jade Jensen and Spencer Robinson represented the 2022 SBA Nebraska Small Business Persons of the Year, and Jensen recently spoke to the health of the custom software development company.

“Two of our clients were able to launch their apps to their initial users and start to get traction in the market, which is always a great milestone to be part of,” said COO Jensen, of notable first-quarter successes.

Jensen herself was named a 2022 Midlands Business Journal 40 Under 40 winner, and Appsky rounded the quarter with one of its best performances to date. She attributes these successes to the ability for their talented team members to work together to deliver projects in an “engaging way.” 

Appsky team. (Courtesy of Appsky)
Appsky team. (Courtesy of Appsky)

“We have a great portfolio of clients that have strong visions and passion for their projects and work collaboratively with the team to bring that vision to life,” she added. “Finally, Appsky strives to continuously improve its processes through direct feedback from our employees, clients, and community partners.”

Looking to the future, Appsky is slated to refine and expand its services into areas such as product consulting and discovery offerings. 

“Our goal is that this leads to working with more startups in Nebraska through the Department of Economic Development prototype grant that we have specialized in over the past few years,” Jensen said. “The last major development is that Appsky is now able to provide full-time staff augmentation placement and management services for startups or existing development teams looking to expand their resources without having to hire directly.”

Lean into Your ‘Village’

Last summer, Entry Envy was awarded the Subscription Trade Association (SUBTA) Best New Subscription in the country. This summer, the team led by Jennifer Colwell and specializing in home décor subscription boxes is being recognized as a finalist in the SubSummit Pitch Competition. Colwell is also throwing her hat into the ring for the ABC TV show Shark Tank and, closer to home, the team is a finalist for the NMotion Growth Accelerator, a Gener9tor program. 

“Success in business and life comes down, time and time again, to relationships,” she said. “The startup ecosystem in Nebraska is incredible and once you’re in, you’re in, but it’s somewhat hard to learn about when you don’t even know where to start. 

“I get many questions from my network about how I built Entry Envy as quickly as I have. The answer is hard work and continuously expanding my network. “If the saying is true, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ I believe it takes a ‘city to raise a founder.’ Launching a grassroots business is not for the faint of heart and I am so grateful for all our resources in Nebraska.”

Jennifer Colwell, founder and CEO, Entry Envy (Courtesy of Entry Envy)
Jennifer Colwell, founder and CEO, Entry Envy (Courtesy of Entry Envy)

Resources that she suggests include the following: Invest Nebraska, Scale Omaha, NMotion, Mug News, UNO Maverick Venture Fund, Greater Omaha Chamber, Nebraska Business Development Center, Nebraska Tech Collaborative, Nebraska Enterprise Fund, One Million Cups, Omaha Startup Job Mixer, SourceLink Nebraska, Nebraska Angels, and GROW Nebraska.

Entry Envy subscription box. (Courtesy of Entry Envy)
Entry Envy subscription box. (Courtesy of Entry Envy)