Worth the Challenge: Local Business Owners Share Their Journeys

If you look around anywhere in Nebraska, you will undoubtedly find many unique small businesses that are run by passionate, creative entrepreneurs. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, there are over 180,000 small businesses in Nebraska. Bringing jobs and innovation, they are the backbone of the state.

Making Space

Hayes & Associates has played an important role in the financial lives of Midwesterners for nearly 40 years. Founded in 1983, the business has weathered many different economic ups and downs, providing audit, tax, accounting, and management consulting solutions for more than 1,500 nonprofit, government, business, and individual clients in its two offices in Nebraska and Iowa.

Frank Hayes, president and founder of the company, began his business after finding that his opportunities for growth within established firms was limited.

“I felt like I could fill a void in the CPA profession,” he explained. “When starting my business there were no other firms in Omaha, Nebraska owned by an African American. There were very few people of color practicing in the profession in Omaha.

“By starting Hayes & Associates, I felt that I could provide anyone with an opportunity for growth, regardless of their background. After over 38 years of doing business, I feel like my confidence was justified.”

While his company has remained steady in growth throughout the years and has consistently built a solid reputation for personalized service, Hayes said that finding and retaining talent is one of the hardest parts of being a business owner right now.
“It is a tight marketplace,” he said. “We have determined that we must be flexible in our approach to securing talent, understanding differing expectations on the part of the potential employees … what we have found is that communication is key to overcoming most challenges, so we have tried to do that.”

Simplifying the Process

Colin Nabity is CEO and co-founder of Breeze, an insuretech company that aims to simplify how disability and critical illness insurance policies are bought and sold. He noted that after working in the disability insurance industry for a long time, he saw how confusing the application process was, and he wanted to streamline the process.
“There isn’t another online insurance broker out there that has simplified the application process for these products like we have,” he said. “Consumers can come to Breeze and apply for disability or critical illness insurance in just 10 minutes, entirely online. Before us, this was not possible.”
Breeze recently received $10 million in first round funding, the largest of its kind for a Nebraska-based software startup.

The popular Omaha Mix from Still Poppin.

Nabity said there is a lot on the horizon for Breeze, and they are already seeing rapid growth, largely in part because of the abundance of insurance talent in the state.
“We’re going to continue to look to hire the best talent right here in Nebraska because there’s no reason it should be leaving the state for either coast,” he said.

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Local Roots

For Dr. Orlanda Whitfield, owner of Still Poppin Gourmet Popcorn, she always knew she would start a business in North Omaha. She grew up watching multiple businesswomen in her neighborhood and knew that she could do the same. Her company, which specializes in small batch popcorn that is based off her beloved grandmother’s caramel popcorn recipe, has become popular in and around the state.

Whitfield said that while her company has remained a success, it was and continues to be affected by the fallout of the pandemic.

“Like many other large and small businesses, we were impacted by the pandemic,” she said. “We pivoted and pushed our online sales. Along with the rest of the world, staffing has been a continuous issue. We are also impacted by ongoing price increases for the products that we use. We have not raised our prices as a result, and we hope things improve so that we don’t have to.”

Being Authentic

Megan Hunt began Five Nine in Omaha during the pandemic, right on her kitchen table. Since then, the specialty shop that sells practical art, stationery, and home goods has expanded to a storefront in Benson.

The company shares space with local designers and creators and hosts regular pop-ups that share the work of other independent artists and business owners. For Hunt, who is raising a son interested in creative entrepreneurship, opening this business was a way for her to merge her love of retail and entrepreneurship with her son’s curiosity about design and business.

The Breeze team (Courtesy of Breeze)

“With Five Nine, I’m keeping things light,” Hunt shared. “It’s a passion project. I’m solving the problem of me wanting to do creative work and have a physical space to build community in Omaha. I don’t want to bother with investors or equity or special loans … word of mouth is all I want to deal with.

“I spent so many years hustling, and now I just want to run a cute shop for the joy and fun of it. I think the challenges I had in the past with hustling in the startup world is what led me here today. I am just to a point where I am ready to be myself as a creative entrepreneur instead of doing something performative to fit in as a business owner.”

5 Tips for Success

1. Do Research
For small business owners – especially those new to the scene – doing lots of research and arming yourself with information is one of the best ways to understand the lifestyle of the average business owner. In addition, surrounding yourself with mentors and other resources that serve as your support system will help give you the tools needed to weather whatever ups and downs come your way.

“Make sure you know the business you are interested in starting,” said Allan Hale, SCORE marketing chair. “Find someone who has a similar business or get a job in a place that will give you a taste of what you’re getting into.

“Nothing is better than experience and observation. You need to love the business since you will be spending a lot of time there. Make sure you build in profit and pay yourself. A business is not a hobby – it’s a way to make a living for you and your family.”

2. Be Flexible
Small business owners – experienced or not – need to be ready to roll with the punches. As we have seen in the last two years, we simply cannot know what will take place, but we can expect that the market will shift over time, that crises will happen, and that despite all of that – joy can be found in the midst.

Grit, grace, and adaptability should always be at the core of your business operations. Grit for the hard work that you’ll have to put into your company, grace for yourself as you learn the ropes, and adaptability to change your approach if needed.

3. Find Support
Catherine Lang, state director of the Nebraska Business Development Center, said the organization has a vibrant ecosystem of services and resources that can help support business owners every step of the way. She also recommends taking the time to learn from other business owners or entrepreneurs.

“Starting your own business is a life changing endeavor,” she explained. “It takes time, talent, passion, and resources. Being connected through networking opportunities with other entrepreneurs can assist in preparing you for the adventures and challenges ahead.”

SCORE, an organization that offers one-to-one mentoring, small business workshops, help with business planning and identifying areas of weakness, and access to subject matter experts, has helped businesses of all kinds get off the ground in Nebraska.

In addition, Hale said having someone that you can bounce ideas off of, while helping take those thoughts and put them into action is an important part of the planning process.

“Moving someone from the idea stage to the implementation stage is the first step for any aspiring businessperson,” Hale said. “Many struggle with business plans because the information available is not very user friendly. A good mentor will walk them through the business planning process. We are living in different times coming off the pandemic and dealing with inflationary pressures. The planning needs to keep those things in mind.”

4. Decipher Finances
Understanding the financial component of your business and identifying the customer base that you are trying to reach is also critical.

“All businesses rely on customers that come to your business to solve a problem,” Lang said. “A business owner needs to be crystal clear about their customers, know who they are, and how to reach them. Equally important is understanding the financial structure of your business. A deep knowledge of your business’s financial situation is vital to a successful business.”

Hale said that having a firm grasp on the financials is one of the best ways you can minimize stress and set yourself up for success.

“Cash flow is one of the most important issues when dealing with the uncertainties of the marketplace,” he said. “This is like having an emergency fund for your personal needs. You need to be prepared with cash or a line of credit to cover those unexpected issues. Make sure you have a reasonable budget to work from. Don’t make decisions based on emotions. Use data to help guide you to a reasonable conclusion.”

5. Keep Going
When it comes to taking the leap into small business ownership, one thing is certain: it isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of work and creativity, and the willingness to dig your feet in when the going gets tough.

Whether you are opening a consulting business, a restaurant, a retail clothing store, or something in between, being a business owner requires you to take big risks and ultimately, dive confidently into unknown waters.

However, the benefits of business ownership usually outweigh any of the scary unknowns that might hold you back.

Owning your own business allows the freedom, independence, and flexibility that you may have dreamed of your whole life. Being your own boss, setting the tone for your company’s culture, and building a business that leaves a legacy in the world is something that you will not regret.

When you see customers responding by spending their hard-earned money on your services or products, you will feel empowered and encouraged to keep on the path that you have set out for yourself.

A look at small business lending
in Nebraska

Information provided by the Small Business Association

Business owners in these industries sought out the most loans in 2021:

• $22,000 in construction
• $21,000 in other services
• $16,300 in health care & social assistance

• There were 131,900 SBA loans in America totaling $86.3 billion in 2021
• There were 421 SBA loans in Nebraska totaling $244.9 million in 2021

SBA Resources:

• The SBA offers guaranteed loan programs, including the 7(a) 504 and Express Loans, designed to mitigate the risk for banks working with applicants who may not qualify for traditional lending programs.

• The SBA connects people to a large network of resources that provide consulting, mentorship, and technical assistance for free. Low cost or free workshops are also offered. Nebraska partners include SCORE, Nebraska Business Development Center, the GROW Nebraska Women’s Business Center, and more.

• The SBA offers contracting assistance programs such as 8(a) Business Development Program, Small Disadvantaged Business program, Women-Owned Small Business program, Veteran Owned small business program, and the HUBZone program. All are designed to help small business owners be more competitive in the federal marketplace.

For information on the SBA and its resource partners, visit: www.sba.gov/ne