The Self-Made Career

Four women discuss their toughest moments in business, the things they’ve learned and how much easier young entrepreneurs have it today.
From left to right: Jessica Lind Peterson, Teresa Swenson, Julie Hamilton, Veronica Gagnelius.

Veronica Gagnelius

Age: 33
Background: graphic design
Years in your present creative business in branding, graphic, infographic and digital design: 11
# of employees: 6

When did you first get the idea for your business?

After freelancing.

When did you know your idea was a “go”?
Last year I renamed my business DreamBig and hired more employees, that’s when things started to really take off.

Your message to new entrepreneurs?
Make sure you are passionate about your business and that you will be excited to do it every day. Running your business takes a lot of drive and determination. Be persistent.

Julie Hamilton

Age: 51
Background: graphic design
Years in your present business developing websites, mobile apps
and social media: 21
# of employees: 6 (up to 10 on larger projects)

When did you first get the idea for your business?

Avallo was started because web design back in 1996 was full of programmers who thought bright blue links and pink headlines and mailboxes that opened and closed were cool. We wanted to change that by saying websites are a part of your marketing and they should be as beautiful (or more beautiful) than your other marketing materials such as brochures and catalogs.

When did you know your idea was a “go”?

Avallo hummed for the first 9 years and then my business partner passed away. That transition was hard but gave me the opportunity to take a look at the company and make the second transition into more interactive programming.

Your message to new entrepreneurs?
Always put your family first. When my kids or their school called, I always answered. I also consider my employees [as] family and treat them with the respect and love they deserve since they work so hard for the company.

Teresa Swenson

Age: 42
Background: I have a nursing degree, but chose to be a professional mom.
Years in present business selling and repairing phones and computers at Device Pitstop: 3
# of employees: 7

When did you first get the idea for your business?

I grew up in an entrepreneurial family. My father was the founder of a franchise company. After a brief retirement, he and my brother founded a franchise company whose portfolio contains Clothes Mentor, New Uses, Children’s Orchard, NTY Clothing Exchange and Device Pitstop.

When did you know your idea was a “go”?

First, my children were at the age where I had the time to dedicate to a business. Secondly, Device Pitstop was just beginning to kick off franchising. I wanted to be the first franchisee. Now, almost 3 years later, the system has grown to almost two dozen stores.

Your message to new entrepreneurs?
People are our greatest assets. Just check out our Facebook and Google reviews. We are the best reviewed store and service provider of our kind in the state. I attribute much of our success to a great team.

Jessica Lind Peterson

Age: 36
Background: playwright and actor
Years in running a live theatre: 9
# of employees: 2 full-time, 4-5 part-time

When did you first get the idea for your theatre?
I was living in Brooklyn, trying to get my foot in the door as an actor and playwright. We wanted to create an artistic home for ourselves, where we could raise a family and still be working artists. One day we were walking in the West Village past our favorite coffee shop called Grey Dog Coffee and we came up with the name Yellow Tree. We packed a U-Haul and that was that.

When did you know your idea was a “go”?

Yellow Tree officially opened its doors for its first season in the fall of 2008. During that first season, we lost the rights to our holiday play and scrambled to come up with a replacement. I wrote Miracle on Christmas Lake in two weeks. It sold out and was a huge hit. That’s when I knew Yellow Tree was really off and running.

Your message to new entrepreneurs?

There will never be a perfect time, the perfect circumstances or the perfect amount of money to pursue your dream. Do it now. Gather good people who are passionate and smarter than you to help. Squat in your in-laws’ basement for a year if you have to. The fear will pass.

What was the hardest thing about the early period of your business?

Julie: How much money you have to put back into your business.

Teresa: Oh yes!

Julie: When you have employees, they always have to get paid.

Jessica: And then you don’t get paid.

Veronica: For me it was just getting business to come in, that struggle of, “where’s my next project?” Now I can sit back and people are calling me. In the beginning, you just don’t know.

Jessica: Also, I think I had very thin skin. My husband and I would be in a play onstage and then during intermission we would run back to work the wine bar and would overhear people talking, so every little comment or email or Facebook comment, I just took so, so personally because this is my work; this is my livelihood. I still freak out if people are really mad about something, but it’s not as bad.
Veronica: Design is very subjective and so you learn everybody has tastes and some clients want their logo to look like somebody else’s that was designed in the 80s and you try to steer them in the right direction, and they just don’t budge. And you still have to do what they say and try not to take it personally.
Teresa: It’s all about the money. This is going to be our third year and hopefully this year [I’ll get paid].

Jessica: We took out a big loan from family. I thought, “We gotta pay off that puppy!” I don’t want that hanging over my head. We were actors and had no savings and yeah, they really believed in us.

Did you handle things differently in the early years than you do now?

Teresa: I’m more mature, and it’s having kids. My 15-year-old, 13-year-old and 11-year-old have taught me things too because they’re on the techy side.

Julie: You find too, as you get older, you just don’t get upset about the little things anymore.
Teresa:  You can’t!

Veronica: I think that’s because of having kids. It’s like [the problem] isn’t important; my kids are important. What the client is complaining about is trivial compared to making sure my kids are happy and going to daycare and all that.

Jessica: Our focus has totally changed from when we first started nine years ago—it was all about building a community, building up trust for people to keep coming back to see our shows, finding money. There was a lot of convincing going on. You know, convincing funders to fund our work. Now we’re able to focus more on the artistic side. I think a lot of actors do what we are doing [having their own theater company] but a lot of people quit really quickly because they don’t realize how much administrative work it is. You’re managing employees, you’re running a box office, then you’re dealing with customer service.

Teresa: I think you’re right, though. To gain the trust of your takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of networking. It takes a lot of going out to visit other cell phone stores to get them to send people over and gain that trust.

Julie: I think too when you are young and you have your kids, you can go 24/7, and as you get older, it’s 2 a.m. and “I’m kinda tired”. When I used to freelance, I used to have a baby and I’d work all night.

Do you think young entrepreneurs have it easier today?

Julie: All  my employees are millenials and they fit into our culture here. However, one summer we had one that honestly believed they knew everything. They talked really loud and [thought] everyone should be listening to them and I had to shock them: “You do not know everything, and when I’m not here these are the people that are going to help you. You do not want to [make them mad]. You don’t want to try to bully them.”  And sometimes they say, “Oh, I get it!” And other times they’re like, “Oh, I quit.”
Jessica: Everyone is wired to be on their phones at all times. It can distract an employee from staying focused.

Veronica: Millennials have a lot more opportunity because they can find everything on the web. But, it’s how you’re parents raised you. I wasn’t born here. I came to America when I was 8 and it’s like the American dream: I’m running my own business. And I’m so grateful to be here and for everything that I have because I still remember what it was like in Belarus. So, it depends on what background you have and how you were raised, too.

Teresa: With my 9th grader, he has to register for classes. He’s taking Intro to Marketing. They have an entrepreneurship class, Intro to Business, and it’s like, wow! By the time he graduates he could have one step more than we ever had.