Keoni and Yolanda Laguero want to turn their passion for Hawaiian food, traditions and culture into their first business.
But they have no idea where to start. Which licenses do they need for a restaurant? Do they need a food-safety course? Are there incentives for small mom-and-pop stores like theirs? If they want to cater to military families, where should they locate the business?
“It’s very new, and it’s very scary,” said Yolanda. “But if we’re going to do this, we need to do it now — and in Colorado Springs.”
The two were among a crowd who attended the first night of the Better Business Bureau and Colorado Small Business Development Center’s Small Business Week, designed to provide resources to new business owners like the Lagueros and to celebrate existing small businesses that are thriving in a renewed local economy.
The first session helped them get some answers: They do need a food safety course, offered for free by El Paso County Health. They also can look forward to routine inspections from the health department, which provides licensing and safety checks for restaurants. They probably don’t need a city license but will need to fill out paperwork for sales tax collections.
The week kicked off with a panel featuring local government officials responsible for filing licenses, collecting sales tax, providing utilities to businesses and encouraging economic development. For a business the size of the Lagueros’, there are few incentives and a lot of paperwork.
“We offer incentives for small businesses who make a $1 million investment or create 10 net new jobs,” said Bob Cope, who works in the city’s economic development office. “We can offer a 50 percent or 90 percent break on business personal property taxes at that level of investment.”
Manufacturing companies can pay an alternative tax rate if investing millions in new equipment, thanks to city efforts. Most incentives were for larger efforts than the Lagueros’ restaurant dream.
But the two weren’t daunted by the maze of paperwork they face in making their business dream a reality.
“In some states, there are a lot more hurdles,” said Keoni, a military veteran who’s lived around the country. “This isn’t that bad.”
Still, they acknowledge the restaurant will be a make-or-break endeavor for the family, which supports a total of nine children.
“We need to make sure we choose the exact right location,” Yolanda said, adding a list of forms to her agenda before the restaurant opens its doors. “That’s what we’re focused on right now.”
The workshop gave the couple a game plan and a direction with advice from Colorado Springs Utilities, the city of Colorado Springs, El Paso County and El Paso County Health. The two walked away with a list of resources and contacts for the city and county — along with promises of assistance and quick response from government agents represented at the workshop.
“We work closely together,” said Lee McRae, who works in the city’s business license office. “And there’s no longer the attitude, ‘That’s not my job.’ We’re focused on providing a service, and we’ll help out wherever we can. If we don’t do it in our office, we can put you in touch with the right people.”
The week-long event continued Tuesday with a session in Monument about marketing on a tight budget; Wednesday’s events focused on state and federal small-business resources, and Thursday’s session was about connecting former military members to the small business community. The week ended with a luncheon honoring small business efforts.
The effort is aimed at bolstering one of the biggest segments of the local — and national — economy. Small businesses created three out of every four jobs in Colorado, said Aikta Marcoulier, executive director of the Colorado Springs Small Business Development Center.
The SBDC designed Tuesday’s panel for people with concrete business plans — but who might not understand marketing on a fixed budget. For Helen Simmons, president of the nonprofit Write2Them, the information proved invaluable.
“We make sure that parents and family can send letters to basic trainees, no matter where they are,” she said. “Basically, they email us letters and we get them to the post office, since basic trainees don’t have access to email.”
Simmons said the fairly new nonprofit is looking for ways to get its story out to potential donors.
“I’ll certainly be back this week,” she said. “This session was amazing — I learned so much.”
The panel was a a mix of veteran marketers from established companies like Ent Federal Credit Union, HuHot Mongolian Grill and Bristol Brewing, with Denver startup Kota Longboards and media sales representatives from the Business Journal and television station KRDO. Their advice to people who have big business ideas but few marketing dollars boiled down to a few succinct messages: Know the company; be an active member of the local community; and be consistent in every form of messaging, from social media to traditional advertising.
At HuHot, for example, the Colorado Springs franchise owner got involved with elementary school field days, providing ribbons and free dessert coupons.
“He was able to get entire families into the restaurant, and it only costs the materials for production,” said Stephanie Krause, HuHot vice president of marketing. “The kids loved it, the school loved it. And it showed what we’re all about.”
Kota Longboards, owned and operated by veterans, gets its “warrior” message out by providing a long-boarding physical education class at a middle school in Denver, said Mike Maloney.
“I used to be a Navy fighter pilot, so we also just launched a program for veterans with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder),” he said. “If we can teach them control of the board, and the peace from doing something active, we think we can help. We’re fighters — we took a body blow on Sept. 11 — and we want people to have something that they can do, be active and feel good about themselves. That’s been missing, and you can feel the discontent.”
Kota, which stands for Knights of the Air, markets its product on a very tight budget. The company hasn’t yet made a profit but has ambitious plans to dominate the market.
“We’re aiming for middle-aged women with three kids,” Maloney said. “If we can hit that market, we know the other segments will be easy. We want them to say, ‘Hey, I can do that.’”
For most of the panel, the advice was simple: Be authentic.
“If you get involved, don’t do it just because you want to make money,” said Matt Ward, director of marketing for Bristol Brewing, which has 26 percent of the local craft brew market. “Do it because it’s an issue close to your heart. If you’re authentic, know your message and are consistent, your customers will know. I want people to think of three things when they think of Bristol: community, fun and beer. That’s our message, and we hit it consistently. We give away a lot of beer to nonprofits we believe in. And I don’t want just vendors — I want partners.”
KRDO’s Phil Emmert had a final piece of advice: Train the staff.
“I can get customers to your office, to your store,” he said. “But if people don’t have a good experience there — if they don’t get good service — they won’t buy anything.
“And that’s not my problem, that’s your problem. Fix the problem.”