Trading the long commute for the startup: 4 stories of North Bay entrepreneurialism
There are many roads toward entrepreneurial success. The stories that follow profile four people who took the risk of trading the pressures of working in San Francisco for an entrepreneurial venture in the North Bay. Their journeys are different, but their payoffs have much in common.
Melinda Hepp: ?Studio PR, Penngrove
After 12 years working her way up the corporate ladder at Blattel Communications in San Francisco, Melinda Hepp traded in her corporate vice-president title for that of founder and principal of Studio PR, a home-based business out of Penngrove in Sonoma County.
In January 2017, Hepp made the entrepreneurial leap and launched Studio PR - with no clients of her own. Rather, she ramped up her business, consulting for the firm she’d left and then building her client base.
“I hit the ground running; It was quick,” Hepp said. “I reached out to a few competitors of clients I’d represented. They’d seen the success of the clients I’d had, so there’s some credibility that came with that.”
If she ran into trouble, she would go back to consulting for her old company.
“It was definitely a risk,” Hepp said. “I’d had a steady paycheck (at Battel) for 12 years.”
Hepp built her business largely by word of mouth and recommendations by people she’s known for years who know her character and work.
Today, she has an ongoing inflow of projects and nine clients on retainer, including Friedman’s Home Improvement and Quattrocchi Kwok Architects, both based in Santa Rosa. Studio PR’s growth has allowed her to hire two full-time employees and spend more time with her husband and two children, ages 8 and 6. That was her intention when she went solo.
The Studio PR team works mostly from their respective homes, serving clients across multiple industries: real estate, construction, retail, architecture, accounting, environmental and public agencies.
“I was thinking I was really going to focus on just having North Bay clients because that’s where I live, but the reality was nobody really cares where you work. I was able to still get clients in San Francisco, in San Jose and in Los Angeles.”
Now, instead of making the daily commute, she drives to meet with clients about twice a month. She’s also been able to tap into the national market through clients who have additional offices outside of California.
Jim Gunther ?and Jamie Cherry:?The Inn on First, Napa
It was 2007 when Jim Gunther and his husband, Jamie Cherry, made the move from San Francisco to Napa. After nearly a decade working in the software industry, and a salary that grew from $48,000 to $170,000, Gunther was laid off. And he was angry. Cherry convinced him to take a month off to decompress.
“During that one-month time, I thought, ‘I can’t go back to that industry,’” Gunther said. “I now see the golden handcuffs are real.”
Gunther, a professional chef, came to the realization that he wanted to open an inn. His next task was to convince Cherry to leave the business administration job he’d held for 17 years. Cherry remained hesitant for several months but had a change of heart after his brother-in-law died suddenly in a plane crash.
So the couple sold their home, maxed-out their credit cards, cashed out their 401(k) and moved to Napa, where they bought Daughter’s Inn, a boutique bed and breakfast they renamed The Inn on First. The couple live on the property.
Gunther, who is back to creating meals, considers himself the “behind-the-scenes” partner, managing the inn’s concept and vision, while Cherry capitalizes on his business-administration expertise and people skills. But trials and tribulations have plagued the duo over the 12 years they’ve been in the hospitality business, Gunther said.
After being in business one year, the recession hit and tourism dried up, Gunther said, adding 2009 and 2010 were the most difficult.
“We had maxed out everything we could possibly max out and were still coming up short,” Gunther said. “Jamie’s sister, Roxanne, basically came in and said we’re not going to make it unless we get more cash flow.”
She provided a cash infusion, the couple borrowed money and they managed to stay afloat. From 2012 through July 2014, The Inn on First was bringing in revenue and a profit, Gunther said.
“In August 2014, the Napa earthquake hit and everything tanked,” Gunther said. “Then we found out we needed a new foundation on (half of) the inn.” They closed that one section for three months.
“The SBA extended us a disaster-recovery (30-year) loan,” Gunther said. “That took care of the foundation and carried us through 2014 and 2015.”