Trading the long commute for the startup: 4 stories of North Bay entrepreneurialism

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There are many roads toward entrepreneurial success. We follow four stories of 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.

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.”

After a good year in 2016 and most of 2017, tourism halted again when the October 2017 wildfires broke out. Family members kicked in funds and the Napa Valley Community Foundation provided a $20,000 grant.

Things are looking good again.

“We’re praying really hard,” Gunther said. “Please, no fires, floods, earthquakes … because it looks like it’s going to be a banner year.”

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.

HILARY MIZE: 231DESIGNS, MARIN

The enjoyment of living and working in San Francisco for eight years was fizzling out for Hilary Mize. She had worked in sales since moving to the city in 2004. In August 2011, she accepted an outside sales position at Herff Jones, a yearbook-publishing company. Her territory was the North Bay, and even though it was a reverse commute, the drive was taking its toll.

“I used to spend so much time on the road,” Mize said, adding some days she was in the car up to four hours.

In February 2012, Mize and her husband bought a home in Marin County. She continued to work her territory until April 2015, when she gave birth to the first of her two sons. After her maternity leave was over, so was her life in corporate America.

“I wanted to be home with my little ones and not send them off to daycare and go to an office,” Mize said. At the same time, she also had a plan for how she would continue to contribute financially to the household.

Mize had her eye on Etsy, an e-commerce website where shoppers buy handmade and factory-manufactured items.

“I was an Etsy customer, so I knew there were people there wanting personalized items,” said Mize, who studied graphic design in college with an emphasis in printing techniques. “We decided to buy a small laser-engraving machine because I thought there was a niche there that wasn’t saturated.”

Mize launched her Etsy business, called 231 Designs, in November 2015, making and selling engraved Christmas ornaments from the family’s transformed shed. She priced the ornaments at about $10 a pop, figuring she’d bring in a few extra hundred dollars. She sold 500 ornaments in two months’ time.

One of the beauties of an Etsy business, Mize said, is that the ecommerce site comes with a built-in customer base. She’s expanded her line of wares to include gifts, mostly for weddings and babies.

“I got busy right out the gate, which I wasn’t expecting,” Mize said. “We were off to the races.”

Then came her biggest surprise.

“I never expected to be a six-figure business,” she said.

Along the way, she’s hired a full-time employee; purchased an additional — and bigger — laser-engraving machine; and has had help on the social-media front from her husband, who works full time.

She’s also taken over the family’s pool table.

“It’s now my packaging station,” she said. “We’re pushing the limits of what we can do in the house.”

Indeed, Mize intends to grow her business in the future, but for now, she’s at capacity.

CARRIE DUFOUR: SLOAT DESIGN GROUP, PETALUMA

Since 2003, graphic designer Carrie Dufour has been making waves as an entrepreneur in an industry traditionally run by men.

Her Petaluma-based company, Sloat Design Group, specializes in brand development and package design for the food and beverage industry.

Dufour, a Sebastopol native, has three full-time employees who receive a full benefits package, and one part-timer.

Last year, after six years working from her 630-square-foot office, Dufour sold it and and bought a 2,000-square-foot space in a Petaluma office building. The Sloat team moved in early August.

How in the world did she pull this off?

After working for four years at Curtis Murray, a now-shuttered design firm in San Francisco that specialized in the industry she’s continued with — food and beverage — Dufour wanted a change of pace. She moved to Huntington Beach and freelanced for her old company while she looked for a new job.

“I started in my bedroom with a little desk and computer, then quickly realized I wasn’t meant for Southern California and I needed to get back here,” Dufour said. “The freelance work kept piling up and I never needed to look for employment somewhere else.”

Dufour returned to San Francisco to focus on growing her business organically. She leased a small office in North Beach before moving to Marin County with her husband. Dufour continued to commute until her income reached a point where she could afford to rent a bigger space, in San Rafael. The Dufour family subsequently made the move back to Sonoma County, settling in Penngrove, not far from Sebastopol. Dufour, who is married and has two small children, ages 9 and 11, is a solo act when it comes to running her business.

In fact, Dufour has been self-funded all along, never seeking investors, loans or financial help from family, she said.

Saving and managing finances wisely is especially critical in an industry that doesn’t generally work on retainers.

“This is a business where nothing is locked in; usually things ebb and flow,” Dufour said. “You can’t count on it, but if we work hard and do a good job, there’s no reason for them to go away.”

Clients include Traditional Medicinals, Alexia, Tartly, Innovia Probiotics, Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery, and more. It’s been no accident that she planted her business in Petaluma, a major food hub.

Dufour also has expanded services to include copywriting and marketing materials.

Now, Dufour is in the final stages of her own rebrand. Sloat Design Group will become Truly Creative Design within the next month or so.

“Sloat was my last name before I got married. Our name doesn’t really reflect who we are anymore,” she said. “It’s kind of interesting because I’m seeing the pain of what our clients go through when they launch a rebrand or rename and all the changes they have to make.”

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@ busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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