Local entrepreneurs share their stories at the panel. WRITTEN BY DAVID A. KOSTAL READING, PA — In most major fields of study, colleges strive to teach students critical thinking and effective communication skills. For some, those skills can be applied to successful careers within their chosen fields. But for others, the skills may open up a world of entrepreneurial business ventures. On Wednesday night, Albright College students had the opportunity to attend a panel of local entrepreneurs who discussed the mindset and skills needed for successful entrepreneurship. Five business owners shared their experiences on their journey from having a conceptual idea to putting a business plan into action: Ben Franco, the owner of Winedown Café and Wine Bar, West Reading Franco, said the idea for the wine bar was developed out of necessity.
“There’s a point where you know you are ready to conquer your fears, and you have no choice but to make your idea work,” he said. “I was 30 years old and bored with the scene, so I started doing research, and a lightbulb went off,” Franco said. “I saw a niche opportunity and decided that Berks County needed a wine bar,” Franco said he learned quickly that banks do not like to fund restaurants or bars because one out of every two usually fails. “It takes money to get money, so I had to put up half of the capital to get the other half,” he said. “That involved a lot of bootstrapping.” But when going after start-up funding, Franco warned that you have to be careful of the business relationships you might get into. “When money is involved, that start-up money may end up costing you a lot in the end,” he said.
“But you do need to keep moving forward and be willing to take huge risks with your own money and capital. There are programs out there, but you have to find them.” Alisha Gerhart-Dietrich, the owner of Max Crema Coffee Roasters, located in the Shillington Farmer’s Market, Cumru Township Gerhart-Dietrich, said her biggest challenge didn’t come in starting a business but what happened with the competition. “About two years ago, I was located in a strip mall along the Pricetown Road (in Alsace Township) and learned there were plans to build a Dunkin Donuts next to me,” she said. “I felt betrayed by the people from whom I was renting, but there was no non-compete in the lease. I was scared, but I had to remain positive.” Gerhart-Dietrich said she read that local businessman Hamid Chaudhry was buying and reviving the Shillington Farmer’s Market.
“So I messaged him that I needed a new spot for my business,” she said. “Whenever it seems that you are going to fail, believe in yourself, and things will turn around,” Gerhart-Dietrich said. Her takeaway from experience is always to remain positive. “There will be times when you are in a negative state, but that’s when you need to tell yourself positive things,” she said. “How you talk to yourself sets the stage of how things will go.” “Dream big,” she said. “No one is holding you back but yourself.” Linda Novotny, the Tailor Maid House Cleaning Company owner, Shillington Novotny, said he and her husband started a cleaning business because they wanted to be self-employed. “It’s not glamorous, but there’s a big demand in cleaning, and you can make a lot of money doing it,” Novotny said. “One of the reasons we chose a cleaning business was because the investment was low; we started right out of our house. So that allowed us to keep investing in and growing the business.” Novotny advised having a true desire to do something before you begin.
“I wish we would have started this when we were younger,” she said. “It was scary when we started because we both had jobs and were used to that job mentality. If you have a dream, believe in yourself and do it.” Novotny also advised being able to have control over the time you work to be creative and do other things. Josue Matos, owner of Beer Wall on Penn, West Reading Matos, will be among the 2019 graduating class at Albright, but he isn’t looking for a job because he plans to open up the areas first self-serve taproom in a few weeks. “My story started when I was having dinner with a colleague who brought up the idea of a beer wall,” Matos said. “I went home and researched it and was excited because it looked like a cool concept.” With the idea in mind, Matos said he started networking and writing a business plan.
“It is a lot of hard work, but I used the Small Business Development Center to attend workshops and learned how to write a business plan,” he said. Matos said he struck out twice when seeking a bank loan, but then he found a lender willing to take a chance on him on the third try. “Getting through the funding aspect was the most challenging part, but once that was in place, the weight was lifted off my shoulders,” Matos said. “I jumped right into the fire and learned fast that it’s rough. The whole ecosystem of owning a business is a slippery slope.” Matos said he had relied heavily on social media for marketing and that one of the best decisions he feels he made was to keep the business local. “That allowed me to have the whole community behind me,” he said. “Don’t underestimate word-of-mouth because, in the beginning, it will be your most cost-effective tool.” Matos also advised that you be passionate about your idea.
“When looking for funding, a lender will be able to tell where your passion lies,” he said. “When you speak, your passion for your idea should show.” Steve Groff, the owner of Cover Crop Solutions, Lancaster County Groff, said a successful entrepreneur should be able to act from his gut. “Anyone looking for a new opportunity should stay educated and adventurous,” he said. “There are no easy answers, so live by what your gut is telling you,” Groff advised carefully, considering who your team members will be. “Human capital is important and challenging for sure. Hiring the right team members can make or break you.” Groff said that he has found that the smartest people in business surround themselves with smart people. “Surround yourself with smart people to fill the void of what you don’t know,” he said. “Trust professionals and get high-quality advice in accounting and the law.” When it comes to funding a business, Groff said you have to be creative. “Banks are lenders and not speculators,” he said. “If you are a start-up, get creative working with family and friends.” But Groff also advised always to think big. “If you are going to be an entrepreneur, you need to believe in yourself,” Groff said. “Thinking big can bring on amazing things.”