This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

As part of Startup Week, the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce held a special small business panel discussion about owning and running a small business in Soldotna. The panel included Chad Anderson of Anderson Builders, Steve Beeson of Beemuns Variety, Alex Douthit and Kenai Peninsula Driving Instruction, Susanna Evins of Mountain Momma Originals, Alice Kerkvliet of Mykel’s Restaurant, Sue Mann of Artzy Junkin and Amie Hagen of Steamer Trunk Fashion Boutique.

The panel began by discussing the initial challenges of starting a business.

Douthit had a unique set of hurdles given the nature of his business, which requires many permits.

“Since I’ve started we’ve had to help write a lot of policies for the state and different government agencies to get through that permitting process and make it happen,” Douthit said. “The biggest hurdle with our business is governmental agency permitting.”

Mann said her biggest challenge was figuring out how to run a small business.

“I was going in blind,” Mann said. “Some of the things I needed to know, I literally did not know. I started picking people’s brains and started asking questions. That really helped me.”

Kerkvliet said at the beginning of her business there was a lot of fear and uncertainty.

“It can be scary to jump into becoming your own boss,” Kerkvliet said. “It’s a financial investment you’re going to make and it’s a risk you’re taking. That was my biggest personal obstacle, just making sure I was comfortable taking this leap of faith.”

Panelists gave advice for new business owners in the Soldotna area.

Anderson said to not be afraid to ask people questions and find a mentor.

Douthit said to be aware of small business resources, such as the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District.

The panelists agreed that being able to make your own schedule was one of the biggest benefits of being your own boss. Managing employees and keeping up with paperwork and bookkeeping were among the biggest drawbacks of owning your own business, the panelists said.

The moderator asked the group if there was anything the city of Soldotna could do to make running a business easier. Evins said she wished it was easier to put up signs and market businesses.

“Last year it was really disheartening to see a few businesses that were affected by the whole no sandwich board, no fins…” Evins said. “I believe we need to have rules in place for that, and now we have the permits where we can use the signs.”

The moderator asked the panelists to give their best advice for dealing with employees.

Anderson said it’s important to understand that your employees don’t work exactly as you do.

Kerkvliet said her biggest goal when it comes to finding the right employee is to hire someone with a good attitude.

“I can train you to do this job,” Kerkvliet said. “I don’t need a skilled person necessarily in that job, but what I need is somebody that’s got a positive attitude. Then, I’ll train you to do it my way.”

Beeson said retirement has been his most recent employee challenge. He said four employees have retired in the last year.

At Steamer Trunk Fashion Boutique, Hagen said her employees tend to be younger, which she said is great in some ways, but not in others.

“Work ethic is not as strong as it used to be, in my opinion,” Hagen said. “Finding someone to care about your business as much as you do is the hardest part.”

The moderator asked the panel what they would have done differently if they could start over.

Douthit and Hagen both said they wished they spent more effort on advertising.

“The money you spend on advertising directly comes back into your business,” Douthit said. “Spend the money up front and it will come back tenfold, I’m sure.”

Kerkvliet and Mann said it was important to pick a name that people can easily search for to find you.

“When you pick a name, pick one that’s easy to find on a media search,” Kerkvliet said.

The panel discussed exit strategies and how to pass on a business. Beeson said he’s been working on his exit plan for five or six years.

“Both of our boys decided to move back and have been working with me, so we are working them into ownership now,” Beeson said. “So we have our succession plan in the works. They keep saying ‘when are you going to retire dad?’ I haven’t decided that yet. It’s something you have to think about and have a plan for.”

Kerkvliet said she started to put the restaurant up for sale about five years ago and isn’t in a hurry to leave.

“I like the sell-it-to-a-family-member strategy,” Kerkvliet said. “I love that you can do that and keep the legacy going. I’m also a big fan of employees coaching and mentoring somebody up to your standards and then finding a way to help them become the new owners.”

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