Business People of the Month: John Walker, Michelle Bolda, Cody Gros of hubley

John Walker, Michelle Bolda, Cody Gros – hubley

6160 Perkins Rd., Baton Rouge, LA 70808

Phone: 800.816.9219

Article by Case Duckworth

In my talks with local entrepreneurs, I’ve found that businesses usually start in one of two ways: either they’re a passion that the founder has been able to monetize, or there is a need the founder has been able to identify and address. hubley, founded by Michelle Bolda, Cody Gros, and John Walker, is of the second type. In a series of SharePoint User Groups meetings at the library a few years ago, they discovered that a number of companies used SharePoint, but not to its full depth of capabilities. They realized that they could build a consulting business around providing services utilizing those depths, and replicate similar infrastructure to multiple clients, saving them money. That’s what hubley’s been doing for a number of clients, locally, nationally, and even globally, for the past five years. One of those clients is the East Baton Rouge Parish Library, so when I heard about hubley’s genesis here, I knew I had to get their story. I sat down with John Walker to talk about their growth, struggles, and plans for the future.

Microsoft SharePoint is a popular enterprise software for corporate intranets, which are like the Internet but private to a corporation. While intranets in general, and SharePoint in particular, can be useful for companies, John says, “most businesses don’t understand the value [SharePoint] can bring,” and end up implementing their intranet from scratch which is not always done correctly and can take a lot of time. As John and the other founders of hubley, Michelle and Cody, were meeting at the library, they realized they could save companies money by building a highly configurable intranet solution and selling it. So they built their product, leveraged existing relationships with businesses they knew were using SharePoint, and launched hubley.

That was in 2016. Five years later, they have twenty employees, clients all over the United States and even internationally, and they’re gearing up to expand even more. John told me that with their new language packs, they’re ready to expand to Latin America, Europe, and the Caribbean. Though most of their team is still in Louisiana, hubley has a satellite office in Birmingham, and plans to expand even more this year. Almost all of that growth has come from organic online searches. “All our leads come through our website,” John says. “People don’t know we’re based in Louisiana until we talk to them,” which has caused a unique issue with local hiring. “We want to hire great people locally and participate in local events – we’re a good success story for Louisiana,” he says. “LED [Louisiana Economic Development] has helped tremendously. Their grants for the software development industry have allowed us to stay in Baton Rouge and hire people more quickly than we would have otherwise.”

Helming a fast-growing startup carries other challenges, too. John mentioned the managerial aspects of running a business, like invoicing, support, and payroll, were challenges, but those were mitigated by two factors: a division of labor and an open-door policy for their employees. “hubley’s founders,” he said, “have three different roles. Michelle is our operations lead, Cody is the technology visionary, and I manage business development and strategy.” Dividing the labor across those three areas of concern helped the original team procure new clients and service their existing clients’ needs as they grew. John added that they make sure to tell hires, “We’re all doing this as a team for the first time, so if you guys have any ideas or thoughts on how to improve processes, let’s chat about it.” That open-door policy, as well as a willingness to explore novel ideas, has led to hubley’s growth.

The global pandemic led to more businesses pivoting to an online-first workflow, which helped bolster hubley’s business. “It was scary in the beginning, with corporations tightening budgets,” he said, “but a lot of leadership teams figured out quickly that employees need to work together better from home, and that’s hubley. So we were able to service that need.”

I finished our interview by asking John if he had any advice for an entrepreneur starting out, or himself in the past. He said, “Stay focused on the core items you’re trying to tackle, the core needs in the marketplace. If you feel strongly that there’s a need you’re helping with, be patient. It doesn’t happen overnight.” He added, “Also, be open to team members’ feedback, and those of your clients’. And be sure to create a collaborative, welcoming atmosphere. We love working at hubley. That’s important.”

From an idea on a whiteboard at the East Baton Rouge Parish Library to a fast-growing tech start-up, hubley’s founders have pursued their vision by finding a pain-point and fixing it in their product. They’re constantly looking to improve and deliver software that can improve corporate communication within organizations. I know from experience that hubley has streamlined processes here at the Library, so I’m glad they’re here in Baton Rouge.

Business Person of the Month: Chef Amanda Schonberg

Chef Amanda Schonberg, Chef Schonberg’s Sweets
Email: info@chefschonberg.com
Phone: (225) 590-0364
Facebook: Chef Schonberg’s Sweets

 

When I sat down (over Zoom) to talk to Chef Amanda Schonberg at about 2:00 P.M., she was preparing for an evening class with her Baking for Business students. She’d already finished all of her baking for Chef Schonberg’s Sweets – her main cottage business – as well as cleaned the house, eaten, and found the time to read for an hour. After we’d met, and after she’d taught her virtual class, she was planning to do paperwork for her bakery clients, follow up on orders, have dinner, and relax with her husband for an hour before bed. When I asked how she’d been able to cram so much into her day, she replied, “I’m a big fan of time-blocking” – the practice of focusing on one activity for an extended length of time, rather than bouncing between tasks as they require – “it’s all about balance and block scheduling.”

Chef Schonberg wasn’t always a chef, of course. When she was young, she helped her aunts and mom cook – her mother’s famous dish was a pound cake imbued with a liqueur like Disarrono – but she originally went to school for medical coding. She realized fairly quickly that wasn’t for her, though, and went to culinary school instead. Afterward, she decided to make alcohol-infused cakes her unique selling proposition, and Chef Schonberg’s Sweets was born as a cottage bakery. She became quickly successful – “I baked cakes for some celebrities, Food Network stars, musicians, authors,” she told me – and other chefs started noticing. “People were like, ‘Well if you can do it, I can do it too, will you help me?’ And it’s not like I don’t mind helping for free!” she laughed. “But when I noticed it picking up, I realized that this in itself could be a business also,” so she started Baking for Business, a virtual learning platform to help other cottage bakers realize their potential.

Cottage bakeries are poised to become more profitable in the current economy, says Schonberg. During, the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s been able to stay open when so many other businesses have had to close. In fact, her business has doubled during lockdown, because she’s been able to “put on my gloves and my Lysol and have contact-free delivery.” And she thinks this is only the beginning. Although a sense of normalcy will eventually return, she thinks many of the changes in the past year will be permanent. “We’re going to look back when we’re 70, 80, and it’ll be like when people talk about the stock market crashing. I see this as being the big boom for online businesses, or businesses that offer delivery.” And in fact, evidence of the economy’s move to online shopping is evident even now. Chef Schonberg shared the news that Godiva, the famous chocolate brand, is closing all of their storefronts, which she says is going to increase the demand for cottage bakers.

However, when I asked if she’d ever thought about moving out of her house and into a storefront, her answer was an emphatic “No.” “I love baking from home,” she says, both for the tax and storefront savings, and because “for me personally, it’s more exclusive. People like knowing they’re getting something that’s personalized for them,” that was made by someone who they can see, even if socially-distanced.

Of course, because she doesn’t have a physical store for people to drive or walk by, marketing is all the more important. Chef Schonberg is a maven at marketing, which she attributes to her previous experience managing retail bakeries, as well as a lot of reading from the library, which she makes sure to tell her students. “I was just telling them about the library last night,” in a class called “Idea to Income” – “Y’all have so many great resources, from SCORE, to SBA, even validating recipes.” She also told me that she gets all of her marketing books from the library’s shelves, and encourages her students to make its use.

She also stressed the importance of community: a mantra of hers is “serve the same area that you sell.” She’s a member of the Mid-City Makers’ Market and Partners One, which facilitates local bartering, which Schonberg regularly takes advantage of. “Last week, I locked my keys in the car. And I called the mechanic, didn’t have to pay for it because I used trade, and he said, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it, but for Valentine’s Day, I need a cake for my wife and my mother-in-law.’ And I said, “Deal!’” She credits her flexibility as a cottage business and the vibrancy of the Baton Rouge small business community for those smaller successes.

As our interview came to a close, I asked her what advice she’d give to a budding entrepreneur. She had two: “Use all the resources that are readily available,” whether that be the library, other entrepreneurs, or your community, and “begin with the end in mind.” She plans all of her moves, and that’s brought her success.

Article by Case Duckworth

Business Person of the Month: Jeremy Beyt, co-founder of ThreeSixtyEight

Jeremy Beyt

ThreeSixtyEight

(225) 615-8443

hello@threesixtyeight.com

When we sat down to talk to Jeremy Beyt, co-founder and CSO of progressive marketing agency ThreeSixtyEight, the country was in a similar position to where it was when he decided to start his own business. Back then, it was just after the Great Recession’s crash in 2008, and he was in commercial real estate.

“My job was really sad,” he told us over Zoom. “I was breaking a lot of bad news to people in terms of the evaluation of their property, and so what I started to do was, in a way to soften the blow … I was designing our reports to look really nice. I put really bad news in a really nice graph.”

Those nice graphs became popular among his coworkers, and they started asking him for design work. Though his work started out as “really horrible,” he says, eventually, “it clicked. Maybe I could make money doing this.” So he quit his job, made no money for a couple of years, and learned design, while he session drummed at night.

He admits that he and his partners were “young enough and single enough to not need any real money,” which helped them throw themselves at the business. And a few years later, they were able to rent an office three hundred sixty-eight feet away from another design firm, Big Fish – and as Beyt says, they had an idea.

“We were talking about, ‘Hey, we should merge instead of compete with each other, because we’re both in Baton Rouge,’” and they started Operation Three Sixty-Eight. With Big Fish’s access to larger, national brands, like General Electric, NASA, and Paramount, ThreeSixtyEight were able to find the gaps (or as Beyt calls them, “opportunities”) in their clients’ marketing, and fill those gaps.

Today, ThreeSixtyEight is an agency with national reach, though they also work extensively with local businesses. They’ve worked with businesses as diverse as Ochsner Health, Waitr, and Rakuten – and they were able to achieve that due to three main techniques.

“Number one,” Beyt says, “you have to know your purpose. … You have to take the time to define it and write it down and know it.” Knowing the business’s purpose is important to connect with investors, to differentiate with consumers, and to avoid burn-out, which is the hardest part of being an entrepreneur.

Secondly, Beyt and the other founders of ThreeSixtyEight had perserverance, what he calls “the most undervalued skill in any entrepreneur.” When ThreeSixtyEight started, there was a class of other web design companies as well, but as time went on, those shops closed, or merged with larger companies – but ThreeSixtyEight perservered and is still around today. Beyt says it took “five years to feel worth it,” so if you’re looking to start a business, be prepared.

Finally, Beyt stressed the importance of building a network – something he found particularly hard: “As a creative, as a marketer, I hate the idea of networking, I hate the idea of sales,” but eventually he was able to “drop the cynicism and skepticism, and just enjoy meeting people, and be truly curious in what they do … and inevitably, when they need your help, they’ll call.” Beyt credits his business partner Kenny Nguyen for teaching him that.

When we asked him for more advice for budding entrepreneurs, Beyt recommended writing to someone else in the field for advice and mentorship. In fact, he says, “the higher up an executive is, the more willing they are to mentor, because they get to a point where they understand the value of mentorship and leaving a legacy. Don’t be afraid to ask.” He still stays in touch with a mentor he emailed on a whim ten years ago.

He also recommended using the local library for events and for training. ThreeSixtyEight hosts a speaking event, Assembly Required, using the East Baton Rouge Parish Library’s conference rooms, which are free for the public’s use. He also recommends the free Team Treehouse training to his employees who want to learn web design and coding.

The most important advice Jeremy Beyt had for new entrepreneurs, however, was simple: become one. “Baton Rouge needs entrepreneurs. There’s a big opportunity in Baton Rouge that a lot of people overlook, especially graduates. And I don’t blame them, because on the surface, it’s easy to leave.

“But here’s the thing – Baton Rouge, it’s like a Twinkie. It’s kind of boring on the surface, but when you bite into it, there’s a lot to love, in the middle. So give it a chance – there’s an opportunity there. There’s a lot of hunger in Baton Rouge, for innovation, for progress, for change … there’s a really big community of people right under the surface that are all really hungry. So there’s an opportunity for anyone that’s entrepreneurial, not only to be successful, but also to make a difference in the community.”

That’s what ThreeSixtyEight have done.

Business Person of the Month: Pam Cannatella

Cannatella’s Grocery might not fit the immediate picture of an entrepreneurial venture — the Baton Rouge store is an outgrowth of a Melville, LA, staple that’s been in the community for nearly a hundred years, and as a family business, the Cannatellas aren’t interested in endless growth.  When I talked to Pam Cannatella, fourth-generation owner and operator of the new location, however, it was obvious that she is just as much the entrepreneur as the flashiest techno-hypist in San Fransisco, even though she may not be firing cars into space.  Pam provides an important service to her adopted community here in Baton Rouge, and she plans on doing it well for a long time.

The Cannatellas moved into their location at 3869 Government Street in 2019, in response to a shrinking population in Melville, where the “Old Store” has been based for nearly a hundred years.  They immediately liked the new building for its resemblances to the original, and they stocked it full of prepared and shelf-stable foods that they thought Mid-Cityers might appreciate — including a lot of organic foods.

“As we started seeing our customers come through,” though, Pam says, “I realized that they are really more traditional shoppers … they’re buying more of the prepared foods, because folks around here, they don’t really have time to cook.”  Luckily, Cannatella’s is widely known for the quality of their prepared foods, which Pam’s husband Grant makes at their Melville location, and which Pam drives to the store in Baton Rouge every day.  The prepared foods have been so successful that they’ve seen demand for some products double, such as their most popular, meatballs & gravy and lasagna.  Of course, Pam took it in stride: every night at closing, she inventories the store’s freezers and coolers, then Grant cooks what’s needed, enabling Pam to replinish the stores each morning.

All the back-and-forth between Melville and Baton Rouge has meant that Pam has had to be less-involved in her Melville community, where she was mayor a few years ago.  However, she hopes to become more involved with the Mid-City Merchants, the Mid-City Redevelopment Alliance, Associated Grocers, and other groups here in Baton Rouge and around the country that work with the small business community.  She did say that the lack of clear regulatory direction in Louisiana was a burden, even with the benefit of being in business for generations: “I think there needs to be kind of a one-stop-shop, someone to walk you through” putting together a business.

After the initial hurdles, though, Cannatella’s location in Baton Rouge has been doing pretty well.  They were lucky during the COVID pandemic, and haven’t experienced much loss in revenue.  Pam has been experimenting with new product lines, including making pastas in-store, and she has a lot of plans for new merchandise and food storage, to keep up with the demand for “Heat-and-Eats.”

More than anything, she loves visiting with her customers.  She says, “Every day, there’s somebody that walks in here that has a Melville story.  Either they know somebody from Melville, or they’re from Melville — there’s some Melville connection.  They tell me these old home stories.”  She’s living proof of her mantra — “Do what’s right, work hard, and everything else is going to fall into place” — and with Pam at the wheel, I think people will be talking about the Canatella’s in Baton Rouge for a long time to come.

Post by Case Duckworth

Business Person of the Month: Kenniece Webber of Boodha Noony

Kenniece Webber

 

Boodha Noony

Contact Information: (225) 963-9995, boodhanoony@gmail.comhttps://boodhanoony.com/

 

We should all be taking better care of our skin – you only get one. Kenniece Webber of Boodha Noony Body Ritual can help.

“Over the years I have struggled with depression, extreme anxiety, blotchy skin, sports injuries/surgeries, motherhood, relationships, health issues, grief, and self-worth. Fortunately, at the age of 26 (after the birth of my second child), I made a conscious decision to seek and incorporate natural solutions into my daily habits as an added assurance in managing what I found to be common human challenges,” says Webber. “My daughter’s skin was too sensitive, and I had to start considering alternatives to over-the-counter products.” The result was Boodha Noony. “I began creating a specialized soothing butter made from essential oil blends and carrier oils.  Every product has been tested on my family for over five years now.  I am overjoyed to report that eczema, asthma and depression are being managed with our good diets and Boodha Noony’s premier Body Ritual.”

The owner of Eco Simple Living, an organic lifestyle consulting firm, Webber’s line of body rituals (multipurpose lotions designed to soothe and moisturize skin) was a family favorite for years before she developed them for sale. “Initially, it was named Eco Simple Treats,” Webber says, but “my family had its own special name – Dat Noony Butter. So as my sister and I began to play with different names, Noony butter was where we began.” The name comes from a longstanding nickname: “My full nickname is NoonyCat.” And Boodha? That came from a brainstorming session on what Webber wanted her brand, both the skincare line and her wider work with Eco Simple Living, to be. “I did not want the practice of Buddha spelling. So after some research, I found the archaic spelling of Buddha, which was Boodha.  I love the historical context of words and because that was a very historical spelling I figured I had enough spiritual connectivity to create a new, revolutionary essence of its name.”

The owner of two successful businesses, Webber does not want to stop there. “I would like my business to grow beyond just Baton Rouge and get my products into a major store chain to offer a fully natural alternative to skin products that saturate the market today.” While, she says, “You must always realize that there is a financial risk. Sometimes the cost of making quality products can be very expensive. Stress is also another issue,” it is also true that financial planning and tax preparation are necessary problems that “come with the privilege of owning your own business.” “Never give up – always stay focused and never give up. Remember: better to chance a dream than live a nightmare. Never accept failure; always use a mishap to fuel and feed your growth and ascension to even better and bigger things,” concluding, “Overall, there are far more things to love and like than dislike.”

For new business owners, Webber says research and having a realistic understanding of your personal finances are crucial. “Always be on the lookout for trends and who else in your area who may be doing the same as yourself,” she says. “Most of all, social media is a major tool that is used to ‘spread the word’ of your product not just locally, but globally. You would be shocked when you get a request for an order from Canada or New Zealand!” Webber sees that Baton Rouge seems to be getting bigger every day, both in terms of population and in the number of opportunities available for new businesses. “Years ago Baton Rouge used to be a small college town with a major focus on the petrochemical industry. Now there are so many different industries, especially in the entertainment industry,” she says. There is room for everyone, and owning your own business can be wonderful: “You are your own boss and you aren’t micromanaged. Your ideas are never shut down you have the ability to work at any time you want to on your own schedule.”

Having helped write a children’s book herself (The Chicken and the Egg, available from Amazon), Webber is a big fan of libraries. “The library is a cultural centerpiece and wealth of ideas for everyone in the community to come together and appreciate. You can tell a whole lot about a city and community by their library system. It is very important to me in that it has a wealth of local information that may not be available online,” says Webber. For businesses, “The library also offers so many free programs that help with business planning that you would have to pay for elsewhere.” (You can learn more about EBRPL’s Small Business Services online.)

The best advice Webber can give, though, is “Live! Be yourself and no on

e else!”

Find Boodha Noony products online and at local stores and arts markets.

Business Person of the Month: Gabby Loubiere of Brew Haha!

 

Brew Ha-Ha!

711 Jefferson Highway

Baton Rouge, LA 70806

Brew Ha-Ha! has been a part of the mid city landscape for nearly thirteen years. Its signature cake balls, which come in a wide variety of flavors and cause cravings all over Baton Rouge, are the result of owner Gabby Loubiere’s ability to turn unfortunate business circumstances to true successes. Brew Ha-Ha once had a second location. “While we had that store, we did lunches over there, because it was not going to make it as a coffee shop. Then on the weekends we would bring the extra cake balls to this store, to Jefferson. It started to create this hype: on Thursdays or so, sometimes Wednesdays, people would start calling to see how many cake balls we were bringing here. It was just this crazy little phenomenon that would happen.” Loubiere’s business was one of the first to sell cake balls, and the original recipes started with Loubiere’s grandmother, who won

The cake ball case and coffee counter.

countless culinary competitions for her pralines and other candies. They have changed and expanded as Brew Ha-Ha! has grown, and are still the best in town. “I guess it’s my grandmother’s candy-making skills that are still pumping through me.”

In addition to a variety of seasonal decorated options, Loubiere designs and makes cake ball wedding cakes. An invention of the peak of the cake ball craze, they started for Brew Ha-Ha! when a friend of Loubiere’s approached her about making one for the friend’s wedding. They’re made out of sculpted styrofoam, covered first in tulle and then in cake balls on skewers. “People who are traditional don’t necessarily love it;” nevertheless, it has become one of the creations in which Loubiere takes the most pride: “There’s a lot of pressure that goes into a wedding cake that somebody’s – hopefully their favorite day ever, other than the day they have children, so it’s nerve-wracking and stressful. But every time I set one up I cry a little at the end that I get to even be a part of that. They’re absolutely stunning.”

Loubiere had no prior experience in coffee shop management, and had not even worked in one before. “I just went to them when I was in college. I went to Southeastern and LSU, but mainly when I was at LSU, Highland Coffees was how I got through my shifts at The Chimes, and how I made it through college. So I knew I loved coffee, but I really didn’t know anything about it.” A friend approached her about opening a coffee shop in an available storefront in the shopping center where Brew Ha-Ha! still lives, but backed out at the last minute. “I decided to go ahead with it; I had her blessing…So I went at it solo. I knew nothing. I hired a cluster of girls that worked at a CCs, [and] I just kind of learned as I needed to.”

The coffee shop was originally set up because owner of shopping center really wanted a coffee shop to replace Perks, formerly across the street, which left mid city sadly caffeine-free when it closed. “It was scary in the beginning, because there was no one – there were a few other tenants in this shopping center, but there were just no people. You almost expected to see tumbleweeds going through the parking lot. Right away I joined the Mid City Merchants, a panel of probably about forty or so merchants then.” There are now nearly 150. “We’ve kept this very ‘this is my roots’ vibe in the neighborhood. People that live in this area are very passionate about this area. They’re super excited about the changes, sometimes adamantly so – I sit on the fence of, 80% of me usually sides with the homeowners, because I get it; I love that we have this love, family, curb appeal thing that happens. Growth is beautiful too, and I love that so many merchants want to be in mid city now. But we have to keep the culture alive that was here, and that was family and heart. It feels so good in this part of town, and I want to build it and build it and build it, but build it in a way that the feeling stays the same. I think that’s attainable, because there’s so much passion here.”

Owner Gabby Loubiere sitting in part of Brew Haha!’s new expansion.

A recent expansion has already boosted sales, especially of lunch items. “People flow,” Loubiere says. “When you move things around, you realize quickly if the flow is there.” Though Brew Ha-Ha! has served breakfast, brunch, and lunch for the last several years, the menu was recently posted publically for the first time, because of the owner’s new confidence in their capacity. “Before, we kind of did it as an added bonus to people who came here already, but we didn’t market it too much, mainly because our kitchen area was so small and we were trying to keep up with the cake balls. Now we have a lot of space, so we’re putting it out there that we do this. It’s a simple menu, we have nothing over eight dollars.” A roaster, part of the reason for the build-out and a long-time goal of Loubiere’s, is next. She is full of ideas on how best to display it – “We may even quarantine it off with bulk bean bins with roasted beans, where people could maybe come in and scoop by the pound.” Blends from Brew Ha-Ha! Roasting Company may include light, dark, decaf, flavors, and even holiday specials: “Gabby Lou’s Brew,” for one. Gabby Loubiere herself is already looking several years down the line, which will hopefully include pre-bagged distribution into local restaurants and marekts; she has so many ideas for potential growth that watching her develop them in real time is inspirational.

Mid city is increasingly known for its seasonal neighborhood arts festivals: Art Thaw in February; Hot Art, Cool Night in May; A Mid City Night’s Dream in August; and White Light Night in November. “The fall one and the spring one are just unbelievable. Back in the day, I would fret for weeks preparing for those events,” but Brew Ha-Ha!’s success has allowed Loubiere to relax a little and let the artists come to her. “I get approached by artists from Lafayette, New Orleans, Hammond, and God bless them – they have huge arts markets there. I really, really stick to local, local artists. Preferably, I’d like them to live in walking distance. But if not, in Baton Rouge.” Since the event is free and open to the public, it used to be much less productive for artists, and expensive for the businesses using free refreshments to entice customers. However, the rising popularity has allowed them to cut back a little on free treats, so sales for everyone have gone up, solidifying the event’s place in the local art and business communities. “We have probably 60 to 70 merchants that participate, all of which have anywhere from 2-10 artists. It’s really unbelievable some of the talent that we see. And the prices are amazing, because these are people that are up and coming or they haven’t achieved this super-celebrity-ism as an artist, so they keep their prices affordable,” Loubiere says. “The whole art atmosphere here is probably one of the best things that we have going on. And people flock from everywhere.”

Being a small business owner is not always easy, but Loubiere has great advice for potential entrepreneurs. “First of all, you have to be completely passionate about what you’re trying to do. If you’re trying to do it for the purpose of acknowledgment or getting rich, just go get a job. A lot of people I see get into business, self-employment, because they think it’s limelight and luxury. You have to live it, you have to love it, you have to respect it. You have to be present with your employees,” she says. “That’s just the world we live in. If you’re not 100% invested into what you’re trying to put out there, it’s going to show completely through. And you have to know your market – what do people want? What do people need? How are you going to communicate? It is so easy nowadays with social media to get your opinions out there. We have these overnight food bloggers that just yesterday were regular people, and now they’re Food Bloggers. You really have to pay attention to everything that you’re doing, because you’re on display. So I think the main thing people have to focus on is, it’s not that easy, be passionate, and remember that people are only going to support you if they dig you, and they’re watching everything you do.”

The most important thing is to “learn from [your] mistakes: try it, and if it doesn’t work, get out of it. Yes, there are tremendous perks to being self-employed. But they definitely are outweighed by the stresses and the responsibility. Where’s your heart at? Why are you doing this? If you love it, and you feel good about it, you have to be prepared to fail. And then, let’s go! Go for it! What have you got to lose?”

Stop by Brew Ha-Ha! for coffee, a cake ball, and a peruse of their Little Libraries today.

Business Person of the Month: Brad Jensen of Bricks and Bombs

Taken from owner’s website with permission.

Bricks and Bombs

449 Hearthstone Drive

Baton Rouge, LA 70806

Brad Jensen developed his first T-shirt brand, Icon, at eighteen, while studying graphic design at LSU. Bricks and Bombs is the culmination of decades of artistic development, business savvy, and a good bit of luck.

It begins with the name – or, not quite, but the name is fantastic, so we’ll start there. “The short story,” Jensen laughed, “it’s from some misinterpreted Clash lyrics.” He carried them around for years until the opportunity to use them struck. “It became a little bit more of an analogy for what I wanted to do with the store and the gallery space initially, and that was, the bricks being a symbol of a building block, something to support a wall, or in my case what I was hoping to build was a community of artists and creatives. And then bombs, of course, being a symbol of destruction, and that juxtaposition of building a community and destroying some ideas of what people thought art is.”

The store opened in 2009, but Jensen’s work on Icon and on other artistic and screenprinting projects is at least ten years older. “I got a job at a screen printing shop and learned how to print my own shirts, and then learned how to print stickers, and learned how to print posters, and then I started incorporating Icon into my fine art,” he said. “I went around to a lot of bike races, I rode BMX, growing up, so it was kind of like a bike-rider thing, and then it sort of evolved into my artwork, and still clothing, and posters and stickers and hats and other things too; it kind of became a brand.”

He was working across the street in a studio in the back of a friend’s shop, what is now a Crossfit gym, when he saw Bricks and Bombs’ current location open up. At first, it seemed like a great office space, somewhere to work outside of his home; the front was, if nothing else, great storage, and a place where people could find his shirts more easily. It was very minimalist, just plain white walls and a T-shirt rack. “It was meant to be store by day, gallery by night, and there wasn’t a lot that had to happen to make it transform into that space,” Jensen said. Bricks and Bombs recently hosted a traveling poster show, and has highlighted skateboard deck art, tattoo and graffiti artists, photography, sculpture, and the senior shows of graduating LSU students. The shows are something he wants to get back to this year: “The more events that we have in between those that are already established,” he said, referring to White Light Night, the Ogden Park Prowl, and other annual MidCity events, “the more we can make this a destination place – make people realize that MidCity is something more than just those bookended events.”

The neighborhood, like so much of Baton Rouge, is slowly changing for the better. “When I first moved in over here, it wasn’t quite like it is now. It’s been an evolving thing. But it showed a lot of promise,” said Jensen. “Someone told me once that Baton Rouge is the kind of place where you’ve got to get in, stake your claim, and ride it out. And I’ve been riding it out for seven years now, and that’s a positive thing for sure. I’ve definitely seen Saturdays becoming more and more of a day when you can rely on people walking in, when before it was kind of hit or miss. There were a lot of Saturdays when I wasn’t open because I wanted to be doing something else, when no one was walking in. It’s getting there.”

Jensen’s growth as a business person was very organic, based as it is on ideas he’s worked on since he was eighteen years old. “It was an opportunity that I saw. When I first opened up, I thought I’d just try it for a year. I wasn’t risking a lot, other than a year’s worth of rent, because … I had a product, I had a service that was already in place, so this just kind of became a more permanent fixture for all those things that opened up some opportunities.”

But if you’re just starting out, his advice would be to “Do your research, for sure. Think about what it is that you can offer the area. I think that’s the biggest struggle with an artist and a business, or any business, is that you have an idea of what you want to do – and I’m guilty of this for sure, I didn’t start my business thinking, oh, Baton Rouge really needs another T-shirt shop! That was what I was interested in doing. I can understand the challenges now, and I still kind of grapple with it, with what does the area around me need, versus what I want it to be, versus what will it support?”

“I do everything myself. Everything in here, I’ve designed it, I printed it, I folded it, I orchestrated it all,” he said. “I think the attitude that’s over here is a little bit different from everywhere else. People come in here and they know that you can’t find this kind of stuff everywhere else, especially not locally made or locally designed. I think what I’m offering is an opportunity to get involved with the shop – I’m doing some artist series shirts, and I do other events with artists in here. I have kind of an open door policy; I’m not very discriminatory like some of the other galleries. They operate differently than I do. I can be a little less conscientious of bringing someone in, take a risk of having their artwork hanging up in here.”

Really, for Jensen, it’s still about that contrast between bricks and bombs – breaking something down so you can build something better. “I’ve done some nontraditional things. When you hang a skateboard with some cool graphics up on a white wall, it kind of takes on a new meaning – it’s all of the sudden this utilitarian device that people view in a different light. They see the art for what it is, not just a piece of wood with wheels on it. That’s what I was seeking to show people, especially in Baton Rouge – if they didn’t grow up in a subculture, like BMX or skating, to enlighten them to some other aspects of culture that they may not be aware of,” he said.

“It’s all very interwoven, being a graphic designer. I don’t see it just as design, I see it as just as much of a fine art too. I guess when you take that graphic design and you screenprint it, put it on a poster, limit it and put a number and a signature at the bottom, it becomes not just a graphic design piece, it’s an art piece” – or wearable art, like a T-shirt; or mobile art, like a skateboard.

Like Jensen said about the library, in Bricks and Bombs and the rest of the midcity area, “A lot of people don’t realize how many great resources are tucked away.” Stop by and check it out.

Business Person of the Month: Andrea Eastin of Fair Fit Studios

Fair Fit Studios

401 Longwood Court, Unit C

Baton Rouge, LA 70806

The range of group classes, private lessons, video tutorials, and online articles that is Fair Fit Studio was born in Andrea Eastin’s midcity home four years ago, but Eastin herself has been part of the handmade fashion world for much longer. After achieving a bachelor’s degree in Painting and Drawing from the University of Iowa and attending workshops in dye and surface design at the Penland School of Craft, Eastin attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for a Master of Fiber and Material Studies degree. There, she also taught a beginner-to-advanced curriculum of four classes in sewing, with an emphasis on clothing construction and fashion. She set up a fashion line in New Orleans until the disaster of Hurricane Katrina forced her and so many others out of the city, but later moved back to complete what felt like unfinished business. “I came back to New Orleans and I got really involved with the fashion scene there that was growing because of the post-Katrina influx of new people and new initiatives,” Eastin said.

IMG_2007
Fair Fit Studios class space and workroom.

Though fashion and clothing design remained (and continue to be) one of Eastin’s passions, it was difficult to meet the production demands of clothing stores that were interested in carrying her lines. “I knew I was in a model that I did not have the resources or the capacity to make successful from where I was,” she said. “I had to just totally start over. Sometimes being able to totally start over can bring something really amazing into your life, because you’re not repeating something you know how to do.” A marriage (to local hairdresser and creative director Paul Eastin), a move to Baton Rouge, and a “stop-doing” year to give herself a chance to recharge were just what was needed to let the idea of Fair Fit Studios percolate. The move especially helped to shape the business: Where New Orleans is known for its grandiose celebrations and regular festivals, all of which require a different custom-made costume or gown and each of which places severe constraints on the natural ebb and flow of clientele, Eastin found that “here people are really looking for ways that they can grow their children’s interests. With the private lessons for teenagers and children that I do, that’s often parents that know their child loves fashion, or wants to know how to sew, and they don’t have anybody that can teach them. And so the parents really try to figure out how this can be their kid’s thing.” Private lessons may be anything from a young child designing and sewing her own Christmas dress with Eastin’s careful supervision, to a teenager building a portfolio to apply to advanced courses of study with the benefit of Eastin’s vast technical skill.

The name “Fair Fit” comes from Eastin’s academic background and personal philosophy towards fashion and clothing design – it was originally the title of her thesis at the Art Institute. In this case, “fair” means both “adequate” and “just,” and plays off rising concerns about where clothing is made and how it is paid for. “It was a form of grading, meaning sizing, that I created so that it had some play – could be customized. I named it off of my clothing line because I think it’s more fair to teach a person the skills … it’s more fair if you have the autonomy to be able to make it yourself and to make your own decisions, it’s more democratic that way, than having to find somebody to do it for you, or having to rely on what already exists to make the choice for you. It’s not fair that we don’t have these skills anymore,” she said. The Fair Fit dress and pattern will soon be available online, and Eastin will teach classes on her sizing system.

The Fair Fit pattern pieces.
The Fair Fit pattern pieces. The pattern is designed so that each piece can be swapped out for one of a different size, creating an individualized fit.
The Fair Fit dress.
The Fair Fit dress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many of the emails Fair Fit Studios receives are centered around the problem of fit and how rarely something off-the-rack is a perfect match, either physically or aesthetically. “The hard thing is, you have a unique perspective, and they’re not trying to appeal to that. So then you can either do it yourself, or you can pay someone to do it for you, which, I don’t know if you really want to go down that route,” Eastin laughed. “There’s no way to make a dress that makes everybody happy. But there’s a reason why they don’t fit right: because it costs too much money for them to fit right.” Even professional sewers struggle with learning how to design and construct clothing in a way that excites their client base, and as Eastin said, that’s because “if I go about making the way you want it for your body, you’re still going to be unhappy, because it’s not your perspective, it’s still my perspective. So if you just teach people the skill, that’s the closest to fair in fashion that I have gotten.”

Even creatively focused small businesses need growth, and to accomplish this, Fair Fit recently began offering online classes in beginners sewing and basic patterns. Eastin also dedicates more time to the blog, writing a combination of articles on everything from upcoming in-person classes to the how-tos of pattern piecing to philosophy of design. “I like to feel like I’m enterprising, just always thinking of how can we offer more. But I’m still one person,” she said. Eastin is thus committed to steady, reliable growth of 17% per quarter (a number derived based on the advice of a business coach). “It’s more about what’s that one next achievable step that’s towards growth,” she said, than about doubling profit or output as quickly as possible – sustainability in the long term over more dramatic results more quickly. “Same as with sewing, creating a business is not really that different from creating an art project. It has a circuitry. It has a series of steps. It has a way that it reaches other people, and there is an exchange. You shouldn’t go, ‘oh! But the money isn’t important to me.’ Of course it is, right? But you just make sure you’re not trying to put expectations on it that are the same as what a marketing business would grow, or a tire business.”

For aspiring entrepreneurs, the library can be an invaluable resource – Eastin has used everything from online audiobooks to listen to while she works on sewing projects, to spaces outside of her home that make it easier to concentrate on business writing, to advertising upcoming classes, to classic sewing instruction books for deeper research. “I really believe that a lot of the great references are there. A lot of people believe that you should really learn sewing on YouTube these days, but there’s such good information in the classics. Those books from the 50s, 60s, and 70s are amazing. That’s how I learned,” she said. (The fashion conscious can also use online resources like Women’s Wear Daily and the Vogue Archives to check out styles of the day as far back as the 1800s.)

Join the Fair Fit Studios emailing list to learn about upcoming classes, both in-house and online, and for more information about every aspect of fashion design. You can also follow Fair Fit’s Facebook page.

Business Person of the Month: Katie Culotta Shoriak of Victoria’s Toy Station

Victoria’s Toy Station

5466 Government St.

Baton Rouge, LA 70806

Victoria’s Toy Station has been a beloved part of Baton Rouge retail for over thirty years. The store fits an incredible amount of merchandise into a relatively small space. Shelves go from the hardwood floors to the ceiling, and each room has at least one additional display in the center or tucked in the space between the end of a shelf and a corner. Each room has a theme, ranging from costumes to art supplies to seasonal displays. “We have a boy’s room, ages 6-12, and then we have a girl’s room, and then we have our doll room, toddler, baby, art, so everything is done by division. Like, the bathtub room, and things like that. It’s fun, and one of the pluses of being in this house is we can do it that way,” says owner Katie Culotta Shoriak.

“My mom opened the store in 1984 and I started running it about ten years ago,” she says. “I was four when she did it. She just saw that there was a niche or need for specialty toys and gifts for kids. She actually opened in Catfish Town, which is downtown, and that’s where the name of Victoria came in, because we were in a train station. So Victoria, from Paddington Bear.”

They were only there for eighteen months before the entire development was closed, but the transition to their current location in the heart of Baton Rouge’s rapidly expanding midcity neighborhoods was an easy one. “We’ve lived in the neighborhood all of our lives, so. My parents bought this house, and we actually own the house behind us too. We love being in the neighborhood, and we’re a destination. People come to us rather than being in a strip center or at the mall or whatever,” Shoriak says.

It’s definitely a family business: “My mom always tested things on me, and I went to market with her. It’s kind of like now become one of my children. I have two, who I do the same things with.”

It hasn’t always been easy to live and work right off one of the city’s major thoroughfares. “We have been here when people were scared to come to this area, and we’ve ridden it out, and we love this area. We would never go anywhere else,” says Shoriak. “We love Government Street, we always have. It’s the corridor to downtown. 55,000 cars pass in front of the store every day. Midcity has always been home to myself, to my family, but we are so fired up about all the new restaurants and new things that are coming this way. Traffic in Baton Rouge is a nightmare, and so if I can stay in my bubble, and everyone else can too, it’s gonna be so much better.”

As with any independent company, the biggest competition is big box stores. The only way to compete is with unique products and excellent customer service – two areas in which Victoria’s Toy Station excels. “I’m constantly reading toy magazines and looking to see what the newest latest and greatest is. We go to Toy Fair in February, which is when all the toys are debuted. We also go to gift shows, because that’s what sets us apart. You can come here and get something for a newborn baby, or a nineteen year old girl, or moms get stuff for themselves too,” Shoriak says. (This interview was, incidentally, a great excuse to do a little Christmas shopping.)

“I think that the big box stores definitely cause issues with us with pricing, we’re very aware of that, we try to stay on top of those things, but something that WalMart buys 15000 of and I only buy twelve of, you know, of course they’re going to get a better price. I try to stay away from those things, but those are things that people want, and people may come here to stay out of the big box stores and may pay a little more to get that experience. And you get the free wrapping, and you get customer service, I mean, I have girls walking around all day long asking if you need help. When have you ever been in WalMart and that happened?”

Living in the age of Amazon, of course, is another difficulty. “We had a website for about a month, and we could not keep up with the inventory demand. We would sell out of it in the store, and people would want it on the website, and it was just too much. So we do stuff on Facebook and Instagram, and we ship all over the country, especially at Easter time. Easter time we have Easter baskets that are fabulous, and we ship them all over. It’s insane. It’s fun,” Shoriak says. Orders can be made over the phone, and the store is certainly proactive at reaching out to customers on their social media accounts.

Christmas and Easter are peak seasons in the toy industry, especially because the store offers free gift wrapping, a service that has gotten so popular it was part of a 1200-square-foot expansion about four years ago. “It’s pretty magical, especially right now. Children come in and their eyes light up, and for parents, to find that toy that excites them and is going to be the wow of Christmas morning is pretty amazing. It’s crazy, but it’s fun.”

img_1973
One of several Christmas displays up now.

Full disclosure – the library does buy some of its decorations from Victoria’s Toy Station, because the merchandise is just so cool, but Shoriak and her family use our resources as well. “My little girl, we go there a lot for story time, my little boy, we go to the Music Together classes, and I actually chaired the Mercy auction there, and we’re excited to use it again,” says Shoriak. She’ll also keep an eye out at toy fairs for items she thinks the library might be able to use.

So what’s the best way to be a part of the community and to help encourage Baton Rouge towards positive change? “I think people just need to remember to shop local,” Shoriak says. “It would be a tragedy to ride around town and there’s no local stores, no Mom and Pop business. I know it’s easy to shop on the internet and stuff, but shopping local is very important to our economy and it’s very important to the workforce, so people need to remember that shopping local is essential.”

And we agree. So for those of you who might be running up against that Christmas deadline, think of Victoria’s Toy Station – for your kids, or just for fun.

Business Person of the Month: Phi Thuy Nguyen of Agame Yoga

Agame Yoga & Meditation Center, LLC

635 S. Acadian Thruway

Baton Rouge, LA   70806


Phi Thuy Nguyen

Founder and Owner, ERYT 500.

Yoga Nidra Facilitator & Trainer, Meditation Teacher.

Destination Method & Professional Coach.

Ayurvedic Lifestyle Consultant, Professional Speaker.

Retreat Leader, Life Balance Expert.

Ambassadors of Light, Inc. 501 ©(3)

Phi Thuy Nguyen

 Founder – Owner – Instructor – Board of Directors
E:  phi@agameyoga.com
P:  (225) 636-1891

 

Phi Thuy Nguyen is a free spirit at heart who now enjoys and appreciates grounding and structure, enabling her to experience her lightness of being within the details of her life.

In 2008, Phi founded Agame Yoga & Meditation Center.  The studio is located at 635 S. Acadian Thruway.  As of June 1, 2016, ownership passed to a non-profit organization she founded, Ambassadors of Light, a 501(c)(3) for purpose organization.

Phi leads yoga classes and workshops and conducts yoga and yoga nidra teacher training at the studio.  She works with clients privately, engages in professional speaking, and creates online training content.  She is deeply inspired to guide others to innovate their minds and life beyond conditioned, limiting beliefs and habits to create a life that is unique and authentic to each individual.  She wants each person who comes to the center to experience their own “different kind of happy”.

“Yoga is a practice to experience a different kind of happy, practicing yoga cultivates an inner state of happiness not conditioned by the external happenings of life.  This is the true power of yoga and meditation.  Our inner well being is really available all the time when we know how to reconnect to it,”  Phi explains.

When asked how people may reach their “different kind of happy”, Phi says, “I would tell people to begin caring how they feel.  If we simply pay attention to how we feel and care to feel good in our bodies, in our minds, and in our lives; this awareness will guide us to making the choices that support the good feelings.

“We are so caught up in bus-i-ness, stress, and worries, that we don’t pay attention.  We all want to feel good and ‘to be happy’, but because we are so busy, we do not make this a priority.   We need to pay attention to how we feel and care about how we feel.  We will be guided to the choices, actions, and relationships that support our happiness.

“When you decide, ‘I want to care about how I feel, and I want to feel good’; then you shift your thoughts to the positive and come back to being who you are meant to be.  Caring how you feel will guide you to make the changes that support good feelings.”

Phi believes in staying connected to one’s inner source and being guided to the next step.  She says, “My overall intention was to heal myself and help others experience their own healing.”  She has received so many gifts and transformations on her path and the journey continues to reveal itself.  For her, each step has been revealed as she was ready.  She says one just needs to be willing.

When asked about her personal yoga journey, Phi explains, “I have done yoga on and off a long time ago but I approached it as a point of exercise and could not stay motivated.  I began my journey of meditation, growth and spiritual connection in 1998 after the birth of my 2nd child.  I was the Small Business Banker as well as the Assistant Branch Manager for a bank. I loved the connection with people and the opportunities to help them.  When I had my 2nd child, I quit my corporate career and became a stay at home mom.  I did this for myself; I wanted to look for sustainable happiness.   I knew something was off even though we had a house, cars, and all the material possessions.  We had the outward abundance my parents had taken the risk of escaping Vietnam and coming to America to give us.  Inside, I felt there was still something missing.

“This was when I started my conscious journey, a conscious journey to finding a fulfilling happiness different from the pursuit of things.  I realized I had been conditioned to believe happiness was the accumulation of more and more things.  This journey brought me to my meditation teacher, Venerable Aggasami.  I came back to the practice of yoga as part of my care during my 3rd pregnancy.  This was when I realized yoga was actually meditation in motion, and how beneficial it was emotionally and physically.  I felt so good during this pregnancy and recovered from my birthing experience so quickly; – I dropped down to my pre-pregnancy weight in one month – I was so impressed by the results, I decided to become certified to teach yoga in 2003 when my daughter was born,” Phi says.

After becoming certified to teach, Phi taught yoga all over Baton Rouge.  She taught at several YMCA’s, BRCC, LSU leisure classes, then at the Women’s Wellness Center.  “I was teaching about 20 classes a week. Teaching at all these locations was too much; I needed to focus and deepen my own practice.  So when we had a chance to build our home, I decided to build a home studio so I could focus more.  Then I opened a studio with a partner in 2006 at Towne Center.  After leaving there, I went to Florida to further my studies with Yogi Amrit Desai.  I reopened my home studio in 2008, and moved to the South Acadian location in August in 2010.”

At the Agame Yoga and Meditation Center, Phi and other instructors taught classes and held retreats there.  In 2016, she gave the business to a 501(c)(3) for purpose non-profit organization she founded, Ambassadors of Light.  She tells us, “My vision for Ambassadors of Light is to bring yoga and meditation and other integrative healing practices to children, battered women/single moms, to our veterans and to our aging population.”

Phi explains the purpose behind Ambassadors of Light, “We are all Ambassadors of the Divine Light that shines within each of us, and we invite you to shine your light and support us as Louisiana’s only 501(c)(3) for purpose and only full open contribution yoga studio! That means we want to support you in whatever way we can so you can touch your inner light and shine it forth to the world. We want to serve our underprivileged communities and bring some light where there may be difficulties and darkness. This is a community-wide effort, from the studio, from the teachers, and from our members and supporters.

“The goal is to make yoga and meditation accessible to all regardless of money.  That is why the studio is a full open contribution studio.  This makes us the only 501(c)(3) for purpose and full open contribution studio in Louisiana.

“I do not own the center as of June 1, 2016, Ambassadors of Light (AOL) does.  The Board of Directors run it; I am one of five volunteer board members.  The board is currently raising money to bring yoga and mindfulness to the children of Polk and FLAIM elementary schools this fall as well as partner with HYPE (Helping Youths Prepare for Excellence), a First United Methodist Church after-school program supporting the children of Bernard Terrace.  We also want to hire an executive director to further our efforts in reaching out to more schools, support battered women and single moms and give back to our veterans and aging populations.  The executive director will be the only paid person.  I will continue my private coaching and consultation, lead workshops and trainings, conduct retreats, create online content and serve on the AOL board.

“I want to help people connect to the feel good place that is within them.  That is why we founded the nonprofit, to make services available to others who cannot afford them.  The name Ambassadors of Light empowers each of us to be one another’s ambassador, to support each other on the journey.  The Light is the state of happiness and peace that is within us.  The studio offers full service open contribution classes, so people can come to enjoy yoga and not let money be a factor.”

When asked what advice she would give to others on starting a business, Phi says   “Do what you Love.  Be among empowered people who are living their authentic lives and living their lives as they want to be and not what they were conditioned to be.  The ‘thing’ is not what is important; it is the why that nurtures and sustains us.”

She advises everyone to “Know your why.”  She says, “Why do you want to go into business.  Let it be connected to your inner purpose; this will help you with the challenges you face and you will be able to move through the challenges more easily.

“I come from a place of healing and service, this is my why; it is to give back in a way that is empowering to people.  This is an expression of gratitude for the people who sponsored us all those 30+ years ago.  Through the Kindness of strangers, my families’ lives have been transformed.  It just so happens that my path is yoga and meditation, but it could be anything.  Your path may be owning a restaurant or another career path.  It is the ‘why’ that drives us to find the expression that is in alignment with who we are. Our ‘why’ supports and sustains us and we naturally want to give back.”

Phi’s family escaped Vietnam in 1979 and lived in a refugee camp for a year.  They came to America in the winter of 1980.  Her family was sponsored by the families in the town of Blue Earth, Minnesota.  She recalls arriving in Minnesota in the middle of winter.  “The townspeople met us at the airport and wrapped us in heavy winter coats.  It was a beautiful start to my time in America.  I was ten years old and began grade school in Minnesota, then middle school in Kansas.  We moved to Louisiana in the mid 80’s and I finished Middle School and continued on to high school in New Orleans and then Loyola University.

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

Phi says, “This quote, from Edith Wharton, is one of my favorite: ‘As ambassadors, we are holding the mirror up to reflect each other’s light.’”