Monticello Bootcamp teaches entrepreneurial essentials
MONTICELLO — About two years ago, Samantha Koon loved the idea of opening a wine bar.
She still does, but the Monticello businesswoman has since launched a gourmet meal delivery service (Gourmet to Go), and soon will open a boarding house (Zybell House) and home decor and gift shop (Monticello Mercantile).
"As an entrepreneur, you want to start a business about something you're passionate about, but there's a lot of stuff that wraps around being a business owner that you don't think about," said Koon, who in the fall of 2015 signed up for Monticello Bootcamp, a free, five-week series of classes open to anyone interested in what it takes to start a business.
Each week, speakers cover areas that can help new and current entrepreneurs, such as accounting, finances, taxes, advertising, social media, marketing, legal concerns, credit and lending.
Koon went into the program needing more information about insurance, finances and taxes.
"They're things that aren't super sexy but are essential to running a business," said Koon, who walked away from the program with an unanticipated benefit as well — a network of knowledgeable people in various areas that she could rely on once her businesses were up and running.
Bootcamp also helped her refine her business concept by getting on how her idea may or may not work, in general, or in Monticello specifically. Those are reasons why Koon highly recommends the free program whether a person has only a germ of an idea or a business opening next week or an existing business.
"The power of the program is it has the structure to help you ask questions. It gives you the tools and network to ask questions and figure out what your next step is no matter what stage of the process," said Koon, who still plans to pursue a wine bar, but through her own tweaking and refining process has elected to go other routes for now.
Registration is going on now for the fourth round of Monticello Bootcamp that begins Feb. 21 at the Monticello Livingston Center, 224 E. Livingston, and continues each Thursday for five weeks. To register, go to monticellobootcamp.com.
Callie McFarland, the director of community development in town, said it's open to anyone regardless of residency and regardless where one plans to open a business. Participants write a business plan, and those planning to open a new business in town can apply for a $5,000 grant toward rent and utilities.
Koon was the grant winner in the fall 2015 round of classes.
McFarland said the program was partly launched to get new businesses into the empty downtown buildings.
"Anyone can sign up. We will take as many people as want to come," she said, emphasizing that it's not limited to people in Monticello or those wanting to open a business there. She said 53 have gone through the program so far and come from all walks of life and as far as Macon County. The program is modeled on one in a community on the East Coast, and the idea is to grow your own businesses in your community and help them get a solid start.
She said it's better to have a few businesses that are good and successful than 20 that aren't.
Unexpected bonuses of the program, McFarland said, have been the community's renewed spirit in the downtown and more communication and networking among the existing businesses and those planning to open soon.
Pete Bergstrom said he meets every Friday morning with Michael Lejeune, also of Monticello and an entrepreneur and senior consultant with RSM Federal, who is a speaker in the Bootcamp.
Bergstrom — who owns Prairieland Catering and Bergies, the Occasional Place — said they pass ideas back and forth, and for him, there's an accountability element in their communication that's helpful in relation to executing his ideas. Bergstrom said it has also fostered communication between him and fellow Monticello businessman Michael Long, who owns the Black Hat Barber & Shave Company and is another Bootcamp alumnus.
He said their businesses are close physically, and they make an effort to communicate and support each other.
Bergstrom said he's a big proponent of the businesses doing that. Helping out the barbershop, the interior decorator and the local restaurant will help his business do better down the line, too.
"If you get the whole positive attitude going, everybody wins," he said. "That's what the class does is starts that. It gives you contacts and starts that communication."
Don Elmore, director of the Champaign-Urbana Small Business Development Center, works with clients starting businesses throughout East Central Illinois, teaches a monthly class and is also a speaker at the Bootcamp where he talks about writing a business plan.
He said most new start-ups don't make it beyond five years, but the entrepreneur spirit is alive, even in Illinois. He said he has no shortage of new clients and usually gets 15 to 25 people for his once-a-month class, "Starting Your Business In Illinois."
He said those pursuing a start-up need a very clear understanding of what their business is. He has them answer the question, "Who are your customers, and what problem are you solving for them?"
"One way or another, that is your business. It's usually a good place to start," he said. "It's surprising some times that people have a general idea, but it's not crystalized in their minds."