By Daniel Nolker
Ranger-Review Staff Writer
Glendive got a taste of successful small business at the Innovate Glendive: Small Business Roadshow on Tuesday night.
Bob Thaden of Tongue River Vineyard and Winery in Miles City and Kris Carpenter of Sanctuary Spa and Salon in Billings both offered advice to cope with the struggles and triumphs that accompany starting a small business.
A totally engaged audience of over 50 people, many of whom were small business owners, generated optimistic energy at the workshop as the presenters provided helpful insights, said Dawson County Economic Development Council executive director Cathy Kirkpatrick
“I think the speakers related very well to small business owners and the folks who attended. I appreciate that they shared about when times were tough. Their honesty was really valuable,” Kirkpatrick said.
Although they work in different industries, both Thaden and Carpenter offered similar advice. They said small business owners should plan for failure and follow their passions. It is better to take the risk than live to regret it, they acknowledged.
“We’re the number one state for startups per capita in the United States,” said Small Business Advocate for the Governor’s Office Andy Shirtliff at the event. “We do very very well at small businesses.”
One small business that he said represented successful small businesses in Montana is the Tongue River Vineyard and Winery.
“We wandered into being business owners,” Thaden said. “We never planned on starting this business. We had professional lives and money going into pensions. At our age, we are now on social security and medicare, we don’t need an income. We’ve always been careful financially so we have no debt.”
Thaden, 66, said he retired from being a United Church of Christ pastor 11 years ago and his wife is a speech pathologist. She was the president of the Montana Speech and Hearing Association for a few years as well as on the certification board.
“I’ve been making wine since I was 18 as a hobby. I started doing it in college. I’ve done it longer than just about anything else I’ve ever done, except kissing my wife,” Thaden said. “We never planned on starting a winery, we simply planted more grapes than we could legally turn into wine as amateurs.”
After hearing about wine grapes that were being grown in Minnesota, Thaden said he researched them and planted around 40 vines on his property near Miles City. The second year, he said they planted 450 vines and 300 vines the year after that.
“At some point after we had around $100,000 invested, we thought we should try to get something out of it,” Thaden said. “We started looking into the whole business of starting a business.”
Thaden said a big part of starting a small business is planning for failure.
“Expect to fail. Eighty to 90 percent of small businesses fail in three to five years,” Thaden said.
Since they recognized the risks, Thaden said their facility was built to the specifications of a four bedroom home. If the business fails, they can quickly convert the building to a home and sell it without losing too much.
On Oct.1, 2010 the business officially began. Although it was not an easy journey, he said he is proud of the success they have achieved so far.
“As of today, we have just passed the $400,000 mark in total income since we opened, in a little under five years,” Thaden said. “We definitely have done something new in Eastern Montana. We were the first and continue to be the only commercial vineyard/winery combination East of Missoula.”
Thaden said Tongue River Winery has sold about 29,000 bottles since they started and produced over 40 different wines. They have 40 plus retail outlets throughout much of Montana.
“People are asking for it in Butte, Helena and Dillon,” Thaden said.
Along with ever-increasing sales, he said they have won over 2,000 gold, silver and bronze medals for their wines. He said the winery won the Granite Peak Award three years in a row for the top rated Montana wine at the Northwest Wine Summit in Oregon.
“Hobbies are a valuable place to look for a new venture because they at least indicate that you are looking at something that you enjoy doing,” Thaden said. “If you don’t have that passion for what you are doing, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.”
Like Thaden, Carpenter said she did not expect to own a successful small business. She said she was thirty years old and living with her husband and children on their ranch when she decided to go to beauty school. After working in the industry for ten years, she said she was preparing to retire.
“One day I had the entrepreneurial seizure where my life was different forever. If you have a business, you can probably track it back to that day, that moment, when you found the final piece and your life changed forever,” Carpenter said.
She said for her, it was when she met the woman who opened probably the first day spa in the United States. After that meeting, Carpenter said she was inspired to start a business. She quit her job, learned what she did not know, and in nine months she opened her business. Now Sanctuary Spa and Salon has been open for 17 years and she said she has other businesses that employ roughly 35 people.
Carpenter said for her, planning for failure was essential.
“Plan on the failures. You learn what you don’t know and you just keep ploughing ahead,” Carpenter said.
Along with planning for failure, Carpenter echoed Thaden on the importance of passion.
“What Bob said about passion is correct,” Carpenter said. “It’s about that spark. That’s what entrepreneurship is about. That’s why we survive and why we fail.”
After the event, at the sampling of Tongue River wines, Shirtliff said that Thaden and Carpenter really seemed to touch on the needs of Glendive.
“It’s clear Glendive small businesses are ready to grow and people want to engage. You can sense the excitement and energy in the crowd tonight. This is the start of something pretty special,” Shirtliff said.