2019-10-30 22:18:36

Gainesville’s female small business owners discuss their successes and lessons for new entrepreneurs.

Two years ago, Jennifer Fitterman decided to leave behind her high-earning job as an assisted living facility administrator to start a business where she helped elderly clients and their families in a new way.

“It was definitely a leap of faith,” she said.

Now, Fitterman, along with co-owner Jeff Linville, operates Next Step Senior Solutions, which matches senior clients with a care center based on their needs and price range. The business just placed its 91st client in a senior care center.

About 36% of the nation’s small businesses are owned by women, according to surveys conducted by the U.S. Small Business Administration in 2016. Across Gainesville, several of these local business leaders discussed the successes earned and lessons learned as part of National Women’s Small Business Month.

The idea to develop Next Step occurred to Fitterman and Linville after they saw families frustrated by the process of getting help for their aging loved ones.

“Families would be overwhelmed by the process,” Fitterman said. “It doesn’t really sneak up on you, but it feels like it does. One day mom is fine, the next you realize, she’s not getting the level of care that she needs.”

Next Step Senior Solutions offers free services to place family members of varying income levels in the best care center, she said. The business helps negotiate price, makes sure the area is the right fit, and can assist with moving and finding an attorney to assist with selling a house.

Although Next Step is doing well, with four total employees and nearly 100 clients served, it hasn’t always been easy, Fitterman said.

“At the beginning, you will take all business that comes your way,” she said. “You want to please everyone, but there are some people that you are not designed to help.”

After a facility they had sent clients to underwent a management change, Next Step was offered the chance to manage part of the facility.

Now, Fitterman said, her business is getting out of that end of the business.

“We realized it became a crutch,” she said. “It pulled us away from what we started out to do. If I stray from my mission, that’s just going to water down what we’re doing.”

Two years into the business, she said she feels she has a grasp on its mission and wants to help others do the same.

“We’ve been fortunate to have a good network around who we’ve been able to reach out to,” Fitterman said. “And we’d like to be there for others.”

This is a key tool to business success, said Bernie Dandridge, a small business development specialist with Florida Capital Bank in Jacksonville.

He said developing a network of people with different experiences and expertise can help the business grow to its full potential in terms of marketing, accounting, website development and more.

“Most people need support,” he said. “They have to have a good team around them. No one person can do this alone.”

The reality, Dandridge said, is that most people do not have expertise in all the elements that combine to make a profitable business.

“People need to know it’s OK to ask for help,” he said “They need to get over that fear of asking for it.”

Dandridge said local resources, such as the Small Business Development Center, provide new and existing businesses with free consulting about making business plans, maximizing social media presence, structuring prices and other tools.

Gainesville’s office is at the Gainesville Technology Enterprise Center, 2153 SE Hawthorne Road, Suite 139.

“When you have these types of resources available, you have to use them,” Dandridge said. Take the time to be prepared.”

Only after you have a solid business plan that prepares for unforeseen challenges should you approach a banker for any financing needed, he said.

Anna Prizzia, who with Melissa DeSa co-founded Working Food, a nonprofit that focuses on promoting local food in the community, said entrepreneurs who are early in the process of developing their business may have high expectations for success.

When you first start a business, Prizzia said, you might not necessarily be able to do it full time.

“We all worked other jobs when we started,” she said.

“It’s amazing to have that creative dream, but having a plan for it and making it a reality is important when you figure out whether you can really make it work,” said Prizzia, who recently announced her campaign to run for the Alachua County commission. “It’s a hard road, and there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears that go toward creating that dream.”

She said that Working Food, which developed in 2017 by combining two other nonprofits, Blue Oven Kitchens and Forage, took time to gain its footing.

She said remaining flexible as problems arise and being willing to adapt are some of the lessons she learned that helped Working Food grow. She also suggests patience, especially in the beginning

Today, Working Food works with city and county officials to bring agricultural programs to low-income families and assists other entrepreneurs and food-based startups.

Chaya Heller, who owns and operates ChayaVeda Integrative Healing Arts, 2631 NW 41st St. Suite E6, said Gainesville is an interesting and competitive place to start a business because of the constant ebb and flow of residents.

“Things catch on, and they come and they go,” Heller said.

At her business, she performs massages, teaches yoga and provides health education based on Ayurveda, which focuses on tuning in to one’s core values.

She said that based on her experiences watching businesses succeed or fail in Gainesville, people must demonstrate quality in their products or services to stay afloat.

“It creates a very competitive market,” she said.

One of the most valuable ways she has been able to develop in business, she said, is by joining community organizations. Some of these, such as the Greater Gainesville Chamber, are business-oriented, but she suggests women interested in becoming a business owner branch out to others as well.

She and Fitterman are both members of the Gainesville Area Women’s Network.

“Reach out and get involved in a couple organizations,” Heller said. “But you can’t spread yourself out too thin.”

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