The University’s Entrepreneurial Center / Women’s Business Center has expanded into two new locations in Hartford and East Hartford. Upcoming workshop and business advising location details will be emailed to registrants and posted on our calendar.
Article by Cheryl Rice
Photos by Shana Sureck
Denise O’Reilly first came to the Women’s Business Center last year in an enviable position. The custom-designed wood spoons and cutting boards she was etching for her business, The Burnt Shop, were in high demand. Demand was so high, in fact, that she needed some coaching to figure out how to manage the growth and fill all the orders she was getting.
She had first started burning her artwork into wooden spoons just a year or so before, mostly out of necessity. Denise and her husband have a large extended family and she needed at least 40 gifts for that holiday season. She found inexpensive wooden kitchen spoon sets and embellished them with her own designs, using a $30 wood-burning pen. They were a huge hit—and the seed of a business idea was planted.
At the time, Denise worked at Whole Foods as a team leader in cheeses and specialty foods. This was great experience, she says, because of the variety of things she was required to do. “Being a team leader is very much like running your own small specialty shop,” she observed. “You do inventory, you sell, you keep the financials, and you hire and fire.” She also had a suspicion that the clientele in that department was an ideal target for her Burnt Shop wares. When the opportunity to donate goods for an in-store charity drive came up, she jumped at the chance to bring in her custom-made spoons and cutting boards to test that market. The Whole Foods customers loved them, and she couldn’t keep the items on the shelves. After that, she says, “It blew up!”
—all while still working her job at Whole Foods. It soon became apparent that something was going to have to give. After careful consideration and planning with her husband, she decided to make The Burnt Shop her full-time job.
“I’d always done my own thing,” she said about her entrepreneurial leanings. “I’d had two restaurants, a catering business, a cleaning business, a home day care—some of those things simultaneously. Every single thing I did over 35 years helped to prepare me for this.”
While she had wide ranging experience as an entrepreneur, Denise recognized that The Burnt Shop presented unique challenges. If she was going to make it, she was going to need to learn business skills like forecasting, logistics, marketing, sourcing materials, and managing overhead. She took a free How to Start Your Own Small Business workshop and then joined the Women’s Business Roundtable at the Center. These opened her eyes to all aspects of managing a small business like hers.
One of the most valuable parts of her experience at the Women’s Business Center was the opportunity to meet with business advisor and attorney Lacey Banks McGill. The big question she brought to Lacey was whether or not she should invest in a laser burning machine, a piece of equipment that would cost more than $25,000, to help speed up her production. She and Lacey sat down and ran the numbers. “It’s embarrassing,” Denise said. “I left Whole Foods before I’d ever even run hypothetical numbers. I didn’t understand costs or production.” Lacey helped her look honestly at the number of orders she had, how much she could make on each one, and how many orders she was hoping to fill in the near future. If she was truly serious about filling those orders and continuing to grow, Lacey showed her that investing in that machine was the only way to do it.
So Denise and her husband sat down and planned for the investment. She admits that, like most entrepreneurs, she was filled with anxiety at the prospect of spending that kind of money. They cut their personal expenses as much as possible, and Denise looked into options for financing. In the end, her good credit rating paid off and she was able to finance the machine through the manufacturer. Because both Denise and her husband are committed to the business, they’ve made personal sacrifices and kept their overhead low while The Burnt Shop gets off the ground. The financing of the laser is the only debt they’ve taken on, and thanks to Lacey’s guidance, Denise knows it was the right decision for her business.
Being smart about money is Denise’s biggest piece of advice for up-and-coming entrepreneurs. “You don’t need to go deep into debt. If you’ve found what you want to do, don’t let a lack of money stop you. Make changes in your lifestyle if you need to. Places like the Women’s Business Center can help you make smart decisions.”
Denise found the staff at the Center to be warm and inviting; she felt like she could ask anything. “They gave me direction. I didn’t understand the money side of things and they gave me so much valuable information.” Because Lacey showed her that spending money on the laser equipment was the right thing to do, Denise had the confidence to make that big financial commitment. Her 2016 sales were more than double the previous year’s and she is looking to double again in 2017. She’s also exploring distribution channels such as retail outlets and well-known websites—something that wouldn’t have been possible without her increased production capacity.
“Take advantage of all the free resources at the Center,” Denise advises. “Free classes, my gosh! Don’t try to reinvent the wheel when there is so much knowledge out there. If you are an entrepreneurial spirit, figure it out. Just learn, and then go and do it.”