By: Layna Gifford
Move to the big city of Asheville? Me? I was a single mom moving from a small town of 1150 residents in Michigan and Asheville seemed the size of New York City to me. Recently divorced, I needed to start a new life and Asheville represented amazing possibilities. That was 11 years ago and I had no idea just how those possibilities would change my life.
Working 3 jobs, 80 hours a week, I did what I had to survive and provide for my son and daughter. One of those jobs involved providing accounting services for local retail stores. I had been in the accounting business for over 20 years and I loved it. I needed to start that business here, in Asheville. One client led to another and another until New Century Business Services was formed. I could finally quit one job then the other until my accounting business was all I did. I built my business from the ground up and I now have the opportunity to work with a diverse group of small to medium-size businesses.
After several years of working from my home office it was time to find a “real” office. I felt having a professional office would not only lend additional credibility to my business but it would also help me keep more structured work hours. Although providing accounting services brings its own level of frustration and adversities, one of the biggest challenges I faced was trying to find office space for my own business. I spent countless hours driving around the Asheville area searching for “For Lease” signs. Then I would make calls on those properties that led me nowhere. Like most small business owners, my time was already stretched to the limit and I realized there needed to be a quicker and easier way. What if there was a simple online resource to use when I got home late from a long day of work? A place where I could search for the exact kind of space I needed. It would be easy to use and free to search; something no one else was providing. That’s when I came up with the idea for ThinkBusinessSpace.com, a website that brings local available commercial space together on one website. Now that I had the idea… where do I start?
My first thought was to present this grand idea to my parents. Even at the age of 45, I hold their opinions and wisdom close to my heart. How lucky am I to have two people who love me unconditionally and have always been my biggest cheerleaders! I knew they would not pull any punches with their honest opinion. “Go for it,” they said! “We know once you set your mind to something you are unstoppable!”
In speaking with friends and colleagues I heard of the SBTDC (Small Business & Technology Development Center), which at the time I thought was an awful lot of letters for an acronym. I was told that they offer free counseling for small businesses. What I didn’t know was that their help would nurture the seed of my new business which would launch my idea into a great success.
The counselor I met with at the SBTDC was Patricia. When I explained my business idea to her, not only did her mind start working on ways for me to start the process, but she also listened with her heart. She gave me specific steps and ideas on how to start my market research—including what questions I might ask, businesses I should visit, and other resources I could use to help the process. Patricia could also hear the fear in my voice about having to step out of my “introvert box” to do cold calling and public speaking. She recommended a great business women’s networking group that was relaxed, friendly, and helpful. This would ease me into the world of public speaking and networking. You see, in my accounting business I was very fortunate to have all my clients come to me by way of referrals so I never really had to think about research, marketing, or networking.
It took several months of market research and planning to put the website together. I spoke to many business owners who felt the same frustrations that I felt when looking for space. I made connections with some of the largest commercial real estate brokers in the Asheville area like Morosani and Associates, Pulliam Properties, and Beverly Hanks; they all needed a better way to bring exposure to the abundance of commercial space in the WNC area. Two things were consistent with everyone I spoke to; make it quick and easy to use. If it didn’t work for them, they wouldn’t use it.
It is a lot of work, especially trying to run two completely different businesses. Is it more work than I expected? Absolutely! Someone once told me, “Building a business is like building a house—expect it to take longer than you thought and know that you’ll probably go way over budget.” But when you feel this amazing passion and truly believe in what you are doing it makes it all worthwhile.
The foundation I built in the beginning with the connections I made and the skills I learned through networking and public speaking have, in just five months from the website launch, led me to be awarded Entrepreneur of the Month by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. I was also recently chosen to participate in the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council’s Breakthrough Business Challenge which looks for businesses with high growth potential to mentor and help succeed.
The successes in my business continue to grow. We are creating partnerships with AdvantageWest Economic Development Group and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. This will lead to an innovative process of sending a direct feed of the commercial properties database created on the ThinkBusinessSpace.com website directly to their websites. This should be a great resource for businesses considering relocation to Western North Carolina. The Western North Carolina Film Commission will be using ThinkBusinessSpace.com and our wide range of contacts to find space when bringing film projects to the WNC area. Many thanks to Pam Lewis, Director of Entrepreneurship at the Asheville Chamber for helping me make many of these connections.
Our partnership with Karnes, a commercial properties research and analysis company in Charlotte, is probably the most exciting. This partnership will allow us the opportunity to create partnerships with other local EDC’s and Chambers throughout all of North Carolina. We will be providing a local resource for each area of the State for not only commercial properties but for links and direction to state, county, and city government for licensing and tax set up. This will be invaluable to businesses coming to North Carolina.
With all of this, we will not only be providing a wonderful free resource to businesses but we will also be creating jobs both within our company and by helping business owners choose North Carolina as the location for their companies. And just think, while the idea of ThinkBusinessSpace.com came from the pain and frustration I felt from searching for an office, it actually got started by making the right connections.
With every success in life there seem to always be a few steps back. My step back is that the man that I have loved and adored since I was born, my dad, now has small cell lung cancer. As you can imagine the news was devastating to me and my family. I am so very thankful that I have the opportunity to live close to my parents and try to split as much time as I can between being with my parents and running both businesses. With all this going on in their lives they don’t hesitate for a minute to tell everyone they know how proud they are of their daughter.
The support of a loving man, my sweetheart, and my daughter and 18-month-old grandson helps bring everything into perspective. When I feel overwhelmed, all I need to do is call on their strength, their love, and their laughter and the world seems right again.
Words of advice for anyone starting their own business? A few. Expect to work hard, very hard. Remember that MONEY should not be the reason to start your business; it will probably be awhile before you make any. If you want something, go get it yourself; don’t expect anyone to do it for you. Surround yourself with people who support you. Your business will be built from connections so make good ones. Find a niche. Be relentless. But most importantly remember the best job you can have is the one you own!