A Publication of WTVP

Bridging the gap between ideas, action

Local business owners have plenty of advice for young entrepreneurs

by CeCe Hill | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Two women standing in their businesses
Left: Shatiya Alexander, Blown Away Ballons, Right: Erin Strehlo, Fiber Universe

As a little girl, I dreamed of being a fashion designer. I couldn’t imagine anything more glamorous than designing my own clothes and owning my own label. I loved the idea of being my own boss, even though I was much too young to understand what having a boss meant.

But as I got into high school and college, those dreams changed. While owning a small business is no longer in the cards for me – and hasn’t been since I stopped emulating Project Runway and starting reciting A Midsummer Night’s Dream — I’m still endlessly curious about how you go from the seedling of an idea to a for-profit business. Is it ever too early or too late to begin?

Six local small business owners shared with me the secrets to their success. Their journeys were not always seamless, but they were able to find their way by following these tenets.

Know the Craft

Mike Mohr of Mohr and Kerr Engineering and Land Surveying has been in business for 15 years. In his 20s, he was involved in land surveying at a technician level and set his sights on becoming licensed, then opening his own business. But this was no simple feat.

“The biggest challenge was getting enough experience to be able to take the first test,” he explained. That challenge lasted eight years. Passing the first segment of the licensing exam was the preliminary hurdle, but even after doing so he was required to work four more years under a licensed land surveyor to take the second part of the exam. Then there was the difficulty of the exam itself.

Still, Mohr wishes now that he had started the whole process sooner. “As I look back 15 years later, I wish I would have done it 30 years ago,” he said.

Being great at any craft always ties back to the amount of practice put in. Mohr’s experience taught him the craft itself, but it also gave him the tools – work ethic, personal connections, etc. — to grow into his success. Practice may not always make perfect, but it will certainly teach you a thing or two along the way.

Know the Industry

When Cathy Kemp opened her Morton restaurant, Kemp 208, seven years ago, it was her first foray as an owner following years of getting to know the industry. She got her start at Peoria’s Weaver Ridge Clubhouse and restaurant, then continued her career at Pekin Country Club.

“If that’s your goal, to own a restaurant, then you need to get in a restaurant and work,” she said. “You really need to know whatever field you’re going into to be a business owner. It’s easy to stand on the outside and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun?’ I love my job, but owning a business does give you a different perspective of it.”

Knowing her industry allowed Kemp to find dedicated employees, navigate the finances and set expectations for future growth, which included creating a backup plan in case Kemp 208 didn’t work out. This allowed Kemp to go into the industry with her eyes wide open.

Know the Market

Diane Hahn of Mackinaw Valley Vineyard stresses the importance of understanding the market and urges young professionals to ask themselves, “Is there a need here that isn’t being met?” Meanwhile, creating a solid business plan is critical, she said. 

“Think hard and strategically about your target audience,” said Hahn, adding that social media tools like Instagram and Facebook are becoming increasingly valuable to small business owners seeking to advertise. 

One way Hahn recommended getting to know the market is by visiting a similar small business at least 100 miles away — to ensure the business isn’t direct competition — and by scheduling a time to chat with the owner or manager. 

Meanwhile, have realistic expectations, said Hahn. “Be patient. Most ‘overnight successes’ can take years.”

Stay Passionate

Shatiya Alexander, the owner of Blown Away Balloons in Peoria, was a longtime lover of art and an avid decorator prior to starting her business. She was 19 years old and didn’t even own a balloon pump.

“I literally started from nothing,” she said.

It didn’t seem to hinder her.

Now 25, she is more determined than ever and hopes to expand her business beyond central Illinois. She advises other young prospective business owners to simply love what they do, to think big, and to always push for greatness. “There is no limit to your dreams,” she said.

Get Creative

Erin Strehlo wasn’t much older than Alexander when she opened the popular Peoria yarn store, Fiber Universe. But Strehlo doesn’t just sell yarn at Fiber Universe. She’s also building community.

Before COVID, Fiber Universe hosted knitting circles where fellow creatives could find a sense of community and comfort. “I lived in Peoria for a few years, but it was the first time I felt like I had found my group of people,” she said.

Like many businesses, COVID dealt Fiber Universe a tough hand when it could no longer host in-person knitting circles. Strehlo got creative and moved her  knitting community to Zoom, hosting virtual knit circles that have attracted people across the country, some of whom had never even heard of Peoria, Illinois before attending. This has allowed online business to bloom.

“Just like many other businesses, our online presence has grown a lot and we found ways to help provide yarn and supplies, not just in our local Peoria community,” Strehlo said. Like Hahn, Strehlo was able to identify a market — a band of people who found solace in knitting and crocheting — and create a business model that served their needs. Her creativity before, during, and after the pandemic has equipped Fiber Universe with the flexibility needed to continue to thrive.

Be Patient

Pam Locsin, part owner of The Garlic Press in Normal, gives the simplest advice of all: Take it easy. There is time.

In her 20s, Locsin worked as a visual merchandiser with The Garlic Press as one of her clients. This eventually led to part-time employment, then full-time, then supervisory responsibilities, and ultimately, part ownership in 2001. When reflecting on her journey and what she would share with her younger self, she said, “Keep an open mind.”

This was a common sentiment among the business owners I spoke with. Very few people end up where they thought they would be in 10 years.

Cathy Kemp was staying home with her kids prior to opening Kemp 208.  Diane Hahn worked for a publication before starting at Mackinaw Valley Vineyard. My Project Runway dreams eventually gave way to writing.

It seems everything worked out in the end.

“The road takes you in many different places,” said Locsin, “but it does take you where you need to be.”

Cece Hill

CeCe Hill

grew up in Normal and is a 2020 graduate of Webster Conservatory in St. Louis, where she studied acting and English. Currently, she resides in Morton and spends her free time scouting out the perfect spot to work on her sixth novel