A trio of area small business owners started early as entrepreneurs and didn’t look back.
“I had a few options coming out of high school. I was going to go into art school either in San Francisco or Milwaukee, or I had the opportunity to open up a store,” said Austin Scott. “I thought that it was a no-brainer because if it didn’t work out, I could always go to school.”
Scott, 24, opened The Neighborhood Trading Co., a clothing store at 223 S. Main St., in Galena, Ill., in September 2017, when he otherwise might have been starting his freshman year of college. He opened The Hideaway Home & Goods store, where he sells home décor, at 120 N. Main St. in Galena in May 2023.
Sarah Knabel, 27, owner and founder of Bob & Lou’s Coffee at 1895 University Ave., in Dubuque, learned quickly after graduating in 2018 from Iowa State University with a degree in marketing and communications that she didn’t want to work in a cubicle for corporate America.
“I’m just not a sit-in-an-office person,” she said. “I am very chatty and very on the go.”
What became Elevated Images — a photo art gallery and home décor and gift shop at 129 Main St. in Dubuque — started as a hobby.
“I have been flying remote control helicopters since I was a kid,” said Mike Williams, 27. “As I got older, as the drone technology began to come out, I wanted a drone perspective or an aerial point of view as I was traveling to these different places (on) water and in the mountains.”
He graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in 2018 with a degree in interactive digital studies — a combination marketing and computer science — moved back home to Dubuque and started a virtual side business.
“We (were) doing farmers markets and other local events and had a website where we (ran) the business,” Williams said.
In October, he expanded the business into the downtown storefront where he sells framed and canvas prints of his aerial photos as wall decor. He also sells shot glasses, drink cozies, magnets and other gift items.
“We wouldn’t have considered a storefront if we weren’t profitable and didn’t see a profit in the future,” said Williams, who also works as a logistics planner at John Deere Dubuque Works and is an intern for the City of Dubuque in the Office of Arts and Culture.
“We’ve done the farmers market for the past five years. We’ve done the Millwork District’s Night Market. We’ve done the Galena Territory’s Market. We do winter markets and fall markets and things like that,” he said. “With the storefront and being able to have a physical location, especially on Main Street in Dubuque, our photography and gift side (of the business) has a lot of room for growth.”
For the service side of his business, Williams flies drones for Realtors, farmers and any other business that uses aerial video and photos for marketing. He also teaches classes on how to fly drones.
“There’s room for growth in all those sectors as well,” Williams said.
Knabel — who named her coffeeshop after her grandparents, Bob and Mary Lou Johanningmeier of Dubuque — grew her business at a time when she really didn’t have another choice. She started Bob & Lou’s in 2020 as a mobile business in a 1968 mini-camper. Soon, she was approached by Susan Farber, owner of Magoo’s Pizza. She wanted Knabel to expand into available space next to Magoo’s.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Knabel said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I don’t know. I’ll think about it.’ And then came winter and I’m like, OK, the camper cannot make it through the winter. The pipes were starting to freeze up overnight, and I knew that I had to store the camper so I had to make the decision: Do I close the camper and get another job or do I move into this little brick and mortar shop?”
She moved into the shop, thinking it would be a temporary location because she worked in it by herself that first winter.
“It was doing so well. It’s right next to a major hospital and a university,” she said. “So, in April of 2021, I hired my first three employees and decided that I would do the camper and they would do the shop and it hasn’t closed since. It shows that that spot is pretty good, and I don’t think we’ll move out.”
Knabel wouldn’t have it any other way, even though owning her small business often means working 24 hours per day seven days per week.
“When some people hear that, they probably think of it as a negative,” she said. “But in my mind, I’m working all the time and thinking about something that I created and that I love. So that 24/7 to me doesn’t seem like work.”
Scott said running his two Galena stores is similar to how he grew up, following his grandparents to yard sales when he was 4.
“I always went to garage sales, always went to thrift stores,” he said. “In high school, I was finding stuff and flipping it on Facebook Marketplace.”
At 14, he started working part time at a sporting goods store in a mall in Fond du Lac, Wis. By the time he graduated from high school, the owner of the store offered to loan Scott $20,000 to start a business.
“We decided on Galena because, aside from Door County in Wisconsin, it was the closest tourism spot with good activity and a good market,” Scott said. “I drove down here once, and I loved it. A month later, I moved down here and opened that summer.”
He has been learning and growing his stores ever since then.
“I had to make my own mistakes and I really had to learn everything,” he said. “I knew the bones of retail, knew how to sell to people and I knew how to display things. Along the way, I figured out that it’s all atmosphere based. I think that anyone can sell anything as long as the atmosphere is there. If I build a nice atmosphere with good music and good lighting and it smells good, I can put any product in there and it will sell.”
Scott isn’t done learning and growing his businesses.
“I want to have more residual income, rental properties and storage units and things where I don’t have to work as hard, that I don’t have to fully staff and that bring me money,” he said. “When you’re in a small business, you live and breathe your business. If it’s a retail space, you’re always here. You’re always buying, you’re always paying someone, always on the phone, always driving.”
He looks forward to someday having more free time.
“You’re never going to get rich having a small business, but you are going to live a comfortable lifestyle where you can choose your hours,” he said. “To me, the money isn’t really the thing. The free time is more valuable than the actual money.”