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The big business blend – Entrepreneurs combine multiple niches into one

By   /   Friday, February 27th, 2009  /   Comments Off on The big business blend – Entrepreneurs combine multiple niches into one

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Tough times call on entrepreneurs to get inventive and do something a little different to win customers’ dollars. And two tri-county businesses are doing just that.

In Santa Barbara, Live Culture plans to serve up a combination of wine, frozen yogurt and live music. SLO County Sitters in San Luis Obispo has connected parents with vetted, reliable babysitters and nannies for about a year and has found success.

But each business offers twists and extras that it hopes customers won’t be able find elsewhere. And the entrepreneurs behind each have put to work the skills they built earlier in their careers.

Here’s a closer look at how each company is carving a niche to succeed during tough times.

Live Culture

About a year ago, Live Culture founders Sierra Falso, Rebecca Klarich and Darin Fiechter were dining in downtown Santa Barbara and, on a whim, decided to look for vacant spaces to open a frozen yogurt shop. They found one that looked good and, within a week, had a business plan, a go-ahead from the building owner and a loan from Business First Bank.

The plan: Create a “live culture” of frozen yogurt, wine, food and live music that’s less costly than downtown Santa Barbara’s high-end restaurants but a bit classier than a bar or coffee shop.

“There are live cultures in frozen yogurt and in wine,” Falso said. But, “Live culture doesn’t just mean a Petri dish. What we’re trying to create is a place where people can hang out. It’s a culture of people coming together.”

Along with its space in the Paseo Nuevo mall off State Street, Live Culture inherited a liquor license, which it hopes to parlay into an all-day revenue strategy. It plans to serve espresso in the morning, smoothies and frozen yogurt during the day and wine and beer at night, with food throughout. “This is the cheap-date kind of deal,” Falso said.

That’s important because frozen yogurt chain Pinkberry just opened up across the street, and another yogurt shop is slated to open on State Street.

An expanded menu is just part of what Live Culture is hoping will set it apart. The partners put a lot of money – much of it their own – into making the restaurant a hangout, with 40 seats on the patio, padded lounge benches around the walls and $11,000 worth of granite counters – even the bathrooms have granite.

“Santa Barbara has a really high-end clientele. They expect beauty,” Falso said.

The founding partners are putting to work skills gained earlier in their careers. Falso spent 10 years in commercial real estate in Orange County and guided many restaurants through the rocky approval process – including Golden Spoon, a chain of yogurt shops that was one of her largest clients.

Fiechter is also putting to use his entrepreneurial skills. He had a desk job in architecture before a stint in restaurants and then sales at the Bacara Resort & Spa in Goleta. He now owns his own business selling orthopedics to surgeons, a job he’ll likely keep.

“We’re entrepreneurs, so it just fit right in,” Fiechter said of his shift to the yogurt business. “I just realized that sitting behind a desk all day wasn’t for me.”

The company plans to open in the coming weeks, after it receives its occupancy certificate from the city.

SLO County Sitters

SLO County Sitters has operated for a year and has expanded from a staff of three babysitters to 50. The firm vets babysitters and connects them with families.

It also has placed 15 full-time nannies and has about 20 pet sitters on contract. The company takes care of the business end so sitters can focus on childcare, but its main service to customers is a thorough background check of its staff.

“My director of operations is a criminal justice graduate; we also have a child psychology grad on staff,” said founder Tina Porter. “Between the three of us, we have a pretty tough interview process and really cover a lot ground.”

Porter started the firm after she took time off to stay home with her two children. She and her husband had founded SLO County Passport magazine in 2002, but when she was ready to go back to work, she couldn’t find the kind of in-home childcare she wanted.

“The daycare thing wasn’t something I was considering – I wanted my daughter to stay in our home environment,” she said. “These days it’s so important to know who’s in your home and do those background checks.”

So after much research with local moms groups, she founded SLO County Sitters. “We really don’t have any competition – which is unheard of,” she said.

She’s had luck in attracting high-end clients who can’t structure their lives around traditional daycare and can afford to avoid it.

“With a lot of daycares, its Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” Porter said. “We’re able to fit the schedules of parents whose schedules vary – lawyers and doctors. But then we have some parents who only use us once a month for a date night.”

Even as the economy has tanked, Porter has watched her business grow. She even has plans to expand into Santa Barbara County this year.

“We’ve really seen a great need for services because I think a lot of moms are going back to work and are in need of childcare,” she said.

Porter attributes the success to listening to what parents say they want. “We’re in touch weekly with our customers,” she said. “In today’s economic times and in a small economy, that’s so important.”

And of course, what customers want are reliable, trustworthy sitters.

“I tell all of my customers, ‘I don’t hire anyone that I wouldn’t trust with my own daughters,’” Porter said. “That’s what we live by every day.”

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