Jordan Novet / The Bulletin

Of the nine businesses that local entrepreneurs brought to Central Oregon Community College for last spring's Launch Your Business class, all of them still operate.

Survival itself is an achievement.

Twenty-one percent of businesses failed in their first year of operation between March 2010 and March 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The seven-week course, which ended in June 2011, was featured in The Bulletin.

Since then, some of the companies have spent money to get started. Two students in the class started operating food carts this year. Others have increased sales slightly or added one or more employees to their businesses.

A majority of the businesses are profitable, although the entrepreneurs have generally been reinvesting profits back into their companies, not paying themselves.

“I'm going to try to get through the summer and see where the bank account stands. Hopefully we'll be doing OK,” said Kat Morrow, who opened the New Mexican food cart Sol Verde in Bend.

The outcomes after one year are typical of previous students of the class, which costs $79 and is offered three times per year, said its instructor, Maureen Quinn.

“Especially in light of the economic conditions that we have been through, I think the fact that they are still growing — I expect that to continue and maybe accelerate over the next year,” Quinn said.

Beyond surviving, many of the business owners said they have made valuable connections with one another. In one case, one business set up shop in another business' parking lot.

The course also instilled confidence and business ideals in students, they said, and assisted them with basic elements of business planning.

Taken together, the value of the class sets it alongside other resources available to entrepreneurs in Central Oregon, such as the 12-week local business-training program VentureBox, Opportunity Knocks' local business discussion groups and the Bend Venture Conference.

Retaining lessons

Some of the entrepreneurs who took the class have kept in contact with Quinn. While not all of them have been able to follow Quinn's guidance to the letter, the students have retained some of her lessons, such as planning for the future, not just concentrating on the day-to-day work.

“I'm still struggling with that,” said Tracy Curtis, owner of Ballokai Bags, a Sisters company that manufactures purses and other accessories from recycled materials. “It's hard, when you're a small business, to really make that jump to where you can step back, you know?”

But Curtis has made progress in other ways. Since the class ended, she has converted her garage into a dedicated manufacturing room, revamped her website and found brick-and-mortar retailers to carry her products.

The class changed the way Curtis thought about her business.

“I think (Quinn) just does a great job of getting you to really think about your business as a business, not just as kind of a hobby or something,” Curtis said. “I think she helps you to take it more seriously, to look at the bottom line. It's like, OK, can I really make this profitable? I'm not a numbers person, so that wasn't my favorite part, but it was something that I had to do.”

Concrete tools

Other students have retained one or more of Quinn's concrete tools for successfully running a business.

Kirsten Fletcher, who opened a food cart, Skinny Skis Cafe LLC, at Virginia Meissner Sno-park this winter with business partner Monte Wornath, said she was glad Quinn showed them how to put together an operating agreement that clarified each partner's responsibilities in the business.

“When everybody's happy and excited about (the business), it's much easier to do than when everybody's mad, which hopefully would never happen,” Fletcher said.

Quinn also helped Fletcher and Wornath come up with just the right business name.

“That was huge,” Fletcher said. “We both loved it the instant she said it. We were, like, 'Oh, perfect,' because we were struggling with that.”

Josh Sims, owner of Repeat Performance Sports, a used outdoor gear store in southwest Bend, said the class got him thinking more about proactively planning the business' future, rather than always responding to market conditions and immediate issues.

In the coming year, Sims wants to turn the shop into what he'd originally intended it to be: a place for people to get all kinds of outdoor gear fixed.

That would bring the business back to its original mission, which is to get people outside. The idea of boiling down the elevator pitch was among Quinn's teachings.

Developing an elevator pitch has made it easier for Claudine Birgy to quickly communicate the purpose of her business, Bend-based PhotoLounge, she said.

Plus, she and Quinn figured out the minimum number of events she needed to attend with her homemade portable photography booth in order to break even.

“Just being able to work out what you need to sell every month to reach a certain monthly goal to pay for this and this, just having that number — I knew I needed to sell three events a month to pay for this and this and this,” Birgy said.

She's gone from an average of three events per month to four.

Classmate connections

In some cases, connections among classmates have proven useful.

Morrow wanted to get her food cart rolling in Bend, but she didn't have a location. Sims told Morrow to call if she was interested in setting up in the Repeat Performance parking lot on Southwest Century Drive. She did that.

“I know how hard it is to get up and going,” Sims said. “We're not charging her to get up and going, but, on the other end, she's feeding my staff.”

Since opening in April, Morrow's food cart, Sol Verde, has gotten a following.

“People are coming back, saying it's good, so that's promising,” she said after lunch hour on Tuesday.

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