Jessica Rufo, Steven Valenti, Evan Valenti, and Scott Kirchner discussed how they built their businesses from nothing to longstanding institutions in the city of Pittsfield.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Steven Valenti used to run a radio campaign for his men's clothing business, telling true stories of customers.
And it was successful in driving business to his store. His son, Evan Valenti, isn't quite so sure that would work nowadays, but Steven Valenti thinks it would.
Before owning his own business, Steven Valenti worked for bosses who squashed the ideas of young people right away and he promised that when he ran his business, he wouldn't do that.
Evan Valenti launched a different kind of campaign. He used social media to go to local businesses, highlight them, and at the same time, have the clothing sold at 37-year-old North Street store Steven Valenti's Clothing for Men in the background.
"What we've been trying to do is highlight other businesses with our gear, our clothing in the background," Evan Valenti said.
People are now coming into the store talking about that social media marketing.
Dottie's Coffee Lounge farther down on North Street was one of those places. In the social media campaign, the Valentis discussed what Dottie's had to offer and told its story. It was co-marketing not just for each business but for downtown businesses, the city, and the region. Dottie's Owner Jessica Rufo believes there needs to be more of that type of co-marketing.
"When we are in our own businesses, there have been months when I never went south of Dottie's and that's not good," Rufo said, encouraging new business owners to interact with the community and other businesses because by building them up helps build theirs up.
The three made up half of a panel of longstanding local business owners sharing advice at Framework on Thursday morning on what it takes to do business in Pittsfield. The event was sponsored by the Pittsfield Economic Development Corp., a volunteer organization aimed to help drive business growth in the city.
The Valentis have been on North Street for 37 years. Dottie's has been there for 13. Scott Kirchner opened Mad Macs on North Street about 20 years ago and recently outgrew his storefront and moved to Allendale. Al and Auric Enchill of Elegant Stitches have been in business for 23 years, starting in a basement and are now on First Street.
As new entrepreneurs look to open businesses in the city, they're possibly wondering, what worked for them? And what advice would they give somebody just now opening a business?
"If you start it small you will be able to sustain yourself and grow. If you start too fast and too big, when the storm comes you won't be able to sustain yourself," said Al Enchill.
Elegant Stitches knows exactly what type of unpredictable storm could damage a business. The company began in his basement and then expanded into a building at the intersection of First and Fenn Street. In 2004, that structure burned and Enchill lost everything. It has since been demolished and turned into parking for the Howard Building.
He said other business owners helped provide space rent free for a period of time to help him stay in business and residents and customers were constantly helping with various aspects of the rebuilding. Now the company is continuing at 237 First St.
"I am very grateful for Pittsfield supporting our business," Enchill said.
Similar to the Valentis, Enchill said adaptation in a changing market is a key piece to sustainability. Enchill's son Auric has joined the family business and is retooling the way they do business to help stay with the times.
"I want to give the ability to do it online and we can meet the consumer that way," Auric Enchill said, citing the business going head to head with online shops like Amazon and a new website will provide additional service for his customers.
He's running new social marketing campaigns and highlighting what the business does well.
Kirchner said when he started, he had a full vision of exactly what he was going to do, what products he'd offer, and where he'd be in the future. Mad Macs now is not what he envisioned then because he said he constantly re-examined the marketplace to see what gaps he could fill to round out the company.
Auric and Al Enchill run Elegant Stitches on First Street.
"You have to always be looking for another way to survive in a smaller market," Kirchner said, saying his business started on just focusing on selling Apple products but expanded into becoming a technology company, adding network management support and technical services.
Despite changes in the marketplace, one thing has remained constant throughout all of the businesses -- customer service.
"Our little niche is, yeah, Amazon gives you convenience but it doesn't give anything else," Evan Valenti said.
Steven Valenti said the small things add up. The store irons 50 or so shirts a day, providing just that little service aspect of not having it be pressed when the customer gets home. Amazon won't do that. The Valentis added that they constantly research clothing and they can tell a customer everything about the pieces. They make sure it fits properly. Amazon won't do that. That's the niche that small businesses need to find locally.
"The survival of the specialty store is to do the things your competitor can't do," Steven Valenti said.
Kirchner agreed, saying, "it is about quality. It is about providing that personalized service."
Rufo said her "greatest privilege" is providing jobs for young people. She said she tries to make them feel appreciated, inspired, and motivated and gives them the ability to incorporate their interests and passions into the shop. That keeps the coffee shop "fresh," she said, and the employees bring a more personalized approach to customers.
"The biggest thing that I appreciate about Dottie's is its inclusiveness and I think the people who work there provide that and that makes people want to come back," Rufo said.
The entire panel believes that anyone starting a business should work in the field first. They said the biggest lesson is gained by doing and so is seeing other people's mistakes.
"There is nothing more educational that working for a terrible person and then a great person," Rufo said.
Kirchner warned that there is a learning curve in going from a passion to a commercial interest. He entered the field with a skill with computers and iPhones. But he didn't have the knowledge about hiring employees, bookkeeping, and the general management of a small business.
"I needed to go backwards before I could go forward," he said.
But, don't be afraid to ask for help, he added.
"You really have to take into consideration that there are a lot of great people out there willing to help, you just have to find them," Kirchner said.
Linda Dulye of Dulye & Co. was the moderator with her own history of owning and running small businesses. She interjected with another piece of advice for new business owners.
"Be prepared to do everything," she said. "You are the everything and nothing is beneath you. You value everybody, it doesn't matter what their title is."
Someone in the audience then posed the question: if you had a magic wand, what would you change about North Street?
"Parking is always an issue," Steven Valenti said, estimating that now he teaches 20 to 30 people a week how to use the parking meters. "We are getting better at it. We have smart people working the problem every day. We need more education to the consumer."
The Enchills said they'd like the city to find ways to create more parking in the North and First Street area.
However, Al Enchill recognizes that the city's downtown is much better now than it was. After his shop burned, former Mayor James Ruberto pitched him on the idea to open a new one on North Street and Enchill rejected that idea because it was "a dead street." He says North Street is now in a much better place than it was then.
Auric Enchill said there is still more to do, particularly in getting a younger audience to the city's downtown core. He'd liked to see more youth events held on North Street so people in the area can see what is actually going on there. Evan Valenti said more cultural attractions like the Colonial Theatre and Barrington Stage would help.
Kirchner had been on North Street for eight years before moving and the perception of the downtown corridor does not match the reality. He said there is perception that North Street is dangerous but he said that isn't the case at all.
"It is very safe up here. In the eight years I was here, we didn't have as many problems as people think," he said, but also recognized that "we are a city. We are going to have city issues."
Rufo said she wants people to see that. She would like to see more people walking the block so they can see the stores, get a feel for the area, and have confidence in the city's downtown.
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EforAll's David Parker was impressed by how collaboratively local leaders worked together to bring in the program.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Pittsfield and the larger Berkshire County community are welcoming the local launch of Entrepreneurship for All, a nonprofit aimed at helping aspiring entrepreneurs find success.
A group of local, community, and business leaders introduced the Berkshire chapter of EforAll at co-working space Framework on North Street on Monday morning.
"As we stand shoulder-to-shoulder as we are today we can be transformative and today we welcome EforAll to the city of Pittsfield and Berkshire County," Mayor Linda Tyer said.
EforAll is a nonprofit program launched by the University of Massachusetts at Lowell in 2010. Originally called Merrimack Valley Sandbox, it uses public-private partnerships to create economic and social impact by providing entrepreneurs from all backgrounds with resources and local mentors.
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