Photos by Hillary Ehlen and J. Alan Paul
How many of us really understand the behind-the-scenes work of business owners?
Not only do they assume the bulk of the risks and liabilities for the business, they never really get a day off and are always the last ones paid. Stack sales, taxes, staffing, regulations, and innumerable other uncertainties on top of that, and we get a little better idea of what business ownership truly entails.
Industry expertise lightens the load, and most aspiring business owners have it at the get-go. Whether it’s personal history, formal education, or employment, that experience prepares people for the issues they encounter and the decisions they make as business owners.
Some, though, have entrepreneurial spirit and beliefs strong enough to depart from established, salaried careers to immerse themselves in a new industry and plunge into the realm of business ownership and unpredictable income. Fargo Coffee’s Skyler Dutton and Prosource’s Austen Schauer are loving every minute of it.
Meet Mark Puppe
Fargo native Mark Puppe has advocated for small business owners professionally at the Professional Insurance Agents of North Dakota and National Federation of Independent Business and is the founder of writing and strategic communications business Master Manuscripts.
In his contributed pieces, he says he plans to introduce, showcase, and personify real, imminent, yet often overlooked and unknown responsibilities that small business owners experience, endure and strive to overcome.
Co-Owner, Fargo Coffee
I didn’t drink coffee until I needed somewhere to meet business clients. Settling in my native North Fargo concerned me because I only remembered coffee and tables in church fellowship halls.
This made stumbling upon Fargo Coffee a few blocks from home a relief, but I prayed for the owners. The shop is nestled between Little Caesar’s and a gas station; the last business here was a coffee shop; and the space was dormant two years before Fargo Coffee opened. Things were very quiet. Nonetheless, it had tables, so fine by me.
Then, one day in early May, my coffee costs 50 cents more and the ever-sweet barista apologetically reports: “New owners.”
Before long, I learn that former police officer Skyler Dutton had abandoned a salary-and-benefits package to buy this seemingly sputtering coffee shop with his wife, Nicole. To be fair, Skyler was a cop and word on the street is that cops like coffee. Plus, his brother Dexter, who quit college to help out, was a part-time barista as a student.
Still, Skyler has some talking to do.
The Duttons have committed their livelihoods to upholding their core belief that everyone deserves a good cup of coffee.
“If people want to visit downtown shops, we’re very happy, but people like to go where everyone knows your name,” Skyler says. “That’s a core value we uphold and make a driving force. We haven’t codified it because we live it.”
That I can appreciate, but what reasonable mind forfeits a career to purchase a business for the sake of doing favors to others? After all, successful business owners typically cite customers rather than friends as key to their success.
“A friend advised us to send out canoes to test the waters instead of making our business a supertanker,” he recalls.
Since July 2017, the Duttons’ mobile catering business, Thunder Coffee, has been testing the waters as a serving station that they tote to special events. 10 months of that convinced the Duttons that their time to purchase a brick-and-mortar business had arrived. Today, Fargo Coffee is theirs, as is every reality that accompanies business ownership.
Fargo Coffee, which served more than 200 people during its grand re-reopening in June, was a classy shop when purchased, so Skyler foresees mostly modest changes. However, putting pen to paper for a permanent address means all remodeling costs come out of Fargo Coffee’s bottom line, just like the essential and expensive specialty equipment used every day (Nicole says she does her part to keep Skyler’s creativity in check).
Fargo Coffee exclusively serves coffee brewed from beans roasted in Oklahoma — so the product is unique — and Thunder Coffee has confirmed Fargo to be a viable market.
Skyler says his DUI training neglected inventory management, and he no longer has the red-and-blue lights needed to expedite a drive to Oklahoma if his supply ever runs out. There have been some close calls, each enlightening Skyler to something he won’t need to learn twice.
Shifting from law enforcement to coffee shop ownership has introduced Skyler to abrupt and unique changes and challenges but also provided opportunities for him and Nicole to embrace, manage and maximize them how they themselves — rather than job descriptions or supervisors — determine.
Business Development Manager, ProSource
Anyone living or working in the Fargo broadcast area between 1980 and 2013 saw Austen Schauer reporting or broadcasting on television routinely. There was no remote during much of that period, so when the news was on, it was on, and he would probably be part of the show.
So when I saw Schauer at a recent public event holding a cup of coffee rather than a microphone, it seemed a little off to me.
“What’s he doing at this event for business enthusiasts and inspiring entrepreneurs?” I thought to myself. “He must be signing books or something.”
I had to find out.
He revealed how after a 30-year media career and a few years in fundraising, he’d found his entrepreneurial spirit and jumped into the business development manager’s seat at ProSource, a Fargo-based staffing agency founded in 2016.
His belief that “indulging in risk inspires us to ascend from good to great” directed him to assume business-management responsibilities, he says. Schauer explained how running a business is far more complicated than he anticipated but that uncertainties excite him because “comfortability is dangerous.”
That’s potent wordage for a news report or fundraising campaign, but what about this loop in livelihood and away from the media industry in which counterparts agree he had always been ascending to greatness? Plus, what business development manager doesn’t pursue the comfort afforded by profit?
Schauer then divulged how sacrificing a media career for business development has given him a newfound respect for salespeople because he’s responsible for ProSource’s sales and subject to the brutal truth that his own income “is unpredictable and fundamentally 100 percent commission.”
There’s that discomfort and ascension to greatness he alluded to earlier and why new responsibilities in an entirely new industry appealed so strongly to him.
After more than 30 years of being salaried to speak at audiences, Schauer’s new career is his opportunity to undertake a challenge that so many people dread but one that destines every business for the red if neglected: sales.
Neither sales nor profitability directly impacted Schauer’s own checkbook until 20 months ago, and he’s spoken about his own respect for salespeople, but now that he’s responsible for sales, what does he believe is required for customers and prospects to respect salespeople?
“Doing it right the first time,” he says. “That means being ethically sound rather than trying to make a quick buck.”
Establishing profit as a secondary priority can actually generate greater profitability because people appreciate value-based interactions.
That’s opposite from how a lot of salespeople think. So I asked him: How do you plan to keep ProSource afloat if you’re letting prospects slide?
“It’s the entrepreneurial spirit that motivates people to go in,” he says. “Being passive gets the sale, and that means treating prospects as if they’re already customers.”
Establishing profit as a secondary priority can actually generate greater profitability because people appreciate value-based interactions. And Schauer believes that’s why ProSource has done so well during its first 20 months in business.
1020 19th Ave. N, Fargo