Watch the Full Stars Staffing Group Interview
WCBC Review interviews Alicia and Joe Vennes, the owners of the hot new companies Stars Staffing Group and Fox Face Systems.
In this episode we discuss how to start a successful business during a pandemic, and the pros and cons of going into business with your spouse.
Alicia and Joe can be found at Stars Staffing Group in Portland, Oregon.
Stars Staffing Group: https://stars-staffing.com/
Fox Face Systems: https://foxfacesystems.com/
How Fox Face Systems Was Born
Cardinal: Welcome to WCBC review where we put the spotlight on small businesses. Today, we have a little bit of a twist in our usual format. We're doing a double date of our, our spouse slash business owners. So I'm here with my, my life partner and business partner, Kyle, and then we also have Alicia and Joe here.
Welcome Alicia and Joe!
Joe: Great to see you guys.
Cardinal: And you guys are partners with the stars staffing group and Fox face systems. We
Cardinal: Wow. So a double endeavor. Which one did you start first?
Alicia: Stars staffing group is older.
Joe: Yeah. So we started Stars staffing. That would have been may in 2019. And we started Fox face June of 2020
Alicia: during the pandemic.
Cardinal: Oh my goodness. That's bold. I love it. Yeah.
Alicia: Also expecting our first child together. We have four kids. And this is our one baby together. Yeah. We're also building a house. So we just thought we should put it all together at once all life projects. Right. This second,
Cardinal: it seems to happen that way often I've noticed.
Cardinal: So what made you want to start your businesses?
Alicia: Yes. Should I go back to the beginning?
Cardinal: Yes, absolutely.
Alicia: Okay. Got it. Well, when I was seven. No, just kidding. No, we're both property managers by trade. I've been in the industry for 15 years, Joe in the industry for 30 years. I'm third generation property manager.
We met when we worked at the largest. What was the then largest affordable housing. Affordable housing, property management company in the Northwest. So they did how many units did. Yeah, so Joe and I worked together at that property management company. And then I left and I did some single family work for a little bit.
I am actually 2016 single-family PM of the year, the first ever in Portland. And then I left to work at a startup tech company. And I love the tech world. I don't know anything about it. I was just telling someone today that I only know how to use my Apple pencil and that's pretty much it. I can run my phone and then that's all.
But I loved the idea of a startup and I loved, I loved the energy that a startup tech company provides. Not everyone gets to witness that. And I think that Joe got to witness it. You know, through second hand with me, cause he being in the same industry, the tech company was a housing tech company as well.
So being in the same industry, Joe, was there a lot for the meetings that I had either because it was an event or because he was an advocate of what I do. But like all startups, it was, it was a little tumultuous and that it never really took off. Now it's something completely different.
Joe: So then you left there.
Alicia: I was laid off, actually. I was laid off and, and that really super worked because I'm pretty resourceful. So we, we got the self employment assistance. So you get to, you get to draw on your , unemployment.
For, for that amount of time, even though you're starting your own company. And I check that and we started Stars Staffing group.
Joe: Yeah. And then I left my work and joined her. It Stars staffing. Cause it was really busy as you guys know, starting companies, it's a lot of labor that's involved in this.
And so yeah, we, we jumped in all the way, all the way. And so we were both working at stars and, and things were going really well. All through 2019, we were Each month we're doing better and better. And then February. Yeah. And then March hit. it really impacted the property management world because leasing offices closed down.
All across Portland, all across the country. And you know, leasing apartments got to be virtual and really it, it took a big hit on our, our business. Our business probably went down 70% and so it was a really tough March through
Alicia: There was a lot of watching a tiger King for a little bit.
Joe: It was, it was August. I decided to go back to work because our company just couldn't couldn't support us
100% without PPP.
Alicia: And that's, that was a challenging time like Joe, that when PPP announced the first time, Joe woke me up at like three in the morning and was like, Hey, Hey, what's your social security number?
And I was like, get outta here with that. What are you doing? And luckily it did carry us a little bit longer
Joe: yeah. Through the summer, the summer, but things
didn't improve. So I went back to work. I work for a local housing authority. And so that's been going great. It was about that time too. That is when we started Fox Face systems.
And you can talk about how,
Alicia: yeah. So not all of them leasing offices closed in Portland. Well, they, they closed physically, but, but property management doesn't stop. There are still residents. To, to contend with there are still empty buildings. There's contend with there's still, you know, housing is fundamental to, to society.
So our business doesn't stop. We're essential workers and our team are essential as well. And so during that time, I, I did every effort to keep stars staffing group like up and running, but it was mostly. Phone calls, which is not really, it's really not good conducive to what we do. Property managers really are all about the face-to-face connection.
Yeah. And despite what society wants to say, they about property managers, they really are friendly and they want to hang out and they really want to help other people, which is difficult when you're just, when you're just doing it on the telephone connection in general is difficult on the telephone.
So I was on the phone with a client of stars staffing group. Stars staffing group only provides property managers, temporary staff to property managers in, in Portland and in Southwest Washington. And it was going to be Seattle, but then COVID hit. So it's not Seattle just yet, but it will be. Anyway, I was on the phone with a client and the client said, I gotta go.
I can't talk because I got to figure out how to do a lease up and Joe can tell you about an affordable lease up. But really it is standing in line. People have to stand in line to get houses, to get on a wait list. And it's it's a pain in the butt, frankly. , and so this person, this client of mine says, Oh, should I can't talk to you right now?
I have to go, I have to figure out how to do a remote lease up. And I was like, Oh God, that sounds terrible. And so we get off the phone and I go over to Joe and I say, Hey, do you want to do like a , brainstorming session on a remote lease up He's like, no, that's crazy. Like, how are we ever going to do that?
Property managers can't do that. And I was like fine. And then we look over at each other and we're like, we'll just use tech to do that. And then we get, and within like, I dunno, three days, he had the entire affordable housing process in the form of post-its on our office wall. And so it looked like this gigantic flow chart and our wall is this like.
Where it was this bright yellow, how big was that?
Joe: You know, my, my post-it notes spread across probably 50 feet post-it notes. It was
Alicia: because of it. And, and Joe really is he, and people don't know this, but when you work with your spouse, you really have to have someone that's going to see the other side of your business.
I am more. Is vision and marketing and completely extroverted. And I bounce around and I have a hard time focusing on stuff. So Joe really is the fundamental. Logistic. That sounds crazy. You're not going to make any revenue off of that, but you can do it this way, sort of person. And I'm like, hurry, we have to do it right now.
And he's like, you know, kind of like Trello, LA LA a lot. And, and it, if you don't have that mixture, then your business doesn't work. It's not, it's not going to be easy. Yeah. So
Joe: that's how we started Fox Face,
Cardinal: which is a great team
Joe: because essentially it's, it's the compliance for moving into affordable housing in a turbo tax kind of
Cardinal: That's so innovative. I love it. I love how you saw that need, especially during these pandemic times. And you're like, you know what? I'm an expert. I will come up with a solution, even if it involves going through a hundred sticky
Alicia: notes, there were fun sticky notes too. Like he had all different colors and he had was color
Kyle: coordinated. Yeah. There were shapes. It was just a lot of stuff on there. Oh, I love that.
Cardinal: So it sounds like you guys definitely hit a lot of. Speed bumps when it comes to trying to start a business during COVID times, what do you think was the toughest like the, the hardest problem out of all of those, the toughest thing you went through and opening?
Joe: Well, I was an easy
one for a new startup company. It is you, you rely on being able to knock on doors and talk to people about what you do and how great you are, and that went away. Offices were closed everywhere, where they weren't taking any type of visitors whatsoever. And so we had to rely on social media, which is great, but it's not like knocking on a door and talking to a person face-to-face,
Alicia: it's not,
Cardinal: especially when Facebook decides which doors you get shown to.
Alicia: You know, thankfully we have a very big network here in Portland. We both came with our own network of people and because we spent so much time in our industry previously making deposits into, into our industry. When we took withdrawls, they were happy to see us and they, they missed us and we miss them.
We miss our people all the time. There. Right now I would be gearing up for trade shows and gathering marketing collateral and you know, it's summertime. So my team would be much bigger than it would be normally or gearing up to be. But it's marketing has been difficult. Sales has been difficult.
Hiring has been very difficult. When I hire, I go, and this is for stars staffing group, not for Fox face, but. For stars. When I go into a hiring round, I'm doing 20 interviews a week and people are coming in and out of my office and they're excited. We aim at training the next generation of property managers so much so that, that I will go into like a Dutch brothers or into a black rock and see someone with excellent customer service and recruit them right there.
And. Typically that would work, but it doesn't really, so I can't find, I can't find anyone because, well, first of all, there's like three people working in a restarunt right now.
Joe: It is, it's a, it's a weird dynamic too, in that you would think that this is a time that people would really be looking for work.
There's a lot of people out at work, but that's not what we see. Like we just posted on indeed. Two weeks ago. And like Alicia was saying, usually we get 20 people lined up, ready to come in for interviews. And I think this last time we had three people and of those three only one wanted to interview.
And then just like any business right now, a big concern is cashflow.
So but that's, I think that makes COVID just makes it that much worse, but that's. Any new business it's cashflow.
Alicia: We have actually a really great story about cashflow and this was even her like pre COVID. So Joe and I live a pretty charmed life. You know, when I went back to working or property management company we, we would make a ton of money together and.
When we started the company, it was not like that. We were both so used to, to making money and then started the companies and it bled our blood, our retirement accounts. It bled all of the things, but we also now operate at a 25% margin. So where we're doing, we're doing okay. Pre COVID. We were doing okay.
But payroll was, it's a huge issue. At one point we had 15 employees working for us including our own salary that we would pull from the company. And I remember this one time and it's a, it's a little exaggerated, but kind of true. We mostly true. We were at little canal in Vancouver and we're sitting there at the bar.
And I have this notbook that I carry with me all over the place and it's little, and it says brilliant ideas that I've had while drunk. And some of those ideas are brilliant. He was like, he said, should we have another drink?
And I was like, yes. But then he was like I need this paper and pencil. And he does the math really quick. And he says, Okay. We can have another drink. And I was like, great. Let's do it. But it, there were days when it showed that our business was growing. Right? So our business is growing and that's why our payroll was crazy, but it came to a point where I said to him, honey, I cannot hear about, about our payroll and our finances because it psychologically damages me when I sell.
So I can't sell people and services. And our team, if you keep telling me that you're going to struggle with payroll, cause it makes me feel like I shouldn't sell as much so that you can be okay. So we got to a point where he only gave me very high level information. And he took the burden of figuring out payroll and how that was going to work next.
He always figures it out, but he's sort of he sort of creates a barrier for me so that I can sell. Effectively. I can't do that. If he gave me all that information all the time.
Cardinal: Wow. That's a really smart dynamic and that's good self-awareness on your part too, of knowing like, okay. Maybe I don't need to know that information and building that trust with your partner of like, they've, they've got it covered.
I don't have to
Alicia: that aspect of things. Like he didn't sleep. So like I would be sleeping soundly and he would be up all night. And so be like, you know, he's, he, there's a lot so that I can sell effectively. And I think that without that goal, without sacrificing on both ends, like I have to sacrifice not knowing about all the aspects of my company and a CEO.
I have to know that and he has to sacrifice sleep, and he's off. He's obviously stressed out when that happens. Cause he's counting how many dollar bills we have for tacos.
Cardinal: Definitely been there before, too, for sure. And it's just like, you know, paying yourself versus investing everything you have back into your business and trying to make it grow that way.
It's always the balance.
Alicia: Yeah, it is.
Cardinal: So I know you guys are fairly fresh but if you had to go back to day one, was, is there anything that you would've done differently knowing now? Anything you did not know then?
Alicia: I would probably have held off hiring corporate staff as quickly and really thinking about the processes and the procedures of, of Stars Staffing Group a little more deeply Would you have stayed at work? Yeah, I would have,
Joe: No, no. I would have started contracting with a payroll service sooner.
I tried to do that in house and found out within two months. There just no way. It's so complicated and especially working in two States. Different counties. It's completely insane. So hiring a payroll company was huge and was a big, was a big relief off of, off of me. Yeah.
Alicia: I remember how that was crazy.
Yeah, that was crazy.
Joe: Would have gotten into it, a different space. The space that we, that we rented was like this one big room. It was a beautiful space, but it echoed. And it was really nice. There was like, no privacy conversations were very loud because everything echoed and we stuck it out for a year, but it wasn't ideal.
We would have found a different space
Alicia: and I will say that. When you're an introvert and an extrovert in a personal relationship, different than an introvert and an extrovert in a business relationship. But, and so I, I have said that because I think Joe was so uncomfortable where I would have our assistant there and I'd be, we'd be jibber, jabbering, and he'd be like, are you serious right now?
Are you jibber jabbering? And I'm still sitting here. And so it really works out. Now we essentially work out of your two bedroom. Converted apartment. So it zoned for four offices, but it is a two bedroom apartment. Where firefighters used to live in that apartment and we love it. And so I have the master room and Joe has the bedroom and our children who are working remotely with us because of COVID have our conference area living room
Cardinal: That's awesome. I definitely feel that about the introvert working with the extrovert. I'm so glad my Kyle is on the call
today, but it was not
Kyle: definitely more introverted.
Joe: That's funny, Kyle, because you know, Alicia told me about this interview. Last week I think is when we first set it up. So I'm like, yeah, do it.
That sounds like a great, a great thing to put out there. And then this morning, she's like, we have that interview today and I'm like, what? Hold on that call. She's like, yeah. And I'm like, all right,
Kyle: that's funny. I'm sure it works for both of us where we know that it'll be beneficial. Even if it's not something we really want to do.
Alicia: He ended up liking it when I liked.
Joe: Yeah. You know, it's not, it's not horrible. There's definitely things that I don't like doing. I don't like pitching to investors. That's uncomfortable to do that.
Alicia: Oh my God. It's super uncomfortable. Even for me and extrovert. It's completely uncomfortable. Yeah. But
Joe: I don't mind doing it with you. That
Alicia: works out fine. Yeah. So Fox Face, I mean, we've talked a fair amount of stars, but Fox Face get got a ton of press in 2020.
So we were semi-finalists for the bend venture conference. And we were. Oh, gosh, it seems like it. We had a whirlwind of pitches. We were in tech Fest, Northwest and pitch best Northwest And so we had a ton of stuff to do during that time. But when we're learning how to pitch, nobody tells you what, what that looks like.
No one says, Hey, you are going to pitch for three minutes and five minutes and seven minutes and 15 minutes. And you may or may not be on stage. And if you do, you may or may not be pregnant, you may or may not feel like passing out and actually taking it on,
on stage. Yeah.
Yeah. I did say I wanted to pass out.
Joe: You know, just like anything though, you get better at it as you go along.
Right. When we first started doing this, we had never done it before in our lives. And so it was pretty difficult, but now it seems like we've done so many of them now. It's like, Hey, we have a pitch to do this afternoon. And it's like, all right, let's do it.
Alicia: Yeah. In fact, we were just nominated for the ivory awards in Utah for housing affordability.
And so. We're waiting on our social media for that, but we will actually start marketing that soon. We're really excited about that one. The winner takes 80 grand.
Cardinal: Wow. Well, congratulations. It sounds like a important thing too housing affordability is a, it's a whole thing. Oh man.
So if you had to look into the future, And this is a really tough question to ask during COVID times because you know, the future is so uncertain at this moment.
So I like to say in a perfect world, we, we eradicate this virus or at least get it under control. Everything is okay. A year from now. Where do you want your businesses to be?
Alicia: Oh, that's a great question because I actually am reading a book right now called traction. Hmm. And traction talks about what your ten year plan is and boils it all the way down to one year.
And Joe and I always do that. So you can find us once a quarter at our favorite winery doing a brainstorm. And we would every quarter to, and just sort of reset ourselves. But I did want to look at things from a big picture and because the companies are. They are so intertwined. I think Joe and I were kind of struggling with communication the other day.
And I said, I said, no, I want to talk about stars independent of Fox Face. And it was a little bit easier to get that across. But in, in one year, ideally I would like to have 20 people placed for Fox Face. In three years I would like to have three markets done in 10 years. I would like. Five big markets and five, a little markets.
So that being
Joe: said is that Alicia loves goals and she loves planning this stuff out. You know, our office is full of timelines and goals and everything, but the really big part of what we do. And it is. You know, she, she plans stuff out to 10 years and for Fox Face, we have a plan for eight years and each year what we, what we want to do.
So yeah, I think it's important to have that, but it's also important to update those goals, especially with the new company, things change monthly and we, you have to. Do lots of little pivots. You want to stick to your, your beachhead, but, but there's all these little things that can take you to a different direction a little bit.
So it's always important to sit down and go over that stuff with the team. And that's not just with that since we have a team on Fox Face that we meet with on a regular basis to just keep going forward. So, and goals as
Alicia: part of that. Yeah. We're big on goals here
Cardinal: as two Kyle's, definitely the longterm planner.
I'm more of just like, okay, but how are we going to make that happen? We need to take the action to move that forward.
Alicia: I think luckily, Joe and I really are both act. Joe's very goal-oriented too. He knows what he wants. And. Except sometimes when I'll say, where do you, what do you think we're going to be doing in 10 years?
He's like, I'm golfing. I don't know what you're doing. And we both have a goal of what we want our retirement to look like. And we say retirement pretty loosely in our house because I don't think we will ever fully retire. I think it loved business too much to retire. But I want to sell Fox Face in eight years and yeah, I want to have my own venture capitalist fund.
I don't, I just want to judge other people's businesses. I don't want, I don't want to raise them myself.
Cardinal: Your, your future vision super power comes in when you can look at their business and say, okay, and, and see its projection and really evaluate
Alicia: that. Yeah, that's power. I don't know how to do that. When I look, I don't know how to he has that.
Like the other day he was, he had to do the math for me. And I was like, I don't know what you're talking about. Just give me the number is all. No, I'll tell you how much I need to sell to get there. You tell me. Yeah. And I only know like fun numbers, so like, When someone buys out a, a contract of ours. So when an employee is, is wanting to stay at a property management company and the property manager accepts this or vice versa, they have to buy out our contract.
Our contract buyout is purposely very high because I wanted to keep a team of really good property managers to rotate around the city. So I don't just let my employees go unless it's good for my employee. I was just saying that my math is really fun. So like when Joe needs me to influx our company with dollars, he'll say like, I will buy you those Prada sunglasses.
If you sell one contract and I'm like, great, I'll do it. And I can do that in about 30 minutes. And he owes me Prada, sunglasses.
Cardinal: the next question is sort of diving into the last one. So you know where you want to go, but do you know why you want to get there? I guess you mentioned that you really love just doing business in general. Is that your primary driving factor or. Is your, your family, are you trying to step away so you can spend more time with them
Alicia: things you want.
I said, what kind of truths do you want? Like, should we, like, we're really all about profit. We really are. We, I mean, we know that we profit and for a lot of different reasons, Joe and I just took a drive with our kids around, around Portland. And Portland is such a gorgeous city, but what's happened in Portland is less gorgeous and it is not it's not beautiful anymore where it used to be walkable very, very friendly city.
It does not feel that way these days. But we were just talking to our kids about how we can make an impact with people. And oftentimes that impact is time. But more often it's money and Joe and I believe in impact, but we know we can't do any of that without money. So there's the obvious, obvious profit that we're in it for.
We have to live, our team needs to live, so we obviously need dollars. We have five kids between us and we have big education goals for all of them. So that's important to us. But business wise, we are stars aimed at Finding and training and placing and recruiting the next generation of property managers.
Right now, our, our industry really is filled with people like me and Joe, who are able to choose any jobs that we want within our industry. And there is no new blood and we really wanted to find new people to love apartments and to love housing and to love their residents. And so we really do beat to that drum at stars.
In fact, stars has a sister come well, not a sister company, a baby company, all stars, bootcamp. We train the next generation of maintenance technicians. So we go to schools and seniors who don't want to go on a regular college track. We train them how to be maintenance technicians if they want that. And so that starts again.
As soon as COVID, as soon as COVID is over. Yeah. And then with Fox face, we believe for Fox Face that everyone deserves stable housing and Fox Face technology will help provide that. So other than profit, the companies have their own mission and their own vision. And we stick to it pretty closely. I think we do a really good job at saying, Nope, we're not doing that because that doesn't align with what we do.
So yeah. Profit and also, you know, do well, do good as well.
Joe: We feel, and I'll throw out there too, that I believe that we've spent a fair amount of time making sure that our ideas have a solid foundation and a real opportunity to succeed. I think we both feel that failure is not an option and we're going to do everything it takes to make these companies succeed.
So I have no doubt in my mind that they
Alicia: will. Same. Yeah. Although that's a lot of work. I don't think entrepreneurs how much work that is on a daily basis. Yeah. They have no idea. Yeah.
Cardinal: I love that you guys are so mission-minded, we're, we're really similar. Like we want to help small businesses do big things.
We want to help the helpers and have that prosperity for everybody. And. Without money. That's kind of hard to make happen.
Alicia: I think that, you know, you in order to be good, you shouldn't make money, but you can't do good without it.
Cardinal: Yeah. Kyle definitely convinced me of that early on. I'm the sort of person where I was doing work trade on farms in Hawaii, living off grid with like, No refrigerator, no electricity, just
like I just want to exist.
But then I realized like I want to make a real impact on this world and that's not going to happen.
If I am
a recluse off the grid,
just like milking goats
Alicia: I grew up on a goat farm in Hawaii. You did I'm from Maui and my dad had a little, had a little goat farm and I'll tell you that's nothing I ever want to do again. I know
Cardinal: I will not be able to eat goat
Alicia: again again, I just never, I just don't want that in my life.
And I love Maui and I love Hawaii. In fact, our baby is named after our two favorite places. So her name is Autzen McKenna. Autzen for the U of O stadium. There was a duck for McKenna is a beach on Maui that I ditched third period on every day and would go there and hang out with some friends. I love Hawaii.
I love everything that Hawaii is. In fact, we train stars in the Hawaiian hospitality so our stars team is trained to get up when they see residents and to say hello to everybody. And we, we train them in that, but. I'm not going to be on a goat farm ever again in my life.
Cardinal: So the question that I love to close every interview with since we're trying to build sort of a community of education here is that. If you had a new business owner in front of you and I realize you guys are new, but you also have such a huge background in a business. What advice would you give them?
Joe: I'll go first though. And I think this is a key is become a member of the small business association and get a mentor through score. A good mentor.
You can, you can go through and find one. That's going to make match, which your needs are. Get a mentor. And if it's not through score and get it through somewhere else, but get a mentor to help you out that has, has all of this information on hand and use them as much as he possibly can. We've had a couple and they're great.
Alicia: Yeah, we love them. And it works, especially if you are a couple that owns the business, it actually works as like therapy, so really useful. Yeah. It's great. And free. So the score mentors are free and amazing. So check them out. I would say to quickly become an expert in your subject matter. Whatever that is.
So Joe and I are excellent property managers, but we would not have been excellent entrepreneurs without doing the work. So we invested a ton of money in ourselves and we read a lot, we listened to a ton of podcasts and you have to really earn the right to, to be successful. You have to. Invest in yourself Invest in yourself and bet on yourself.
Bet on yourself every single day. And probably don't give up on the same time at the same time. So like, if I feel crappy, Joe rarely feels crappy or he'll like fight through his crappy and vice versa. You can't give up at the same time. I would say that you're going to lose a ton of friends and it's not going to be fun.
Leveling up really means that you're leveling up. You're finding new people to hang out with people who resonate with what you're working on. And you're going to be sad for a minute because you don't have the comradery that you used to. Some friends of course are going to stick, but how do you explain what a pitching event feels like or raising $500,000 with someone who never had to do that?
And oftentimes your friends can be there to hear you hear that out, but they're never going to live in your shoes. They're never going to get up on stage and know what that feels like. So you'll be lonely for a bit, but that's okay. You should find something that you commit to for yourself. So my workout is an hour and I never miss my workout.
It's one hour a day for me. And. I'm dedicated to that. I would say that Joe and I go on a weekly date night. That's important.
Cardinal: That's awesome. That's that's great advice. I hope that everyone here takes that to heart and even some seasoned business owners can still.
I benefit from that. So I want to thank you guys so much for hopping on this interview is such an honor to get to talk to you and where can people find you again?
Alicia: So Stars Staffing Group LLC is stars - Staffing .Com. Or you can always find us on Instagram at stars staffing group, LLC and at Fox Fased systems.
Cardinal: Awesome. Okay. Well, thank you again. And I hope that you have a fantastic rest of your year and you meet that year goal.
Alicia: Thank you yet. So you guys tell,
Joe: thanks, you guys. Thank you.
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