It can be a daunting question: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Sometimes there are multiple answers. Sometimes, the key to contentment is making the right choices at the right times.
Three downtown business owners illustrated that principle for participants in a walking tour Friday morning, each relating how they found the right professional fit.
The group came together at the invitation of Naperville startup Trendventure, which explores industries through community tours, in the hours before they headed to North Central College’s 14th annual Self-Employment in the Arts Conference. The yearly event was held Friday and Saturday at the Lisle Hilton Hotel.
For the three young women behind Trendventure, the morning stroll was intended to shed light on ways to parlay an interest or artistic flair into a successful and satisfying livelihood.
“This just seemed like a really good start,” said Naperville resident Katie Sowa, 27, who runs the tours with her sister, Becky Sowa, 25, and Grace Khoury of Itasca, 26. “I think we all have that artist inside of us who has an artistic passion, sometimes pursuing it as a side hobby. This is a way to show them they can transfer that to a career.”
Seated with the tour participants in her downtown Naperville studio, portrait specialist Megan Drane told how that process unfolded for her and led to her thriving business, Firefly Nights Photography.
“You’re a professional as soon as you get paid,” Drane said in comments emphasizing the need to recognize the value of the service an artist provides.
After earning a master’s degree in fine arts, Drane landed a corporate job, but continually heard from friends that her eye behind the lens was keen. She had a hunch it might be pointing the way to a better professional path.
She emphasized that the transition isn’t easy, and there are pitfalls. For her, one of the biggest ones was pricing her services too modestly at the outset. That set up an expectation level that drove a few clients away, she said, once she began charging at levels more accurately reflecting the value of her talent.
“Don’t ever be the cheapest, because it’s just not worth it,” she said.
Among numerous other tidbits of advice, Drane cautioned her visitors never to negotiate, to blog rather than rely on other forms of social media, and not to pay too much heed to the competition.
“People lie on the Internet,” she said. “A lot.”
At Baubles by Maclyn, owner Kellyn Machacek shared how she found her professional niche, offering accessories that fall between costume jewelry and fine jewelry.
Machacek didn’t start out in the industry, either. She went to school planning to be a marriage and family counselor. A realization of the humble starting income she might anticipate in that profession, and the tug of parenthood, detoured her toward the bling. After going to school and working for some of the big jewelry companies, she launched her own enterprise in her home and eventually opened a store in downtown Plainfield, later adding two other locations. Now the Jefferson Avenue store is Baubles’ sole location.
With nine years of running a retail presence in the downtown behind her, Machacek said she has learned the value of forging solid and exclusive relationships with artisans and other vendors, and the wisdom of sourcing materials from the most affordable places available, to optimize the return.
Although she still loves the business, Machacek acknowledged that some days it’s still work, even for the boss.
“You’re the master of your destiny, captain of the ship,” she said, admitting that familiar cliches remain valid ways to convey the message. “If you decide to open a business, you own it. Don’t let it own you.”
Terrell Cole, the final host on the tour, is feeling the fulfillment of owning a business that fits his preferences, strengths and experience well. It’s still work, though. On the pro side, you’re your own boss, said the owner of Dark Horse Pastries, who does his baking rent-free at the Wise Boxer Pour House in exchange for providing sweets offered on the restaurant’s menu.
“But the cons are, you’re your own boss,” said Cole, wrapping up a telephone conversation as the tour arrived. “You’ve got to answer the phones.”
After nearly a decade as the chef of Sullivan’s Steak House, Cole parted ways with the downtown Naperville eatery last April and launched his baking enterprise in August. A classically trained pastry chef, he now furnishes baked goods for Casey’s Foods as well as other Naperville restaurants. Already aware of the value of his connections in the community, and well attuned to the likes of the local patron base, Cole said it still took several weeks to establish an appropriate rhythm.
“The last thing I want to do is have a dissatisfied customer,” he said. “I can’t do that, especially doing business with Casey’s.”
Echoing other entrepreneurs’ comments about the importance of word of mouth, Cole said he also has given significant attention to establishing his local brand, handing out Dark Horse mugs and other items bearing his logo, to make his presence known.
“I want everybody to eat, sleep and breathe Dark Horse,” he said.
Cole’s comments were especially resonant for Becky Sowa, who earned a degree in biology at Bradley University and works as a food scientist at ConAgra Foods, headquartered on Naperville’s north side. Right now she is working on the chemistry of refrigerated dough. She’s always had the heart of a baker, and said after college she found her interest was drawn to Chicago’s French Pastry School.
“My sister said, ‘Just go look at the school,’” she said.
She completed the six-month certification and now does catering and makes cakes and ice cream on the side. It’s a mix that fits.
“I’ve just found a good balance,” she said. “Everyone in their own right is an artist, but everyone does it a little differently.”