Regional business startups boom as entrepreneurs chase dreams | Local Business

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the spring edition of Business Leader, a quarterly magazine produced by the Leader-Telegram. To view that issue and other special publications, go to

EAU CLAIRE – Tim Wendt may not realize it when he’s changing the oil in somebody’s car, but he’s a sign of the resilience of the Chippewa Valley economy.

Laid off from his longtime position with a local auto repair shop in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wendt could not afford to sit around feeling sorry for himself.

So he started his own business.

In May 2020, with unemployment skyrocketing and uncertainty about the coronavirus peaking, Wendt launched Tim’s Auto Care at 3407 E. Hamilton Ave. in Eau Claire. Nearly two years later, the sole proprietorship is running smoothly and Wendt is happy that his gamble appears to have paid off.

Wendt’s story is just one example of how individual entrepreneurs increasingly have taken matters into their own hands when it comes to helping the economy – and themselves – rebound from the hardship caused by the pandemic.

A Federal Reserve study released last spring found that an additional 200,000 US businesses permanently closed in the first year of the pandemic, representing a 33% increase from the 600,000 businesses that typically close each year, but that loss was counteracted by a surge in the number of people starting new ventures nationwide.

Preliminary data suggest that trend also extends to the Eau Claire metropolitan area, composed of Eau Claire and Chippewa counties.

While the Eau Claire metro area received 1,134 new business applications in 2019 – the year before the pandemic – that number rose 7.9% to 1,224 in 2020, according to a study based on US Census Bureau data from Self Financial. Local data for 2021 is not yet available, although the study indicated new business applications jumped 23% to 64,790 in Wisconsin last year.

Luke Kempen, director of the Small Business Development Center at UW-Eau Claire, also has seen evidence of a rise in business startups in the region.

The center, which provides support to existing and prospective local small businesses, reported having about 225 clients in 2019, 290 in 2020 and 420 in 2021. That’s an increase of 87% from prepandemic 2019 to last year.

“You would think COVID uncertainty would have slowed things down, but it just wasn’t that way,” Kempen said. “I thought for sure we’d see a slowdown, but we just never did.”

Still, statistics collected by the UW System’s Institute for Business & Entrepreneurship suggest the boom in new businesses hasn’t quite kept up with the pandemic-fueled decline in existing businesses. The institute reports that the number of establishments in the Eau Claire metro area totaled 9,100 in the first quarter of 2020 before dropping to 8,300 a year later.

The number had risen to 8,400 by the second quarter of 2021, the last period for which data are available on the institute’s website.

Kempen suggested the surprising acceleration of startups is the result of a combination of factors, including historically low interest rates for loans and the ready availability of money through government programs intended to help the economy bounce back from the pandemic.

However, the reasons so many people have decided to start their own businesses at a volatile time likely to go beyond dollars and cents.

For some, it may involve the same factors that have led to what is widely called the “Great Resignation,” or a surge in workers quitting their jobs because of low pay, a lack of opportunities for advancement, feeling disrespected, disatisfaction with working conditions or simply a desire to follow a new career path. In all, a record 47.4 million US workers quit their jobs in 2021.

In the Chippewa Valley, Kempen said, a majority of SBDC clients are over 40 and likely thinking it’s the right mid-career point to make a change.

Some families, after enduring the layoff of one spouse, learned to their surprise that they could survive temporarily on one income, making them realize they could afford to take a chance on the other spouse starting a business, Kempen said.

“I think a lot of people found themselves unemployed and thought they might as well try something else,” he said.

That’s the way things shook out for Wendt, who took the entrepreneurship plunge at a time when virtually nobody was hiring because of pandemic uncertainty.

“I decided to take the leap of faith and be my own boss,” Wendt said, acknowledging the risk was frightening at first.

Nearly two years later, he called it a good decision.

“The first year I wondered at times, but then time flew and now I’m already going on two years and not looking back,” Wendt said.

Another factor contributing to the increase in business startups that should not be overlooked, Kempen said, is that many people dream of starting their own business and being accountable to nobody but themselves.

“That dream is tremendously prevalent,” Kempen said. “People are passionate, and you see that in the folks who reach out to us and try to learn more about starting a business.”

Kempen acknowledged that passionate entrepreneurs can create successful businesses even from concepts he initially questions.

“I’ve learned over the years that even if an idea is not for me, it may work,” he said. “I never try to discourage them. I just try to ensure they think about all aspects of starting a business before proceeding. ”

While economic principles would suggest that rising interest rates and wages would slow down the rush to entrepreneurship, Kempen cautioned not to underestimate people’s drive to pursue their passions.

Two recent SBDC clients – Restored Wellness and Cadillac Curb – are cases in point. Both firms are launching this spring despite economic challenges including inflation, supply chain disruption and a tight labor market.

Nicole Budik and Kristi Herbenson launched Restored Wellness this March in Eau Claire because they saw a need to support and restore the health of regional residents.

“With COVID everything shut down and we both noticed the stress and the burnout affecting so many people and how health and wellness really fell by the wayside with everything going on,” Budik said.

The business offers customized personal training, fitness coaching and nutrition guidance for individuals but also seeks to conduct employee wellness programs for small and medium-sized workplaces.

“We want people to enjoy going to work and be able to get the wellness and movement they need at work,” Budik said, suggesting that such programs could help employers attract and retain workers. “We’re super passionate about it and we really feel like we can make a good market out of this and start restoring wellness in the Chippewa Valley.”

Initially at least, the venture is a side job for both Budik and Herbenson, but they are optimistic about the potential for growth and excited about the prospect of running their own company.

“I love the idea of ​​being my own boss,” Budik said. “I’ve been wanting to do that for many years but hadn’t taken the leap. Things just kind of fell where they needed to and this is just the right time to do it. ”

Similarly, after years of working in the auto and landscaping industries, Ryan Darrow of Chippewa Falls decided there is no time like the present to pursue his entrepreneurial dream.

Darrow, who has a background in architectural commercial design, has launched a website for Cadillac Curb, which provides continuous concrete curbing as an alternative to plastic or metal landscape edging, and plans to start selling and installing the product as soon as the weather allows.

He is confident there will be a strong market for the decorative product, which can be ordered in a variety of colors and textures, including a natural stone look he expects to be particularly popular.

“With all the housing going up, there is so much potential in the area and I feel like now is just a good time to jump on it,” said Darrow, who is excited about working outside.

“I always figured I’d be my own boss at some point, and I decided now is the right time for me and my family,” Darrow said. “Work just feels different when you know it benefits you and your company and your family.”

In addition to their shared dream of starting their own businesses, Darrow, Budik and Wendt all agreed that people should pursue their passions with their eyes wide open and that the SBDC is a great place for potential entrepreneurs to start that journey.

“I contacted the Small Business Development Center and they helped a lot,” Wendt said. “I kind of had an idea and they told me everything else I needed to know to make it a reality.”


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