Deborah Christel loves her commute.
“Walk upstairs, walk downstairs,” she said, laughing as she looked around her workspace in her childhood home in Tacoma.
Christel and Ashley Scott Morse started their dreams of an online apparel company in Pullman, where they met at Washington State University. Now they run Kade & Vos out of Christel’s home near the University of Puget Sound.
Operating in Pierce County is fine by them — and for an estimated 28,000 others who opted to start their businesses here since 2015, based on a state Department of Revenue snapshot of excise tax accounts.
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So far in 2018, the numbers indicate an estimated one in 10 startups in Washington have started in Pierce County.
Not Seattle or King County, home to giants such as Amazon and thousands of small startups?
“Seattle is expensive, it’s crowded. ... It feels very intense,” Christel said. “There’s a sense of urgency … and we really want to take our time to make sure our product is right, the pictures are right, the pricing is right, everything is right, before we just dive in.
"The sense I got from Seattle was just get it on the market as fast as possible.”
And then there’s that upstairs-downstairs commute instead of spending hours crawling along Interstate 5.
While Pierce County offers pluses to new entrepreneurs it also lacks many of the minuses that are starting to take the shine off King County.
The “head tax” that the Seattle City Council passed and then quickly rescinded brought down the wrath of business giants such as Amazon. But King County’s soaring home prices and choking traffic affect anyone also trying to start a business.
“Seattle has also had a series of anti-business (large and small, not just the 'Amazons') policy changes that businesses will likely interpret as a trend toward an increasing unfavorable business climate, while Pierce County is differentiating itself as being business friendly,” local economist and researcher Neal Johnson of Sound Resource Economics told The News Tribune earlier this year via email.
“Couple that with the lower cost of housing and Pierce County becomes attractive for businesses that can either find the needed labor in Pierce County or can attract workers to the area.”
Spaceworks Tacoma, which helps entrepreneurs starting out, gets many inquiries from outside Pierce County, especially from the north, said manager Heather Joy.
"They say, ‘Tacoma looks so cool,’ ” according to Joy.
That shows up in the numbers:
In a review going back to 2015, business startups in Pierce County have stayed consistently above 7,000 and into the low 8,000s, according to Revenue Department. This year, 4,022 startups in the county have opened excise tax accounts with the department, nearly 11 percent of the statewide total.
To be clear, that's thousands fewer than what King County has seen so far this year — 12,414 — though fewer than half of what the county reached by the end of last year. Pierce County will slightly surpass its 2017 total if another 4,000 startups file.
Still, it's not all smooth sailing for startups here.
Though not as high as King County's, home and condo prices in Pierce County have climbed more than 16 percent since May 2017, with median home prices now at $355,000.
And not all startups survive. Nationally, while about 80 percent of small businesses make it through their first year, the number drops to 50 percent by the fifth year, with about 30 percent lasting a decade, according to a recent report by Fundera, an online small business lending aggregator.
WAITING LISTS TO LEARN
For those willing to take on those odds, there are people and help at hand.
Population growth in Pierce County has been well-documented in recent months — more than 46 people are moving here or being born here each day.
About half of the local workforce commutes to jobs outside of Pierce County, providing a powerful incentive to those who don’t want to fight the traffic to stay and work locally.
And of those wanting to stay and start a business, there’s more help now to do that.
Spaceworks Tacoma is going from offering twice-a-year entrepreneur training to once a quarter, with the next session scheduled for June 30.
It’s already booked the 50 participants it can handle, and there’s a waiting list for the next training in October. The one after that will be in January. The sessions are four hours.
“This year we've restructured the program to offer more services and training,” said Joy. “In the past, it was just a call for applications once or twice a year and then a 36-hour training program.”
To better reflect its mission, the training program has been renamed. What once was Creative Enterprise Training now goes by Entrepreneur Success Workshop.
“People before were worried as to whether they were a good fit or a ‘creative,’ ” Joy said. “But we work with everyone — coffee shops and people who make chocolate and fashion designers and gifts shops. … We don't want people to exclude themselves. We wanted to invite anyone or everyone.”
Her ultimate message to would-be entrepreneurs: “Don't question whether you're a good fit. There's somewhere in Tacoma where you can fit in.”
To reach those living outside of Tacoma, a new Small Business Development Center recently opened in Puyallup at 400 E. Pioneer. The center also has an office on the Bates Technical College campus at 1100 S. Yakima Ave.
“We ran some demographics on our clients and not a lot of them were in urban Tacoma,” the center’s business adviser, John Rodenberg, told The Puyallup Herald recently. “By not a lot, I mean less than half.”
SUCCULENTS AND CONSIGNMENT
Two businesses credit Spaceworks for their recent launches.
Jennie Serrano took part in its training to learn more about starting her company, Jade & Co Succulent Boutique, in University Place. (Her business motto: “Because flowers die.”)
It’s also where she met Kirsten Reynolds, who sat next to Serrano and later started Restyle Clothing, 3019 Sixth Ave. Suite B, in Tacoma.
As Reynolds describes it, she and Serrano were among about a dozen new entrepreneurs in the class, which consisted of three months of “intense training” — everything from lawyers to marketers.
In May, Serrano opened her shop at 6720 Regents Blvd., Suite 110.
“Yes,” she said, “it’s a storefront, but I also have been doing workshops for succulent creations. So it’s a product and service business.”
Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Serrano came to Tacoma in 2000. At the time, she didn’t even know succulents existed.
“My background for the past 20 years has been in the medical field, registered nurse,” she said.
She sees her business as a natural transition from keeping people alive to doing the same for plants.
“My little hobby in my home developed into a business,” she said.
Reynolds also changed careers to be become a shop owner.
“For the last five years,” she said, “I did local government contracting and I decided that was not my path.
“I’ve been doing consignment on the side for about six years and that gave me a lot of joy to work with the clothing and curate and make it beautiful again. ... Enhancing the beauty of the clothing is my passion.
“So I thought, “Why not try my own store instead of bringing it to someone else?”
That meant working what Reynolds calls “the circuit,” the consignment businesses spanning Thurston to King counties.
Working the circuit, she realized Pierce County had few consignment shops. And that created an opening.
“I did so much research,” she said. “I’ve got a 24-page business plan — pricing, brands, styles.”
She collected the initial inventory herself.
“Curated over the last year or so,” she noted.
“We do upscale clothing consignment for men and women. ... We have high-end goods and a VIP party room to book out for shopping parties.”
The business also features a “Sponsor a Wardrobe” program where consigners can donate their proceeds to help others.
"So, someone coming into a new job, or lost a whole lot of weight and cannot afford a new wardrobe, this is a great way for them to do that,” Reynolds said.
WORLDWIDE STOREFRONT FROM HOME
The need for clothing that fits every body type also inspired Christel and Morse.
When the two crossed paths at WSU, Christel was an assistant professor in the Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles and Morse was a fashion-design student.
“She was one of the best students I’d ever had,” Christel said of her partner, “and we shared a lot of the same passions about equality in the fashion industry for different body sizes.”
Christel said people kept telling her that, given her interest, she should start a business. So she sold her house in Pullman for the startup money and with Morse put together a business plan with the help of Pullman’s Small Business Development Center.
Soon after, Kade & Vos was born, specializing in natural-cotton-based, American-made, elastic-free, tagless and moisture-wicking clothing. The two women recently opened their website for orders.
“We just had our year anniversary May 31,” Christel said. “That was our first business class together.”
She and Morse create the designs, which are produced by a veteran-owned manufacturer in Georgia.
They’re working to promote their business on their website and through videos on their YouTube channel.
What’s next? Innovative bra design, men’s underwear, children’s clothing, women’s athleisure, the list goes on. Maybe someday selling in Nordstrom’s.
“One of our dreams,” Christel said, “would be to provide for women in the military.”
Emily’s Chocolates in Fife is an example of a local business that has made the most of its global ties, and what small businesses can become.
AMES International was started about 30 years ago by the father of Emily's President and CEO Amy Paulose. It sells its chocolates and confections under the Emily's label, and usually employs 35 to 40 workers, with peak season additions of 20. The company expects to hire three to five more workers in the next year.
Paulose knows about keeping things local.
“I went to Annie Wright and University of Puget Sound,” she said. “We see really exciting changes, and we want to be part of that. We appreciate our neighbors to the north, but we call this home.”
She also knows global.
Already selling its treats in multiple countries the company recently made a push into China.
A test shipment sold in 2016 through the online retailer Alibaba’s TMall led to projected sales “10 times or more what we initially started with in the trial order,” Paulose told The News Tribune during a recent business trip to China.
More than 10,000 jars of Emily’s signature mixed nuts were sold in less than 24 hours last year during Alibaba’s annual Singles Day shopping festival, the country’s largest shopping day of the year.
“Next year,” Paulose said, “export sales to China alone will become a significant part of our business.”
As these businesses move forward, even newer ones are just beginning.
In May, Drea Baines opened The Resource Center, a new coworking space at 1004 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Tacoma.
“We're seeing more small businesses and entrepreneurs start in the area,” she recently told The News Tribune via email.
The local business climate feels different to her than what she experienced up north.
“Tacoma seems to have a larger emphasis on supporting and patronizing local establishments, venues, efforts and causes than what I experienced when I lived and worked in Seattle,” she said. “There's a deep sense of community here, which creates a good foundation for starting a business.”
Still, Baines points out, we have a ways to go.
“There's a very strong startup culture in Seattle in large part from the amount of services and resources available,” she noted. “Seattle's just bigger, so you see a lot more opportunity there to start."
“Tacoma, on the other hand, is very up and coming. I think we're on track, but still have a ways to go to have a robust small business support network.”
Paulose's advice for those starting their own businesses also could work for Tacoma and Pierce County governments and other entities aiming to help small startups:
“The No. 1 thing is keep looking forward,” she said. “It is so easy to get caught up in day-to-day and feeling overwhelmed.
“Look at the bigger picture. Keep your head up. Look at what is practical what you feel you can be and how you can push to take risks.”