Regional startups explode as entrepreneurs pursue their dreams | Local company

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

CLEAR WATER — Tim Wendt may not realize it when he’s changing the oil in someone’s car, but he’s a sign of the resilience of the Chippewa Valley economy.

Fired from his longtime job at a local auto repair shop at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wendt couldn’t afford to feel sorry for himself.

So he started his own business.

In May 2020, with unemployment soaring and uncertainty surrounding the peak of the coronavirus, Wendt launched Tim’s Auto Care at 3407 E. Hamilton Ave. in Eau Claire. Almost two years later, the sole proprietorship is doing well, and Wendt is happy that his bet seems to have paid off.

Wendt’s story is just one example of how individual entrepreneurs have increasingly taken matters into their own hands when it comes to helping the economy — and themselves — bounce back after the difficulties caused by the pandemic.

A Federal Reserve study released last spring found that an additional 200,000 U.S. businesses closed permanently 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 offset by an increase in the number of people starting new businesses nationwide.

Preliminary data suggests that this trend also extends to the Eau Claire metro area, comprised of Eau Claire and Chippewa counties.

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

Luke Kempen, director of the Small Business Development Center at UW-Eau Claire, has also seen an increase in business start-ups in the region.

The centre, which provides support to existing and potential local small businesses, said it had around 225 clients in 2019, 290 in 2020 and 420 in 2021. This represents an 87% increase between pre-pandemic 2019 and last year.

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

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

The number had risen to 8,400 in the second quarter of 2021, the latest period for which data is available from the institute. website.

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

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

For some, this may involve the same factors that led to what is commonly referred to as the “Big Quit”, or an increase in the number of workers quitting their jobs due to low pay, lack of opportunities for advancement, a feeling of lack of respect, dissatisfaction with working conditions. or simply a desire to follow a new professional path. In total, a record 47.4 million American workers left their jobs in 2021.

In the Chippewa Valley, Kempen said, the majority of SBDC clients are over 40 and likely think now is a good mid-career time to make a change.

Some families, after experiencing the dismissal of one spouse, learned to their surprise that they could temporarily survive on one income, which made them realize that they could afford to try their luck with the other. spouse by starting a business, Kempen said.

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

That’s how things changed for Wendt, who took the leap into entrepreneurship at a time when hardly anyone was hiring due to the uncertainty of the pandemic.

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

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

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

Another factor contributing to the rise in the number of startups that should not be overlooked, Kempen said, is that many people dream of starting their own business and be accountable only to themselves.

“This dream is extremely common,” Kempen said. “People are passionate, and you see that in the people who contact us and try to find out more about starting a business.”

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

“I’ve learned over the years that even if an idea isn’t for me, it can work,” he said. “I never try to discourage them. I just try to make sure they think through all aspects of starting a business before moving on. »

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

Two recent SBDC customers – Restored Wellness and Cadillac Curb – are examples. Both companies are launching this spring despite economic challenges including inflation, supply chain disruption and a tight labor market.

Nicole Budik and Kristi Herbenson started Restored Wellness in March in Eau Claire because they saw the need to support and restore the health of area residents.

“With COVID everything has come to a standstill and we have both noticed the stress and burnout that affects so many people and how health and wellbeing has really fallen by the wayside with all that. is happening,” Budik said.

The company offers personalized personal training, fitness coaching, and nutritional counseling for individuals, but also seeks to conduct employee wellness programs for small and medium-sized businesses.

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

At least at first, the business is a side job for Budik and Herbenson, but they’re optimistic about the potential for growth and excited about the prospect of running their own business.

“I like the idea of ​​being my own boss,” Budik said. “I had wanted to do this for many years, but I hadn’t taken the plunge. Things fell where they needed to and now is just the right time to do so.

Likewise, after years of working in the automotive and landscaping industries, Ryan Darrow of Chippewa Falls decided there was no better time than the present to pursue his entrepreneurial dream. .

Darrow, who has a background in architectural commercial design, has launched a website for Cadillac Curb, which offers continuous concrete curbs as an alternative to plastic or metal landscape curbs, and plans to begin selling and installing the product. as soon as time permits.

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 which he hopes will be particularly popular.

“With all the housing construction, there’s so much potential in the area and I feel like now is the right time to jump on it,” said Darrow, who is excited to work outdoors.

“I always thought I would be my own boss at some point, and I decided it was the right time for me and my family,” Darrow said. “Work is just different when you know it benefits you, your business and your family.”

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

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