Balance Massage Therapy

Today, seven out of 10 small businesses survive past the two-year mark; more than half survive past five-year mark, according to statistics published by the Small Business Administration. Even in shaky economic times, small businesses are doing better than ever before. We profiled three who opened their doors in Michigan and are flourishing.

On the Balance Massage Therapy website, co-owners Josie Ann Lee (’96) and Christin Draybuck (’94) describe themselves as, “just two U-M grads working hard on our dreams.”So far, they are off to a good start. Deemed “Best New Business in Ann Arbor” by readers of Current Magazine, Balance Massage Therapy saw 90 percent growth in 2010.    

“It’s a very exciting time for us,” says Lee. “We’re so grateful for our client base; we know that our continued growth isn’t possible without them.”

Since opening in October 2008, the business has expanded from five to 13 therapists and extended its hours. The co-owners also have plans to double office space in 2012.

Lee says she didn’t always plan to open a massage business, but instead wanted to open a themed café.  While working at a coffee shop to learn the trade, she met Draybuck, who was attending Ann Arbor Institute of Massage Therapy.  The duo decided to open a studio that encouraged massage to be a therapeutic experience and part of a directed wellness plan.

“We didn’t want to open just a spa,” explains Lee. “We’ve hired top notch therapists who provide our clients a truly therapeutic experience.” They recently launched “Balance in Motion,” a program bringing onsite massages to workplaces, conferences, athletic outings and other events.

The owners attribute their success to keeping true to their original business plan: making massages affordable, adaptable, and accessible. They add that its Ann Arbor location has been a key factor as well.    

“We knew Ann Arbor had the market for our vision,” says Lee. “Our clients understand the importance of health. Starting here was a no-brainer.”  

Ann Arbor T-shirt Company

When Jerry Kozak (U-M ’08) and Ricky Winowiecki (U-M ’09) reflect on the origins of their garment printing and embroidery studio, Ann Arbor T-shirt Company, they can always look back at Kozak’s apartment. That is, after all, where the business began in 2008.

“I had a t-shirt press in my bedroom for the first months that we were open,” explains Kozak.  That same year, Kozak says he sold blood plasma to keep the company afloat.

Things are certainly better today. Ann Arbor T-Shirt Company has more than 10 employees and will move from its current 2000-square-foot warehouse on South Industrial Highway in Ann Arbor to a larger, 11,000-square-foot one across the street. They will also open their first sales office in Ypsilanti directly across from the Eastern Michigan University campus.

Kozak says that despite their rocky start, he and Winowiecki are glad that they began the business when they did.

“If anything, by launching at the bottom of the economy and surviving, there is nowhere to go but up,” Kozak says. 

The pair has made shirts for the crews of several movies filmed in Michigan, includingStone, a Robert De Niro film, and Real Steel, a film produced by Steven Spielberg. Ann Arbor T-shirt Company is also the official merchandiser for Team Starkid, a theatre troupe formed by U-M students and renowned for its viral videos, such as “A Very Potter Musical.”     

Although they may not be able to meet with each client individually, Kozak and Winowiecki pride their business on the personalized touches provided with each order.

“Our success has been made possible because we can sit face-to-face with our clients and get to know them,” says Kozak. They also try to include a “quick handwritten note” with each order.

Their personal notes on invoices for web orders have become so popular that they even receive special requests for elaborate drawings by some clients, who in turn post them to the company’s Facebook page.

“It is a neat opportunity to bridge the retailer/consumer gap,” says Kozak. “Many of our customers have become our friends.”

Corner Booth Writing

After working in financial planning for eight years, Angela Kujava (’00) knew it was time for a change. She just wasn’t sure what that change would be.

For years, she had helped individuals with their résumés and cover letters for free. Her family and friends told her she should charge for the service, and she decided to take their advice. In July 2009, Corner Booth Writing was born.  

While there are countless online résumé and cover-letter writing programs, Kujava says that providing a human touch has been a major factor in her success.

“I am in Michigan, I understand Michigan, and I understand the job market in Michigan. I can help cater a résumé to the job market and add that personal touch,” she explains.   

She says that she can also relate to her clients on a personal level. “Many people right now are experiencing major career changes, either by choice or because they are forced to do so,” Kujava says.  “I have deep empathy for people looking for jobs; I know what they are going through because I’ve been there before.”  

Overall Kujava feels that starting up her own business has changed her career—and her life—for the better.  

“Starting a business doesn’t have to be about, ‘I’m going to be the richest person in the world,’” Kujava says. “It can be about advancing skills that are valuable to employers. It can advance your career in ways you didn’t realize.”

Five Tips for Starting a Business

Interested in turning your passion or hobby into a business? Brothers Rich Sloan ('90) and Jeff Sloan ('87), founders, offer five tips for would-be entrepreneurs, which supplement their"10 Steps to Open a Business." 

  1. Don't wait. When it comes to living a full and passionate life, there is no room for waiting around. A rich and fulfilling life won't just materialize out of thin air. You have to make it happen. 
  2. Get in the Sandbox. Get in your creative "sandbox" so that you can establish a clear definition of what you love doing. Write down your description. Then, figure out why that passion calls to you. Once you understand this, you're able to craft two critical things: 1) The business model that's most appealing, such as online, brick-and-mortar, home-based, part-time, etc., and 2) the role and responsibilities you would like to assume in the business.
  3. Use a Role Model. Don't be fooled into thinking that starting a business means you have to be completely original. There are a lot of wedding photographers out there who have businesses similar to thousands of others, and yet they thrive. Consider copycatting another successful business owner who shares your same passion. Reach out to the role model and ask for direct advice and mentorship. If you're in a non-competitive geographic market, this should work (and help you immensely). 
  4. Create a Basic Plan. Knowing the details of how your business will function is fundamental to your eventual success. But that doesn’t mean you have to get sucked into a business planning black hole. To begin, understand your basic financial performance expectations so there are no surprises. Make sure you have ideas in place about how you’re going to gain customers. Know the key people and resources you’ll require. But don’t over-think it. Get into the market with your offering as quickly as possible. 
  5. Delegate and Offload. Delegate tasks and responsibilities that don’t “call to you.” Identify employees, contractors, or specialized vendors who are experts in providing services you wish to outsource. In this day and age, there’s always someone capable, willing, and passionate about those aspects of running your business that interest you the least and distract you from what you love doing the most.