Blog: Julie Gustafson

Small companies comprise 99% of employers nationwide, and (surprise!) 98% in Michigan. That's why east coast native Julie Gustafson, executive director of the Macomb-OU INCubator, recently moved inland to foster new entrepreneurs here. This week she covers the hatching of new businesses and her work upbringing in the family ski shop.

Why Start-Ups; Why Business Incubation?

Small business accounts for approximately 99% of the employers in the United States and represents 98.3% of all employers in Michigan. Given this relevant statistic, it is no wonder that business incubation has increased more than five-fold in our country in the past decade.   Incubation provides an entrepreneurial ecosystem in which to support small businesses.  If run well, incubators are effective in helping to accelerate the pace of small businesses in our country as well as across the globe.  

I have been in business incubation for close to 15 years, which is a fairly long time in this relatively new industry (in 1980 there were only 12 incubators in the United States).  When I started in New Hampshire in 1997, there were no incubators in New Hampshire and less than 200 incubators in our country.  Today there are over 1,100 incubators in the country – and counting.  Yes, I was the brunt of many egg-and-chick jokes.

How did I end up in business incubation?  Although my career "hatched" in New Hampshire, my love and passion for small business was "incubated" in New Jersey where I was born and bred.  Back when I was in fifth grade, my father made the decision to leave Wall Street to start his own retail business, the Sport Spot, a sporting goods store with a major focus on downhill skiing.  Yes, New Jersey had skiing and was only a 4.5 hour drive to some of New England's finest.

I can remember the months my parents spent prepping, planning, and passing many late nights sitting at the kitchen table.  It did not seem like a big deal to me at the time, but had to have been a huge decision for them.  I remember sitting with my father in his car, at numerous locations, at various times of the day, counting and timing traffic.  How many people drove by his potential business location?    

It was not long after the store opened that it did become a big deal.  It was a family affair.  Towards the end of fifth grade, I was cleaning store windows and mirrors, hanging the piles of clothing back up that were left in the dressing rooms, vacuuming (hated that old Electrolux), counting inventory (this was before it was computerized)…. and you get the idea.  I had four siblings. We all worked in the store.  It was a big part of all of our lives; we lived and breathed it.  

I believe anyone starting a business, whether it in New Jersey, New Hampshire, Michigan, or anywhere else in the country, needs to have willingness to "live and breathe it."  It is a LOT of work!  That being said, it is not a bad idea to like it either!  Fortunately, in our case, we did.

Growing up in a family business, I learned some essentials for starting a successful business that are still very relevant today. More than I can possibly share in one blog.  I learned the importance of a strong work ethic, customer service, integrity, honesty, and how critically important it is to respect all, including: customers, vendors, suppliers, employees, service providers, your community, and yes, even your competitors!  

I learned creativity and the value of seeking out new opportunities. I watched my parents start satellite stores and a travel agency that ran ski trips around the country as a result of fulfilling customer needs.  I learned to work in the face of adversity – inventory not coming in on time, rain during ski swaps, a substantial fire in the store, unhappy customers, long hours – but most importantly I learned that work can be fun!  As we got older, we went to the trade shows, tested equipment and helped make purchasing decisions.  We also had the opportunity to meet and ski with some world-class skiers.

My upbringing in a positive family-owned company is absolutely what led to my career in business incubation.  I love working in an industry that supports small business!

In my next two blog posts, I look forward to telling you about how, and why, I ended up in Michigan, and then I will share with you how the Macomb OU INCubator is helping to support entrepreneurs in Southeast Michigan!