Share this article

print logo

GENERATION ENTREPRENEURS
DEFYING 'SLACKER' STEREOTYPE, YOUNG PEOPLE ARE WORKING HARD TO BUILD THEIR OWN BUSINESSES

SLACKERS. Lazy. Directionless. Angst-ridden.

Generation X -- the demographic group that spent its formative years with Ronald Reagan, Max Headroom and Spuds MacKenzie -- has been described in unflattering terms in the media for years.

But many of this generation's entrepreneurs, more Alex P. Keaton than Keanu Reeves, resent being slurred with such labels and stereotypes.

"I don't like it when someone calls me Gen X," said Edward Pinkel Jr., who runs Urban Surfer Inc. on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo with his wife, Maureen.

"Gen X to me was always a lost person," he said. "I'm not lost. Maureen's not lost."

In fact, those born between 1964 and 1981 have a drive to succeed equal to that of their parents -- the hippies, yuppies and dinks of the baby boom.

With little capital, few employees and the threat of failure hanging over their heads, young people like the Pinkels have bucked the odds and started their own business. And many of them are succeeding.

"Statistics have proven that the greatest growth that occurs in business occurs when the owner is between the age of 25 and 40," said John Wynne, associate director of Canisius College's Center for Entrepreneurship.

Most young entrepreneurs didn't follow the ivy-lined path from the Wharton School of Business to an office with a view on Wall Street.

Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. Just ask Heather Greeley, who owns Uncommon Threads, a women's casual clothing store on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo.

"There are really no other opportunities," said Ms. Greeley, 26. "Not until those baby boomers start to retire."

Holly Rankin, 27, who owns The Flower Box in Cheektowaga's Airport Plaza with Jennifer Rathbun, 25, saw first hand how this lack of opportunity affected her high school classmates.

"We graduated with a lot of people who had grand plans," said Ms. Rankin, "and some of them are still working at Taco Bell."

It is vision, persistance and initiative -- not a college degree -- that separates those who start and run a successful business from those who don't, say many young entrepreneurs.

"My business background is all from the school of hard knocks," said David Straitiff, 31, president and co-founder of Syrinex Communications Corp., a Buffalo high-tech firm.

For some budding business people, the desire to own their own business took hold long ago, earned interest and matured. However, inspiration can strike at the oddest moments, as the Pinkels, both 32, found out on their honeymoon.

While driving around the Great Lakes in the throes of nuptial bliss, Edward and Maureen Pinkel noticed that even the smallest town had a surf shop, offering equipment and clothing essential to surfers and surfers at heart.

"Nobody had anything like that here," said Ms. Pinkel, until the couple opened what is now Urban Threads and Sleds in April 1992.

The Small Business Development Center at Buffalo State College has helped 7,000 people negotiate the minefield of starting a business since 1984, according to director Susan McCartney.

"Accurately identifying the market conditions and the target market" through careful research is critical, Ms. McCartney said.

Ms. Greeley of Uncommon Threads said she learned how to write a strategic business plan at the local library, and got ideas for the layout and design of her shop by scoping out other shops on Elmwood Avenue.

To start up a business, according to Melissa Roskopf, "You have to have a lot of support and you have to have backup money."

Ms. Roskopf, 22, opened Koffee Krazy, a Getzville coffee and snack shop brightly decorated in red, white and blue hues, seven months ago. "I knew I was taking a risk, but I was willing to take it," she said.

Her business is a family affair. Her father constructed the store's interior, her mother picks up its baked goods every day and her sister helps out behind the counter.

Obtaining enough money to start a business is difficult if budding entrepreneurs can't prove to the bank that they have sufficient collateral or experience, said the Center for Entrepreneurship's Wynne.

"There seems to be a mentality that the older you are, the smarter you are," said Ms. Rathbun, co-owner of The Flower Box. "And if you're young, you're just a punk."

The Pinkels -- who were rescued by a loan from Edward's parents -- almost resorted to desperate measures when confronted with a chorus of "no's" from banks.

"It was difficult because no one wanted to give us money," said Pinkel. "We were almost down to getting a bunch of credit cards and starting our business that way."

Straitiff said he had an easier time starting Syrinex Communications -- a year-old company that develops technology for transmitting voice and data over the same line -- than he did with his first company, which he sold several years ago.

When he began Voice Technologies Group Inc. in 1989 with two other partners, Straitiff said he was looked on as "kind of a young punk."

Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. is just the latest person to say Buffalo's flat-lining economy makes it difficult to operate a profitable business in the area.

However, spurning the hot business climate of the Sun Belt, these Buffalo-area residents have fearlessly set up shop in one of the rustiest parts of the Rust Belt.

Many are lifelong residents of the area and believe that what ails this region is curable, provided businesses, leaders and residents pull together.

"I'm definitely a firm believer in Buffalo," said Straitiff. "I think it's got incredible potential.

"I guess I get a little miffed in trying to understand where the city's resources are being used to promote economic growth," he continued.

Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo has become a mecca of sorts for coffee shops, restaurants, eclectic clothing stores and many businesses whose offerings stray far from the beaten path.

"I definitely wanted to be on Elmwood," said Ms. Greeley of Uncommon Threads. "I think it's the greatest thing Buffalo has to offer."

Ms. Roskopf, who lives in Pendleton, said she decided to open her coffee shop on Millersport Highway in Getzville because there is little competition in the area.

To thrive, a small business must offer something that allows it to stick out from its competitors, according to The Flower Box's Ms. Rathbun.

"If you ever look in the phone book, there's florists coming out of your ears," said her partner, Ms. Rankin. "You have to carry something the others don't."

Most of these entrepreneurs are their store's entire management, sales, purchasing and accounting staffs rolled into one. Operating a small business can be a lonely and time-consuming enterprise.

"The worst thing in any company is that time is your greatest enemy," said Straitiff of Syrinex.

"You feel trapped," said Uncommon Threads' Ms. Greeley. "It's hard to schedule silly stuff that people would take for granted," like doctor's appointments. She recently hired her first permanent employee at the clothing store.

All agree that being your own boss is worth the 70-plus-hour weeks and withering stress. Once a small business is established, the fruits of these labors can be found in the bottom line.

Urban Surfer Inc. saw 55 percent growth in sales each of its first three years, according to Pinkel. He said the store now sells in three months what it did in all of its first year.

Ms. McCartney of the Small Business Development Center said success such as this is due to the "tremendous energy, optimism and enthusiasm" of young business owners.

Koffee Krazy is an example of what enthusiasm can do for a fledgling business. Ms. Roskopf believes her shop is better than her chain competitors because "we're more personal . . . we know our customers on a first-name basis."

Straitiff, who predicts Syrinex will average $15 million to $20 million in annual sales within four years, said there is no complex, mystical secret to business success.

"When it really comes down to it, businesses are very simple," he said. "People sometimes lose that perspective."