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Building small in Pueblo out of necessity

While the heartbeat of Pueblo’s economy may be larger industries, small business is quietly swelling.

Joey and his dad, both artisans, build birdhouses in their home on Pueblo’s East Side. Joey owns 60 percent of the business. He has taken the reins on the business and selling side of things, while his father assembles the bird houses. Photo by Kara Mason

A father turned over the lion’s share of his wholesale/retail birdhouse and feeder business, “Birds of the Air,” to his young son to teach the 8-year-old fiscal responsibility. One of many small businesses thriving in Pueblo, says one woman charged with nurturing such enterprises.

The local artist who goes by the name Straight Jacket started the, excuse the pun, small-cottage industry as a single dad when his son Joey was 2. He had to give up his career working long hours selling large ticket items – cars and, if you will, people houses – because he couldn’t find anyone to care for his son during his extended work schedule. Attending college and unemployed, Straight Jacket started making three birdhouses a day from his home using only hand tools and selling them by word of mouth for $10 apiece.

“I used a hand-crank drill for the holes,” Straight Jacket said.

As for little Joey, he is now 10 and overseeing the small business. He owns 60 percent of it. Birds of the Air produces on average 300 birdhouses and feeders a month. And as hard as it is to imagine, the two aren’t even breaking a sweat saying they have the potential to at least double that number.

“My dad wanted me to be an independent business owner so I can have the chance to make some money, and it turned out to be good,” Joey said.

Birdhouses seem to be a metaphor for Pueblo, which recently has become somewhat of an incubator for fledgling small businesses.

Pueblo is typically recalled as the blue-collar steel town. And when the steel industry collapsed it took to manufacturing. But even the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation, the organization that recruits big manufacturers says small business is Pueblo’s sweet spot.

“We work with existing small companies on a regular basis,” PEDCO president and chief operating officer Jeff Shaw says. “You see expansion with companies like LastLeaf and Formulary 55. What you don’t see publicly is the work involving retention. By definition the vast majority of companies in Pueblo are small businesses. We are busier than we have been in probably 10 years or so. Consumer confidence appears to be strong and has some correlation to how busy we are.”

Caroline Trani, executive director for the Southern Colorado Small Business Development Center out of Pueblo Community College says new small businesses in Pueblo County seem to be on the rise compared with just last year based on the assistance requests made to her organization.

In 2016, SBDC served about 2,200 customers and clients and 245 of those were clients seeking technical assistance. She says her organization is on track to at least equal and likely best those numbers this year. Yet Trani cautions that funding, which comes from the state and Pueblo Community College, may limit the number of businesses SBDC can help.

As for the types of small businesses seeking assistance, “There are some (businesses) moving to the area as well as others looking to do a part-time business in addition to their day job,” she says. “There are others that are retiring from positions but looking to still work part-time through their own businesses.”

Then there are businesses like Joey’s born out of necessity to become the family’s sole source of income.

The products Joey and his dad construct, which also include other items like wooden flower arrangement holders for wedding centerpieces, are still made from their home on the city’s East Side. Wood for their projects is rough cut in the backyard and production is completed using compressed-air power tools in a 10-by-10 spare bedroom, which, believe it or not, accommodates a desk in addition to the work area.

Access to capital continues to be a challenge for businesses like Joey’s for both existing as well as start-ups, Trani says. “Qualifying for the capital as well as low interest rate options are two areas we get questions on most.”

Again according to Trani, the main types of businesses attracted to Pueblo are those in the service industry, those involved in the trades, those offering professional expertise and subcontractors.

“We have always seen many retail and small manufacturing. We also are seeing a rise in technology and ecommerce businesses.” She adds that “creative industries” continue to be a trend as well.

“I create green, blue and red birdhouses,” Joey says. “Some have flowers. Some have (Denver) Bronco signs (logos). Some have pictures. And some are just plain. I use 18-guage nails, our saw table, a hammer, paint and other utensils.”

As Joey and his dad have found, Pueblo is a desirable location for small business development, and Trani concurs.

She said the cost of doing business here is affordable and there are many quality resources available for start-up, retention and expansion needs for businesses for those that take advantage of such resources.

As for Joey, his dad had friends who used to help with the business, but those friends had personal problems and Joey feels it was “easier” for him and his dad to go it alone. The two also say there are several resources for small businesses such as theirs, but what they’ve found is that those resources tend not to address marketing.

Currently, Birds of the Air supplies birdhouses, feeders and small wood-crafted and refinished antique items to 15 businesses in town and is negotiating contracts with 10 others.  Among the businesses Birds of the Air supplies is Statis Events. Owner Yolanda Baca describes her downtown business on Union Avenue as an “outside the box floral shop” and she has commissioned Joey and his dad to fashion wooden bird cages and other custom wood items for her shop.   

Trani and her organization emphasize that small businesses are not just about making money.

“The live, work, play balance for entrepreneurs is just as important today, and Southern Colorado including Pueblo provides the balance that many are looking for.”

Joey and his dad plan to expand their business to include T-shirts, knives and leather goods, and they are looking for a storefront downtown they can turn into a shop hopefully by the time Joey is the ripe old age of 11. Perhaps the Small Business Development Center can help.

“Investment in our existing businesses for retention and expansion needs versus primarily attracting new businesses to Pueblo can help sustain our local economy in a more consistent manner,” Trani says.

The SBDC helps existing and new businesses with free and confidential consulting and no- or low-cost training programs that create and retain jobs, secure loans, increase sales, win government contracts and obtain certifications – among other services.

The SBDC combines information and resources from federal, state and local governments with those of the education system and private sector to help meet the needs of the small-business community. Trani along with her staff and contracted consulting experts work in partnership to provide entrepreneurs with information that, they say, can mean the difference between success and failure.

So there are helpful alternatives out there that benefit Pueblo’s many growing small businesses – even one run by a finance-conscious kid executive named Joey.

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