Small Business of the Month: Sphere Solar Energy

Sphere Solar Energy owner Edwin Ngugi Wanji stands in front of the solar panel system his company installed for Hellbent Brewing Company.

Growing up in Kenya, Edwin Ngugi Wanji says he was the kind of kid who was always “trying to figure out how stuff works.” “A solar panel on my mom’s little calculator was always very fascinating to me, and I pulled a lot of those out as a kid,” he remembers. Edwin is now the owner and founder of Sphere Solar Energy, a small business that installs solar energy systems for clients across the region, and for communities around the world.

After a childhood spent dissecting calculators, cameras and radios, Edwin arrived in the United States and got a job working on a construction site, where he began working his way up in the field and picking up expertise along the way. He started working in solar energy about eight years ago, and left his job to start his own company three years ago. “The fact that we can fully solar power homes in Seattle, 100 percent, in the cloudy weather, was just a big, ‘Whoa! We can do this anywhere,’” Edwin says of his decision to go into the industry.

He took the leap into entrepreneurship out of a desire to do things his own way, and to pursue his philanthropic vision: “My goal was, you know, just a global goal, making solar energy more accessible to communities that typically would consider solar energy very expensive, and maybe are the ones who actually have trouble with those recurring costs, those energy bills.”

Sphere Solar Energy buys most of its solar panels directly from Pacific Northwest manufacturers and provides its customers both a 10-year warranty and yearly maintenance and service

Edwin shows OED staff the meter that monitors Hellbent Brewing’s solar energy system. On sunny summer days, the system generates excess power which gets fed into the surrounding power grid (and earns extra money for the business).

inspections for the systems it installs. The warranty is rarely needed, however, Edwin says: “Solar is very reliable and very low maintenance. It doesn’t go down.”

Edwin has big plans for his business: he hopes to work with more commercial-scale clients, such as the project Sphere Solar Energy recently completed at Hellbent Brewing Company in Lake City. With 72 solar panels on its roof, Hellbent is now home to the largest solar system on a brewery in Washington State and generates 30 percent of its energy. Edwin is particularly interested in working on projects with local schools so that he can involve the students in the projects—having early experience with solar energy means the kids will be more likely to apply the technology in their future.

Edwin didn’t make a profit on Sphere Solar Energy’s early projects, at first just trying to get his name out there and prove the quality of his work to attract more customers. As one of very few immigrant-owned, black-owned solar energy companies (“I think I’m the only one!”), Edwin built his business within a society that isn’t set up for his success. “Some people will see your name and go, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to work with you.’ That’s life, you know. Same way as if I went to apply for a job somewhere. They might see my name and automatically, I’m out.”

People of color who start their own businesses often face barriers in accessing loans as well, as Edwin has experienced: “For instance, if I need to buy tools or anything, I need to pay cash. I put money away and go buy it.”

At the same time, Edwin appreciates that he is in a unique position to help others pursue a similar path. While working on the Hellbent Brewery system, Edwin and Hellbent owner Jack Guinn invited low-income teens from the Lake City neighborhood to job shadow for a day. Edwin hopes that by seeing someone they can relate to—someone who arrived in the U.S. with $40 in his wallet—being successful in the field, kids will be able to see themselves working in the industry someday too.

Edwin’s humanitarian efforts go far beyond just his own neighborhood. He is passionate about growing his company’s philanthropic efforts, since even small systems can make a huge difference to communities around the world that don’t have existing infrastructure. “A system that I can put on a house here [in Seattle], over there, three or four hundred kids would benefit from it,” he explains, describing a planned project for a school in Haiti.

His team has already completed a project in Kenya and has a project in the works in Haiti. Edwin says the impact of the new systems is clear and immediate. “I built a system in Kenya that’s pretty much running irrigation. So, a journey that took people a few hours just to pull water from point A to B, now is seven gallons a minute.”

Whether it’s in Kenya or in Seattle, Sphere Solar Energy’s mission is to make energy affordable and accessible to the people who need it the most. “I know the struggle to pay my power bills when I was broke. I can imagine the mother with families, assisted living, you know, barely making ends meet,” Edwin says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, this $200 a month can go towards other things.”

You can learn more about Sphere Solar Energy—and how you may be able to put your monthly energy bill towards other things—on their website, or by connecting with them on Facebook.

Small Business of the Month: Flowers Just 4 U

When I was working, younger, I kept a pad by my nightstand.” Flowers Just 4 U owner Mary Wesley pauses to adjust a newspaper on her shop counter, miming writing in a notebook. “What would I like to do after retirement? And so I’d write down, ‘I want to have a boutique shop.’ I thought for a time I wanted to be a photographer, I wrote that down…I had a whole list of things that I thought I wanted to do. And way down the list, it said ‘flowers.’”

She continues, “I wanted to know, ‘Why would I really want to sell flowers?’ Well, number one, I love it, I’m creative. And the main thing is because the community needs a black florist. There is none! I go, ‘Hey, I’m going to be that flower shop.’ And so I did.”

“And so I did” is a refrain of Mary’s as she discusses her 37 years of running Flowers Just 4 U in the Central District. She worked as a manager at Boeing in the early 80’s and at the same time wanted to go to school to learn new skills, like photography, so she did. She decided she wanted to open her own flower shop, so she went back to school again. “I took small business, flower design. Because I’ve always been creative, but I wanted to be a professional at it. I wanted to prepare myself, to be good at it. So I did. So here I am,” she gestures from behind her shop counter.

While some things have changed at Flowers Just 4 U over its nearly four decades in business—the location, for one thing, as the shop recently moved to a new home at 701 23rd Avenue—the business still feels refreshingly old school in the middle of a rapidly-growing Seattle. Mary can name customers that have been buying flowers from her for over 20 years, including the Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, Seattle Unity Church and a customer Mary identifies as “Mrs. Flowers” who has been visiting the shop since it opened.

Flowers Just 4 U had to move from its previous location on 23rd and Jackson when the land was bought by a neighboring non-profit. While moving was difficult, Mary is a fan of the new location. “It’s a very good corner. It’s a very alive corner, there’s a lot of traffic…[and] foot traffic is good. They come in, buy their little bouquets of flowers, and the kids come and get their little single flowers for mom, or what have you.”

The business has just three employees in addition to Mary, plus two delivery drivers. While they’re a small operation, they provide flowers for big events like graduation ceremonies and same-day delivery services. Mary says a good portion of her business comes from the three wire services she belongs to.

Mary started her business because she “saw there was a need in the community,” and she attributes her long-term success to the support she’s gotten from that community. “I have weekly people, that want flowers for their homes for the weekend, when company’s coming, or a birthday, or they just want some beautiful flowers for their homes.” Mary smiles as she talks about her regulars. “I like those kind. They gotta educate the other ones that just come once a month.”

Asked for advice for aspiring small business owners, Mary says to have patience and to prepare yourself for the challenge: “You have to have the knowledge of how to run a business.” If you’re wondering where to get that knowledge of how to run a business: the Office of Economic Development can help connect entrepreneurs with business education, free consulting and more.

“My dad always said don’t set little goals, they too easy to reach. Set high ones and work toward it,” Mary says. “I did that. So here I am, 30 years later running my own flower shop.”

Become one of Flowers Just 4 U’s new regulars by visiting their website, or give them a call at (206) 324-1440. You can get connected with OED’s services for small businesses by emailing us at oed@seattle.gov.

Small Business of the Month: SugarPill

Walking into SugarPill apothecary feels a little like you’re walking out of Seattle’s Capitol Hill and into a shop in Diagon Alley. Most days you’ll find SugarPill owner and founder Karyn Schwartz behind the counter, who opened the shop in 2011.

Schwartz is a homeopath and herbalist with a background in everything from social work to kitchen work; she’s had “a circuitous route towards being a business owner,” as she puts it. “What all of my experience added up to was not a lot of job opportunities aside from private practice, but a deep desire to remain in the public sphere where I could teach people what I know—so eventually I had to create a job for myself,” she explains. “SugarPill is my way of taking all the things I have learned and that I am interested in, and offering them in my own way, in my own aesthetic, in a place where you can find me in person.”

SugarPill sells a unique assortment of natural remedies as well as teas, chocolates, bitters and more—not that the food items aren’t remedies too. Schwartz’s favorite product in the store right now are chocolate-covered sesame toffee squares, “because they are also medicinal.”

Customers can expect to get detailed, personalized advice about the products they buy when they come to SugarPill: “My primary focus is on whoever is in here, in person, talking to me, and trying to understand what they need and what I can safely help them with,” Schwartz says. “We do very intimate consultations here, even while tending to all the basic chores of retail, such as ordering, stocking, cleaning, paying bills, answering the phones and responding to mountains of messages.”

Schwartz has staff to run the store a couple days a week, so that she’s able to have days off, but most of the time she’s a one-woman operation. Everything with a SugarPill label on it is made by Schwartz, and every product she carries from other vendors has won her personal approval.

As a queer business owner operating in Capitol Hill, Schwartz has watched the changes in her neighborhood closely over her seven years in business. “It’s hard to predict, or even plan, what will happen in a city that is changing so rapidly, and forcing so many communities out of their own neighborhoods,” she says. “That really takes a toll on brick and mortar businesses, as we rely on our communities to support us—and exist to support our communities—so I am hoping that the city will refocus on what—and who—is already here, and do more to preserve the fabric of community which cannot be replaced by shiny new everything.”

SugarPill has a long-standing relationship with the Office of Economic Development, which strives to act as an advocate for businesses as they navigate both neighborhood growing pains and the bureaucratic web of local government. “It’s so important to have people to talk to who understand the challenges of being a very small business owner, and who also understand the importance of very small business at a time when very large ones have so much influence over our lives,” she says of her relationship with OED staff.

Being a small business owner in a rapidly-changing Seattle is challenging, but Schwartz hopes to keep SugarPill going for years to come and is planning a “little re-launch” of the store later this year. Schwartz says SugarPill celebrates Pride month “by letting people know how proud we are to be a queer-owned business.”

“I love being involved in art projects, such as the “Still Here, Still Queer” projection piece that I spearheaded a few years ago. I always try to have some kind of installation in our windows, and, of course, we are here all weekend with the door wide open, happy to welcome people to the gayborhood.”

If you’re thinking about starting a small business, Schwartz has a few pieces of advice: “Love what you do. Take good care of yourself, and don’t be too proud to ask for help. Do something that matters to the world that you live in. Remember who you are, how you got here, and always give back to those who helped you along the way.” (Speaking of asking for help—you can always reach out to the Office of Economic Development for free consulting and support.)

You can experience SugarPill at 900 E Pine Street, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Small Business of the Month: Indi Chocolate

Owner Erin Andrews and her daughter Siena.

The newly-expanded Pike Place MarketFront has a new tenant: indi chocolate, purveyors of everything from chocolate bars to orange-chocolate scented lotion to spice rubs to chocolate liquor infusion kits to chocolate mixology classes, and much more.

Indi is a family business: both of founder Erin Andrews’ daughters work at the store, facilitating classes and helping customers. Her husband helps make chocolate in the adjacent small factory, visible to customers through a glass wall. The business itself is named after Andrews’ eldest daughter.

Inspired by a family trip, Andrews first began dabbling in the chocolate business by working directly with farmers in Belize. After traveling back and forth to Belize for two years, she started indi chocolate as a way of bringing her business closer to home. “indi chocolate was started in my kitchen where I made cocoa butter-based lotions and lip balms. I started selling at fairs and festivals to be able to afford the equipment to make chocolate,” she explains.

Office of Economic Development staff smelling cacoa butter soap.

Indi was able to expand to a small retail space at Pike Place Market, where the business was housed for five years. The family produced their chocolate and other products to sell at home, in a commercial kitchen space attached to their house. Siena, Andrews’ youngest daughter who gave us a tour around the shop, seemed relieved at no longer having to do business in such a small shop with her mother and older sister.

The process of expanding into the new, significantly larger factory and retail space was “difficult and stressful,” but worth it, Andrews says. Along the way, she worked with one of the Office of Economic Development’s consultants, who provide free consulting for local small businesses. “One of the great surprises of working with the Office of Economic Development has been how fantastic the free one-on-one marketing consulting has been,” Andrews says. “Working with Lisa Gardner has really helped us up our marketing game and been a valuable resource for growing indi chocolate.”

Now that the business is settled into their new factory, Andrews is looking to expand even further, drawing on the fresh produce and products available daily from fellow Pike Place vendors. “Increasing the amount of local agriculture and dairy has been a long-term goal for indi chocolate, and this will allow us to make fresh and zero shelf-life creations that need to be eaten immediately to be enjoyed at their best,” she says. Indi is also looking to host more classes, events and tours as they head into the summer tourism season, and they hope to focus on wholesaling their products as well.

While Pike Place is known to host crowds of tourists in the summer, it’s home to a strong community of farmers, artists, chefs and other vendors throughout the year. “From the outside, many people don’t realize the importance and strength of the Market community,” Andrews says. “I love personally knowing our regulars. I’m often at the same table doing work alongside them or popping up to help when we have a line of customers.”

Siena Andrews rings up an order.

Next time you’re at the Market, drop by indi for the chance of a free sample of molten, cacao-of-the-day chocolate from one of their machines. Siena tells us that they make the world’s best hot chocolate, and her mother particularly recommends their take on s’mores: “We’ve worked hard to make a s’more I adore with an oat cake instead of graham crackers, our chocolate and our mole spice rub marshmallow freshly roasted for each guest. We’ve been hearing from our customers that it is the best s’more they’ve ever had too.” You can also order online, if you can’t wait to visit in person. (No fresh s’mores online though.)

Thinking of opening or expanding your own business? Get your questions answered on our Restaurant Success site, and get in touch to learn more about our one-on-one consulting.

Small Business of the Month: Fitsum-ISM

Photo courtesy Fitsum Misgano.

Fitsum Misgano is described by a client on her website as a “superwoman in disguise,” and it’s easy to see why. In 2016, Misgano started Fitsum-ISM, her own day-of wedding coordination business through which she single-handedly ensures that the most important day of couples’ lives goes off without a hitch. Her passion and distinctive business plans won the InnoVentures competition at Optimism Brewing in 2017, and she is now a member of the Ventures Nonprofit board of directors.

Fitsum-ISM sets itself apart by aiming to serve the modern couple. Misgano explains, “Couples in this age are empowered to do their own planning through the technology and resources available to them. But after they complete months of planning, my services allow them to enjoy every bit of their day.”

Misgano moved to Seattle from Ethiopia with her family in 2002, and she wore a few different professional hats after graduating from the University of Washington in 2012. “I have always played with the idea of starting my own business, but the idea always felt so out of reach,” she says. “It was almost like learning a different language and I wasn’t sure where I could go to test the waters.”

She soon connected her love of event planning with her desire to be an entrepreneur. “I have always jumped at the opportunity to host parties for friends and families…I had the opportunity to coordinate a few weddings of friends and completely fell in love with it,” she explains.

Fitsum Misgano speaks at the 2018 Innoventures event.

Misgano connected with the City’s Small Business Development team to get information on resources available to her as an entrepreneur. The Small Business Development team also referred her to Ventures, a local nonprofit (and Office of Economic Development partner) dedicated to supporting small business owners who have limited resources. “Since July of 2016, I have been working with Ventures closely to help me define my target market, the services I provide and marketing strategies,” she says. “The classes, training and coaching I received from them are incredibly useful and helped me bring my game to the next level.”

Her business’s name came from a term her previous manager used to describe Misgano’s “positive attitude, hard work, and willingness to learn.” Fitsum-ISM reminds Misgano of what she’s capable of: “I knew there will be ups and downs in owning a business and having the name has been and will continue to remind me to look on the positive side.”

Misgano recently expanded her business by hiring a virtual assistant, and she has detailed plans for Fitsum-ISM’s future. “My goal is to increase number of couples I help by 30 percent from last year,” Misgano says. “I want to do that by being really smart with my time and how I prioritize different parts of my business. For example, one of my biggest initiatives this year is focusing on finding systems that allow me to get through client acquisition seamlessly.”

Misgano has one big piece of advice for those who are thinking of starting their own business: start now. “Including myself, many people who want to open their own business wait to start on their dream until everything aligns,” she says. “The truth is, there may never be a perfect time to start the journey. YOU have to make now the perfect time to start.”

Those interested in opening or expanding a business can contact the Office of Economic Development at oed@seattle.gov to get connected with free resources, information, and business coaching. Visit Fitsum-ISM’s website, and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.