Mid-Michigan Region SBDC- Erica Yost hadn’t planned on owning a business. But she is the sort of person who faces life head on, adjusting to the unexpected in ways that sometimes surprise even her.
Yost worked as an R.N. after completing her nursing program at Mid Michigan College. It was the career path she imagined for her future, and in her spare time, she designed and sold handmade rustic signs and other crafts.
Then, she got sick.
It was a time for Yost to assess and adjust. She needed to heal and focus on her family. During her recuperation, she dedicated more time to her side hustle – attending craft fairs and selling her signs from her aunt’s house in Harrison, which also functioned as the operation site for her aunt’s cupcake business.
“This is the part I’m horrible at describing,” Yost said to open her interview about her business. “But, it all started in a house…”
Both Tammy Sue Cupcakes and Yost’s signmaking took off, commanding more and more sales and leading Yost to the leap of faith that would eventually turn into Not So Shabby Gifts and Primitives and Up North Coffee.
Yost also engaged the Mid-Michigan Region Small Business Development Center (SBDC) for assistance, taking full advantage of their free trainings and one-on-one business counseling. In consultation with SBDC team members, she created a business plan and began planning to expand both her physical location and business model.
In 2019, Yost planted her flag and committed to being a full-time small business owner. She purchased a building on First Street in Harrison and began renovating the space to reflect rustic style and hometown charm. The building incorporates a café and gift shop. Yost’s aunt leases space to offer her fresh-baked goods at the cafe and operate her business, Cupcakes by Tammy Sue.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was determined to try,” Yost says. “We opened our doors around Thanksgiving 2019, and the Harrison community immediately began supporting us.”
Then, COVID hit.
At that point, the business’s doors had been open for a few months, less time than it takes to even develop a sense for “business as usual.”
“Erica has more natural business sense than most people. She doesn’t always recognize it, but she has an uncanny way of thinking outside of the box and transforming challenges into opportunities,” notes Jeff Punches, the SBDC business consultant who has worked most closely with Yost. “Suddenly, parts of her operations needed to close, the coffee shop could only reopen under different regulatory guidance; there were financial assistance programs she needed to consider and select. 2020 was hard for nearly every small business I work with, but a new business with a brand-new business owner faced particularly difficult challenges.”
After initially closing, Yost reopened the cafe, and worked with the SBDC on which rescue fund assistance to pursue and how to operate safely. The business eventually bounced back in 2020 and revenues climbed. Through support from the SBDC, the business upgraded its website and added e-commerce services that allowed online sales options.
Because the gift shop portion of her business facing restrictions, Yost began looking for even more online alternatives, eventually determining to pivot operations again to feature a boutique line of clothing to sell online.
“I’ve been so impressed with Erica’s creativity and hard work. When things get tough, she gets to work and starts investigating new ways of doing business,” Punches continues. “Her attitude is one of opening new doors instead of feeling defeated by those that close.”
Yost’s ingenuity paid off. She started hosting “CommentSold” Facebook fashion shows and sales events, in which potential customers participated in real time to see fashion items modeled and to select those they wanted to purchase. It was an interactive way to expand her business and maintain customer connections – one that didn’t rely on a brick-and-mortar space.
“I thought, ‘why not?’ but I also didn’t know what to expect,” Yost says. “I had no idea that the CommentSold shows would become so popular so quickly.”
Over the course of a few months, virtual attendance at the live sales events took off faster than anyone imagined. In fact, it became one of the strongest revenue builders for Yost’s young business.
“It’s been incredibly valuable to have the team at SBDC helping me,” Yost reflects. “It’s important to have someone knowledgeable to talk through ideas with and encourage me to try new things. It’s pretty hard to believe how much has changed over the course of a couple years, but I’m really grateful that I took this journey.”