Category: E-commerce

Metalheads

Metalheads might be a perfect blend of art and industry – with a healthy dose of entrepreneurial spirit thrown in.

Metalheads began with Adam Stempka, a welder who was laid off from GE. He had always been artistic, and had even thought about going to art school before starting his career as a welder.

Tinkering at home, he created a metal sculpture of a deer head and posted a photo on Facebook. It gained attention and attracted customers – including one who requested a battle-worn flag made of metal.

That was enough to get Stempka’s creative juices going, and he created an American flag, tattered yet resilient. More photos went up on Facebook, and more customers clamored for their own version of that flag.

Soon he teamed up with his father, Ray Stempka, a welding engineer who retired from GE.

Now, less than a year later, their business is booming. They ship to customers around Erie County and nationwide, all based on word of mouth, local festivals and Facebook. They’re building a website, expanding their workshop and working feverishly to keep up with demand.

“This thing keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” Ray Stempka says.

For Adam Stempka, this new venture is a perfect fit – it uses his creative side and his mechanical skills, and it satisfies his need to make something new.

“It’s exciting,” he says. “It’s not work for me. I just love doing this.”

About Metalheads: Adam Stempka still creates his more intricate metal sculptures, though the business for the battle-worn flags has really taken off. Now they offer a variety of flags, including some specifically for police officers and firefighters, as well as illumination options for the flags. They make flags as small as a license plate and as large as 4 feet by 8 feet. But while business is busy, the Stempkas are keeping their focus on providing products that their customers are looking for. “We’re just taking it slow and trying to grow organically,” Adam Stempka says.

Why Erie County: The Stempka family is not only deeply rooted in Erie County, they are deeply rooted in the welding industry. Their connection to their community is apparent in every facet of the operation. They support shopping local, and they feature Erie-centric flag designs, like a “Don’t Give Up the Ship” flag. “Erie means a lot to us,” Ray Stempka says. That pride is on display on the flags, which all bear the stamp “Made in USA – Erie, PA” on the front.

Challenges of Erie County: The challenges facing Metalheads are not unique to new businesses. For example, the Stempkas say that startup costs have posed a challenge, as has learning the ropes of running a business – even to the extent of how to find the best deals on shipping costs for their far-flung customers. Luckily, however, the Stempkas are finding great resources in Erie County, including working with Gannon’s Small Business Development Center and the Innovation Collaborative.

Fun Fact: Adam Stempka and Metalheads have been nominated for a 2017 Disrupt Erie Award.

Address: Facebook.com/astempka83

American Cruising Sails

Anyone who’s ever gazed from our shores during the summertime can see that Erie loves its sailing – and, as a result, has a market for sailmaking.

Several years ago, a group of entrepreneurial-minded local sailors decided to fill that niche, and American Cruising Sails was born.

As two of those founders – company president AJ Miceli and general manager Kim Yamma – showed me around their workshop recently, it was evident that they are not just knowledgeable about the wind and the water, but are dedicated to their craft.

“Erie has a fine tradition of local sailmakers, and we hope to be the next generation,” AJ said.

American Cruising Sails has been in business since 2014, benefitting from both mentorship and referrals from longtime Erie sailmaker Dave Bierig.

Now that their reputation is growing, with orders coming both locally and online, they are looking to grow – eventually hoping to add an additional staff member as well as looking for a larger physical space.

Currently, they are located in the basement of a building on West Eighth Street in the City of Erie – a space that, interestingly enough, once housed another local startup, Erie.net. The location served the needs of the early days of American Cruising Sails, but now they are looking for room to grow.

In the existing space, a giant, 28-foot table nearly fills the workroom. As crisp white material runs the length of it, passing under the busy needle of the sewing machine, it is clear why a table of such size is warranted – and, when hearing about a recent order for a 52-foot sail, why an even larger table is desired.

The room hosts more than sewing – a chalkboard details new orders, and a computer helps with the design and plotting. Across the table from where Kim operates the sewing machine, AJ works on cutting out shapes that will be pieced together.

Elsewhere in the space, bags of sails are ready for repair or, when finished, delivery to customers. New rolls of canvas await their future as new sails. And a small display showcases the Vela line – totebags, pillows, placemats and even Christmas stockings – repurposed from retired sails.

Though a small operation, American Cruising Sails is committed to providing the best service for their customers – something that big-business competitors, whose products are often made in Sri Lanka or China, can’t touch.

“We’re sailors,” Kim says. “We know what we would want in a sail.”

About American Cruising Sales: The company’s small staff is still made up of the four original owners – AJ and Kim, along with vice president Mark Platteter and partner Rosemary Briggs. Like with any startup, the partners began by chipping away at the work on evenings and weekends, before eventually transitioning AJ and Kim to full time. Mark and Rosemary still work at the business part-time. Though about 85 percent of American Cruising Sails’ work is local, they’re also growing their national footprint, having shipped sails to Texas, Florida, Maryland, Vermont and elsewhere.

Why Erie County: A sailmaking business is, of course, a perfect fit for Erie County, with its miles of shoreline and natural bay. But in addition, American Cruising Sales’ owners say they see plenty of potential for their business in Erie County. “We see nothing but opportunities in Erie County,” A.J. says, with Kim adding, “We’re big fans.”

Challenges of Erie County: The challenges that American Cruising Sails faces are universal among small startups – not enough hours in the day, the owners say. But the owners are also seeing a challenging in finding a new space for their loft. They are looking for something of the right size, at the right cost, that is convenient to the bay.

Fun fact: A sailmaking workshop is known as a loft – even if, as in American Cruising Sails’ case, the shop is located in a basement.

About: 1640 W. Eighth St., Erie PA 16505 or www.americancruisingsails.com

Rosebud Flower Shop

The family roots run deep at Rosebud Flower Shop – not just for the florist business, but for its location, at the corner of East 10th and Reed streets on the City of Erie’s east side.

Ruth Thompson’s family has been located at that corner for generations. Her father, the late Erie City Councilman Jim Thompson, started the flower shop nearly 60 years ago, eventually moving it into the East 10th Street location that had previously been home to other family businesses.

Today, Ruth, who also runs the ANNA Shelter and a property management company, is gradually passing the flower shop business on to her daughter, Rosealena Thompson.

Rosealena has been part of the business since she helped out as a child.

Back then, she came up with her own flower arrangements that her mom displayed in the shop – though they were, as Ruth laughingly describes now, “hideous.”

Today, however, Rosealena’s arrangements are colorful and creative – and are boosting business.

She’s also been marketing the business on social media, and making connections in the community.

“Maybe she’s found her niche,” Ruth says of her daughter.

For Ruth, it’s a comfort to see her daughter embrace the business that has been in the family for more than 50 years – in a building that was built by the family in the 1800s.

“Just the idea of someone else having this – the idea of closing it was so hard,” Ruth says.

About Rosebud Flower Shop: The family had previously owned other businesses, including a general store and a hardware shop, at the East 10th Street building. Though the flower shop used to get walk-in traffic, especially in the heyday of GE and Hammermill, today the majority of sales are made online. Other family members join Ruth and Rosealena at the shop, including Ruth’s mother, JoAn, and several siblings. “People say they have a family business. This, literally, is our family’s business,” Ruth says.

Why Erie County: The family’s roots are, of course, vital to why Ruth Thompson remains anchored in Erie – and, more specifically, remains committed to the city’s lower east side. “I can’t imagine leaving this corner,” she says. “I’ve had several opportunities. But this place is our roots.” She also sees continued support from Erie residents in supporting small businesses. “Flowers are a luxury. Same with eating out. People say how horrible the economy is, but people are still buying flowers, and people are still going out to eat,” she says.

Challenges of Erie County: Ruth Thompson’s biggest challenges should be familiar to any small-business owner – trying to juggle all the work that needs to be done. Trying to do the jobs of several people – a necessity for a small business – means that some aspects of the business inevitably get the short shrift.

Address: 660 E. 10th St., Erie, PA 16503 or www.rosebudflowershop.com

 

Coming next week: We check out the operations at Curtze Food Service, also in the City of Erie

 

FishUSA

When I planned my visit to FishUSA in Fairview Township, I expected to hear about how it reflects the world-renowned fishing opportunities in Erie County.

What I found is that though FishUSA does capitalize on its prime location in the heart of “Steelhead Alley,” it actually serves a national and even international customer base.

FishUSA operates a small retail shop at its West Ridge Road headquarters, but the true business is in the vast warehouse behind it – and in the technology that keeps its website, www.fishusa.com, drawing clicks and customers from near and far.

FishUSA isn’t looking to compete with the bait and tackle shops that dot Erie County, says Dan Pastore, the company’s founder and president. It has its own angle, and its own aim: to dominate the national online market for fishing tackle and related equipment.

For FishUSA, this means carving out an e-commerce niche that separates it from the larger players in the national market, like Field & Stream, Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s. What FishUSA can offer that the big chains can’t is specialization, Pastore says. A company that focuses solely on fishing can better answer customers’ questions and concerns, more so than a company that also sells hunting gear and camping equipment.

Pastore sees this as an area for future growth in his company – and he knows a little something about growth. FishUSA has only grown since it was launched in 2000. In fact, the company started this year with 13 more employees than it had the previous year.

As the retail industry moves away from brick-and-mortar stores and resettles itself online, Pastore has positioned his company to be a leader in not fishing, but in e-commerce strategy.

“It’s not like how it was where every town needs a mall,” he says. “Only a few online companies will be needed to dominate the market.”

About FishUSA: The company grew out of FishErie.com, a forum for Erie County anglers that Pastore had helped launch from Erie.net, a groundbreaking internet service that he co-founded in the 1990s. Today, FishUSA can count itself as one of three leading national online retailers of fishing equipment. A West Coast-based company specializes in bass, an East Coast company specializes in saltwater fish, and FishUSA covers the rest – including ice fishing, steelhead, walleye and fly fishing. Because the company writes its own code and manages its own servers for its website, it employs programmers, in addition to offering positions in marketing and customer service as well as in the warehouse.

Why Erie County? There’s more to location than proximity to popular fishing spots. For FishUSA, location means an advantage in logistics. The company can ship to locations as far as the upper Midwest, Maine or Virginia in two days – and that’s a service that customers value. In addition, Erie County offers a relatively low cost of living, Pastore says.

Challenges in Erie County: FishUSA, which has its eye on expansion, has had difficulty finding funding assistance Pastore says. The process of seeking aid from the many economic development groups has been frustrating. In addition, Pastore says he has had difficulty finding spacious, modern buildings that could accommodate his growing company. And he also at times has found it challenging to hire programmers, who often flock instead to the larger corporations in the region.

Fast fact: On a busy day, FishUSA has seen as many as 400 people shopping on its site at one time, Pastore says.

Address: 6960 West Ridge Road, Fairview, PA 16415

 

Coming up next week: We visit All-American Hose in Union City.

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