Their businesses are small, but their achievements are grand
Starting your own business can be dicey, to say the least.
Forty-nine percent of all mom-and-pop operations fail in their first five years.
But that means more than half succeed.
Small businesses are far from the majority in the Las Vegas Valley, but thousands of entrepreneurs are making it every day, running – and in many cases, growing – successful companies.
Here’s a look at several of them and the secrets of their success:
Quality Shoe Repair and Luggage
2642 W. Horizon Ridge Parkway, Henderson
If you need something fixed — anything, really — take it to John Goli.
Goli owns Quality Shoe Repair and Luggage, a Henderson shop with a somewhat misleading name. He and his workers can easily fix tennis shoes, work boots, suitcases and purses, but they also fix seat belts, lawn chairs, exercise equipment, armchair covers, carpets, bras and sofas.
“Dogs help us out,” Goli said. “They eat everything in sight.”
Goli’s ability to fix almost anything has helped him establish a solid base of individual and corporate clients, including service workers, dry cleaners and airlines.
His store, which opened in June 2007, repairs more than 100 pairs of shoes a day and brings in more than $30,000 a month, he said.
Goli also attributes his success to heavy advertising and sometimes quirky campaigns.
During his first two years in operation, Goli spent more than $3,000 a month on advertising. He still spends more than $1,000 monthly and has a fleet of cars that he transformed into giant shoes bearing the store’s name, phone number and services. One car is a yellow high heel with the license plate “HIGHEEL.”
Goli has been repairing shoes for 40 years. He had a jaw-dropping work ethic even as a teenager. He delivered newspapers before school, rode the bus to a cousin’s shoe-repair shop to work after school, came home for dinner, then worked nights at a grocery store.
In 1973, when Goli was 16, he bought a shoe-repair store near Los Angeles International Airport from his uncle. Within six years, he owned a four-store chain.
In 1979, he bought Quality Shoes, a high-grossing shop in L.A. and focused on that location. Goli sold two of his older stores, closed a third and kept the fourth running for a few years before he sold that, too.
He operated Quality Shoes until 2005, when he sold it and retired to Southern Nevada. But Goli, who doesn’t gamble or play golf, got bored and decided to open a repair store in his new hometown.
The store opens at 7:30 a.m. weekdays, but Goli gets in at 6 a.m. He repairs 40 pairs of shoes before lunch, while listening to Middle Eastern or Latin music.
“It hypes me up,” he said.
3290 Pinks Place, Las Vegas
Wally Korhonen has been working on cars for so long that some of his first customers’ grandchildren now bring their vehicles to him.
Korhonen specializes in Hondas and Acuras, having worked on Hondas since 1963.
He opened a 1,000-square-foot repair shop in 1982 and recruited wife Bobbie to answer phones. Six years later, he moved to his current location, a 7,500-square-foot garage on Pinks Place.
Korhonen employs five people and services an average of 30 cars a day.
“It fluctuates,” Korhonen said. “There have been some days when we’ve had maybe 100 cars, but then there are slow days when we only have three or four.”
Korhonen’s customer list includes more than 3,000 names.
In 1993, the Korhonens launched Wally World Auto Brokers. Bobbie Korhonen runs that company, negotiating car sales. Customers choose the type of vehicle they want, then Wally World finds the best price from local or out-of-state dealers.
The companies faced their biggest challenge during the recession when customers struggling with finances put off car purchases and repairs, Wally Korhonen said.
“It was a really rough patch,” he said. “We had to find ways to minimize our expenses.”
Korhonen cut back his employees’ work schedules and tightened his inventory.
“During the slow times, we also stepped up the distribution of fliers and coupons,” he said. “Between that and watching inventory and hours, we made it through.”
420 S. Rampart Blvd., Las Vegas
Starting her own business was Arlene Bordinhao’s dream – literally.
“I actually woke up from a dream where I was making cotton candy and told my husband, ‘We have to start our own candy store,’“ Bordinhao recalled.
Last summer, the couple opened B Sweet Candy Boutique on the second floor of the Market LV at Tivoli Village. Neither had ever owned a business before.
Arlene Bordinhao had been an event planner at the Mirage, then worked in public relations. Victor Bordinhao was a casino engineer, first at the Mirage, then at the Luxor.
But they both loved candy.
To learn the ropes of business ownership, Victor Bordinhao took classes offered through Las Vegas’ business license office. That helped the couple prepare for the regulatory and licensing procedures they faced, which Arlene Bordinhao said was their biggest challenge.
“If opening a business were easy, everyone would do it,” she said. “You definitely have to jump through hoops. You definitely have a business plans. What are you willing to provide that you can’t get anywhere else? You have to do your research and plan.”
Arlene Bordinhao sold her car to finance the startup. The couple sublet a space at the Market, rather than a stand-alone store, to save on costs.
“We were blessed to have a small space and didn’t have to spend our life savings,” she said.
The shop features retro candy, sugar-free treats and homemade cotton candy with edible glitter. The Bordinhaos recently expanded by offering catered candy buffets for weddings and corporate events.
Lotus of Siam
953 E. Sahara Ave., Las Vegas
Lotus of Siam sits in the Commercial Center, a sprawling strip mall on a rundown stretch of Sahara Avenue. Its sign is barely noticeable, and the restaurant is easy to miss.
But Lotus is no hole in the wall.
It typically is packed with customers and consistently receives glowing reviews from local and national food critics. It is the first or last stop for many Las Vegas visitors, and seeing luggage stuffed under chairs is common.
Lotus, which specializes in northern Thai cuisine, has been owned since 1999 by Chef Saipin Chutima and her husband, Suchay Chutima.
The Chutimas are from northern Thailand and met there but got married in the United States. Suchay Chutima’s grandmother worked in the city of Chiang Mai, making food for the community and the northern royal palace. His future wife was his grandmother’s apprentice.
Before Lotus, the Chutimas owned a Thai restaurant in Southern California called Renu Nakorn. That eatery also received positive reviews, including from The New York Times, but the restaurant was near a dairy farm and smells of fresh manure wafted in, Suchay Chutima said. The couple decided to move to Las Vegas, figuring that the valley’s smaller but sophisticated culinary scene would bring them ample business.
They bought Lotus of Siam and changed the menu. National attention came less than a year later in 2000, when Gourmet magazine named Lotus the best Thai restaurant in North America.
Last year, the same critic said in Saveur magazine that Lotus “has become probably the most famous Thai restaurant in the United States.”
Suchay Chutima attributed the restaurant’s success to one factor: The hard work of his wife, who works in the restaurant’s kitchen every day.
“You can’t make that woman stand still,” he said.
7370 S. Dean Martin Drive, Las Vegas
The secret to Daniel Nisley’s success is minding his own business.
Nisley is CEO of AirBridgeTours, which provides bus and charter tours of the Las Vegas Strip, Hoover Dam, Grand Canyon and other sites.
While the 20-year-old company has no shortage of competition, it survived the tourism drought that followed 9/11.
In fact, while many others companies failed, Nisley’s business grew during the Great Recession.
He said he was able to expand in the down economy because he didn’t worry about what his competition was doing.
“There’s definitely some validity in knowing what other companies are doing, but I think the downfall of a lot of people is being too reactive to what others are doing, instead of being proactive,” Nisley said. “Concentrate on yourself. We say, ‘We think this is the way the industry needs to go, we’re going to drive it, and we’re going that way.’”
Part of being proactive is developing relationships with customers and business partners.
“Without trying to be too cliche, you have to remain as old Vegas as possible,” said Nisley, who grew up in Las Vegas. “One thing we used to do in Vegas is develop relationships with the customer. That’s something I noticed was lacking. There was nobody trying to provide awesome business with great service; it was all about beating rates.”
Nisley arrives at his southwest Las Vegas office before sunrise to watch his first customers board buses. He stays until the last bus returns.
“If there’s an issue, I know about it, and I’m the one who makes the decision about how to deal with it,” Nisley said. “I’ve heard people say, ‘No refunds.’ There are always refunds. We admit there are going to be issues. We deal with them fast, and we deal with them well.”
During the economic downturn, AirBridge added limousine service to the airport for corporate charters and recently partnered with Gray Line Worldwide, an international sightseeing company. AirBridge also hired six employees.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” Nisley said. “To this day, there are things we do as a company and I do personally because we may not be able to do them tomorrow. That’s not necessarily a life-or-death thing but a business thing. We don’t know what’s going to happen in Vegas. We live to make every experience the best and give everything we can each day.”
Keli Wilson will never forget the terror she experienced the day she and her family were separated at a California amusement park.
“It was such a helpless feeling,” she said. “And I was completely unprepared.”
The event led Wilson to develop AlertID, a free social media site that provides crime alerts to the public and securely connects family members or groups of people.
Since AlertID was founded in late 2009, membership has grown to include customers in 50 states and seven countries. Nevada alone has tens of thousands of members, CEO Ken Wiles said. AlertID also opened offices in three states.
AlertID, which maintains relationships with law enforcement and public safety groups, notifies members online or by email when a crime or other incident occurs. The company has sent 11 million notices since it began.
Members also can establish their own networks to alert family members, neighborhoods and friends about events. For example, a coach or parent could alert a team about a schedule change or weather cancellation.
Wiles said AlertID sets itself apart from other social media with security. The company doesn’t distribute email addresses or private information through its network.
The company makes money through advertising, sponsorships and licensing. Most of the revenue raised is reinvested in technology and support upgrades.
Wiles said the biggest challenge so far has been making the public aware of her service. The company tries to address that with community outreach, public relations efforts and word of mouth.
McCarran International Airport
It’s a pretty simple concept. Get your picture taken in front of one of Las Vegas’ most recognizable landmarks and keep the photo as a souvenir.
The catch: The landmarks aren’t real. They are props set up between two baggage claim areas at McCarran International Airport.
Justin Anderson and three of his high school pals founded Confess Media just over a year ago. They leased concourse space in Terminal 1 of the airport and set up a 10-foot replica of the Strip’s “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign.
But the team ran into an unexpected problem when the photo booth opened.
“We had the sign set up and a nice red carpet and velvet ropes,” Anderson recalled. “But something was wrong. It was too nice. People passed us by because they thought it was a set up for some staged special event.”
Anderson and his partners tweaked the decor, brought in extra props and before long, people started coming by.
“We turned it into a fun experience,” Anderson said. “We had music, boas and Elvis glasses. Once in awhile, we would bring in showgirls. That’s all it took.”
Anderson said he thinks the secret of the company’s success is its reasonable pricing. Confess sells each 4-by-6-inch photo print in a folder, along with a digital image that’s easily uploadable to social media, for $10.
Confess snapped 175,000 pictures in its first year.
The owners also learned the details of Las Vegas’ tourist season – and adjusted accordingly.
During the off-season, the photo booth is open only for limited hours. When vacation season rolls around, it opens from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. every day.
Anderson said he enjoys the camaraderie among airport vendors and appreciates how the business owners watch out for one another.
“It’s a great environment,” Anderson said. “I’d say it’s about the funnest venture I’ve been a part of.”
Colorado River Coffee Roasters
1640 Foothill Drive, Boulder City
If you’ve ever sipped high-end coffee at a valley cafe, you should probably thank Don Anderson.
Anderson owns Colorado River Coffee Roasters, a Boulder City company he runs with his son Erik Anderson, daughter-in-law Carola Anderson and daughter Jana Anderson. They buy raw coffee beans from importers, roast them on site, then package and distribute them to cafes, restaurants and Whole Foods Markets.
The beans are brewed at almost 20 local eateries and sold at nine retail outlets.
Don Anderson, a former elementary school teacher and principal, and his son, a former starving actor, opened the coffee company during the recession, in spring 2009. It has since grown by leaps and bounds.
The family initially sold 300 to 400 pounds of beans a month. In 2011, they sold almost 1,500 pounds a month. By 2012, they averaged 2,200 pounds.
They expect to sell more than 3,000 pounds a month this year.
Working through the recession wasn’t easy. Don Anderson initially used savings from an old consulting business to run the company. Once he depleted that, he used personal and company credit cards to fund operations for a few years. It was expensive debt, and he couldn’t get a banker on the phone to arrange a loan.
“They wouldn’t call us back,” he recalled.
Sales eventually picked up, and Anderson loosened his grip on his credit cards. He refinanced and is paying off the cheaper debt faster than before.
Anderson attributed increased sales to old-fashioned hustle.
“Telephone calls and shoe leather,” he said.
He arranged a deal with celebrity chef Mario Batali’s group to sell coffee beans at its farmers market at Springs Preserve. Other early clients included Sambalatte near Summerlin and the Beat Coffeehouse downtown.
Anderson’s coffee is more expensive than a typical cup of joe, but it caters to a specific customer.
“We’re not everybody’s coffee roaster,” he said. “We roast coffee for the people who truly look for great flavors and aromas.”
6280 S. Valley View Blvd., Las Vegas
There are family-run businesses — and then there’s Sunset Grill in Las Vegas.
As many as eight members of the Ratigan family work at the Las Vegas restaurant, cooking, serving and running the day-to-day operations.
Matriarch June Ratigan opened Sunset Grill in September 2007 as an offshoot of the family’s first business, Executive Catering, which still is in operation today. Daughter Regina Antolik works as general manager of the restaurant, which is popular among local workers and delivery drivers.
“We’re a small restaurant that started with a very inexpensive menu,” Regina Antolik said. “Many of our prices have stayed the same over the years. We serve breakfast and lunch, and our paninis are very popular.”
The restaurant is open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. One of its most popular breakfast specials is two eggs with home-fried potatoes and toast for $3.50.
“We did see business decline in 2009,” Antolik said. “But we put our best foot forward, and the entire family pulled the load.”
Antolik’s brother, Ken Ratigan, now owns the catering company. Her sister, Lisa Ratigan, is a principal at Sunset Grill. Nephew Josh Ratigan, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, works there as a chef.
“Only three of our 11 employees aren’t family members,” Antolik said. “But they basically are part of the family in a lot of ways. They are included at all of our holiday meals.”
The next generation of workers is nearby, too. The family includes 21 grandchildren, all of whom live in Las Vegas.
3347 S. Highland Drive, Las Vegas
Audrey Dempsey got thrown a curve ball in January 1996.
Dempsey had just quit her job to plan her wedding when her soon-to-be husband, Bob, was given his walking papers. He had worked at a local ad agency for almost a decade.
“We had two houses, no jobs and a wedding that was coming up,” Dempsey said. “What do you do?”
The answer: re-group.
Bob had experience in graphics and Web design, so the couple decided to launch Dempsey Graphics.
“We started out doing about 80 percent graphics design and 20 percent Web,” Audrey Dempsey said. “Today, it’s more like 80 percent Web and 20 percent graphics. We had to be adaptable.”
In 1997, they opened Infinity Photo.
“Our graphics clients needed photography,” Audrey Dempsey said. “Today, there are some projects we do together, and we share some clients. Other projects are still separate.”
Like most businesses, the Dempseys hit some economic road bumps in 2009. They trimmed their staff at the graphics business from nine to four.
“We weren’t willing to give up. We continued to find ways to find new clients,” she said. “We made a push more toward Web design. We realized that companies were looking for videos to help tell their stories, so Bob started doing those, too. We were constantly reinventing the wheel.”
Going into survival mode paid dividends.
“The last two years have been our most successful since we started,” she said.
4580 W. Teco Road, Las Vegas
Laurie Travis was working as a food server for the banquet services department at Caesars Palace when she realized she’d rather set up and design events than serve plates of food. Her entrepreneurial spirit kicked into gear, and a balloon company was born.
“It was like rubber gold,” she said. “I delivered to car dealerships, birthday parties and corporate events.”
That was back in 1994. Travis ran the business out of the back of her Dodge Caravan.
By 2005, she was ready to expand. She launched
LTevention, an event management company that plans events and provides party services such as flowers and linens.
“We grew really fast,” Travis said. “We started with something like 40 employees, and we had about 200 by 2007.”
LTevention was growing roots, handling events for Fortune 500 companies, celebrities, television networks and casino resorts. Then, in February 2009, President Barack Obama chastised bailed-out financial executives for taking trips to Las Vegas. Business plummeted.
“When the president went on TV and told companies that they shouldn’t hold their conferences here, that really hurt business,” Travis said.
More than 30,000 hotel room bookings were canceled, hitting Las Vegas with an estimated $20 million in lost revenue, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Travis had to trim her employee roster to fewer than 100. But she didn’t give up.
“We have the philosophy that we’ll get back up every time we get pushed down,” she said.
Today, LTevention has an 85,000-square-foot showroom that buzzes with clients viewing work in progress from graphic designers, floral artists, carpenters and metal workers.