Local entrepreneurs find success, balance through ease of online marketing, support

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In 2016, shopping local starts with a “like.”

Social media is filled with friends and family selling products, launching websites and taking steps to offer their services to a wider public.

Everyone, it seems, has caught the entrepreneurial spirit – turning a beloved hobby into a career that lets them set their own hours. Others are taking on sales to share the clothing, essential oils, skin-care products or accessories they love, or simply earning a little extra income through moneymaking apps, referrals or product feedback.

The current generational trend points to workers demanding greater consideration for life events outside of work. Although employers have started to adapt by offering paid family leave, flex schedules or 30-hour workweeks, for many, the culture isn’t changing fast enough, and going it alone is much more appealing.

The internet is able to break down many of the barriers that traditionally have stood in place to small businesses. Sites such as Etsy and eBay allow people to have an online store up and running in a few hours, and Facebook and Instagram make marketing new products directly to potential clients easier than ever.

McHenry County’s entrepreneurs are building their client bases through likes, shares, retweets and more, showing that, sometimes, shopping online also means supporting small, local businesses.

Building support, at home and online

A day in the life of professional photographer Amber DeLeo of Algonquin is anything but typical. After waking up, prepping breakfasts and lunches, getting her 7-year-old and 10-year-old off to school and dropping her youngest off at preschool, DeLeo has two and a half hours of photographing or editing time. Then, it’s time to pick up the kids from school, start homework, eat dinner and, after all are tucked into bed, edit more photos.

The self-taught photographer, who took yearbook photos in high school and picked the camera back up after becoming a mother, said she enjoys being able to choose her own hours and plan photo shoots around her kids’ schedules.

“I try to do a limited amount of sessions so I can still have family time,” DeLeo said. “I also have a lot of support from my husband, friends and the local photographers I’ve met through a Facebook group called The Happy Togs. I definitely could not do it alone.”

The online community has introduced DeLeo to photographers from a variety of genres, and she said the expertise and support from the group, many of whom also are mothers, has been instrumental to her success as a photographer and businesswoman.

Marketing her business online, through her website and social media outlets such as Facebook and Instagram, has helped DeLeo grow her client base to about 60 since starting Amber DeLeo Photography in 2014. Her work primarily is comprised of newborn, maternity and family photoshoots, but she said the newborn shoots have imparted valuable knowledge for her work and life.

“I love doing newborn shoots; it’s just like being with my own kids,” DeLeo said. “In doing these shoots, when it is almost guaranteed that either me or the parents will get pooped on, I am reminded to be patient, and to be flexible and take things in stride.”

The same lessons translate to her role as business owner and mother.

“I think it is important to be an example, that I can be a stay-at-home mom while owning a business and having a career. There are definitely days when it’s a hot mess, but at least I’m going for it; at least I’m trying,” DeLeo said.

Anyone can be an expert

In the mid-1990s, Jess Waldeck, a Spring Grove native and graduate of Johnsburg High School, graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in computer engineering, a broad field of study he knew he could take in any number of directions. Since then, his path has led him to roles such as consultant at Ernst and Young, sales executive, ecommerce entrepreneur, husband, father and, now, founder of social sharing app Maven.

“My family still impacts the choice to launch Maven,” said Waldeck, who has four children younger than 6. “It was a harder decision, with kids, a mortgage, but this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass by. My wife is my partner in making this work for our family.

“I compare it to a contractor building a house. You’re building something that someone else will use, and you hope it will be a success and everything will go the right way, but you won’t know until you get to the end.”

Maven is an app designed to help other budding entrepreneurs to earn money from their expertise. The app is based on the idea that “everyone is an expert at something.” Users create product boards featuring products from more than 3,000 merchants. When other users view the boards, click through and buy a product from the retailer, the recommending user earns commission. This model allows for unlimited earning potential. Users also can earn by referring friends to Maven and receiving 25 percent of their commission.

Launched in July, the web-based and mobile app evolved over the past year through online market feedback and already is seeing fast growth. Social media is an important component of this success, as users can share their recommendations via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, email and blogs.

“Peer-to-peer recommendations are a top influencer in buyer decisions,” Waldeck said. “We believe anyone can be an expert, whether it’s a fashion blogger sharing the latest trends or an experienced mother of four recommending safe baby products.”

While not a full-time job, Maven offers a unique opportunity for people to make money through knowledge they already have and products they already use. Users are paid at the end of each month through PayPal in $20 increments.

“We are trying to give our users what they need to be successful with Maven, and are constantly looking for ways to evolve the product based on these needs,” Waldeck said. “We built Maven as a platform that users can take in any direction, and it’s pretty cool to see that taking shape on the site.”

Good problems to have

Throwing clay on a pottery wheel has been Lindsay’s Klix’s chosen method of destressing since 1998, but it wasn’t until 2015 that she decided to turn her hobby into a business, Off Your Rocker Pottery.

“I was always asked if I sold my pieces,” Klix said. “I always said no, this is my hobby and my love. I didn’t want it to become work. But soon, that ‘no’ became ‘not yet,’ and I realized there is no reason I shouldn’t love the work I do.”

Functionality is a key aspect of Off Your Rocker Pottery. All wheel-thrown and hand-built creations, including plates, mugs, bowls and pinch pots, are functional and food-safe. Klix’s studio, in the basement of her home, houses a workspace, inventory and shipping and photography staging areas.

She spends time throwing clay in the evenings, after her two young daughters have gone to bed, and often is so immersed in her work she forgets when it is her own bedtime. Items are organized by SKU numbers, making packing and shipping efficient. It helps, too, that Klix must only run downstairs to fulfill orders, allowing for an impressive 24-hour turnaround time for shipment.

Klix credits her organization and planning skills with the current laser-focused efficiency of her business.

“I did a lot of planning ahead before I launched the business, and that has made it so much easier for me,” she said. “Certainly, I get stressed sometimes from the amount of pieces to create or orders to fulfill, but those are good problems to have!”

She notes her secret to success also includes under-eye serum and lots of caffeine topped off with a smile.

“I try to be patient with myself and find a balance, whatever that looks like,” Klix said. “My work is a work in progress, and I think it always will be. I will get where I want to be, but I can’t do it all today.”

Selling on her website and through art galleries across the country, Klix credits social media with the growing following her pieces have garnered. She captures photos of her pieces on Facebook and Instagram, and shares personal recipes (featuring Off Your Rocker Pottery as serving vessels) on her blog.

“I’ve always been a functional potter. I don’t want my work to be kept on a shelf and dusted occasionally,” Klix said. “Through my website and social media sites, I’m able to help people see how they can use my pieces.”

The online marketing aspect of the business was new to Klix, but it has become another creative outlet for her, a fun way to engage with her audience and grow her business. She looks forward to the future, when all-day kindergarten for her girls promises more hours each day to hone her craft and continue to increase inventory volume, as well as sneak in a little extra sleep.

Still, it is the purpose behind Off Your Rocker Pottery that keeps Klix up late at night throwing clay and running up and down the basement stairs fulfilling orders.

“I want to be home with my kids and be there for them, but I also want something just for me and my identity,” Klix said. “For my girls, I want them, in their own lives, to go after their dreams, to not stay in a mundane way of life that is not for them. How can I tell my kids to go after their dreams if I don’t go after mine, too?”