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Creativity, marketing key to success for military-spouse entrepreneurs

Published: 02:15PM May 26th, 2011

It might seem out of reach for some people, but owning a business does not have to be a farfetched idea or dream to be put off — even for those challenged by being married to servicemembers.

Military spouses are often successful entrepreneurs by using organizational skills developed by living busy lifestyles and tapping into substantial customer bases. With careful planning and research, family members can start and own businesses.

Spouses Christina Pruitt, Valerie Zorn and Yvette Esparza-Barajas are mothers of young children and proof that it’s possible, can be lucrative and even enjoyable.

“They have contacts in the military community they can go to and maintain those contacts, so that they’re able to develop a business and even market it worldwide,” said Carolyn Bennett, Employment Readiness Program manager on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The secret to starting a business, Bennett said, is to develop a unique product or service that is in demand, even if it is already being offered by a commercial entity. The trick is to find a twist.

“The key is really being creative, and then once you know what you want to do, look and see if there are other people doing that same type of business.”

Too much competition can hamstring the small business owner’s ability to sell the product or service.

Enjoying what they’re doing is a big common trait among successful entrepreneurs. Whether a hobby, service or craft, the key is to develop a personalized version of the product.

Bennett suggested aspiring entrepreneurs consider starting a service-related business that would help military families — cleaning, pet sitting or packing household goods, for example. Other service ideas that allow for creativity include party catering, creating floral displays, makeup application and hosting events like weddings in the backyard during warmer months.

Sometimes the hardest part is getting started. Fortunately for spouses on JBLM, the ERP has staff trained to coach and answer questions.

“It’s not the type of thing that can be done in one or two weeks, but a person who is really determined could have a business up and running within a month,” Bennett said.

How to market your ideas

From knowing where to go for business supplies to learning how to market your business with a “60 second commercial,” the Employment Readiness Program has the expertise to help aspiring entrepreneurs get started on the right foot.

“Businesses are really the start-up now of our economy, because people are looking to buy something that they can’t find in a store or that they don’t have to go to a store to purchase,” said Carolyn Bennett, ERP manager.

Starting a business requires a lot of time and effort, but can be achieved with careful planning and research.

Military spouses interested in starting their own businesses are encouraged to call 967-3538 or stop by the ERP office in Building 2166.

Christina Pruitt | Cake Creations by Christina

Christina Pruitt graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and graphic design, but after marrying and having children, decided to be a stay-at-home mother.

Pruitt found college to be very rewarding, but confessed she had more fun — and in ways felt more accomplished — during her high school days while working for a company called “Cookies by Design,” where she worked her way up to head decorator.

“I loved it because I’ve always been a hands-on person and could be more creative and artistic,” Pruitt said. “When I went to (college), it was kind of a disappointment because I ended up doing everything online.”

When a friend asked Pruitt to make a themed cake for her birthday a few years ago, Pruitt jumped on the request and decided to make a disco ball using cake, fondant and icing. The result had her friends wanting more.

“Everyone loved it, so they all kind of commissioned me to do everyone’s birthday cake from that day forward,” Pruitt said.

Pruitt quickly found herself busy filling cake orders from family and friends. It wasn’t until her husband enlisted in the Army two years ago and came here to JBLM last November that she decided to turn her passion into a business.

“I would do this for free if I could,” she said. “Unfortunately, financially I can’t, but it’s one of those things that makes me truly happy.”

Pruitt’s husband supports her 100 percent, and their sons, ages 3 and 6, enjoy watching her bring ingredients to life and sometimes mimic her using Playdoh.

“My husband is flourishing in the military, which has made it easy for me to do what I do,” she said. “He’s happy because I’m happy, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Valerie Zorn | Valerie Zorn Design

Valerie Zorn knows firsthand the challenges of frequently moving and having to call different places “home.”

As an active-duty Soldier, she lived in the barracks. Now a veteran married to a Soldier, Zorn has experienced some of the best — and less than pleasant — living quarters. When she and her husband first married, they lived in a house made of cinderblocks painted white.

“It wasn’t the coziest place,” Zorn recalled. “It never really felt like home to me.”

She made the best of their housing with décor to make the place look “homey,” and today she’s eager to help other military families in similar situations.

Zorn holds bachelor’s degrees in business and resource management. It took years of patience and determination, but after finding a local interior design program, she now has an associate’s in interior design. The degree is allowing her to begin doing what she has been dreaming of for years: helping others create havens they can be proud to call home.

“It’s hard to move often and keep it feeling fresh,” Zorn said. “That’s what I want to be able to do for the military. In addition to operating the full spectrum (of decorating choices), (I want) to be able to create what I call ‘portable design.’”

Zorn said the road to her dream has been challenging, and credits her husband’s encouragement with her success. Currently serving an unaccompanied tour in Korea, he is expected back in Washington this summer and plans to retire in the area, giving Zorn more opportunity to build on her business.

“As an Army spouse, you have to sacrifice so much for your Soldier’s career,” she said. “I felt like it was my time, and he has been nothing but supportive of me.”

Yvette Esparza Barajas | Household 6 Stitching

As a child, Yvette Esparza-Barajas enjoyed watching her mother sew, but she never made anything brag-worthy until she reached adulthood.

“I kind of knew how to do little things, but I never fully, until recently, got into it,” said Esparza-Barajas, Army spouse and mother of two.

Being married to a Soldier has sparked a desire to learn the craft, and has tapped into a creative side she never previously knew existed.

From pacifier blankets and pillows to aprons and wall decorations, Esparza-Barajas specializes in unique handcrafted gifts with a “hooah touch.”

It all started with a little green notebook — the kind Soldiers often carry to record notes.

“I didn’t like the color, so I made an ACU cover for my husband’s (notebook),” she said.

She was soon inundated with requests from other wives. She branched out from notebooks to other household items. Her client base grew thanks to social media, word of mouth and most importantly her husband’s support.

“He told me to go for it,” she said. “Anything you want to do, just go for it.”

Esparza-Barajas said it was difficult marketing her products early on, especially with so many other spouses having similar businesses, but her determination and love of what she does have helped her succeed.

“It’s kind of like therapy for me,” she said. “I like seeing happy customers, and it just brings me joy knowing I could make them happy with a product they take pride in.”

Her advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs is simple.

“If you’re inspired to do something, do it,” she said. “It might be a little difficult at first, but if you’re doing something that you love, just go for it.”