Local business owners Aaron Swanson, Darcy Swanson and Alex Douthit discuss their experiences as entrepreneurs in the community during the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce Luncheon at the Kenai Visitor and Cultural Center on Nov. 20, 2019. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Local business owners Aaron Swanson, Darcy Swanson and Alex Douthit discuss their experiences as entrepreneurs in the community during the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce Luncheon at the Kenai Visitor and Cultural Center on Nov. 20, 2019. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Starting on the path to success

Local entrepreneurs offer insight on running a business during Alaska Startup Week.

When a panel of local business owners was asked if there’s anything they regretted about starting their businesses, all three had the same answer: not doing it sooner.

On Wednesday, the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce hosted a panel discussion during their weekly luncheon about the rewards and challenges of running a small business — featuring three local entrepreneurs. The panel was part of a series of events on the peninsula connected to Alaska Startup Week, which highlights entrepreneurship and small businesses around the community.

The panel was comprised of Aaron and Darcy Swanson, who are a husband and wife team that own Residential Mortgage, Forever Dance Alaska and Pita Pit in Soldotna, and Alex Douthit, who is the owner of Kenai Peninsula Driving Instruction. Merrill Sikorski, founder of Caring for the Kenai, moderated the event.

Over the course of the panel discussion, Sikorski asked the entrepreneurs a variety of questions ranging from the biggest challenges they’ve faced to the advice they would have for any would-be business owners.

Every potential business faces different hurdles on the path to success, but the three panelists did share some common experiences despite working in unrelated industries. All three, for example, said that they wished they had taken the risk sooner.

“I wish that when we were 20, 25 years old that we had started our businesses,” Aaron Swanson said. “You’ve gotta have caution in what you do, but you’ve also gotta get out of your own way sometimes.”

“Just making that initial jump is hard,” Douthit said. The notion of not having a steady paycheck or health insurance, Douthit said, can be a scary one for many people, especially those with families.

The three business owners also agreed that one of the biggest challenges of running a business is one that is unique to the digital age. With the prominence of cellphones and social media in many people’s lives, business owners in the 21st century feel compelled to be available to their customers at any time.

“I think anytime you own your own business, it’s a 24/7 job,” Darcy Swanson said. Swanson said that learning how to take time away from answering texts and phone calls was often difficult. Her husband Aaron agreed that business owners have to learn to establish boundaries and know when to “shut it off.”

“Is that why you never text me back?” Darcy joked.

Another challenge that all three small business owners face is providing health insurance for their employees. Douthit said that they try to make up for the lack of insurance with higher wages, but not being able to provide health coverage makes it hard to compete with the larger companies when it comes to hiring and retention.

Douthit’s advice to any prospective business owners was to do a lot of research and take advantage of the resources that are available locally. Douthit specifically mentioned the Small Business Development Center, run by the state of Alaska, as well as the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District as resources that have helped him in his ventures.

Aaron Swanson’s advice was to build a team of employees who care about the success of the business and to reciprocate that commitment to back to the employees.

“Invest in who you have around you,” Swanson said.

Darcy Swanson gave an example of investing in her employees by explaining that she regularly pays for her dance instructors to receive continuing education and certifications. When working in an industry that deals with a specific skill set, such as dance instructors in Swanson’s case and commercial driving instructors in Douthit’s case, they agreed that it’s important to hang on to good employees as new ones can be hard to find.

Despite the challenges, Douthit said that the best part of running a business is knowing that his efforts directly impact his own success as well as his community. Darcy Swanson said that, for her, the best part the little moments she gets to experience with the kids she teaches.

“When a kid understands something and the light bulb goes off, or they come up and give you a hug, that’s what makes it worth it.” Swanson said.

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