As a young girl in Washington State, Nicole Morgenthau dreamed of being a doctor – a dream she held onto almost all the way through her college career at Virginia Wesleyan. But, in her senior year, it dawned on her that it was still going to be a really long time until she actually got to work in the field. Twelve more years of training seemed daunting, and, simultaneously, her English professor approached her and suggested she consider a career in literature, an area that seemed to be a natural fit for her. So Nicole pursued a focus in creative writing and ironically, instead of diving into a career right away, went on to get a masters in literature at Old Dominion University. (more…)
Although it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason that Lyndsey Clutteur DePalma decided to open a tea shop, it could have been her great-grandmother Agnes, with her lifelong love of tea and appreciation for its medicinal benefits, who planted the seed. Or it might have been DePalma’s own longing for a space for tea drinkers to relax in a world overrun by coffee shops. Or maybe it was the fact that she was turning 30 and did not relish the idea of a lifetime in human resources at a big four accounting firm.
DePalma majored in biology as an undergrad but realized about halfway through that while she did like biology, she couldn’t imagine herself working in a lab. After graduation, a friend helped her get a job at PricewaterhouseCoopers, where she started in an entry-level administrative role. She was soon moved to the human resources department and from there worked her way through the ranks to become an HR manager. She stayed for nearly eight years.
A few years into her job she decided to go back to school part-time to get her MBA. She didn’t have any particular goal in mind at the time; she just wanted to become more business savvy and thought the degree could be useful in her career. But as she pored over the business plans of so many others as part of her MBA classes, the idea slowly began to take root that perhaps she shouldn’t just be studying other people’s business plans but actually writing one of her own. She’d always had the idea in the back of her mind of opening a tea shop, so she decided that maybe, just as an exercise, she would write a business plan. “And that’s when it all kind of came together,” she says. (more…)
For Lisa and Allen and Trish Drennan, it took a dramatic life event to make them recognize it was time for a change in their personal and professional lives. For both, the death of a mutual friend was a wake-up call that brought them together to support each other in becoming healthy and strong and to make it their lives’ work to help others to do the same.
A graduate of the University of Delaware, Lisa Allen had had a long-term career in communications, representing various trade associations in D.C. The work was interesting – everything from issues management to crisis communications – but when she had her first child at age 31, she decided it was time to work for herself and “own” her time a bit more. For years after she hung her own PR shingle, she found herself being able to devote more time to working out, something that had played an important role in her life since graduating from college.
Allen remembers herself as a chubby kid, who put on even more weight in college. “I had an “a-ha” moment soon after I graduated and realized I needed to do something different. I started running a lot and lost the college weight and was actually pretty proud of the fact that I got and stayed fit. Ever since then, exercise has become a real passion of mine.”
But Allen never really intended to make a career out of her love of health and fitness until she met Trish Drennan.
Drennan also worked in the field of communications after an unexpected detour as an engineer. After graduating from Wittenberg University with a degree in international relations, she thought she would pursue a career on Capitol Hill. But when she found herself jobless between election cycles, a temporary job launched her into a new career as a wireless technology expert.
“I got placed at this technical engineering company, and it was at the time when wireless was really booming. It was a brand new trade so the company invested in training us. Within a year, I went from being a liberal arts girl to a wireless engineer trainee at George Washington University.”
Soon, Drennan was shipped off to Germany and found herself designing wireless networks for LCC International. She stayed there for almost five years but when the company decided to go public, they looked internally for people who understood good communications in addition to the technical side of the business. Drennan found herself tapping into those liberal arts skills in the sales and marketing department and later in investor relations.
In all, she spent nearly 22 years at LCC, eventually managing a team of 300 communications professionals around the world.
But with each promotion, the former college athlete found her commitment to fitness woefully waning.
“Once I started working, I went hard and heavy into my career. Unlike Lisa, I never had a weight problem until I had kids. By the time my third child was a year old, I was 45–50 pounds overweight. I was travelling internationally, juggling the needs of three kids and had a husband who also had a big job. It was a crazy time in my life and I was really soul-searching.’”
Although she was coaxed into contracting with the company to help them through another transition, Drennan, like Allen, decided to go out on her own. Now that she too owned her time, she started working out on a regular basis with her new friend.
In the Fall of 2009, for Drennan’s 40th birthday, the two decided to train for a marathon. With loads of time to chat during long training runs, the “what if” conversations intensified as the pair discussed how they might make a go of it in the fitness industry.
During that time, a friend who ran a local boot camp in Ashburn invited Allen and Drennan to help her run the boot camp a couple mornings a week. This was the opportunity they had been looking for – running an already established fitness class and seeing how it went. At this point, the two friends had become such health and fitness junkies that they not only ran marathons but also competed in triathalons and spent the rest of their spare time reading up on the latest health, nutrition, and fitness trends. Drennan had lost forty pounds and was feeling fabulous, and Allen was determined to continue to help other people meet their fitness goals.
So donning their marketing hats again, the pair branded their own boot camp, Motiv8Me, and launched a new program.
“My husband joked that I went from an expensive clothing habit to an expensive equipment habit,” said Drennan.
In March of 2010, they launched the business with eight clients, each of whom had to commit to an eight-week session. It was important to them that their customers follow through with their commitment to the program and their own personal goals. The closer they worked with their clients and researched what was out there, they more realized they had hit on an idea that added value in the fitness world. “As students in lots of fitness classes ourselves, we were really frustrated with the fact that you could be doing moves wrong to the point of hurting yourself, but no one would tell you because the group fitness instructor was incentivized to come in and teach, not to take care of the people.”
Allen and Drennan took their plan a step further and became certified fitness instructors, quickly realizing what they really wanted was not just a boot camp, but a full-service gym that was different from any of the other fitness offerings available. Something that would offer everything they had learned and believed was critical to a lifetime of fitness – high intensity interval training, core work, strength training, and yoga. On top of that, they wanted a gym that didn’t sell shakes or powders or any hint that weight could fall off easily with short cuts. “Although we are not certified nutritionists, we wanted a gym where we could talk with clients about the importance of long-term good nutrition habits, and where we would commit to them if they would commit to the program,” explains Drennan.
With those goals, the pair came up with a tagline that would be the centerpiece of their gym: Sweat. Nourish. Commit.
Again, the fitness junkies found themselves leaning on the skills they honed in their former lives to ensure their new venture was a success. “We really come into this industry from a very different perspective. Most people who want to open gyms are former trainers, but we take a business perspective. We wrote a business plan, we did a competitive analysis, we knew how much money we had to raise to make it work.”
They opted to turn to their own families to borrow the money rather than taking out a small business loan. Each side put in equal amounts, and Allen and Drennan have opted not to take a salary until the loans are mostly paid back. They also decided to rebrand the company to something stronger and came up with BlackBench Fit, in reference to the eight black workout benches they purchased during their earlier outdoor bootcamp days.
Three years later, and BlackBench Fit is humming along and the two are ahead of schedule based on the original projections in their business plan. “We were able to make a small dent into loan repayment this year, AND put a little bit of money each into our 401ks.”
But more than feeling satisfied at their business savvy, Allen and Drennan count it a blessing that they’ve been able to launch careers in a field that is so meaningful to them.
“One of the most rewarding parts of our job is also the most surprising,” shares Trish. “I had no idea I had a teacher or a therapist in me, but I love that part of the job.”
“I feel like what we’re doing now is a real calling for me,” adds Lisa. “It’s so gratifying to help people reclaim their bodies because I’ve been there and know what it’s like.”
Have questions for the owners of BlackBench Fit on their success to date? Write a comment and we’ll be sure they see it.
As if it were yesterday, Sherri Fickel recalls the conversation she had with her husband Kevin Kraditor as they celebrated their one-year wedding anniversary back in 1998. It’s likely a conversation many people have had while on vacation, away from all the stress, relaxing over a glass of wine. “We had been hiking, which we love to do, and were in this cute little town, discussing how we had always wanted to do something different … we both really loved to entertain, Kevin wanted to garden more, and I wanted to renovate an old house. And then it hit us, why not run a B&B? We were both really excited and it felt right.”
Although the time wasn’t quite ripe for such a move, the hardworking, and risk-averse pair, then in their early thirties, didn’t abandon the idea. When they returned home, Sherri and Kevin agreed to look for a property, renovate it slowly and possibly use it initially as a second home, while continuing to save money. The plan was to work towards establishing a second career as innkeepers, years down the road when they reached their early fifties.
They set their sights on Sperryville, VA, a small town near the Shenandoah National Park, just 75 miles outside of DC, close to the famous Inn at Little Washington. It was an ideal location. After all, they loved to visit Sperryville with its idyllic small town feel and great hiking. And they figured being just down the road from a world famous restaurant would be a good for business.
Following their first anniversary trip, they returned to Sperryville several times over the next couple years and in 2000 they started looking for a home. During their house-hunting trip, the couple stayed at another Sperryville inn. Over breakfast, the owner casually inquired about their plans for the day. Responding sheepishly that they were looking for a property with plans to open a (rival) B&B, they were shocked when she replied, “Nonsense, you wouldn’t be my competition, you would be my colleague.” The genial response dumbfounded the couple who were used to cutthroat DC, and took it as another sign that they were moving in the right direction.
The innkeeper had another surprise in store for them when she suggested they look at a nearby property not yet on the market. With two large wrap around porches and at least seven fireplaces, it was ideal. Built in the 1820s, the building had gone through various identities, and was converted to rental apartments in the 1970s. It took six months for all the apartments to turn over, which gave Sherri and Kevin a chance to check them out before they were rented again. At that time, they were finally able to make an offer on the building, which was once again full of tenants.
For some time after that, the couple continued to live and work in DC but spent their weekends in Sperryville to manage the apartments they had rented. The building was paying for itself and Sherri and Kevin focused on increasing their savings at home, with their sights set on the long-term goal of moving out to the inn eventually on a full-time basis.
But in 2004, they had an epiphany. “Our lives were fine but there was no passion in them. We were both in jobs we had fallen into, paying the bills, making a nice living, and living in a cute house on Capitol Hill. But we thought, ‘What if we spend the next 10-15 years working towards this goal, only to discover we hate being innkeepers? Wouldn’t it be better to find out now?”
Shortly after deciding to “go for it,” they were crushed by the estimates of the cost to convert the property to a B&B, double what they had anticipated. The couple, who had a pact to never get used to a lifestyle that they couldn’t support by waiting tables, paused and agreed not to discuss it for a couple of weeks, both unsure if they were willing to take on a massive amount of debt to fulfill their dream. “When we came back together, we unequivocally agreed, ‘Let’s do it!’ It was the biggest risk we ever took.”
In August of 2004, the couple started a full-scale renovation on the Inn, a move that Sherri recalls required “significant lifestyle changes.” Sherri quit her permanent job at the Red Cross as an IT project manager, instead becoming a consultant where the take home pay was much greater, but the benefits all but gone. They decided to live entirely off Kevin’s salary as a labor economist for the American Academy of Physician Assistant, so they could save all of Sherri’s: “We brought brown bag lunches to work everyday and only allowed ourselves to go out to dinner once a month. We HAD to save money. We had spreadsheet upon spreadsheet upon spreadsheet with different plans for how to make it work. We just hated the idea of being stuck in our jobs to pay off the loans.”
They made further cuts by renting out the top of their house in DC and living in the basement, finally figuring out that if they sold their house in DC, and put all their equity into the Inn, Sherri could quit her job and Kevin could telecommute from the Inn: “At that point, my whole passion was in Sperryville, so we made the jump. It was a crazy time in DC real estate, the house went up in an escalation clause and the winning bidders allowed us to stay in the basement an additional six months for free,” Sherri happily remembers.
They sold their house and opened The Hopkins Ordinary, in June 2005. Sherri remained as a consultant to the Red Cross until August of 2005 and Kevin telecommuted until 2008, when he made the leap to work full time at the Inn.
Nine years on, the Inn is going strong. At two years beyond the typical “inn burnout” of seven years, the couple sees no end in sight. “We were ready for hard work and it was. For a couple years we did all of it and had no time off, but over the years we’ve been able to hire people to do some of the less attractive work like scrubbing toilets and making beds. Now we also allow ourselves two weeks off in January and two weeks in August.”
The payback for all that hard work? “We love what we do. We love making our guests happy, watching as they discover Sperryville. It’s really rewarding. We have many repeat guests and many guests have become very good friends. It’s not just a job. Its our life.”
And while they acknowledge they have foregone higher incomes, making the switch to inn-keeping has clearly given them a higher quality of life than they could have ever achieved in DC: “We love the flexibility and the feeling of freedom that comes from running the show. It may not be an extravagant life, but it’s a secure life.”
And they already have their sights set on career 3.0. The two are preparing to launch a “nano brewery” at the inn this Fall. As Sherri explains, “We love running the Inn but doing it for many years can get stale if you don’t give yourself new challenges.”
Their daily life and interaction on the day we spoke we spoke with Sherri sums it up perfectly. In her words: “Today, we made the guests breakfast, went for an 8.5 mile hike, came home, did the laundry, ironed, prepped for incoming guests, and did some minor work for the brewery renovation. As I prepped for tomorrow’s breakfast, Kevin headed out to mow the lawn and we just smiled tiredly at each other. Then he smiled at me and said, ‘We’re doin’ it.’ The only response is a return of the phrase, and then we get back to work, but with a smile and new energy.”
They are living the dream, and for Sherri and Kevin, doing it together has made all the difference.
Sherri’s Tips for Success:
- If you have to personally make a huge financial investment in your new venture, make a budget, run the numbers and make lifestyle changes. Even huge numbers may be possible with the right lifestyle adjustments.
- Similarly, be willing to make short-term sacrifices on your quality of life to achieve long-term goals.
- Don’t assume your life can’t be like the life you see on vacation. There’s no requirement that you have to live in a city and sit in an office. Think outside the box.
Have you ever fantasized about working in the travel or hospitality industry?