There are two things that Tina Ambrogi dreamed about as a child growing up in Massachusetts: living in the San Francisco area, and building a tunnel between her home and the house where family members lived next door. She envisioned this tunnel as a place where artists could hang out, where people would barter and trade goods. “That never happened,” she says wryly.
But it’s a funny thing about childhood dreams; maybe they don’t ever really go away.
Nineteen years ago, Ambrogi was hanging out with a visiting friend and lamenting the cold, endlessly snowy Massachusetts weather. Her friend, who lived in Cupertino, CA, said he had a spare room in his new house that he was planning to rent out. Ambrogi ran home, got her checkbook, and two months later was happily living on the West Coast. She hasn’t looked back.
Once in California she got a job at a country club in Los Altos, where she met many of the bigwigs of Silicon Valley. Connections made here led her to a series of jobs, first cooking and catering, and later administrative jobs with several different start-ups. Though initially she had no actual experience in an office, she laughs, “I sort of faked it till I knew it.” She bounced around in this world for about 15 years.
“I’ve always dreamed of having my own business and being my own boss. I can be pretty vocal and I do have my opinions. I wanted to have my input into what I was doing, and that is probably what drove me to start a business. I know that if I’m working in a place where I’m not the boss I can’t expect to act like the boss. But I can now.”
Eventually Ambrogi decided to take some time off to figure out what she really wanted to do. In late 2012, she was sitting in a café having a cup of coffee in Mountain View, CA, where she now lived with her husband, when she noticed a storefront across the street with a For Rent sign in the window. The location had seen a lot of turnover; its most recent incarnation was a saltwater taffy store that lasted about nine months. Despite the high failure rate of that particular storefront, Ambrogi saw it as the perfect spot for the kind of store she decided she wanted to open. “I’m a perpetual optimist,” Ambrogi said. “I am realistic, but I also like to think that anything is possible. I didn’t think of it as a risk.” She signed the lease on that storefront just three days later.
Ambrogi envisioned a store that would bring the local community together, as well as take advantage of the tourist traffic that nearby technology powerhouses like Intuit, Apple, and Google brought in. By December 2012, the Mtn. View General Store was officially in business. The store sells t-shirts that Ambrogi designs herself, bumper stickers, and other souvenirs. But most importantly to Ambrogi, she also sells the work of over 200 local artists.
“My philosophy is if it’s handmade by a local, we’re going to try and sell it. People have embraced the idea; it’s been very well-received. They know that they aren’t just supporting one local business owner when they shop here, they’re supporting local artists in their community. If people want to shop local, this is about as local as they can get.”
Although Ambrogi had never owned a store before, she found all of her previous experience useful. “I definitely accumulated a ton of experience and had learned to deal with all sorts of people through the various jobs I’d had. All of that made it less scary when it came time to open my own business.”
The store is not bringing in much money at this point, but Ambrogi remains optimistic.
“I’m hoping to be profitable soon, but right now any money that we make goes right back into the business, into more of the merchandise that I create.”
Ambrogi has come up with some innovative ways of bringing people into the Mtn. View General Store. “Advertising is a challenge, and it’s expensive. Every day someone comes in and says, ‘I didn’t know this store was here!’ I’ve been trying to figure out how to get the word out in different, less traditional ways. One thing I’ve done is to buy little figurines from the Dollar Store – army men, princesses, rubber ducks, whatever. I attach my business card to each one and place them around town. The cards say, “You found me, now return me to Mtn View General Store for a reward!” The response to this has been amazing – a real home run.”
Despite the economic challenges, Ambrogi is resolute that this was the right move for her. “I’ve always dreamed of having my own business and being my own boss. I can be pretty vocal and I do have my opinions. When you’re in an administrative position your opinions don’t really matter and you have to know that and accept it and do the job that’s asked of you. I wanted to have my input into what I was doing, and that is probably what drove me to start a business. I know that if I’m working in a place where I’m not the boss I can’t expect to act like the boss. But I can now.”
Ambrogi reflects, “I look back after two years and can’t believe what I created. It’s grown organically. I actively searched for artists in the very beginning, but since then I’ve had people come to me. It’s just taken off. People want to shop at my store instead of the big box stores. It’s a feel-good place to shop.”
- Whatever you choose it has to be something you really want to do, because you’re going to be doing it 24/7.
- There will be a lot of ups and downs, so ride the ups as much as you can. It’s challenging, but it’s so rewarding.