Business needs time to steep

Location, skills, training, market are all part of the mix

Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Erika Merklin's business, Alaska SuperNatural Teas, doesn't quite exist yet - except in her head. But she's still full steam ahead.

Merklin has been working hard for nearly two years to bring her dreams to fruition in Haines. For example, she has put together a roster of personal success coaches, one of whom is fellow Haines resident Bill Finlay of SeaOtter Woodworks. She regularly sits down with Finlay to discuss marketing plans.

Finlay calls Merklin "a good example of the entrepreneurial spirit."

When she learns that Finlay described her as "walking on water," Merklin laughs. "It seems to me I'm treading water," she said. But she knows she's going about things the right way - slowly, cautiously, planning every step.

In addition to Finlay, Merklin has worked with a local forester to secure permits to harvest on state lands. She has consulted with the Juneau Small Business Development Center and with Deborah Marshall, director of Alaska InvestNet, which is dedicated to building Alaska's economic infrastructure by educating and linking entrepreneurs and investors.

Marshall met with Merklin in Haines on April 5. "She had a business plan on paper to start, which is unusual," Marshall said. "She is taking the time to do her research. Each time we meet, we push her business planning a little further."

Merklin's most recent steps forward number two: Being awarded a scholarship to attend the Alaska InvestNet conference in Anchorage three weeks ago, and being awarded a special forest products grant from the University of Alaska Southeast Sitka. The $2,500 grant allows her to buy a drying facility: A combination of a dehumidifying lumber kiln and a 20-foot-long refrigerator container.

Merklin lives in a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Haines with no place to park the container, but she's not deterred. She will put the container on a friend's property while she works with contacts made through the Haines Chamber of Commerce to secure loans for her own small herb farm. Her operation will include a large garden and a yurt with a Department of Environmental Conservation-approved kitchen. One door of the yurt will lead into her attached, DEC-approved drying facility.

"My big plan is to get secure land," Merklin said. "I plan on hiring a three-quarter-time person to supervise drying and processing, and subcontract to wild harvesters. They can do it one day a week or every day. A lot of people are interested."

She expects to have her drying facility operating by the end of May. A friend has designed the SuperNatural logo, which features three mountain peaks at the top and the legend at the bottom, "hand-picked in the Chilkat Valley." The plan is to market her original tisane blends by July.

Her planning has included developing four teas: Cabin Fever Reliever (cranberry, rose hips, dandelion, nettle, strawberry and spruce tips); Breakfast Blend (peppermint, fireweed leaves and flowers, goldenrod and nettle); Sweet Meadow (clover, yarrow, rose petals, fireweed flowers and spruce tips); and Tonic Tea (red raspberry and strawberry leaves, nettle, dandelion, goldenrod and alfalfa). Next she's going to develop blends that include Devil's club and cranberry bark.

Merklin, 31, grew up in Pennsylvania. When she attended Humbolt State in northern California, the influence of the "back-to-nature hippie population" there convinced her to "get more into herbs and a more holistic way of life."

She moved to Alaska in 1995, arriving on the ferry. She got a job as a commercial fisherman in Sitka, moving to Haines four years ago.

"The birth of my son Cameron two years ago was the driving force to creating the lifestyle I want him to live. He loves being out gathering with me," she said. "Basically, I feel you can do whatever you want in Alaska. There are so many unfilled niches."

Merklin began working in January 2001 with Jackie Stewart of the Juneau Small Business Development Center. Stewart recommends potential business owners meet with a business counselor early in the process.

"We provide a free start-up kit," Stewart said. "First National Bank gave us a grant that enables us to supply them free. We walk people through evaluating their plans and provide free, confidential counseling."

"People come to me at all stages of start-up," Stewart said. "Often they are at the stage of looking for funding. I let them know what is available and how to tap into sources. First of all, you need to prepare a formal business plan to help a banker understand what you are proposing."

What is needed to found a successful business? Stewart proposed these four questions to ask yourself: Are you prepared to risk your savings? Do you want to work 12 to 16 hours a day seven days a week? Is your family willing to pitch in? Is your product or service unique enough that it can carve out a market share?

"I often see people who revolve their life around a business," Stewart cautioned. "But the people who are more satisfied are those whose business revolves around them. Erika's business fits her parenting needs, her lifestyle and fits her location."

Additional steps to take when planning a new business include:

• Identify your personal goals to assure the business is compatible with the direction you see for yourself and your family.

• Identify a second source of income, because a new business will probably not support you right away.

• Assess your skills, experiences, professional training and strengths to combat and survive the challenges that business ownership brings.

• Understand potential customers. You might even want to interview some of them, Stewart suggested.

• Figure out what level of sales you must achieve to cover expenses and pay a living wage. "Lots of people don't take federal regulations on withholding taxes and Social Security and planning for retirement into consideration," Stewart said.

"Business is very challenging, and I think people don't understand how all-encompassing it is. It's like parenthood," Stewart added. "Talking to other business owners is one way to understand the enormous commitment and challenge it is."

The Juneau SBDC offers about 20 seminars a year. Two are coming up in May that would be informative for people interested in owning their own business. Starting Your Own Small Business will meet 6 to 9 p.m. May 7 and 8. Writing a Business Plan - Your Blueprint for Success will meet 6 to 9 p.m. May 14 and 15. All seminars are held in the third floor conference room of the Juneau Empire Building, 3100 Channel Dr. Fee for each class is $25. For details or to preregister, call Stewart at 463-3789, as space is limited.

Scholarships are available for low-income participants.

Erika Merklin can be reached at

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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