It’s already been more than a year since we launched our first CO.STARTERS cohorts, and a lot has changed since then. 

Here at Startup Sioux Falls, we have graduated four CO.STARTERS cohorts, announced our move downtown and continued our commitment to building a strong and connected startup ecosystem.

For the entrepreneurs we have walked alongside throughout the CO.STARTERS program, there have been accomplishments, opportunities for growth and continued challenges. We know that the highs and lows are part of the entrepreneurial experience, and we’re committed to standing with the founders in this community through whatever comes their way. 

We sat down to chat with a few of the graduates from both our first standard cohort and our Rebuild cohort, which was for businesses in industries that experienced challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was wonderful to catch up with these incredible entrepreneurs and hear how their businesses have evolved since then and how their CO.STARTERS experience made a positive impact. 

Keep reading to hear from the entrepreneurs in their own words.

Q&A edited for length and clarity.

Jump to:

Sara Jamison, Terra Shepherd Boutique, Rebuild cohort

What drove you to participate in the Rebuild cohort? 

When I started Rebuild, it was just months after celebrating our one-year anniversary, so we were still very much in the formative months. COVID had completely rocked my world. I wasn’t sure what the future looked like, and I didn’t have a lot of clarity.

As a sustainable clothing and lifestyle boutique, everything we do is rooted in social responsibility. We closed the doors to our physical space for a few months, and in an instant everything shifted to online. Up until that point, 98 percent of my business happened in-store, so it was a big, scary shift.

I felt like I was in a big mess of ideas and didn’t know what path to take to move forward. I was learning to get comfortable with shifting gears and finding new opportunities. I was looking for comradery, trying to make connections and talking to people in similar positions. I was also looking for strategies and tools to assess numbers and goals and put together an actual plan of how to survive. 

What were some highlights of your experience with Rebuild? 

I think my favorite part—aside from actually calculating the breakeven points and getting comfortable with the numbers side of things—was diving in and figuring out who my customer is. What do they do? What’s important to them? What do they wear? What makes them tick? We went through exercises to build that customer, which I’d never done before.

I think, especially in the early stages and years of our business, we build an idea of what we need to be doing and what success looks like. This taught me that as long as we are willing to grow and change, we can get through anything. What may have looked like success six months ago may be completely different in the future, and that’s okay. 

How have you adapted as a business since then? 

We are more than a boutique. People who come into our doors tell us their stories, and that allows for conversations that I feel like you wouldn't have in a typical boutique setting. That has expanded to our online community, where we’re able to connect with people who haven’t necessarily set foot in our space. 

We’ve now shipped to every state in the U.S., and our online community on Instagram has doubled since the start of the pandemic. It’s a small but engaged following, which is one of the things I’m really proud of. It’s wonderful to have a huge Instagram following, but the level of engagement is what’s most important to me.

What encouragement or advice do you have for other entrepreneurs? 

As entrepreneurs, we have very few opportunities to be completely vulnerable about our numbers or the things that aren’t going well, or the victories, too. Being able to be in a small group of people who get it and let those walls come down is huge. I just encourage people to take advantage of those opportunities and find ways to seek them out. 

Visit Terra Shepherd online at https://terrashepherd.com/

Photo by 605 Magazine

Sanaa Abourezk, Sanaa’s Gourmet Mediterranean, Cohort 1

Where was your business when you decided to join CO.STARTERS?

I had a successful restaurant business, but I wanted to figure out how I could keep it up without staying on my feet constantly. I love to cook, and I want to keep cooking, but I don’t want to be dealing with all of this. I’m hoping within a few years we’ll still have the business, but I’ll also have my meals everywhere in stores so there’s another source of income.

What was the main thing you were hoping CO.STARTERS would do for you?

I wanted to find out if I'm on the right track. I wanted to test the market and see if people would be interested in it. I wanted to learn, so I was really hoping to find someone who was doing it already and could walk me through it. 

It’s been a little over a year now—where is your business today?

We’re much busier than before COVID. We can’t keep up with the packaged meals. They are selling here and at the Co-op and doing really great. Hy-Vee is interested, but there are packaging issues there. I have stayed in touch with the CO.STARTERS main office, and someone gave me a tip of a company who might be able to do that. 

What challenges are you currently facing?

Having more time would be perfect—actually having someone who can deal with all of the details for me. I'm hands-on, so I would love to have someone who can sit down and do all the labels, or contact the company who can make the packaging for me.

You’re also trying to get onto Shark Tank—tell us about that.

I know if I get on, I can convince them. I have the statistics, the accounting, the energy—I have all of this. The problem is you have to convince the producers. The sharks don’t know anything until you walk in. Last year, I was able to go through the first and second round, but they said no on the third. I’m hoping I make it this time. Getting on Shark Tank would be about all the contacts. They know all the co-packing companies, they have the best contacts, and people answer their phone calls. 

We are working hard. I believe so much in my product, and if we are able to convince South Dakotans to eat all this weird food for 18 years, we can convince them, no question. It will happen, I just hope it’s soon.

Learn more about Sanaa’s at https://www.sanaacooks.com/restaurant

Phil Baker, Phil Baker Music, Rebuild Cohort 

Tell us about your business and why you decided to join the Rebuild cohort.

I write and perform music for children’s audiences. I initially set out to be a jazz guitar player and went to college to study that, and from there, I took some time off and traveled with a rock and roll band. One day, a teacher invited me into a classroom and asked me to play guitar for the kids, and I had a real connection with that audience. They asked if I’d ever considered children’s performance and songwriting, and put me in touch with some people that were doing it. From there, I started going to schools, putting together tours and building the business.

Normally, I would be doing 100 concerts a year for various organizations, and I would also be creating educational content. But as soon as things started happening here with COVID, all of my school shows were canceled. I had a week-long workshop I was supposed to be doing that was canceled, and as we got a little further into it, my entire summer was canceled.

I honestly thought it wasn’t going to last, and that by fall, things would be back to normal. But in the 2020-2021 school year, no one was letting people in, and that has continued for me, if you look at this year. Omicron was still a real concern over the last few months, so schools just don’t want to take the risk, and they continue to limit outsiders coming in. 

I read about the Rebuild cohort in the newspaper, and decided to put my name in the hat. I was very grateful to have this group of supportive people during a really difficult time. We were all focused on this shared goal of ‘How are we going to get through this pandemic?’ It was a support system that came at a very crucial time.

How were you able to adapt during this time?

I’m working on a project with Sioux Falls Jazz and Blues, a residency called “The Music Maker in Me,” and we put together a 10-part series for young children teaching them about music. I did a couple of live online concert concerts as well, but the technology for doing an actual concert on Zoom is not ideal. So much of what I do is very interactive, and it’s important for me to be in front of an audience and work with them, and guide them and create that relationship.

Tell us more about the challenges you’re still facing today.

In the music business, it’s difficult to pivot. What do you do when your main source of income involves interacting with an audience? Most entertainers and performers make their money through live performances, and when your audience is children, and kids under 5 aren’t vaccinated yet, it’s challenging. 

I get asked a lot if things are back to normal, and I have to say, ‘No, they’re not.’ In some ways, this third year of the pandemic is actually more challenging because there used to be the COVID funding to help out, but now there's nothing. You don’t see people walking around with masks as much anymore, but it’s changed everything. It’s like we’re not sure if this is important anymore, but I’m hoping that turns around. I had a school show this year, and the teacher told me, ‘This is the most fun thing we’ve done in two years.’ 

I do think I’m fortunate to be going through the pandemic in South Dakota because things haven’t been completely shut down here. While audiences may not be in full force, there have still been opportunities for me. I'm also part of the South Dakota Arts Conservatory program so there were some residency opportunities through that organization. 

What did you appreciate most about the experience with Rebuild?

I really appreciated the opportunity to be part of the CO.STARTERS program. I think it’s important to recognize that there are a lot of helpers out there. Mr. Rogers said, ‘Look for the helpers,’ and there definitely are a lot of supportive people who are trying to help. This CO.STARTERS program is one really great example. It came at a great time when a small business really needed support. It kept me going, thinking, and imagining. I think it’s really important to reimagine your business and your work for the future. That should be a constant practice. 

Learn more at https://www.philbakermusic.com/

Megan Raposa, Sioux Falls Simplified, Cohort 1

Where was your business when you decided to join CO.STARTERS?

I actually launched during CO.STARTERS, and I had a pretty good idea of what it would look like and who I wanted to serve. But I went into CO.STARTERS wanting to make more connections in the Sioux Falls community, specifically the business and entrepreneurial community, and I think it definitely accomplished that.

I was pretty confident that I was carving out a new niche in the local news industry, but it was beneficial and affirming to have more validation from people who I saw as potential readers. 

What have been some of your favorite accomplishments in the last year?
A year into business, I’ve found my footing a bit more. I know how to do a weekly newsletter, and I know how to do it well. My next challenge is figuring out how I can push this further. 

One of the most exciting milestones was hitting that first 1,000 subscribers. That was a huge goal and it took awhile to get there, but once I hit 1,000, getting to 2,000 was easy. I’m hoping that continues, and I do feel like the traction is really building. 

One of my initial goals with Sioux Falls Simplified was to make the news easy to read, and the more I’ve gotten into it, the more I’ve realized that the mission is really to empower people to make informed choices in their community. That’s where you get things like the Welcome Guide, which is a one-stop resource for people who are new to the community or maybe haven’t felt as engaged or connected to Sioux Falls. The Welcome Guide is also available in Spanish now, and part of that is that I really want local news and information to be accessible. 

What challenges are you currently facing?

The hardest thing for me is striking the right balance between the editorial news side and the sales side. It’s hard not to sacrifice one for the other, and as an entrepreneur, it’s just me doing everything, so finding that balance is even more tricky. 

It’s also just continuing to make sure I’m responding to my customers. One of the things they stress a lot in CO.STARTERS is continuously seeking feedback. It can be easy to forget to do that when you’re in the hustle of everything, but I’m trying to be intentional about that.

Building a sustainable news outlet is something people across the country are trying to hack. The two big goals are to reach a bigger audience and to tell more of the stories of Sioux Falls, and I think that will mean publishing more frequently and maybe getting more creative with some of my marketing efforts. I really want to make it easy for people to feel smart, so as long as I keep that at the core, I have a gut feeling that growth will follow. 

Subscribe to Sioux Falls Simplified at www.sfsimplified.com/#subscribe

Photo by CO.STARTERS

Nate Boscaljon, Boscaljon Design Co., Cohort 1

Where was your business when you decided to join CO.STARTERS?

It was a solid side hustle. Nothing really needed to change about it right away, but I wanted to know if the next version could exist. 

I think I was hoping that somebody was just going to give me a yes or no answer, and tell me if it was a good idea or not. But what I ended up getting out of it was the people. Having gone through CO.STARTERS, there are connections around every corner now.

Where is your business today?

We’re a solid full-time business now. My wife and I both quit our jobs in the middle of last year, so our capacity has changed. We’re able to take on more things, and we’re in the growth stage. There’s not much that’s standing still, we’re just trying to find the next thing to build for somebody. 

What are some of your biggest accomplishments?

The platform taught us about being confident in pricing and knowing that even as our prices continue to go up, we’re still not charging enough. It’s like jumping from lily pad to lily pad of accomplishments, where the next thing is the most we’ve ever charged, and then the next thing is the most we’ve ever charged. Those are the accomplishments I see as we go and continue to get confidence from the marketplace. 

What are your current goals?

We’re continuing to look for more industry relationships, whether that’s with interior designers, architects, business owners, or contractors. The natural thing we’ve been looking for has been the end consumer, but I think we’ve realized that we want to make more relationships locally with the people who are making the decisions before the end consumer. 

Shop for unique and custom wooden products at https://boscaljondesignco.com/

There are now even more opportunities to participate in CO.STARTERS thanks to our Community Navigator Pilot Program. We have partnered with the following organizations to offer the program to underserved communities locally and regionally:

  • EmBe
  • LSS Center for New Americans
  • Dakota Resources
  • Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation

Additionally, Startup Sioux Falls will host a Core cohort of its own starting in July.

If you're interested in participating in CO.STARTERS through any of these organizations, please fill out the interest form here.