Tahoe Chamber program coaches businesses for success
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Julie Balentine launched Tahoe Massage Company on June 21. Within weeks, the mobile massage company’s business exploded with summer clients.
For Balentine, a 30-year industry veteran, it wasn’t so much luck as it was months of research, dedicated planning and taking advantage of Lake Tahoe South Shore Chamber of Commerce’s (Tahoe Chamber) business coaching program.
“It was a no-brainer in that it would help me to the next level,” Balentine said. “It helped me succeed in a monumental way.”
The free program, called Tahoe Tactical Team, helps new and existing businesses develop a successful strategy. It is funded through a federal grant provided by South Lake Tahoe.
According to Balentine, she was present at the Live at Lakeview concert series over the summer. She said she started out with one massage chair. From there it grew to three chairs with 60-minute waits for massages.
While initially hesitant about using Tahoe Tactical Team, Balentine overcame her reservations and applied for the program last October. She then received a one-day crash course on business economics, marketing and other essentials.
“There were so many factors to use the program, but the decision was reached when I decided I wanted to expand beyond working solo to provide an opportunity for other therapists,” Balentine said.
Tahoe Chamber uses a group of business coaches to help people, according to program coordinator Anne Marie Smith.
“We get people to see if there is a viable market for what they are trying to do,” Smith said. “We are trying to prevent them from spending a lot of time and money on an idea that might not work.”
As of Nov. 1, Tahoe Tactical Team helped 50 businesses. Tahoe Chamber also operated a similar program from 2010 to 2012; between the two, more than 140 individuals have been coached.
The city tasked Tahoe Chamber with the program through a grant in July 2014, and it will continue through 2016. In October, a Douglas County grant allowed the chamber to expand the program to Nevada’s South Shore communities.
Only businesses and residents within the two areas qualify for the program. They also must meet U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s income requirements.
How the program works
Smith said the program starts with a meeting between herself and potential program clients. The bulk of the program involves one-on-one sessions.
“I bring them in and spend an hour talking with them about their business plans,” Smith said.
She assesses if the plan is viable, how it might work in South Lake Tahoe, and what types of coaching a client needs.
“It’s really about customizing what a person might need, because there are things like marketing, operations and pricing, or start-up considerations,” Smith said.
All of the coaches have some experience as business owners or have successful careers.
According to coaches Craig Hollingsworth and Tracy Owen Chapman, one-on-one sessions are intense business crash courses.
“We try to pack a semester’s worth of business courses into eight hours,” said Hollingsworth.
Hollingsworth, whose background includes business administration and consultation, focuses on what the business actually does and how it will earn money.
“A plan might appear to be one thing on the surface, like a retail outlet, but when you look at it [more deeply], it might be something else,” he said. “You have to make sure you’re offering something that is different and appeals to customers or members.”
Chapman, who helps clients with marketing, said the entire team of coaches strengthens the program’s goal.
“The outcome is that clients are truly able to have more success because they are able to pinpoint what they need to do,” Chapman said. “I’ve seen the successes and outcomes from the program happen right before my eyes.”
She said Balentine’s business is a success story.
“Tahoe Massage Company is an example of an incredibly smart business,” Chapman said. “Julie knew what her competition was and we ended up working to pinpoint her brand.”
Balentine agreed. She noted that her business takes a different model from other massage therapists.
As a mobile vendor, she and her therapists have more flexibility to schedule appointments. In addition to the traditional table-based massage, she also offers chair massages. Her company contracts seven massage therapists and eventually hopes to expand to 20.
Small business community
Smith, Tahoe Tactical Team’s program manager, said Tahoe Chamber looks at the bigger picture when it comes to South Lake Tahoe’s small business community.
“In the long term, small businesses are better for local economies,” Smith said. “Not only do they provide jobs, they use other small businesses for services.”
For example, if someone opens a coffee shop, that person would hire a local bookkeeper or attorney to assist with business setup.
“When you look at any town, small businesses comprise 90 percent of operations,” Smith said. “We all feed off each other, so it becomes a support system.”
Balentine, a South Lake Tahoe native, agrees with Smith’s assessment. She said she’s noticed a shift in the town’s attitude from when she grew up to when she moved back two years ago.
“Growing up here, it was evident then there wasn’t a strong sense of entrepreneurship then,” Balentine said. “People really didn’t open small businesses, and you either worked for the casinos or resorts.”
Tahoe Chamber’s business coaching program restored her faith in the community’s ability to welcome new business growth.
“It’s far more possible to build something sustainable and enjoy the lifestyle here,” Balentine said.
Chapman, one of the coaches, said that Tahoe Tactical Team represents local leaders’ ability to see the bigger picture.
“Programs like this don’t ‘just happen,’” Chapman said. “They require strong leadership and commitment from people like South Lake Tahoe’s [city manager] Nancy Kerry and B Gorman at Tahoe Chamber.”
For more information on Tahoe Tactical Team, visit http://www.tahoechamber.org/tahoe-tactical-team.