For many, the term “young entrepreneur” conjures images of tech startups in bustling metropolitan areas. But a wave of young people is rising up in a mid-Missouri town, contradictory to the Silicon Valley notion of entrepreneurship.
In Mexico, Missouri, businesses grow out of the community’s needs. Entrepreneurship arises from people becoming tired of driving to Columbia or St. Louis for goods and services.
April Baker’s store, the Sparkly Pig, was born out of her desire for a place for women of all ages to find trendy clothing in her hometown. She opened it when she was 26 years old.
After less than two-and-a-half years in business, Baker’s store expanded to a space with double the square footage, and Baker has encouraged others to try their hand at entrepreneurship in Mexico.
Marissa Lightsey, the owner of a store called the Wild Child, started her business when she was 21 because she didn’t have a good place to find clothes for her growing child. She credits Baker as a source of inspiration.
The number of business licenses issued in Mexico has grown over the past couple of years.
While 2015 and 2016 each only saw 37 new business licenses, that number nearly tripled in 2017, to 102. This year, the city had issued 107 through the end of October.
Sitting on the floor of her store, sorting through boxes of children’s clothes, Lightsey described her view on Mexico’s recent uptick in new businesses.
“It’s a lot easier to start a business these days,” Lightsey said. “I’m a firm believer that the economy is doing better. … We’ve been out of the recession for a while.”
The Wild Child opened earlier this year, using a business model Lightsey refers to as “upscale resale.” People bring in children’s clothing that they no longer need, and she puts the best pieces up for sale.
Lightsey also credits social media, which she said has helped her draw customers from other areas.
“I’ve noticed a lot more new faces coming in,” Lightsey said. “I’m getting people from Montgomery City, Wellsville and Vandalia.”
Lightsey described a recent meeting of the Village Square Association, a group of Mexico’s downtown business leaders. Between herself and several other young entrepreneurs, she could see the younger generation of business owners was growing.
“I went to a meeting, and it was like all of a sudden all these (older) women were outnumbered by all of us younger people,” Lightsey said.
One step at a time
To hear Lightsey and Baker describe it, starting a business sounds attainable.
The Wild Child was up and running within five months of Lightsey coming up with the idea, she said, despite her and her husband both working full-time jobs and caring for a new baby.
Lightsey slowly built up inventory at her house, until it became apparent that they needed to move into a storefront. Once she found the right location, she bought about $500 worth of hangers from Walmart, and over the course of a weekend or so her husband built their display racks.
“We really tried to keep expenses to a bare minimum,” Lightsey said.
She and her husband agreed to start the Wild Child so long as they could avoid taking out a loan, Lightsey said.
They found a cash register on Amazon for about $80. They bought tables from antique stores in town for around $10 or $15 each, and hung wood crates on a wall to display shoes.
“It really wasn’t as bad as everyone thinks,” Lightsey said. “I think it seems opening up a business was like a huge monster … it seems impossible. But it’s really not.”
Despite describing the process in such straightforward terms, Lightsey acknowledged the challenges involved with starting a business, like keeping up with inventory and pricing, navigating a mess of IRS paperwork and balancing work and family.
But she’s adjusting to the challenges. She recently hired someone to help with accounting, and she’s focusing on developing her business to a point where she can spend more time with family.
The push to shop local
The Sparkly Pig opened in April 2016, and it expanded in June 2018. Sitting in the back of her store, occasionally pausing to compliment one of her regulars trying on the latest merchandise, Baker told her story.
“When I was young and in high school, there were very few places to go in town,” Baker said. “And now we have so many shops (and) storefronts. The square is packed all the time, and it’s great.”
Baker said that one of her main challenges is getting local people to realize that her store is there.
“Come downtown first and look before you make the drive to Columbia or wherever,” Baker urged. She said she still meets a lot of people who have no idea the store exists.
Baker’s sentiment was echoed by David Reetz, whose music store has been in Mexico since 1992. He said getting people to shop local is less of a challenge for the more established businesses, “but still a challenge.”
“There’s some other businesses around that I think are holding their own,” he said. “But it is harder these days with the online.”
A blueprint for others
Lightsey said Baker’s success inspired her to pursue her business. And in turn, Lightsey’s experience may inspire others.
“I feel like there’s a lot more people who are at least kicking around the idea (of starting a business),” Lightsey said.
“I think people are seeing … ‘OK, if it works for them, why don’t I do it?'” Baker said.
Baker and Lightsey both left other jobs to pursue their own businesses. Baker had a job in customer service, but she wanted a career that would bring her closer to people.
“Everybody’s good at something, and I’m good at helping people,” Baker said. “Not only helping them on the outside, but helping them on the inside. That’s the ultimate satisfaction for me.”
Lightsey was earning her keep in the accounting department at an insurance company.
“It was a good job, and I liked the people I worked with,” Lightsey said. “But I just really wanted to push myself and see what else I could do … all I was there for was a paycheck, so I thought if there’s any time to do this, it’s now.”