Give us a summary of your business.
sparkspace is a unique business meeting and retreat space in the Arena District. We host off-site corporate team meetings and events, team building activities, and personal and professional development workshops.
How did the idea for your business come about?
I worked for a design firm (FITCH) for several years. While I was there, I realized how much environment affected creativity, collaboration, and creativity. We had beautiful studio space and our clients would always comment about how lucky we were to work in such a creative space.
At the time, most offsite business meetings occurred at bland, boring, generic hotel conference rooms. Even when our design firm met with clients outside of our office, it was at a bland, boring, generic hotel conference room.
I finally decided to build a creative space that companies could rent that was a far more comfortable and creative environment than a hotel conference room.
What was the turning point for your business? Was there a moment you knew you had something special?
Literally every day, every meeting that we hosted made me realize we had something special. Our guests would walk in the door and say, “WOW! What a space! This is going to be a great meeting!” After 18 years, they still say that every day when they walk in. That reaction we get to see every day is one of the most rewarding parts of what we do.
What does it mean to you to be an entrepreneur and business owner?
For me it’s all about creating and building something unique that solves a problem for someone. I’m wired for hospitality and creativity and personal development, so I like to solve problems and provide solutions that help people have top-notch experiences in those areas. I still consider myself more of a creative than a business person because I sincerely care about what we create, and I love what we’ve created. I’m passionate about it. I obviously want to make a profit, but the most important thing to me is to create something that we’re proud of.
What does the city of Columbus mean to your business?
I am crazy about Columbus. This city is so supportive of locally-owned small businesses. It is also wildly creative and receptive to new ideas. One of the things I love about the people we serve is that so many of them have become friends over the years. Columbus is so vibrant and welcoming and collaborative I can’t imagine any city being better for my business, or any other small business.
Are you from Columbus? If not, please explain what brought you to here and ultimately what made you stay.
I’m actually a transplant here. I grew up in Ann Arbor of all places! My wife’s job as a television reporter brought us to Columbus in the early 90’s. We quickly fell in love with the city and grew roots here. I always describe Columbus as a best kept secret. It has everything anyone would want, it’s got great energy, an entrepreneurial spirit, and it’s still very affordable to live and do business here. We have fantasized about retiring to a beach someday, but in reality it would be really hard to move away from Columbus.
What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give to anyone wanting to start a business?
Do it debt-free, or get debt-free as quickly as possible. The only reason we survived the last recession is because we were operating debt-free when it hit. We just had to cover our operating expenses, and we were able to cut those back pretty far. If there had been loans to pay back we wouldn’t be here today.
What do you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before starting your business?
I wish I had known how to delegate effectively. I still wish I new how to do that better.
What’s the most challenging part of your business (i.e, what keeps you up at night)?
Honestly, I don’t worry much these days. We have a great product, we constantly work to make it even better, and I have the greatest team in the world. I feel like we do our best, we strive to improve, and we love doing it. I feel like that’s the key to success. If I worry about anything, it’s that I really want my people to be happy personally and professionally. I only have so much control over that.
Every business owner has a flaw. What’s yours?
I don’t think big enough. That may surprise a lot of people because of what we’ve built at sparkspace, but I often wish I had the ability to think a lot bigger and make bigger things happen.
Why do you think most business owners fail? What has made you different?
Most of the businesses I’ve seen fail have been because the owner never learned the business side of the business. They had a great idea, and even great execution, but they didn’t understand how to manage cash flow. Cash flow is king, baby. Always has been, always will be. I learned that early on and I think it saved me a ton of headache.
What was you biggest mistake and what did it cost you?
Unfortunately, I’ve made my biggest mistake multiple times. My biggest mistake has been hiring the wrong people and keeping them on the team way too long. The easy thing to say is that it cost me money — literally tens of thousands of dollars in some cases. But it also costs in other ways, like added stress, damage to morale, untold amounts of poor productivity, etc.
I’ve gotten better at hiring good people and putting a more stringent evaluation process in place for their first 30, 60, 90 days, etc., but it’s still a struggle sometimes, especially when you genuinely like someone. It’s hard sometimes to admit that they’re just the wrong fit for what you need.
What tool has helped you the most for your business (invoicing, accounting, shipping, plugin for website, etc.)?
Our people are the most helpful tools in the business. Without them, the rest of the tools, software, etc. would be far less effective. A great team can makes everything work better.
Aside from the people, our website is hands-down the most important tool for our business. We put a lot of time, money, and effort into making sure it works the way we want it to. It’s part art, part science, and it changes all the time!
I also personally love Calendly, although I think I’m the only one on my team that uses it. It’s an appointment scheduler that eliminates the endless email or voicemail tag that you play just to set up a phone call or meeting with someone.
When did you know it was time to expand your business, make your first hire, etc.?
I knew it was time to hire someone when I got tired of cleaning the toilet. So my first hire was a cleaning company. My first employee came about because I had reached the limit of what I could do every day. I hired part-time help first, then eventually made one of my part-time people my first full-time Director of Guest Happiness. She then handled all the reservations and guest relations so I could focus on building out other parts of the business.
What is something that you did that was a game changer for your business?
Moving to the Arena District. My first space was in the Short North and it didn’t have any room to expand. Moving allowed us to expand, and to keep expanding over the years. We’re expanding again right now because more space opened up for us and the timing was perfect.
What was an idea that you spent a lot of time on or thought would make a big difference in your business that didn’t pan out?
Video conferencing. We spent $6000 on a very good video conferencing system that got used about 5 times in 5 years. We really thought it would allow people with remote team members to conference in more effectively, etc., but for some reason there hasn’t been a demand for it.
What is something that your business spends a lot of money on that’s worth it?
Rent. Our space is our main product, so being in an awesome building with tons of character in an amazing location has been worth every expensive penny.
What is something you’re working on now that you’re very excited about?
We’re opening a new meeting space this fall. It will be our largest room yet and allow us to serve our guests in a whole new way. Plus it has a floor-to-ceiling wall of windows that overlooks Nationwide Arena Plaza. It’s got a lot of wow factor.
What form of marketing is the most valuable for you?
We consider customer service our best marketing. We have close to 7000 guests in our space each year. Every one of them is a potential sparkspace evangelist. So we put 99% of our our effort into creating a great experience for them. That strategy has worked very well for 18 years.
Who is your best Columbus resource (accountant, lawyer, marketer, etc.)?
This may be a little different, but I’ll share our next door neighbor, Chasity Kuttrus from Executive Elements. She’s an executive coach who focuses on developing women leaders. A few of the women in our office have attended her retreat and coaching program. In addition, she’s a phenomenal neighbor and good friend to our business. Just like in your personal life, good neighbors make life better.
Who do you vent to when you have a business problem?
I used to vent mostly to my wife, but I have found that’s not the healthiest thing for a marriage. Now I have a few good friends who also own small businesses who I can take problems to. I also belong to a business owner peer group called the Small Giants Community.
Where do you see your business in the next 10 years?
I see it evolving into providing being more and more of a full-blown “retreat” business. We will still provide incredible meeting space for teams, but we will also be focusing more and more on facilitation services, designing and delivering personal and professional development workshops, and hosting more world-class business events. We started out as a very “transactional” company (renting meeting spaces) and we’ve been evolving over the years into a more “transformational” company (helping individuals and teams grow and improve). I see that continuing for many years to come.
What other entrepreneur do you look up to most?
My grandfather. He owned a small trucking company in Indiana. He hauled anything — furniture, corn, junk, cows — you name it. He had 6 or 7 trucks at one time and ran the whole thing successfully long before cell phones and the internet. And he did it all in service to his community. I’m pretty sure he got paid in chickens once in awhile.
What local entrepreneur do you look up to most?
Locally, I admire Sarah Storer from Hashtag Comedy. She recently dedicated herself full-time to making a business out of improv comedy. That’s gotta be one of the most daunting fields to make a living in, but she’s making it happen. She is doing what she was put here to do and she’s giving it 100%.
If you had to tell a visitor one thing to do/see/eat in Columbus, what would it be?
Eat at any Cameron Mitchell restaurant. There are very few restaurant companies that get everything right in every restaurant every time. I’m amazed at what he’s built and how they continue to be soooo good all the time. He’s another entrepreneur I admire, now that I think about it.
All photos of Mark Henson were courtesy of Marissa Nicole.