Starting a Business That Makes a Difference

Entrepreneur will discuss how to ‘go tiny’

By Alison Rooney

The rule of thumb when opening a small business is that you should be prepared to sacrifice your leisure time and fiscal well-being. As for incorporating your personal convictions into your business plan, that comes later, after you’re making a steady profit.

But that approach is all wrong, says Sharon Rowe, who nearly 30 years ago founded Eco-Bags Products after feeling appalled by all the plastic bags strewn everywhere, destined for landfills. She took note of the reusable string bags popular in Europe and wondered why they couldn’t catch on in the U.S.

Sharon Rowe with a copy of her book (Photo provided)

She started small, importing bags and selling them herself. “I had an idea about a cultural shift I wanted to see,” she says. Now, she notes, supermarkets have entire aisles devoted to “waste-free living.”

Rowe, who lives in Ossining, will speak on Thursday, June 14, at Beahive Beacon about her book, The Magic of Tiny Business: You Don’t Have to Go Big to Make a Great Living, which addresses how to mesh your values with your small business while also making it profitable and sustainable.

To “go tiny,” she says, means learning how to say no.

“If something is important to you, whether it’s closing the doors at 5:30 every day, as my dad did running his Army-Navy store, or using only recyclable ingredients in making your product, you must be doggedly persistent,” she says. “It’s all about examining what you value and disposing of what you don’t. It sounds easy, but it’s harder to put into practice, especially when there are economic consequences. But you can lose your sanity if you don’t listen to yourself.”

Rowe speaks from experience. The eco-movement was less established when she began Eco-Bags.

“I couldn’t even get recycled paper,” she recalls. “I went to my first social venture network meeting, and it was like an old boys’ club. I had chosen to run a business myself, because I wanted the flexibility. I had to earn a living, but I also cared deeply about making a change.”

Two styles of EcoBags

Rowe advises budding entrepreneurs to look beyond the first year. “You need  to factor in rent increases and amortizing income over the winter months if you’re a retail business,” she says. Her business is still small, with five employees, but nets more than $1 million annually. Of course, reaching that level took 29 years, including many before the internet.

“It’s been complicated, and there have been huge challenges, but math is where you have to go; it’s your ultimate friend,” she says. “Anyone who can see how they want their community to be can use their business as a platform to make an impact. You can tap into a larger cultural shift and build a business around it, and that business is tied to who you are.”

Rowe says she wrote the book because she’s constantly being asked, particularly by women, how she manages to have a life while running a million-dollar business.

“I got a phone call from a friend,” she recalls. “She said she was thinking of starting a business and had looked at a whole bunch of books, and they were all dull and in the vein of ‘Put your big girl pants on, you’re a badass, jump in and go.’ But we need more women, and men, saying, ‘Hey, I did this, and I did it in a different way.’ ”

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