When I graduated from Vassar, no crystal ball could have predicted that my re-careering journey would lead me to become a Cape Cod innkeeper.
By May 1969, my classmates were already planning career moves and could not understand my choice to marry a Frenchman and raise a family abroad. When my three children were old enough for school, I looked for more stimulating activity outside the home and found work as a lyricist, DJ and volunteer newsletter editor. After my divorce in 1989, I freelanced and worked as an editorial assistant to author and sculptor Barbara Chase-Riboud.
By the beginning of the 21st century, I'd married Sven, a Swedish historian, and moved to Cape Cod to assume responsibility for my elderly parents. After Dad passed away, our income was halved. How would I put food on the table once Mom was gone, too? My freelance work would not pay all the bills. That's when a light went off: I looked around her old Cape Codder and a small rental cottage on the property and realized they would make a perfect bed and breakfast.
Starting Out Small
Sven and I began our business in 2004. We started small, with the cottage. It turned out we lived in a great location, near the trendy village of Wellfleet. Booking Seagull Cottage proved easy. My son designed a website for a future bed and breakfast that would include rooms in the main house. I wrote the promotional materials and started a blog about living green on Cape Cod.
By then, the property was in my name, so start-up costs were minimal. I took out a $70,000 loan for our first renovation project and invested income as we went along. We hammered and sawed alongside local carpenters to keep costs down. The following year we were able to offer accommodations in two more beautiful rooms. To my surprise, business came easily to me. Chez Sven was soon the most popular bed and breakfast in town.
When Mom passed away, I used my savings for another renovation project, creating a private bath for the B&B's third guestroom, and a country kitchen, completed three years ago. I served as contractor, which lessened the expense. We made the new space as green as possible and advertised it that way. Our success is partially due to choosing a specific niche - eco-friendly hospitality - and sticking to it.
Dealing With the Unexpected
One variable of owning a small business I didn't expect to deal with was health insurance. From 1998 to 2010, our health-insurance costs rose from $200 a month to $1,600. The most recent increases made it necessary to raise rates at the B&B, but reservations continued to stream in. For that reason, I'm looking forward to joining Sven as a Medicare recipient in 2012 and having this expense drop dramatically.
Innkeeping is strenuous work, but we feel rewarded by the marvelous green guests who make their way to our door. What I like best about the job is being my own boss. Living in a beautiful part of the country - 61 percent of Wellfleet is within the National Seashore - is not bad either.
Although the economy is seasonal here - June, July and August - Chez Sven is booked from April through November.
If you're thinking of starting a small business, dare to think big. Choose a niche business and give it all you've got. Invest what you earn and take advantage of small loans to make improvements. Remember that one thing in life can lead to another. You may just stumble into your dream job, as I did!
When she's not busy with guests, Alexandra Grabbe blogs about life in Wellfleet and eco-innkeeping on her blog, Chez Sven: Wellfleet Today.
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