LIMA — From specialty dog biscuits to baby broccoli shoots delivered to your door to ultra low-temperature freezers capable of chilling items to negative-86 Celsius, business owners in the greater Lima region are finding a world of business opportunities exist on the World Wide Web.
The world of e-commerce is upon us, in some cases turning hobbies into businesses and in other instances transforming small businesses into large ones.
The lack of a brick-and-mortar structure proved to be no obstacle when Elizabeth Shafer opted to turn her hobby — growing gourmet microgreens — into a money-making endeavor.
A self-described millennial, Shafer had been growing healthy microgreens, shoots of edible vegetables, fruits and herbs, primarily for her own consumption. Last summer she took her products to the weekly farmers market in Wapakoneta and throughout the summer found the microgreens to be “well-received.”
That planted the seed, so to speak, that she might be on to something bigger. Doing her research, Shafer obtained the necessary licensing from the state to operate a home business and increased her production of black oil sunflower, broccoli, kale, a “spicy salad mix,” Wasabi mustard, wheat grass, Rambo radish and speckled peas microgreens.
A growing customer base
What started as a single rack of greens has grown to numerous racks of seedlings sprouting in Shafer’s basement.
“I have a room dedicated to growing that is equipped with lights and is humidity- and temperature-controlled,” Shafer said. “With vertical racks, you can grow a lot of greens in a pretty small space.”
That has become important as Shafer Urban Farms, the name under which her microgreens are marketed, continues to grow.
“I always have seedlings growing. I plant weekly, and I harvest weekly,” Shafer said.
Online sales have increased, and Shafer has also gained customers in two of the area’s finer dining establishments: J.Marie’s in Wapakoneta and The Met in downtown Lima.
“The Met has been really good to me,” she said.
Microgreens are loaded with nutrients and vitamins and contain 40 times more nutrients than their full-grown counterparts. Customers, Shafer said, consume the greens in a variety of ways.
“A lot of people like to put them on salads, and others eat them as a snack. The microgreens have a very distinct taste; they’re more of a summer treat,” she said.
Other customers use the greens in soups, pastas and sushi.
Online customers can sign up for a subscription whereby microgreens are delivered to their doorstep — by the owner — in plastic containers holding 1.5 to 2 ounces (small) or 3 to 4 ounces (large), depending on the product.
Shafer said she has found the transition from hobbyist to entrepreneur to be “gratifying.”
“I especially like it that my products are now in restaurants where other people can enjoy them. I think restaurants could become my main focus going forward.”
The other extreme
While Shafer Urban Farms deals in micro products, a Cridersville firm ships much larger items — and much more expensive ones — all across the country. New Life Scientific deals in used lab equipment that is in high demand among colleges and universities, pharmaceutical firms and government agencies.
The company took roots in 2012 after a business specializing in the niche market of antique lighting options and home decor, owned by Rich Lavy, fell on hard times during the housing/mortgage rate crisis of 2008.
Nathan Arant was an employee at the time and helped usher the struggling firm from home decor to the sale of used industrial equipment purchased at auctions.
“We found our way into the hospital and medical equipment fields and from there — in around 2012 — we transitioned into lab equipment, which was more lucrative. That’s what we do now,” Arant said.
New Life purchases from businesses liquidating laboratory equipment and resells items to universities and private labs “from California to the East Coast.”
The company, owned by Lavy, Arant and partner/stakeholder Kyle Wiechart, incorporated as New Life Scientific in 2014. Equipment sold online today ranges from centrifuges, which can sell for upwards of $25,000, to incubating shakers, which can sell for as little as $1,000.
“Sometimes we’re selling equipment that costs as much as $40,000 or more,” Arant said. “We offer warranties on everything we sell and have developed a reputation as a dependable supplier of goods and equipment.”
The company’s customers range from start-up companies to research universities to multi-billion dollar biotech firms. Even the federal government sometimes comes calling.
“The government has laboratories everywhere. We sell a ton of stuff to the government and even to smaller municipalities,” Arant said.
Lavy added, “We are the used car dealer for the laboratory world. Customers don’t care who we are, as long as they can trust us. It’s always about the equipment.”
Market for almost anything
Dogma Biscuit Co. offers a variety of fresh, natural and preservative-free doggy treats primarily through its Facebook site. The company has drawn support from area veterinarians and dog owners.
“Many of our customers are repeat customers,” owner Jeanne Goodes said during an e-commerce roundtable hosted in December by the City of Lima.
Goodes during that event said her company is “branching out trying to see what other markets and vendor fairs there are. A lot of them have conflicting days and times. We are running into a problem with vendor fees. As a start-up business, you are not sure where your audience will be, so I find that the most difficult — to find out where or how I need to sell.”
Online shopping has increased every year since the COVID-19 pandemic, with $870 billion in sales nationally in 2021, Amber Martin, Small Business and Workforce Development Coordinator for Lima, told roundtable participants.
According to Ramp Business Corp., persons starting an e-commerce business in Ohio must register their business as an LLC, or limited liability corporation. This can be done online through the Ohio Secretary of State’s website. Applicants will need to provide some basic information about their business and pay any associated fees, which typically run around $100.
According to the Ohio Secretary of State’s website, other requirements include securing a federal Employee Identification Number and registering with the Ohio Department of Taxation.
Some helpful tips
Lima resident Mark Bowker started Alter Ego Comics in 2003 as a home-based e-commerce business. He offered a few suggestions for those itching to make the leap from hobbyist to entrepreneur.
“If you’re going to use your personal cell phone number for customer service, set up dedicated phone support hours, or you may get calls in the middle of the night,” he urged.
“And if you’re just getting started, test the market through third-party online platforms like eBay, Etsy or Mercari. You may not need a full blown website right out of the gate.”
Bowker said a new e-commerce business owner should register a domain and use an email account with that domain name, such as the “[email protected]” email used by Alter Ego Comics.
“Using a free Gmail or Yahoo email for your business doesn’t look too good,” he said.
He urged owners to lock in the social accounts for their business name on at least Facebook and Instagram and try to post consistently, even if it’s only once per week.
“And set up a business checking and savings account ASAP so that you don’t mix your personal and business funds. Talk to an accountant for more tax tips so that you don’t get caught by surprise when April 15 rolls around,” he said.