Jason Fischer couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
He got a message from an associate that a robber had hit his business. Gone was everything the thief could carry, all his expensive camera equipment, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth that he needed for Surreal Media Lab, his design and media business. Years of work, of pouring money from a job here and a job there back into his one-man media company trying to make a name in the community, out in a flash.
And the gut punch? His insurance policy would not be covering the loss due to a technicality. “How am I going to fix this?” he asked himself.
Fortunately, there is a happy ending to this story.
Today, Fischer is one of Omaha's most sought-after director/producers and visual designers, building a small business around crafting his artistic vision for nearly a decade. Over the years, he moved from airbrush illustration and acrylic painting, incorporating graphic art into his work, and began to dabble in digital photography. Fischer taught himself dozens of graphic arts software programs, eventually became a master photographer, and conquered the cutting edge components of web design. Finding an early niche in compact disc covers and model pictorials over the years, Fischer built his reputation of being the go-to guy for professionally designed graphic arts and web design projects.
Jason Fischer, owner of Omaha-based Surreal Media Lab
He grew a unique way of meeting customer needs. “I have been called a big picture thinker seeing the full potential of a client. I ‘reverse-engineer’, from top to bottom the person and their business, giving them something that’s tailored to them and their mission.”
But after the robbery, Jason said, a “hole opened up under me.”
He soon met with Centris Federal Credit Union, the SBA’s 2011 National Rural/Small Business Lender of the Year, where he was approved Nov. 11, 2010, for an SBA Express loan under provisions of the Jobs Act.
The proceeds went for new equipment, allowing him to follow the market shift away from print and stills work to web design and high-quality video production. He also began to offer business development for his clients, include branding, long-term planning and budgeting.
“I’m doing okay,” Fischer said. Indeed, these days he has a stable of clients, mostly non-profits and small businesses, that offer steady work, and he has a network of talent to do larger projects.
Fischer also decided to move from his Ames Avenue location to a studio on 26th and Harney Street, near Omaha’s trendy Midtown Crossing, where he shares the location and cross-collaborates with a handful of other directors and production firms on new ideas and approaches in design.
One of Fischer’s signature jobs was the design for the marketing campaign for the 2011 Omaha Film Festival. But perhaps his most ambitious project is “InFuse Live,” an online series featuring talent from the across the Midwest. The idea, pulled from open mic events at area clubs, pairs various local artists from different trendsetting genres, raw creation of new and refreshing works live on stage, giving each a platform to launch a career in the entertainment world.
“In a sense it does feel like it’s a new business,” Fischer said. “It feels like I’ve worked in other places, and this direction is so new it feels like I’ve transformed the business.
“But it’s the same work ethic, the same design experience,” he said. “It’s a new day.”
It’s a two-story sandstone brick and glass stylish hotspot off the busy 168th and West Center location in a burgeoning Omaha neighborhood of cutting-edge restaurants and popular boutiques. There’s even a new apartment development going up across the street. During the summer the place is buzzing with parties outside; in the winter there’s an auburn glow inside. The heady scent of yeasty fresh beer brewed fresh in-house fills the huge dining room surrounded by brick and inviting wooden touches.
Brian Magee inside Upstream Brewing Company's West O location.
But without the help of the SBA’s 504 loan program, it might not be a stretch that Upstream Brewing Company’s west Omaha location would have vanished from the scene.
Bringing the Upstream experience to Omaha
Years ago, Brian Magee served as the food and beverage director at a distinguished landmark hotel in Lincoln, serving fine fare to the capitol city’s decision-makers and visiting aristocracy. He’d dreamed of someday opening his own restaurant, and in the late 1980s, made repeated trips with his brother to Denver to visit the first brewpub established in Colorado.
“Loved it,” Magee said. “They had fresh-brewed beer made on site paired with an interesting pub-style menu.”
So Magee bit, working to start a brewpub in partnership with the Wynkoop Brewing Company in Colorado as it attempted to branch out nationally; his business partner was John Hickenlooper, one of the founders of the Wynkoop and later became mayor of Denver and present governor of the state.
Magee and Hickenlooper bought a re-purposed old downtown fire station at 11th and Jackson Streets, which the previous owners had been using as a dinner theater.
In 1996, Magee, as president of the company, reopened the doors of the completed remodeled firehouse and introduced Upstream Brewing Company to Omaha’s Old Market district.
"I thought we could do something that would be different and unique and have maybe a little more upscale feel," Magee said.
Over the years, Upstream has been a staple of the city’s premier arts and entertainment district, basing the business success on its great food, quality craft beers and service, and giving a hat tip to the location’s origin with its Firehouse Red Lager brand. You can look for other tributes to old Omaha landmarks up and down the menu of Upstream’s stouts and ales.
Magee, continuing the nod to local history, took the business moniker from the translation of the Omaha Indian tribe’s word from which the city is named, sometimes as “the upstream people” or “above all others on a stream.” It fits, after all, Magee added, because it does take water to make beer and it also has an uplifting feeling.
Six years later, Magee and his operating partners bought out Wynkoop’s interest in the Old Market location and began scouting for a second location in the fast-growing western edge of the city.
Expanding operations to West O
In January 2004, Upstream was approved for a SBA-guaranteed 7(a) loan from Security National Bank for $750,000 to pay for a new brewhouse, kitchen equipment and furnishings for its new West Omaha location. When they opened the two-story place with a lower level, a build-to-suit with a lease agreement, Magee said, they created 130 full- and part-time jobs. But Magee wasn’t the only pioneer in the then-untapped marketplace. At the time, there were few eateries available; two years later, more than 65 popped up in an eight square mile area surrounding Upstream’s location. The rapid expansion of new restaurants was great for area residents but Magee said it was tough for everyone in the business. Several years passed by with modest sales growth. Many restaurants closed and were replaced by other restaurants.
But Upstream never skimped on the quality that made them popular. They were tabbed "One of Omaha’s Top Ten Restaurants" by the Omaha World-Herald, and are annual winners of several “Best of Omaha” Awards.
And their signature brews began to chalk up the awards. At the World Beer Cup in San Diego, Upstream took home a gold medal for its Upstream Grand Cru, a silver for its Dundee Scotch Ale and a bronze for its unique Phat Flemish Red Ale. They also earned a Top 25 Beer of the Year two years in a row from DRAFT Magazine for their Dortmunder Lager.
With the nationwide recession in late 2008, Upstream began feeling the pinch at their West Omaha location. They knew that their lease was coming to an end, and their monthly payments would go way up if they renewed. So Magee and his partner sought to buy the property outright.
“With those increased payments, we looked at a possibility of not to retaining this site or moving somewhere else,” Magee said. “We liked to stay for the long haul, and continue to establish our position here in the neighborhood.”
Putting the deal together with the 504 program
Magee reached out to Centennial Bank, the SBA’s Small Lender of the Year for Nebraska in 2010, and Community Development Resources (CDR) in Lincoln, to finance the project under the SBA’s 504 program
The 504 Loan Program provides approved small businesses with long-term, fixed-rate financing used to acquire fixed assets for expansion or modernization. These loans are made available through Certified Development Companies (CDC), such as CDR, SBA's community-based partners for providing 504 loans. This program calls for the participating lender to provide half the financing, with the SBA offering 40 percent of the costs financed through the CDC.
By June 2012, Upstream was approved for a $1.4 million 504 loan to purchase the location. It’s safe to say the access to capital not only improved the look of the balance sheet, but was crucial in preserving up to 130 jobs at the brewpub.
“Without the SBA, no way we could have gotten this done,” he said. “We now have room to breathe. We’ve reduced our occupancy expense by 25 percent, a significant amount. Plus, we won’t see our rent increasing every five years.”
Magee said the cash saved with the purchase and steady monthly payments will allow Upstream to perform some needed maintenance, upgrade equipment and he has plans for a beer garden or covered private party space out on the location’s former back patio.
With steady loan payments long into the future, Magee has positioned Upstream’s location to leverage the continued westerly growth of the city. While the recession slowed building activity in the area, Magee said demand for unique restaurant services is expected to rise.
“There are 5,000 to 6,000 residential lots in the area, and a lot of the empty ones are going to start filling in,” Magee said. “Then you think about the 450 to 500 people who will move into the new apartment development across the street. The city has mandated new sidewalks to go with them. All of a sudden this area becomes a pedestrian community, and that’s great for us and the other restaurants in the Legacy Development, since we’re right here for people who want to relax after work or on the weekends.”
Need your smart phone fixed fast? Take it to the guy who gave up working on F-15 avionic systems to start his own veteran-owned business
Oops! That new smart phone just tumbled out of your bag, crashed into the sidewalk and put an ugly spider web crack in the screen. Relax – that phone will be fine. There’s somebody in Omaha who once worked on F-15 avionic systems for the U.S. Air Force who can make that phone as new as the day it came off the shelf.
Jeff Wharton is that somebody, and First Aid Cellular, the business he founded with his father, a retired U.S. Army veteran, has gotten off the ground thanks to an SBA Patriot Express loan. Go ahead, ask him what’s the worst damage he’s seen.
An owner putting a smart phone on top of a car and absent-mindedly driving off?
The construction worker dropping one into a cement mixer?
How about an iPad falling off a five-story building to the ground?
And dealing with the most exasperated and panicked customer or business owner bringing in shattered pieces is a snap for a company run by a couple of veterans who have made multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Both military service and entrepreneurial sense in his blood
Wharton came up with the idea for First Aid Cellular on a recent deployment to southwest Asia, and even successfully applied to trademark the name of his new company while still stationed overseas. But repairing smart phones wasn’t the first entrepreneurial idea he’s had. Three years ago, he ran an e-commerce site from his laptop in Baghdad but folded it after struggling to find a niche. And back in 1996, while in college, he attempted to start a custom computer business.
Both military service and business sense is in Wharton’s blood; an ancestor served as a lieutenant under George Washington during the Revolutionary War, and one grandfather apprenticed for a peach wine farm in Pennsylvania later starting his own peach brandy business. His aunt and uncle run an auctioneering business in Superior, Neb.
So when Wharton ordered a heavily discounted iPhone in need of repair off an online auction site with an eye toward fixing it and using it himself, upon opening the case he discovered that to him, the compartmentalized parts inside the device reminded him of troubleshooting electronics inside the high-tech Air Force jets he worked on during long hot days on a flight line on a base in Florida.
“Working on an F-15, when I was finished I couldn’t have any leftover parts,” Wharton said with a smile, “and on your phone, I won’t have any leftover parts, either.”
Jeff Wharton outside First Aid Cellular's location off West Center Road in Omaha.
Drawing on his lessons learned as an entrepreneur, Wharton knew marketing his nascent company would prove crucial. He reached out to an online site matching skilled multimedia designers with companies that need specialized work—such as a 15-second promotion spot to build a little online buzz about First Aid Cellular. The cost was cheap, so Wharton went back to them for his next 30-second commercial, a cheeky segment with an actor playing a frightened customer pleading with a pretend doctor and nurse to save her smart phone.
Wharton said he wanted to continue working with the advertising company, not just because of the low cost producing the spots, but because the firm employs veterans, many suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, as designers. “Plus,” he added, “they told me that they really liked my company and they thought I’d be a national franchise soon.”
Learned there's no regulation book to follow when starting a unique veteran-owned business
When he returned from his deployment to Omaha, Wharton attended a seminar offered by the SBA’s Nebraska District Office and the Nebraska Business Development Center, where he learned about the Patriot Express loan program. While he got some business from a social networking site, and tried to work with a local computer repair business who offered to incubate his start-up, he was discouraged. He knew he needed capital to grow, but was turned down for a loan from two area banks.
“One of my frustrations is that while there are all these services, like the SBA, SCORE, NBDC, there isn’t a regulation book to tell me how to do this,” the Air Force vet said. “Worse when you start a business, you have all these legal, marketing and operations worries. Sometimes you can’t sleep. But it’s when I stopped worrying about every little thing, that’s when stuff started to happen.”
Wharton offered a presentation on his business—including playing his commercial--before Greater Omaha Chamber Tips Group, a gathering he joined of businesses who meet to share leads, referrals, tips, information and advice directly supporting an ability to drive business. In the audience that day was Travis Havlovic, small business specialist at US Bank.
Havlovic was charmed by Wharton’s business idea, and with his help, First Aid Cellular was approved Aug. 8, 2012 for a $15,000 loan under the SBA’s Patriot Express program. Wharton’s father signed for the loan as CEO of the company, but it’s Wharton who does the work—“my dad wouldn’t know the first thing how to fix a phone,” he laughed.
The approval happened just in time as Wharton had 460 potential customers holding coupons from an online voucher site seeking smart phone repairs. He found a storefront site in a strip mall on West Center Road in Omaha and needed to open the doors--fast.
Preparing for further growth
Another coupon online, this time a national deal, offering a 10-foot earphone cable popular with smart phone users, could “do $180K in business in seven days,” Wharton claimed. Social media ads, in fact, generated more than $31,000 in business in October 2012 alone.
First Aid Cellular boasts most repairs are done in 24 hours, and are proud to have customers across the country ship damaged smart phones and tablets to the small Omaha store for the quick turnaround and discount prices compared with the smart phone service providers. Large, publicly-traded companies have endorsed First Aid Cellular by listing them on employee discount pages as part of company benefits.
Eventually, Wharton may have to bring on employees to handle the additional work.
“My biggest question is how do I find people to carry on my passion? I still have that inner feeling, that drive of working on a phone to make it just as new as it came out of the box,” he explained. “Even though the best interest of this company is making a profit, sometimes I even lose money on a job because I want it done right.”
After almost a year of work to start his business, Wharton has some advice for other veteran entrepreneurs fresh from hanging up the uniform. He’s a believer in the monthly Veterans in Business Forum, an Omaha networking event on the first Friday of each month to help make connections. But starting a business doesn’t end there.
"Do the most with the least amount of money. And watch your money,” he said. “I know how much to start a company, but now I have to figure out how to pay myself. And how do I market with no money? As a new business owner, you’ll get bombarded with people who say they want to market your company. You can’t spend time overanalyzing them all. You have to spend ads on something that suits you.
“Don’t worry about what people can do for you,” Wharton added. “You have to get it done. You have to make it happen. Reach out to people, but it’s up to you to put it all together.”