Business As Usual Doesn't Apply to Santa Barbara
By Mia Groeninger
Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and Santa Ynez Mountains, with the perfect balance of coasts and cliffs, lies the beach town of Santa Barbara. The weather, typically hovering around 70 degrees, creates one of the most temperate environments in the U.S. On the surface, it appears to be an attractive spot for new businesses due to tourist attractions and industry diversity. However, small business owners know the environment best as they grapple with the trials and tribulations of being an entrepreneur in the small beachside town. In order to truly get a sense for the state of Santa Barbara’s economy and its challenges, local entrepreneurs provide their stories and share the learnings that come with starting a business.
Monica DeVreese, co-founder of the running apparel company rabbit LLC, describes her experience establishing a local start-up. She began running on her high school’s track and cross country teams and soon became passionate about the sport. When considering her career, one of her goals was to merge her passion for running and work. After having two children, DeVreese wanted to establish a work life balance, which is why being an entrepreneur was so appealing. She, along with co-founder and fellow mother runner Jill Deering, noticed a void in the running apparel marketplace. Most of what runners wore were non-running specific brands, and a lot of the clothing was baggy and clingy with an uncomfortable fit. The mission of rabbit LLC is to make running apparel more comfortable and cater to what runners actually need.
Since 2014, rabbit LLC has been based in Santa Barbara but has a global footprint of suppliers and customers. From DeVreese’s perspective, Santa Barbara is an inspirational place to start a business, particularly in the running industry. A diverse pool of human capital is available to staff every aspect of the business with easy access to major population and talent centers in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
DeVreese believes the largest challenge to building a business in Santa Barbara is the cost of living. Recruiting runners and staff members, moving them here, and retaining talent has been a major hurdle throughout rabbit’s history. Home appreciation in Santa Barbara is up 19.7% in 2022, with the median value of a home at $1,390,400. Another challenge DeVreese faces is how to finance her business. She wishes she had been able to find a mentor to guide her through raising capital and managing the financial aspects of growing the company. Coming up with ideas and seeing opportunities is the easy part, yet she learned that most challenges do not get easier. DeVreese believes it is all about figuring out how to navigate these hurdles and being patient.
Jenny Schatzle (courtesy photo)
Jenny Schatzle, co-founder of the successful Bond Fitness, typically tells young people they must do anything and everything in order to decide what they do not want to do. Early on, she worked a 9-5 desk job because everyone told her fitness was not an actual career. After the first month, Schatzle knew she never wanted to work a 9-5 ever again. No matter how much money or what people thought, she knew she needed to be moving around in an energetic environment surrounded by people.
She grew up in Minnesota and moved to San Diego at 18 for college. After traveling to Santa Barbara for a long weekend, she immediately knew this is where she wanted to be. When asked about the challenges of building a business in Santa Barbara, she could not identify any significant negatives. She believes Santa Barbara is a small town with a tight knit community that is always willing to rally behind one another, making it a fantastic place to start a business.
The Jenny Schatzle Program opened its doors in 2013 and rebranded as Bond Fitness four years ago with the help of Stephen Stowe and Chito Elias. The goal was never to start a gym, but a community where people felt good about themselves in a non-judgmental, supportive environment. From Schatzle’s perspective, the biggest change in the business environment was the pandemic. Bond showed up safely with Instagram classes, but what really stood out throughout this time was how people came together to support local businesses. She believes the Santa Barbara community became more supportive of home grown businesses amidst COVID.
Isa Eaton, founder of Isa Bird Landscape Design & Styling, is no stranger to entrepreneurship. A fifth generation Santa Barbarian, she grew up hiking and could identify a wide variety of plants at a young age. These experiences outdoors and in nature inspired her minor in Environmental Studies at Yale University. Post Yale, Eaton went on to work for several nonprofits in the Bay Area and has started five of her own businesses since, including wedding cake painting, letter press, and freelance graphic design. She has a strong background in graphic design and did her best to incorporate that aspect into many of her businesses.
Isa Eaton (Danielle Rubi Photography)
When her third child began preschool, Eaton spontaneously signed up for an online landscape design course on the last possible day and went back to school. “Why wait for my dream job when I can do it now?” she asked. Designing landscapes and beautiful home gardens where she grew up, in the place she loves most in the world, was a dream come true. For Eaton, a benefit was how similar graphic design was to landscape, as they both feature the same elements of contrast, composition, and color. Yet, instead of working digitally, she now works with living plant material and can incorporate her background knowledge.
She identified the cost of living as the most significant challenge in building a business in addition to a lack of sufficient labor to meet demand. As of April 2022, the unemployment rate in Santa Barbara is 2.8%, creating a shallow labor pool and thus upward pressure on labor rates. These challenges can sometimes translate into the quality of the end product. However, she is fortunate to have a highly skilled network of landscape contractors, stonemasons, and carpenters.
Throughout the pandemic, Isa Bird Design expanded immensely due to more people spending time in their homes and the need for functionable space. Overall, she believes Santa Barbara is a supportive community with a great client base who appreciate designs and gardens, with the desire to be outdoors. Eaton’s designs lure you outside and evoke a greater appreciation for the unique, natural environment Santa Barbara offers.
Mia Groeninger is edhat’s summer intern and is a rising sophomore at Cate School in Carpinteria. Her favorite thing to do in Santa Barbara is spend time at the beach.