San Francisco Skateboarding Business Is on a Roll

by Susan Johnston on November 15, 2013
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Thuy Nguyen and her husband, Shawn Connolly (both pictured), started San Francisco Skate Club in 2007 to nurture children’s creativity and confidence through skateboarding. The company’s summer and after-school programs encourage kids ages 8 to 13 to forge friendships with other young people and learn the sport from adult skateboarders, who serve as positive role models.

Nguyen and Connolly are also Intuit customers who recently opened their brick-and-mortar skate shop and program hub on Divisadero Street. The Intuit Small Business Blog recently chatted with Nguyen about how she and Connolly funded the company’s expansion, why they incorporated it as an LLC, and what strategies she’d offer other couples running a business together.

ISBB: Can you give us a brief history of the San Francisco Skate Club?

Nguyen: The San Francisco Skate Club started as a general partnership back in 2007. We’re now an LLC. While we were a general partnership, we were actually operating less than half-time, running summer camps and weekend outings. We were also running a nonprofit organization at the same time, and so we were collaborating with different organizations also working with youth.

Then, with the growing popularity of our program, we decided to expand. In May, we secured our first bricks-and-mortar location in San Francisco in a neighborhood that’s definitely growing and thriving. Since then, we have been operating full-time, seven days a week, offering youth programming during the summer and now offering an after-school program. We [also] set up a little retail shop since we’re located in such a fantastic area.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during the expansion? 

We needed funding, so we thankfully came across Working Solutions, a nonprofit that supports small-business owners. We went to them for some advice around creating a business plan, and we learned about the opportunity to apply for a microloan. We spent a good month working really hard to secure this loan for $25,000.

It seems like a lot to us, but it really wasn’t a lot for the renovations that we needed to do, so we were resourceful and did a lot of it on our own. We had my dad come and help us create the shelving. We’re very thrifty. We went to salvage yards to find our wood, and our different display pieces and decorations added to the feel and were aligned with the culture we were trying to maintain.

We definitely made some mistakes along the way, but we were very conservative and resourceful and, thankfully, had the support of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights as well. Its Legal Services for Entrepreneurs program helped us become an LLC and also supported us with information around employment law. As first-time employers, we wanted to do everything thing the right way.

How many employees do you have?

We had an employee over the summer, and he’s taking some time off to travel. We’re in the process of hiring another employee, and we’re also partnering with an organization called New Ways Workers that provides employment opportunities to underserved, at-risk youth. So, with this partnership, we’re able to offer employment to a teenager.

We’ve been described as a double-bottom-line business. We were really grappling between becoming a nonprofit organization or becoming a for-profit business, and we decided to be a for-profit business as a limited liability company. We do have a nonprofit partner that we work with to ensure that all youth who are interested in participating in our program are able to be a part of it.

What made you decide to become an LLC rather than a nonprofit or a B corporation?

Being an LLC with the support of Legal Services for Entrepreneurs and Working Solutions seemed like the best thing for us to do within the limited time we had and with limited funds. We love working with young people. It’s been so fun encouraging them to think about … how not only be creative and do what they love, but also to make a living out of it, to be business-minded and place a value on the things that they do, the things they know, the things they can make.

So far, we really feel like we’ve made the right decision. And who knows? We’re pretty open-minded, and we really enjoy talking to people who run businesses or nonprofit organizations. We’re very open to change, but right now we’re happy with the decisions we’ve made.

Any tips for other husband and wife teams on running a business together?

Even though we’re husband and wife, we need to think about how we would treat each other if we were working in a professional setting with other people. We always really practice respectful communication.

We’ve worked together now for over six years, and thankfully we have compatible personalities. We have different strengths and different areas of challenge, so we’re really good about communicating what those are with each other. We love what we do. We work hard but also honor the personal time that we need together outside of work.

Susan Johnston is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

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