This story was originally published on pccsbdc.org.
After six years as manager of Silverlake Cheese Shop, Leah Park Fierro knew she wanted to start her own business. She wanted to express her passion for educating the community on the fine tastes of artisan cheese. Her startup, Milkfarm, is a neighborhood cheese shop that sells hundreds of international cheeses. They also sell artisanal wine, beer and charcuterie from small, independent local producers.
By September 2013, Leah had written a business plan. She found a location in the Eagle Rock area of Los Angeles. Knowing she needed help designing a business website, she attended a Pasadena City College small business event. There, she learned about the newly opened Small Business Development Center hosted by PCC.
The dream team
Leah was assisted by SBDC Directors Salvatrice Cummo and Mike Daniel as well as advisors Laura Lara and Se Reed. They helped her develop an integrated marketing strategy, create a business website, and use QuickBooks for her bookkeeping. The SBDC team also introduced her to a key partner, the Foothill Workforce Investment Board (FWIB). They supported Leah through a partial subsidy for her employee salaries.
“I had worked in management and run a cheese store, but never actually had to do bookkeeping. To go from selling cheese to having to do accounting has been a massive learning curve, but the SBDC has been tremendously helpful — I don’t know what I would have done without them.Leah Park Fierro, Owner, MilkfarmLA
Leah understood the importance of proper accounting systems, and knew she needed help in this area. “I had zero experience with QuickBooks,” she explains. “I had worked in management and run a cheese store, but never actually had to do bookkeeping. To go from selling cheese to having to do accounting has been a massive learning curve, but [SBDC Business Advisor] Laura Lara has been tremendously helpful—I don’t know what I would have done without her.” Thanks to Lara’s training, Leah was up and running with QuickBooks from day one.
Good jobs and long-term thinking
Creating new jobs for local residents is important to Leah. So Cummo connected her with the FWIB, a program that matches employers with employees who are seeking to learn new job skills and overcome disadvantages. The fact that FWIB pays a portion of a new hire’s wages during their initial four months was a bonus. “That has been a tremendous help,” says Leah, “because when [a new employee has] to learn 300 cheeses and the meats and wines that pair with them, a lot of labor is lost to training.” Leah has hired two full-time employees so far, one through FWIB, and plans to go back to the organization again when it’s time to expand.
Social media marketing came easily to Leah. “I was already savvy, so that was easy to set up and execute.” However, building a website and integrating it with her social media presence was more of a challenge. Initially, she thought the SBDC would match her with someone who would do the job for her. But Reed showed her how important it was to learn website development basics herself.
“I’m using WordPress, which is totally user-friendly,” Fierro says. “Now in the future, I can make changes myself and not have to rely on an expensive Web developer.” Reed also showed Leah what elements her website needed to improve its SEO. She also learned how to use email marketing program MailChimp to develop an email marketing newsletter.
MilkfarmLA opened in April 2014 with two full-time employees. Already the store has exceeded Leah’s expectations. “It’s above and beyond,” she says delightedly. “The reaction from the community has been very positive—people come in and say ‘I’ve been waiting seven months for you to open!”
Looking to the future
Leah is preparing to launch her website and working to get her alcoholic beverage license. “I already know that once we get our beer and wine license I’ll have to hire another employee and get another POS [station],” she says. During Small Business Week 2014, she received the Outstanding Small Business Award from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “I want the business to continue to grow financially, create more jobs for people in the neighborhood, and educate the community about good food and fresh products,” she says.