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New generation of entrepreneurs makes its mark in NWI
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New generation of entrepreneurs makes its mark in NWI

Gordon Biffle Jr. used to prepare food in the kitchen and pretend he was doing his own "Food Network" show.

Now he's on TV.

Biffle, the co-owner of Big Daddy's BBQ in Gary and Hammond, has cooked his signature barbecue on "The Steve Harvey Show," "Windy City Live" and several other Chicago-based programs.

He started barbecuing outside his Gary home, where passersby would stop to buy his meat. Then he sold it at a church next to a flea market. Then he opened a restaurant. Then another. Then he and his wife both quit their jobs to focus on the business.

Biffle, who now lives in Winfield, since has won several awards for his barbecue. In addition, he has begun to mass produce his sauces and seasonings, and hopes to open a food truck and a Crown Point-area restaurant soon. Along the way, he has promoted himself tirelessly on traditional media (television and print) and new media (Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat).

"I always said 'I'm not going to work as hard no more,' when I left my other job," said Biffle, 45. "I come to find I work even harder. At 3 a.m., I'm always thinking about the restaurants, the issues we have, how to solve them."

More people 'take a shot'

Biffle is part of the newest generation of entrepreneurs in the Region, business owners who have to be more technology and media savvy than their predecessors.

They're also a diverse bunch, as companies are more likely than ever to be owned by women or minorities. According to government figures released in December, the number of minority-owned firms in the U.S. rose to 8 million in 2012 from 5.8 million in 2007. Meanwhile, the number of women-owned businesses was at 9.8 million in 2012, an increase of 2 million from five years earlier.

With the prospect of steady work no longer a guarantee, even for college graduates, Northwest Indiana residents are increasingly going it alone.

"It seems like more people are willing to take a shot at starting their own company," said Dushan Nikolovski, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship Success at Purdue University Northwest in Hammond. "Whether it's because of the way corporations are changing, the downsizing, there is a greater entrepreneurial spirit in young people."

But he noted that success takes preparation. Eighty percent of startups fail within the first 18 months, he said, so researching whether there's a market for your product or service is essential. He added that with the rapid speed of change in the economy, written business plans are essentially obsolete.

"Companies like Apple and Zappos and Google, they've always had the ability to see what the market needs and have the ability to adapt. Startups should have the ability to adapt," he said.

With the decline in American manufacturing, small businesses play a bigger role in the economy than ever before. So you don't have to start the next ArcelorMittal to make a difference.

"Certainly we'd love to have more steel mills open up, but where would they open in the Region?" Nikolovski said. "More public and private funding should go toward helping startups and small businesses regionally."

Cleaning up in business

Breanne Stover, of Crown Point, started her company, Our Space Textile Hive, after getting laid off from her job at the mills. Needing income quickly, she thought back to the laundry bags full of dirty work uniforms she would always see at job sites. She started asking if she could wash them.

She rented out a laundromat that had gone out of business. Later, she expanded her business to bars, restaurants and mechanic shops. She began selling her own industrial work wear and uniforms. She bought a Navy laundry facility and moved it to Griffith.

Stover's story is illustrative of the new economy. She graduated with a pre-med degree, then decided, after doing an internship, that she no longer wanted to work in medicine. So she went into sales for a large corporation, was laid off and had no choice but to go into business for herself.

"It was out of necessity," she said.

She's glad the chance arose. The freedom allows her to spend more time with her kids. She gets to create opportunity for others, employing about a dozen people. She's able to come up with ideas and put them into practice, a rewarding experience.

A few years ago, she learned the importance of diversifying. When the economy crashed in 2008 and the steel industry declined with it, she had to find other avenues of income. That led her to start customizing apparel for employers, allowing her creative side to flourish.

"I think at first I was probably afraid to make mistakes," said Stover, 33. "I have learned over the years if you're making mistakes at least you're getting an education out of it. My failures have been my education."

A family-fit enterprise

Despite being raised in a family of entrepreneurs, Feras Musleh, of Crown Point, didn't always dream of running his own business. But after working in the corporate world, he realized its impersonal feel just wasn't for him.

So in 2013, he teamed with his father and brother to start an Anytime Fitness franchise in LaPorte. He had worked out at that gym in college, loving how it was open 24 hours, never packed and catered to adults.

Three years later, he's set to open his fifth location, in Lemont, Illinois.

"Once I started working for corporate America I just figured, I don't want to work for a big company, I want to work for something smaller. You feel more valued as a member of a small organization," said Musleh, 30. "I don't necessarily have to work for myself; we always have to work for someone. I just wanted to stay small. I like the whole family-owned and -operated thing."

It's the same reason he works with small, community banks: Because, as a customer, you actually get to talk to the decision-makers.

Musleh hopes to have 10 locations by the end of 2017, and also diversify into other businesses, like supplement sales.

While he still visits his gyms, technology allows him to run them from his computer in Crown Point, an opportunity that didn't exist decades ago. For entrepreneurs, other things haven't changed.

"The whole aspect of putting in the time and work, that's still the same," Musleh said. "It's not for everyone. It's a 24-7 gig. You don't get days off like if you were an employee. You have to love what you do. You have to live it."

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.

Related to this story

  • Updated

Ten deserving entrepreneurs were honored Nov. 4 by the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center. My hearty congratulations to these great pioneers: Breanne Stover, Glee Renick-May, Dushan Nikolovski, Feras Musleh, Todd Cannon, Robert E. Johnson, III, Chad and Larry Sams, John Hamstra, Harry Hruska and David A. Buchnowski.

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