By CYNTHIA BUENGER
For the Illinois Business Journal
As they say in England, “Mind the Gap.”And that is exactly what Carol Eckhoff accomplished when she delivered Highland Emporium LLC to the local business community just seven months ago.
Highland Emporium is now a place to call home for multiple microenterprise owners and their wares. It is a place of refuge from the storms of early-stage business development and, ultimately, a story of necessity.
Carol Eckhoff began her professional journey by receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in PE/Health from Eastern Illinois University and a Master of Science degree in PE/Exercise Physiology from Illinois State University. She is a certified Ergonomics Assessor and received certifications in Sound Masking and Auditorium Seating Design that culminated in 36 years in the commercial furniture business.
“My original business concept was very simple. I wanted to open a CBD store.” Eckhoff said. After experiencing the benefits of Hemp Oil CBD in the management of her acute inflammatory arthritis, she wanted to share that experience with others.
“I only needed 250 square feet to operate a store and could not find a decent building in a nice location,” Eckhoff shared. “I thought I could not be the only person looking for a small retail space.”
After reaching out to multiple Chamber of Commerce groups and city business development managers as well as visiting farmers’ markets and craft shows, Eckhoff discovered there were many micro small businesses and startups that had a similar challenge.
“I changed my business to include providing rental space in a brick-and-mortar store so that local micro small business owners could have a retail space year-round to display and sell their products,” she explained further.
By mid-January 2022, Eckhoff was moving forward with the updated vision of her new business model and focused on finding the right location. “I researched demographic information, visited several locations and communities, and found a great location on the square in Highland. The space was virtually move-in ready and the doors opened on July 5th, 2022,” Eckhoff said. “By October 2022, I had already met my six-month financial goals.”
There are undoubtedly challenges for entrepreneurs when building a business and Eckhoff admits she struggled with self-doubt. “It is scary starting something new. You constantly ask yourself, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Will people come to shop at the store?’ Having a great business plan and a support team is critical,” Eckhoff said. “I have shaped my business around the fact that people buy the experience and not the product or service. We don’t ‘sell’ in my store. We make connections and offer solutions.”
Eckhoff’s advice to other entrepreneurs now: “Asking for help is not saying that you failed, it is saying that you are smart enough to know that you do not know everything. It is okay to be afraid, confused, and frustrated. Have a support group of other business owners and organizations for assistance.”
According to SCORE, the nonprofit organization that provides free business mentoring services, 82 percent of small businesses fail due to cash flow problems; However, the communal approach that Highland Emporium offers to local vendors may challenge that statistic in a manner that is still developing.
In 2022, Highland Emporium celebrated an early victory by winning the 8th annual SIUE Metro East Start-Up Challenge business plan competition netting the first-place winner $10,000 and a variety of in-kind professional services.
“I was surprised and excited! The challenge process was intense and took almost six weeks to complete. We started with 96 competitors and the last round included a total of nine small businesses. The finalists all had wonderful business plans and presentations,” Eckhoff reflected.
In January of this year, phase two of the growth plan was introduced by creating an event space dedicated to pop-ups, cookie decorating, painting classes, vendor demonstrations, and food tasting. “I am always looking for items that are local, different, and creative,” she noted.
We may not give much thought to the stories behind our area businesses, and the passion and dedication required to get them up and running and keep them running is a tale often untold. Carol Eckhoff tells that tale, and she is dedicated to helping land that happy ending for every entrepreneur with a business dream at Highland Emporium.
The multi-entrepreneur dream incubator is located on the City of Highland’s square at 917 Main Street. For more information, call (618) 651-4061, visit online at www.highlandemporiumil.com or follow Highland Emporium LLC on Facebook. Anyone interested in working with Eckhoff can send an email to email@example.com.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This story also appears in the February 2023 print edition of the Illinois Business Journal.)