How to start a business on a budget.
Neil Siegel, a local shopkeeper based in Queens, New York, is a beloved fixture in his neighborhood. He owns a small health food store called Neil’s Natural. Over the years, Neil has built a reputation for himself as the go-to guy for healthy food in Queens. Just a quick look at the reviews on both Google and Yelp shows all positive reviews. Because his business has such a strong word-of-mouth reputation, we wanted to find out why local people around the area rave about him and his store.
As it turns out, he is not only a success at business, but he has also found success in finding love online. Here’s his story, from a recent interview…
Neil, looking back on when you started, how were you introduced to the health food industry?
I got my start when I was seventeen years old, 36 years ago. It was the day after I graduated from high school. I was a dishwasher in the health food restaurant next door to a health food store. I eventually moved over to the store and worked there for over 21 years. Many times, customers encouraged me to get a store of my own based on the experience I had in the industry. I hesitated, because staying there was comfortable and secure.
Then the attacks of 9/11 happened, and I felt I might not get a chance to go out on my own if I didn’t do it at that moment.
That must have been risky. Was it difficult to find the funding to start up your business? How were you able to afford it?
It wasn’t easy. I could not get a loan from the bank, so I took a chance. I cashed in my IRA savings and maxed out all my credit cards, some of which I had just applied for. I just had to spend a lot of time doing research and being frugal.
I had to find the best equipment at the best prices, so I went down to Bowery Street in Manhattan to the restaurant supply stores to get the refrigerators. I bought the shelves used, sourcing them from online searches. I bought the shopping carts and baskets online, too. I bought the cash register, security cameras, and the scale on EBay! You have to be resourceful and shop around to get the best deals possible. So with a lot of scrounging around and legwork, I was able to get things together eventually.
I found the location for my store by looking in the shopping area near where I had an apartment for 10 years, on Utopia Parkway. I saw a sign on the gate of the store that said “For Rent by Owner.” It had just gone on the market that week!
OK, but to start up a business from scratch…How were you able to gain knowledge in the business, to be able to order products, and know which products to order?
I had more than 21 years of experience in the industry, so I knew all the distributors.
After many years of reading books and subsequently, websites, I listened to and learned from people who are more knowledgeable and experienced than myself. I am fortunate that it is easy for me to retain the information and recall it.
How were you initially able to build a following for your business? Did you do any kind of advertising?
I advertised in the local papers for the first year and a half. The initial base of customers came from where I had worked for the previous 21+ years. They found me by word of mouth or by chance, passing by the store. Nowadays, digital social media sites are a great way to reach people (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.).
I’ve built up the business by working 364 days a year and providing the customers with good service. I’m a one-man operation and I work every day of the year, full-time, only taking off Christmas Day once a year, but I’m not complaining, because I love it. The store’s success has been intrinsically rewarding. Many customers will tell me how the products they’ve purchased at the store have made their lives better.
I try to offer personalized service to my customers and care about them as individuals, but I still had to have a good selection of products at a good price, be organized and clean, have parking available, and be in a good location to be successful.
How to find love online
So how did all of that affect your personal life?
Well, having a good financial base, I wanted to start a family. Due to my full work schedule, I thought the only way to find a wife would be with online dating, because there was just not enough hours in the day to pursue it any other way. Online fit my schedule more comfortably.
I first tried “E-Harmony,” then “Match.com,” and “OK Cupid” over a year’s time. I couldn’t find anyone I wanted to even go out on a date with. It was a horrible and difficult time.
It was incredibly frustrating being on the online dating sites for over a year with no success whatsoever. I was discouraged during that time and resigned myself to being alone.
I was ready to give up, but something inside me told me to give it one last shot by doing something off the beaten path. I googled online dating sites. One that came up was “Cherry Blossoms.” It sounded nice, so I gave it a try. After a week, a woman in China named Ling wrote back and said “hello.” I wrote back, and we communicated by email everyday for three and a half months.
We had much in common and decided to meet in person. We never spoke on the phone. I flew to China. We met at the airport and got married three days later. That was six and a half years ago and two wonderful children, Tyler and Cindy, later.
But my advice to anyone is to be careful online. I’ve heard of many bad experiences in online dating. Try to develop your intuitive feelings about people, and then trust your instincts.
And now that you look back on it, what would you tell your younger self about the journey?
I would tell my younger self not to worry. It’s going to be all right. At the time, it seems like things won’t work out, maybe never work out, but if you trust your intuition and think optimistically, things will work out in the end. Just looking at my wife, Ling, and my children, Tyler and Cindy, is the best empowerment I could ever hope for.
I was very lucky to find someone that is very compatible with me and vice versa. We are both of the same mind and rarely argue. In fact, in six and one-half years of marriage, I can probably count the arguments on one hand. I am grateful and appreciative, and taking nothing for granted.
What strikes us about Neil’s story is that he was ready to give up looking for love, resigning himself to be alone for the rest of his life. Had he not gone through all that pain and frustration, though, he never would have found the love of his life, who he only found by giving up on online dating’s “normal” avenues. Isn’t it funny how once again we see that through the pain and frustration of overcoming challenges in life, we achieve success?
Also, look at how 9/11 set Neil on his life’s path when he realized that life is fleeting, and that he had to risk everything to gain a better future. Sometimes that risk does not pay off, but he did his due diligence before he started his business to make sure he had the best chance of success. He picked a niche in a specific location that had a need and filled that need. That’s important, because had he not done that, had he picked another location or had done things differently, who knows how it might have turned out? Preparation and careful planning was the key.
Neil took a risk, yet he balanced risk and reward by careful planning. He got the best of both worlds.
If you’re in Queens, you can visit Neil’s Natural 364 days a year.
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