DES MOINES, Wash. – Starting your own business is stressful enough, but doing so just months after your wife is diagnosed with breast cancer takes stress to a whole new level.
But Navy veteran Bevon “Ben” Benjamin said he didn’t have a choice when he started SeaTac Airport Valet (http://www.seatacairportvalet.com/) in November 2013.
“I’m not being dramatic, but if it hadn’t worked, we would have been out on the street,” he said. “It had to work and it had to work fast.”
Cancer prompts business plan
In spring 2013 when Tara Omar-Benjamin first got her diagnosis, she was working as a telemetry nurse and Benjamin was a full-time accounting student with a side business collecting deductibles from uninsured motorists involved in accidents.
No way was his collections business going to pay the bills for his family of five, he said. He needed a plan B that didn’t have a lot of startup costs, was relatively easy to get up and running and gave him flexibility to care for his three children and also support his wife through her treatments.
Hello, airport valet parking! Benjamin said he’d seen valet parking services at other airports, particularly on trips to visit family on the East Coast. But no one was offering that service at SeaTac, which is only five minutes from his home.
Valet service new to airport
The way it would work is that customers would drive their car to the valet office just minutes from the airport, Benjamin or an employee would jump in the car and drive the customer to the departure area, help with baggage and drive the car back to the company parking lot.
At the end of the trip, the customer would call Benjamin from the airport on arrival and by the time the traveler was hitting the curb outside the baggage area, Benjamin or an employee would be pulling up with the customer’s car. The customer could head home and the valet would get another ride back to the office.
Benjamin found a parking area to rent relatively quickly and thought the rest of his plan would fall into place, too.
Novel idea, slow start
But when he tried to get approval from ground transportation at the Port of Seattle (which is responsible for SeaTac Airport operations), his startup got stuck. No one he spoke with or emailed had ever seen an airport valet parking service, he said, and they didn’t know what to make of his business plan.
Benjamin said he figures he exchanged 30 to 40 emails with port officials trying to figure out what approvals he needed. He wanted to be in business by September, but it came and went, as did October, and he was no closer to getting approval.
Finally, he went to see Asbury Lockett, a certified business advisor at the Washington Small Business Development Center office in Des Moines. Located at Highline College, the office is one of more than 26 SBDC offices across the state that offer business owners confidential, no-cost advising as well as training and tools to help them start, grow or transition a business.
The Washington SBDC (https://wsbdc.org/) receives support from Washington State University, the U.S. Small Business Administration and other institutions of higher education and economic development.
Support of port, advisor
Benjamin said he felt like he was spinning his wheels trying to get SeaTac approval, but after he explained his business plan to Lockett, the advisor said, “Are you sure you need their approval? I’m not sure they can stop you if you want to do it.”
It was a Eureka moment. Lockett helped Benjamin prepare for his first meeting with a group of port managers so he could explain SeaTac Airport Valet’s business plan, and the meeting went well.
“The Port of Seattle is a strong supporter of our SBDC Center and is a strong supporter of small businesses in general,” Lockett said. “As long as a new idea makes sense from the perspective of the port and the flying public, my experience is that management will not impede its implementation.”
Even though Benjamin didn’t need port permission, there were other permits, approvals, licenses and insurance that he did need. And, not surprisingly, he also needed more capital than he had anticipated.
Lockett was readily available to Benjamin as issues arose. His support ranged from clarifying city land-use requirements through the SBDC’s municipal connections to helping Benjamin prepare for other meetings with port officials.
Business brisk at two-year mark
Juggling the demands of his new business, his wife’s illness and the care of their children ages 16, 8 and 5 was demanding, he said, but he made it work. Even though he was frustrated by the early delays, opening his business in November still meant he was available for the heavy travel periods around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“People ended up finding us and using us because they had to,” Benjamin said. “There wasn’t anything else available.” Once he got a dozen or so positive online reviews, he said, demand picked up.
Coming up on his two-year anniversary, he said the business is doing a little better than his projections, but there are challenges, too. One is that he lost the lease on his parking lot and needs to find a new one. Another is that there are now several valet parking services operating at SeaTac.
Still, those challenges pale beside everything the Benjamins have to be thankful for. In April, on the two-year anniversary of her diagnosis, Tara was able to return to her career as director of nursing at Sea Mar.
By Hope Billi Tinney
Bevon “Ben” Benjamin, SeaTac Airport Valet, 206-931-2123, firstname.lastname@example.org
Asbury Lockett, Des Moines SBDC center, 206-592-4153, email@example.com