OLYMPIA, Wash.—If only owning a day spa were as restful as being a patron at one.
When clients walk into Ballaura Wellness Spa in Olympia, they are greeted by the warm, modern farmhouse look of whitewashed brick and shiplap walls, wood flooring, and blue and pink upholstered furniture.
The peaceful, serene feeling created by the colors, lighting, furnishings, sounds, even scents, is carefully curated by owners Nicole and Allen Chryst to give clients a respite from day-to-day stressors and obligations.
But as small business owners and parents to three young sons, ages 5 years, 20 months and newborn, the Chrysts have plenty of their own stressors to deal with. While Nicole handles most of the day-to-day responsibilities at the spa, Allen is typically more focused on a second business they are partners in, Temperance Investments LLC.
Fortunately, when challenges arise at work, they can get no-cost assistance from the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in Lacey to keep their businesses moving forward.
The SBDC (http://wsbdc.org/) is a network of more than two dozen business advisors working in communities across the state to help small business owners start, grow or transition businesses. It provides one-on-one, confidential advising at no cost.
The SBDC receives funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration, Washington State University and other institutions of higher education and economic development. Nielsen’s office in Lacey, Wash., receives funding through the Center for Business and Innovation at South Puget Sound Community College.
Nicole Chryst, who started Ballaura in 2008, first contacted the Washington SBDC at the South Puget Sound Community College’s Center for Business and Innovation in early 2018 when she and her husband needed assistance with a commercial loan.
After leasing spa space for almost a dozen years, Chryst said, it was time to take the next step. Clients reported feeling unsafe in her old neighborhood, so she knew she needed to move. Beyond that, she said, she wanted more control over her client experience.
“I thought, ‘To have what I want to have, this isn’t going to cut it,’” she said. “I need to buy my own building.”
She found a 1,700 square foot building on Fourth Avenue that had originally been a home built 1925, but was now an office building. It would need renovation, but it was an interesting old building that fit Chryst’s vision for what she wanted to create. As an added bonus, the site had ample parking for clients in the back.
SBDC Center Director Ron Nielsen met with Chryst several times to discuss SBA loan guarantee programs, but then she began meeting with SBDC advisor John Morosco, who has extensive experience in hospitality. She and Morosco communicated frequently during the loan process.
While Chryst’s original questions were about financing, and the difference between the SBA 504 and 7a loans, her discussions with Morosco broadened to include business structure, financial analysis, strategic planning and cash flow management.
Those discussions then led to specific action plans that have made a significant difference in her business. “I can see the business being easier to manage in the future because now I have systems in place,” she said
Chryst was ultimately successful in getting the loan to purchase the property on Fourth Avenue, but she has continued to seek SBDC assistance when other challenges or questions arise.
“One of the things I enjoy the most (about working with Morosco) is that I don’t feel like I have to go in all put together,” Chryst said. “I’ll be real about what’s going on and he lets me do that.”
For instance, Morosco has been a sounding board for Chryst to talk through employee issues and was key to helping her put together an employee handbook. “He’s helped me become a better boss,” she said. Ballaura employs two full-time and seven part-time employees.
Being a better boss, being a better business woman, was what motivated Chryst to start Ballaura Wellness Spa in the first place.
Her first job after becoming a licensed massage therapist was working for a chiropractor who wanted to do hands-on work, but wasn’t interested in running a business. Her second boss wasn’t interested in doing hands-on work, but was a disorganized and reactive manager. Neither one of them treated their employees well.
“I was baffled by their lack of care for employees who were supposed to be caring for the clients,” Nicole said. She was 25 when she decided to go out on her own.
Chryst did not have money, family connections or even a college education to help her get started as a business owner. “What I had was grit and a willingness to work hard,” she said.
After earning a GED in her late teens, Chryst enrolled in a massage certification course because it was one of the less expensive choices for vocational training. “I knew I wanted to do something with my life,” she said, and she didn’t have a lot of options.
She learned a lot during her first two jobs as a massage therapist, especially how not to do things. And she’s never stopped learning. Along with taking classes and reading voraciously, Chryst says key people have generously shared their own experiences and expertise.
“I’ve been able to find mentors in my life,” Chryst said. “If you look, they are usually there.”
And now Chryst works to be that person for other people. “I feel very strongly about that,” she said. Just because someone doesn’t have family money or a college education, that doesn’t mean they can’t achieve a fulfilling career and financial security for themselves and their family.
She’s made plenty of mistakes over the years, she said, but she’s been able to move her business forward by working hard, not giving up and continually coming back to two key values: supporting her employees and creating the best client experience possible.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice to “Do the thing you think you cannot” has been Chryst’s mantra over the years, she says, and with the help of the SBDC and other key mentors, she’s been able to do just that.
For more about Ballaura Wellness Spa, go to ballaura.com
For more about the Washington SBDC, go to wsbdc.org