As a child Sydney Wayman, a native of North Philly, loved to hear his mom say, “I’m not cooking tonight. Here’s $5, go get yourself something to eat.” That meant he could check out different sandwiches in his neighborhood. He has been missing the flavors of those sandwiches ever since he moved to New York decades ago.
“There aren’t any sandwich shops [here],” said Wayman of his Crown Heights neighborhood. “Almost every Bodega sells sandwiches, but I wouldn’t buy sandwiches from those Bodegas. It just doesn’t look right to me.”
For Wayman, the solution was simple: open a Philly Sandwich shop and bring some of that rich sandwich history of his hometown to Brooklyn. It took him 20 years to make that dream a reality. “It is really hard to start a business,” he said. “I didn’t have the capital to get it started.”
In 2005, Wayman heard about PowerUp!, an annual business plan competition organized by the Brooklyn Public Library to help Brooklyn-based entrepreneurs to start up. The competition’s website promises: “Turn your business idea into a reality with help from the library and you may win $15,000 in start-up capital.”
For Wayman, it wasn’t about the prize. “My initial intent to join the competition was just to force myself to write that business plan. It will create a structure that will force me to write it,” he said.
The business plan, according to Maud Andrew, Outreach Manager of PowerUp!, includes nine sections, including market research, industry trends, and business projections. Participants are also expected to attend at least three of four classes offered by the library on creating business plans, marketing, financial projections, and doing research with library resources. They are also connected with local counselors who provide one-on-one consulting services.
Since the launch of the competition in 2003, PowerUp! has had over 3,000 participants, 500 business ideas, and has helped at least 50 successful start-ups.“We only track those winners,” said Andrew. “[But] people go to the business even if they didn’t win.” The library is in the process now of evaluating 81 business plans as part of the 2012 competition. The winners will be announced in early December.
In the first meeting of participants, Wayman knew that he was about to win. “I was sitting there and I was looking around all the other applicants,” Wayman said. “And I told myself, I’m gonna win this. This is no reason why I shouldn’t win this. I really think what I got is better than anything else.”
Wayman did win and took home $15, 000, the first-place prize. “Competition and winning is great experience. In terms of the connections and the network, when you win, you get the cash, but you also get services from consultants. This is the network that you plug into when you win–you don’t really have to win, just being involved in the competition.”
Yet after the winning, it still took him five more years to open the shop. He quickly realized that $15,000 is not enough to start up a sandwich shop. Instead he needed “$35,000 or 40,000 to open the doors.”
“It is really easy to prepare some relatively optimistic projections,” he said. “The reality is you need a lot more. Because when you open the door, you are not going to generate profit to cover the cost. So you ended up having to put more capital in to finance the business until it gets to that point to break it even.”
Now two years since he opened Syd’s Serious Sandwich Shop, Wayman said he is still working towards breaking even. “I’m close, I’m really close to break even. But I’m not quite there yet. I’ve been adding capital,” he said. “Capital is the most difficult thing for small business.”
Capital may be the biggest obstacle, but it is by no means the last one. An ongoing challenge most small businesses face is marketing and promotion. “Cash is a huge challenge, but there is someway to find it,” said Andrew from the library. “But making sure that they become known to clients who need the services is always challenging. Some of them may gain attention initially, then they have to have the capacity to know how to scale up what they are doing.”
Wayman’s sandwiches promote themselves. Everyday new faces show up. Quran Washington, who lives on Flatbush Ave, drove 20 minutes to Syd’s Serious Sandwich Shop just to try a sandwich. “My friend lives in this area. He knows I like to eat. He said I should try this,” said Washington. “It is good.”
Looking into the future, Wayman still sees marketing as a big challenge. “Things are changing dramatically. In the past five or ten years, marketing becomes more social media and stuff like that,” he said. “How [do I] get people to hear about us, get them to try a sandwich, to try us? That’s what I’m trying to figure out. That’s what I really need to do.”