SALT LAKE CITY — Starting a business from scratch is a daunting task for most anyone, especially someone with no prior business experience. But for Sarah Calhoun, founder and owner of Montana-based Red Ants Pants, the desire for better fitting, functional work pants was the spark she needed to make the leap into the world of small business and entrepreneurship.
Speaking to an audience of fellow business owners Friday as the keynote address at the Salt Lake Chamber's Small Business Summit, Calhoun explained how she came into entrepreneurship sort of accidentally, having grown tired of wearing men's work pants that didn't fit her female frame. Raised on a farm in rural Connecticut, she was always having to wear heavy-duty pants designed for men to do work around the property. When she decided to get into the apparel business, she found an audience hungry for what her company was making, she said.
"I knew there was a demand for it, and women were just wearing men's pants and getting by or sewing their own pants or modifying other pants (for their needs)," Calhoun told the audience at the Marriott hotel at the University of Utah. "So I decided to start a company."
The company name is derived from the notion that in ant colonies women do all the work, she told the audience with a wry smile. The pants are made for women who work at farming, ranching, construction, trades like welding or ironworks, landscaping, or other kinds of outdoor occupations that require more durable clothing, she explained. They designed pants that would fit, function and flatter working women, she added.
All the clothing is made in the U.S. and sold from the company's headquarters in White Sulphur Springs, Montana — "a town of 900, a hundred miles from anywhere" — where it operates a storefront and distribution center from an old historic saddle shop, she said. Calhoun also noted that she is dedicated to supporting rural communities around the country.
"The potential of small business is really what we should be thinking about (including) in rural areas, not just in urban areas," she said. "They are the backbones of our communities."
She noted that the advent of online commerce has been a boon to small businesses in rural cities and towns nationwide. With high-speed internet, and FedEx and UPS readily available, small-town entrepreneurs can reach a potentially global customer base, she said.
"We need to tell the stories of what is possible in small towns," Calhoun said. "Make rural cool again."
The half-day conference was designed to give business owners, managers and entrepreneurs the opportunity to collaborate, learn new tools and make connections in an overall effort to support the growth and success of local small businesses statewide, a news release stated. The event featured several breakout sessions on topics including finding and retaining talent, marketing and sales, as well as strategic planning.
"Small businesses are the beating heart of Utah's economy and vitally important to the Salt Lake Chamber," said Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance. "Small businesses employ more than 557,000 people — nearly half of Utah's private workforce."
For local business owners, such events provide chances for connections between people that can lead to lasting relationships.
At the end of the day, it's people doing business with people. Yes we use machines to accomplish those things, but we never replace people doing business with people.
–Ingolf de Jong
"This is an opportunity to step away from your business and get to work on your business," said Natalie Kaddas, CEO of Kaddas Enterprises, which makes custom plastics that protect and cover power infrastructure against animal-caused power outages.
"Small-business owners are so busy that it's hard to do networking, so these organized events are very valuable to be able to step back and work on your business versus just in it."
Ingolf de Jong, president and owner of Draper-based audio-visual technology firm GENCOMM, said meeting with other small-business entrepreneurs is extremely beneficial.
"There are just so many things you can learn from other people," he said. "I learn something new every day no matter who I'm visiting with or talking to."
"When you look at this type of event, in addition to the (agenda), it's simply meeting people," he added. Face-to-face interactions still have great value, he said.
While technology can improve productivity when properly implemented and utilized, there is still a place for interpersonal exchanges, he said.
"At the end of the day, it's people doing business with people," de Jong said. "Yes we use machines to accomplish those things, but we never replace people doing business with people."