Photos by Wade Snider
The fabric of our local business community has many textures and layers; at its core are entrepreneurs willing to take risks to stay in North Lake Tahoe for the long-haul. How someone initiates that leap can make or break a business before it even takes off. Here are three success stories, one in the making, from business owners who have grown roots in Tahoe and made their professional dreams a reality.
The conversation begins with my longtime friends, Kevin and Katie Hickey, reflecting on their journey from the beginning stages of Tahoe Adventure Company to reach the caliber of guiding services and gear they offer today. Around the same time TAC was founded, Judy Friedman purchased The Paper Trail, a secretarial business formerly known as The Paper Clip. Judy has adept knowledge of board governance and now maintains an extensive client base of HOAs and public, private, and nonprofit organizations. She is one of the most informed and connected community members I’ve ever spoken with. We end the round-up with Roger Kahn, whose ties to the local business community date back to 1960, when at 6 years old his father purchased and rebranded Porter’s Apparel & Ski Shop. Today he owns and operates Mountain Workspace, a co-working space in Incline Village. With two feet on the Tahoe ground, these entrepreneurs didn’t stop until they reached the Sierra sky.
Katie and Kevin Hickey
Tahoe Adventure Company
What was the inspiration behind TAC? What motivated you to start a business in North Lake Tahoe?
I was living the vagabond lifestyle: winters in Tahoe, then for the rest of the year, guiding and teaching for a number of outdoor companies, traveling, learning a lot, and putting together custom itineraries. As much as I enjoyed it, and like many of my current employees, I decided it was time to settle down and that North Lake Tahoe would be the place. It seemed to be the natural next step to start something of my own utilizing the skill set I had acquired.
Tell us about the moment you decided to take the leap and go for it. Do you remember the fears, wishes, and feelings you were experiencing in those moments?
I would say there was no fear because I had nothing to lose! During the summer of 2003, I was at a crossroads about what to do next and there was a clear market for an outfitter/guide service business in the area. At the time my feeling was, “Why not give it a shot? If it doesn’t work, I can do something else.” Very simple, really. I mostly felt excited to commit myself to something that I knew I could do and create something of my own. It was perhaps mixed with a little trepidation about whether it would “succeed.” But I do not remember doubting that it would in some shape or form.
How has your business evolved from then to present?
From having a beater van, a few kayaks, and a cell phone to dozens of employees, full-time office staff, and a fleet of kayaks, SUPs, bikes, backpacks, tents, and more.
Over the years, what worked best for you?
Staying nimble with the ups and downs of the economy, managing growth at a sustainable level, and always staying open to new opportunities and partnerships.
What hasn’t worked well?
Retail. I have a hard time caring about selling things; I enjoy selling experiences.
What is the soundest business advice you’ve ever received?
Think big, focus on your goals, and ignore the noise.
Do you have a mantra that keeps your mindset in check?
I have two: No news is good news. Accept what is, change what you can.
You are so in touch with the Sierra landscape. How do you continue to evolve TAC’s offerings and adapt to seasonal changes and challenging Sierra conditions?
My roots were always in outdoor and wilderness education with a focus on youth. In that vein, sharing the natural and human history of this special area has always been paramount … You can’t change the weather, so it’s important to not get overly upset if it turns against you and makes your plan no longer viable. Always have a plan B and C.
Seasonally, TAC will switch sports based on water and weather conditions. I really enjoy springtime when we might take the same family snowshoeing, biking, and kayaking in the same week!
As co-owners, a couple, and parents of two school-aged children, how do you navigate work/life balance?
With lots of great help. We have hired incredible people, trusted and empowered them to take some of the load off to allow some family time. Plus, we make the kids work.
The Paper Trail
You have owned The Paper Trail for almost 15 years and maintain a client base of over 25 local organizations, nonprofits, and agencies plus over 20 HOAs. What did it take to grow your business to what it is today?
Bottom line: a lot of hard work. If you want something to succeed you have to be flexible and willing to work. In the beginning, a lot of my clients came from word-of-mouth referrals; it just kind of caught on among the local business community that I could provide contract secretarial services in a fast, accurate timeline.
Over the years, what strategies have worked well for your business?
… Simply listening to my clients’ needs and then following through. My business depends on clients appreciating my work and then telling others. I’ve also learned that being honest about my limitations is extremely important. I can’t “fake it” and learning to say no was an important step toward success.
You understand board governance better than most, how did you learn?
I learned primarily by doing. I served as executive director for local nonprofit SnowFest, which offered an excellent perspective because I reported directly to a board of directors and learned how to navigate the business side of governance … I am currently a director with the Tahoe City Public Utility District. Governance goes hand in hand with community service and I’m able to get an incredible education on the public/private sector through my work.
In addition to running your own business, you are a true community steward, volunteering on various committees and at events. How do you choose what to be involved with? Or how do these community engagement opportunities choose you?
I have a really good life in North Lake Tahoe. I feel like when you’re given the opportunity to actively participate and give back to your community, you should without question. The projects I’m involved with and the commitments I make are all rooted in causes that I’m passionate about, notably the fire aid concert which raised over $8,000 for wildfire victims last fall, and the more recent celebration concert honoring the 10-year anniversary of Tahoe Truckee School of Music. I care about my community deeply; it’s part of me, it takes care of me. I try to stay dynamic and flexible so if someone needs help, I help. We all want to make each other’s lives as rich as they can be.
How do you stay organized?
I live and die by my calendar. I put everything in writing; I don’t try to remember anything.
Mountain Workspace opened in February 2018, yet you have a long-standing career of building businesses in North Lake Tahoe. How did you get started?
My father purchased Porter’s Wearing Apparel in 1960 in the building which currently houses Any Mountain in Tahoe City. He added ski equipment and changed the name to Porter’s Apparel & Ski Shop. After college, I returned to manage the business which continued to evolve into a Tahoe active-sports store. During a period from 1982 to 2002, my brother David, my wife Vicki, [myself and] … a number of talented and dedicated employees, grew [the re-named] Porter’s Ski & Sport from the original single store in Tahoe City into four stores at North Lake Tahoe. We sold the business in 2002.
What are the key differences between purchasing an existing business and starting one from scratch?
We started Mountain Workspace in the old Porter’s location in Incline Village 15 years after we sold the business. I have come to realize how important a good reputation is and how difficult it is to build one. We were fortunate that Porter’s was well established. We are using the same methods with Mountain Workspace as we did at Porter’s. The philosophy of “just take care of the customer” resonates in everything we do. We under promise and over deliver. We welcome all local nonprofits to utilize our space at no charge, whether it be using our conference space for a meeting or a portion of the downstairs for a training … This year has been busier than last year and next year will be better yet. We are confident the services we offer will resonate with the community and Mountain Workspace will be very successful.
Describe the small business landscape in North Tahoe; what challenges have you seen through the years?
For most of my career, I was in the tourist retail business. The seasonality [is] … challenging. Mountain Workspace is not so dependent on tourism. In this business, we are appealing to remote workers, many of them in the technology space, who need better broadband services in order to flourish. We believe that segment of the market is likely to continue to grow, providing an opportunity for our region to diversify a bit from its reliance on tourism to survive. … The lack of affordable housing for all segments of the working community may be the most challenging problem I have seen in my 60 years at Tahoe.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
I am most proud of the work I did, along with so many other community leaders, in establishing a number of nonprofits in our area, including the Excellence in Education Foundation, the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation and the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association and being involved on the steering committee for the establishment of Measure S (now Measure AA), which provides property tax revenue to benefit our local students. Those entities are thriving and will be continuing to serve the population for many years.
When do you feel most successful?
When I think about and visit with my two children and their families. And for that, I can thank my wife more than myself.
Main Image Caption: ADVENTURE ENTREPRENEURS: Kevin and Katie Hickey say their business strategy for Tahoe Adventure Company has been staying “nimble” in the face of new challenges.