9 Small Business Owners Who Inspired Us In 2019

Small Business
Jan 2, 2020 / 5 min read

Small businesses are full of challenges and risks, and it takes a special kind of person to run one successfully. While they are often a labor of love, the hard facts remain that about 20% of small businesses fail in their first year, and around half will shutter within five years (according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics). Entrepreneurs are often working with a small team, trying to find their place in the market, and secure funding, all at the same time.

However, small businesses are also a vital part of our economy, and as varied as their diverse owners. For many, running a small business is intensely rewarding.

Done right, a small business gives you the freedom to be your own boss, do something you love, and even help others in your community. And while business ownership may seem insurmountable, there are plenty of people out there making it happen. Their businesses range in size from little storefronts to rapidly growing tech companies, but they all started with an idea. Small business owners are the superstars who turn those ideas into reality.

1. Mikaila Ulmer

When you picture an entrepreneur, the first image in your head probably isn’t a preteen girl. Well, maybe that should change. Mikaila Ulmer, now 14, was CEO of her company, Me & The Bees Lemonade, by age 12.

What started out as a project for a local children’s business competition, inspired by a family recipe and two recent bee stings, has grown into a successful company. Mikaila’s lemonade is sold at Whole Foods locations in 20 states, and she received a $60,000 investment from the TV show “Shark Tank.” She’d like to be a
serial entrepreneur, and even hopes to start her own non-profit in the future.

At the moment, she has to balance scaling her company with keeping up with her homework.

2. Tiffany Aliche

In 2009, Tiffany Aliche lost her job as a preschool teacher. She found herself stuck like so many during the recession, with a mortgage, plenty of debt, and a lack of income. However, a lifetime of learning budgeting and perseverance from her father made all the difference. She was able to manage her unemployment money, supplement it with side hustles, and get back on her feet. Then she started helping friends do the same.

These days Tiffany owns not one, but two, businesses,
The Budgetnista and the Live Richer Academy. Both are aimed at helping others do exactly what Tiffany did. By financially educating others, Tiffany has found a way to not only make success for herself, but also to help others.

3. Shea Fisher Durfey

Shea Durfey is more than just an entrepreneur, she’s a true renaissance woman. The Australian-born powerhouse has a successful country music singing career under her maiden name, Shea Fisher, and is also a pro rodeo winner, and a wife and mother.

If that weren’t enough, she also owns and runs two businesses, Shea Michelle Buckle Designs, and Shea Baby Boots, along with her husband, Tyson Durfey, who also happens to be a professional rodeo athlete. Durfey loves having her businesses online, which allows her to manage things from anywhere, even when the family is on the road.

4. Peter X. Kelly

Peter X. Kelly owns the Xaviars Restaurant Group, but unlike many successful restaurateurs and professional chefs, he did not go to culinary school. Instead, Peter is largely self-taught and began working in local restaurants in his teens. He opened his first restaurant at just 23.

In 2007, Peter appeared on “Iron Chef” on The Food Network, beating Bobby Flay. In addition to his restaurants, he also is the founder and culinary director of Impromptu Gourmet, which delivers chef-inspired meals that are easy to prepare, right to your door. Peter proves that a lack of formal education doesn’t need to hold an entrepreneur back.

5. Janet Webster Jones

Janet Webster Jones worked for 40 years in Detroit Public Schools in Detroit, Michigan, and began her own business in 1989, selling books at local events. It was 2002 before Source Booksellers had a brick and mortar location, sharing space with two other operations. In 2013, she moved the store to its own stand-alone location.

In the world of Amazon and big-box bookstores, Janet focuses on stocking books in a small group of subjects, and on making her store
a local destination by hosting events, rather than just another book shop. She’s now in her 80s, proving that you’re never too young or too old to run a business.

6. Gary Leff

Gary Leff started View From a Wing on a bit of a whim, his friends were jealous of how well he used his frequent flyer miles. He was able to tap into a particular niche, and help those that didn’t understand the points system while building a successful business for himself.

He is also co-founder of
InsideFlyer.com, a place for frequent flyers to meet and learn, and has even been called one of the world’s top travel specialists.

Gary proves that there are opportunities for business success even in the places we’d least expect.

7. Scott Appelman

Scott Appelman turned his passion for hot air balloons into more than just a hobby. In 1984 he had one small two-passenger balloon in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and started out giving rides to locals and tourists. These days, Rainbow Ryders is a much larger operation, offering balloon rides not only in Albuquerque, but also in Phoenix, and Colorado Springs.

Scott enjoys helping people cross an item off their bucket list, and over the years he’s seen engagements, weddings, and other special moments in his customers’ lives. He’s managed to turn a fun hobby into a family business, and then to scale that business into new locations.

8. MaryBeth Hyland

MaryBeth Hyland knows what a challenge is. She grew up in an abusive environment but has turned her personal struggles into an incredible emotional intelligence, that has actually helped her to succeed.

Her company,
Spark Vision, helps offices to create and foster more connected, collaborative, and inclusive, cultures. She specializes in millennial and intergenerational work, helping offices bridge the gap between one generation of leaders and the next. MaryBeth has turned her past into a path for success in the future, and she’s able to do it all while staying true to herself and honoring her values.

9. Christopher Gathright

In 2008, Christopher Gathright started his eCommerce and retail company, Sportique, and he started small. He began his vision, for a thoughtfully curated line of apparel, sporting equipment, and more, at the beginning selling items on eBay.

What’s impressive about Sportique and its founder and CEO isn’t just the growth of the company, though. It’s the fact that it started as a totally unfunded startup in San Francisco. Not relying on venture capital may seem unusual, especially in the bay area. While some may see that as a challenge,
according to Chris, it’s actually an asset. Not raising a lot of funding helped him avoid “chasing sales” and that gave the company the opportunity to grow in a more thoughtful way.

Today, Sportique is a successful all-purpose boutique, including a brick and mortar store and a multichannel eCommerce site.


It’s true that running a small business can be demanding, tiring, and even lonely at times. But what these nine exceptional entrepreneurs show us is that no matter your business size or industry, there is space in the world for you to live your dream.

In the world of small business ownership, there may not be a lot of one size fits all solutions. Instead, there are plenty of creative, innovative, and hard-working individuals, carving their own paths to success. You just have to find what works best for you.