Reflections on Building Businesses in the Methow

When I first came to the Methow Valley, I was in between jobs and had recently moved out of a house on the west side. My friend, who lives in Twin Lakes, offered me a place to crash. My plan was to stay for a week or two and figure out my next move. Soon I learned of an old Airstream trailer for sale. It was full of mice and lacked plumbing, but it was cheap, so I borrowed a truck from someone I had just met, a truck that was way too small for the job and dragged the old trailer onto my friend’s property. It wasn’t long before another friend, who was working on local a farm, told me about the business his employer was about to open. They needed employees, and just like that, I was helping manage a new bar and restaurant in Winthrop. Within a few days, I had a place to live, a job, and a small community of friends. It is a phenomenon that I have found continues to repeat itself the longer I live here. Take one step towards the valley, and the Methow will provide.

Most friends I made in those first few years were in the service industry. Most of them were employees, but some were business owners. This was pre-covid and pre-zoom, when moving here required a willingness to do whatever it took to provide for yourself, even if that meant working two or three jobs in the service industry. Without the option to work remotely, there was a steady stream of 20, 30, and 40-something folks who could be relied upon to staff the restaurants, coffee shops, and retail stores that served locals and visitors. For many of these folks, the service industry wasn’t necessarily their first choice, but it did allow them to live in this beautiful place, enjoy the activities and hobbies that brought them here, and provide a connection to a community of like-minded people. And furthermore, professional titles meant less out here than they do in other places. Much more important were where you went hiking the previous day, what kind of bird you saw up near Aspen Lake, what was growing in your garden, or what skill you could offer to a neighbor in need. Waiting tables, or making coffee, was a way to get by so that eventually you could clock out and go enjoy the mountains, rivers, and trails.

I was in this same position when I first moved out here, suddenly more than willing to serve drinks, make cheese plates, and chat with customers because it allowed me to jump on my bike after work, or go on a ski before work. But eventually, no matter how fulfilling your free time is, in the service industry, it is only a matter of time before you look around and think, I’m pretty sure I can do this just as well as, if not better than, the person I’m working for. Then you start scheming about the type of business you would open and what it would take to get there. Next, you take an inventory of your skills, experience, and resources.

For most people, access to capital is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of them moving from employee to business owner. For these folks, traditional loans, family money, or accumulated savings are not an option. For other people, even the most basic requirements for starting a business remain a mystery. This is why TwispWorks, and programs like the Methow Investment Network, play such an important role in the local economy. In addition to learning about the basics of starting a business, TwispWorks can connect people to resources, including funding, to help them realize their goals.

In the years since first moving to the Methow Valley, I have seen many of my former co-workers and peers in the service industry transition from employee to business owner, as I myself did when I took over and ran Fork for three years. And I have seen many of the business owners I admire expand and grow their enterprises. Places like The Little Dipper, The North Cascades Hostel, Jupiter, Meza, and The Arrowleaf Bistro have all benefited from some aspect of TwispWorks programming. This process has been incredibly satisfying and inspiring to see. At the same time, the people who own these businesses work way harder than your average wage employee. And their skills in the service industry didn’t come out of nowhere. Many of them have years of experience working for a variety of bosses and businesses. Ironically, as these folks have transitioned to ownership, they have depleted the pool of potential service industry employees that many of them now rely upon. Regardless, I’m confident they will continue to thrive through hard work, confidence, and a little luck. Because when you take one step towards realizing your goal, more often than not, the Methow will provide.

Written by Economic Program Director Patrick Law