By Katie Rooks
In the summer of 2016 I had just earned my master’s degree in Recreation and Park Management. As a forestry technician for the U.S. Forest Service, I pursued the degree to compete for management-level jobs on Prince of Wales Island. It seemed very promising and a good career move after doing technical and professional work in the region for well over a decade. I had a number of professional certifications, experience leading crews of young seasonal employees, and I had served as the district’s safety officer, winning several awards for my safety training programs. However, sometimes things don’t work out as expected, and despite my original career goals I found myself at odds with the administration.
That summer I realized needed to think of another plan for my future. When a friend from high school came for a visit, I took her around Prince of Wales Island to some of my favorite spots. During one evening at Red Bay Lake Cabin I found myself explaining my current employment woes and confided I was toying with the idea of starting my own business. “Well, then do it, Katie,” she said.
By the time I returned home I had decided: I was going to start a business. I was terrified, but became increasingly convinced that this was the way to stay active in the discipline and location I loved while using my degree and all the skills, knowledge and abilities I’d gained over the past 13-years working outdoors in recreation management. My partner, Harlan Buoy II, was incredibly supportive and encouraging.
That winter I asked for a layoff from the Forest Service and spent each and every day on my business plan. My Alaska SBDC advisor helped me through the process, especially the financial forecast piece – something for which I needed the most guidance.
Finally, just before the start of 2017, my plan was ready to shop to a carefully selected set of local banks and lending entities. The first several answers were, of course, “no.” My Alaska SBDC advisor told me not to get discouraged, but I was. If this didn’t work, I was nowhere.
Then a lender opened a conversation with me and things started to move forward. The process was rigorous and I got frustrated on several occasions, but I didn’t give up. I filled out each and every piece of paper they asked for. At the same time I was trying to launch a website, create a brochure, and decide where and how to spend advertising money. My business advisor was absolutely vital during this process.
At last, in June of 2017, after a year of planning and formally resigning from my Forest Service position, I was in business.
The first year I made so little money that I was very disappointed. In order to get the loan, I’d had to find another full-time job. It wasn’t a good fit, but it was a means to an end. I returned home each day tired and despondent, knowing there were things I could and should be doing for my business. 7
But smartphones are amazing things and during downtime I was able to put advertising feelers out, post Facebook ads, and boost my online visibility. These efforts began to pay off, and by the time spring of 2018 rolled around, I was getting booking inquiries. I also researched some new advertising venues for my boat rental and that marketing effort paid off with a huge summer-long rental. That income alone more than doubled the first year’s profits. By May, I had more than doubled the number of bookings I had the year before.
Along the way, things I thought would be big ticket items turned out to be very slow. But I was able to pivot based on new opportunities and demand. This is where creative thinking and marketing come in, skills I learned during my master’s studies.
For the 2019 season, I’m working on the logistics for an eco-tourism group, and I’ve seen my income and bookings increase by over six times what they were during my first short season. I am also collaborating with other eco-tourism providers, lodging companies and others on Prince of Wales Island to offer new and different experiences for visitors beyond fishing and hunting.
And it’s working! Due to the support of my partner Harlan, my friends, my community, and Alaska SBDC, I’m absolutely loving being self-employed, with big prospects for the future. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and despite the personal anguish involved, I’m so glad things turned out the way they did a couple years ago.
Katie Rooks owns Prince of Wales Excursion Outfitter. Learn more about her business at powoutfitter.com.