Switch Stance: a story of resilience and entrepreneurship

The month of July was off to a bad start for James Farley in 2013. His girlfriend broke up with him, his apartment got broken into, and his job — digital media specialist at LeeLocal in Davenport — was eliminated.

In need of a pick-me-up, James thought back to his college years at Iowa State University, where an idea of his — to round up a local community of skateboarders — never gained the traction it needed in the middle of farm country to become an on-campus organization, but also never left the back of his mind as an option for the future.

Now was the time, James thought, to pull that idea into the present.

He tapped into his graphic design training to draft a logo, dug into his pockets to purchase $1000 worth of inventory — all crammed into the second bedroom of his two-bedroom apartment — and parted ways with an additional $500 to register a limited liability corporation with the state of Illinois in January 2014: Switch Stance Skate Shop, LLC, so named after a difficult-to-execute move in which right-footed skaters skate left-footed, and left-footed skaters skate right-footed.

Despite lacking a brick-and-mortar storefront in those early days, Switch Stance nevertheless generated a phantom following of local skateboarders online, thanks to James’ tech savviness as a self-taught web designer who could assert a digital presence for his fledgling enterprise.

While the site was generating sales, James knew a URL alone wouldn’t be enough to realize the kind of skate rat haven he had envisioned while at Iowa State; nor would an online-only presence, no matter how user-friendly, be enough set his shop apart from the big-box competition.

The overhead costs associated with maintaining a physical storefront keep many a business owner wary of opening shop; luckily for James, though, a $260-per-month-rent suite in downtown Rock Island’s Shoppes on Second business incubator rendered retail space affordable for the first-time entrepreneur.

Had utilities not been included in the lease of his exposed-brick lot, James says he wouldn’t be able to stock the sales floor with accessory items like shoes and hoodies, the sales of which have surpassed his skateboard sets to become the shop’s leading source of revenue.

The city helps keep rent low for James and the other tenants at the incubator, thanks to tax increment financing, but navigating the waters of first-time business ownership is something James is having to figure out largely on his own. When asked what the hardest part of small business ownership is, James said:

A close second: deciding what to stock the shelves with.

With that up-and-coming status, James hopes to someday soon attract local skate talent to represent the Switch Stance brand and its line of graphic skateboards designed by James, like this one:

But for right now, it’s just James and his lone store associate, Chase DePaepe, taking to places like Davenport’s Skate Church to show off the merchandise and spread the word about the Quad Cities’ only independently owned skateboard shop.

“We listen to the people,” says Chase. “If somebody’s like, ‘You should get this in,’ we try our hardest to get that brand or that company in here for them.”

Located in The District neighborhood of Rock Island, a downtown promenade known more for its bar hops than its boutiques, the lot isn’t quite prime real estate for an entrepreneur who deals in boards rather than booze. And with only a few hundred square feet of sales space with which to conduct business, James considered moving the shop to a different building.

He weighed the pros and cons of relocating.

Topping the “pro” column: a bigger showroom — big enough to house not just more boards and beanies, but also a couch and TV, which James wants in the shop to help give it a more laid-back vibe. Moving out would also mean he wouldn’t have to share a door and concourse with other tenants, as he does now at the incubator.

Under the “con” column: a rent hike and an insurance premium hike. Incurring those costs would make it harder for James to be able to give a raise to Chase, who puts in 32 hours at the shop each week.

James doesn’t take his business decisions lightly: he says that even a simple board graphic design is reason enough for him to pray for guidance. This decision was no different.

In time, James wants to add a second Illinois location, perhaps in Galesburg, before expanding Switch Stance to Denver, where he travels frequently to visit friends and family.

He sees no reason, though, to limit his business to the United States.

But in the mean time, he’s content with where he’s at in life right now, with a full time web design gig at Deere & Company on the weekdays, and an entrepreneurial passion project on the weekends.

In retrospect, July 2013 wasn’t all that bad of a month for James Farley.

Originally published February 2015