I always knew I would start my own business, with Sarah Neukom

Sarah Neukom Headshot 1.jpg

Guest blog post by Sarah Neukom, Co-Founder & President at Exchange312, a beautiful event space in Chicago, IL.

I’m an only child.  I’m not spoiled and I like to share.  I’ve been saying that for as long as I can remember – a disclaimer I take pride in thanks to the upbringing of my middle class parents.  Both my parents had unconventional means of making money (that sounds bad – stick with me… ) but ultimately, they were both entrepreneurs in their own right.  It makes sense I got the entrepreneurial bug from them.


Growing up, there were constantly revolving piles of other people’s laundry on our living room couch – my Mom had her own ironing business (sadly the skill didn’t rub off on me, even though I was steadfast in my practice on a pint sized My Little Ponies ironing board and plastic iron next to my Mom.) Families would bring their clothes over and she would charge based on the type of piece –  $.45 for pants, $.80 if they required a pleat, $1.25 for shirts pressed with starch. And hour after hour, my Mom would stand on her feet in the kitchen, ironing other people’s clothes, just so she could stay home with me and add to our family’s financial bottom line.  She made good money that way, enough for nice shopping trips out and lunch at the mall. More importantly however, she made quality relationships with people in our community for years and years. Christmas time, birthdays, random afternoons out of the blue, her clients would stop by with small gifts and tokens of appreciation.  She had a loyal base with strong mutual respect on both sides. She made money, she spent quality time with me, and she was happy. 

My Dad worked for cash tips, responsible for his own success on a daily basis – and never made more than $4 per hour on his paycheck. He spent his entire career of 40+ years working in 5 Star and 5 Diamond resorts and hotels as a Bellman (yes, the guy who takes the luggage to your room) – checking in guests like Elton John, Jerry Seinfeld, the roster of celebrities is enough to right a memoir about.  I remember how my Dad would come home each day, pockets full of folded-up cash, his after work ritual was always the same. Take a shower, open a Budweiser, and systematically begin counting his bounty. He’d pull it all out of his pockets into a loose pile, open up every bill, one at a time, turn it to face the same direction, and painfully slow, he would count. I loved watching him do it, and as I got older, I remember feeling so eager to help – although also incredibly inpatient wondering why he didn’t want to count the loot faster.  “How much is it already??!” – not that it was any of my business being all of 6 years old. But he loved to take his time, savor the results of a day of hard work, and share the stories of the people he had met, and friends he would see, year after year. He too, made incredible relationships with guests who felt like family, and treated him as such.  

Growing up I remember my parents always saving – rarely spending – always saving.  My Dad loved paying bills before he even got the monthly statement in the mail – it used to drive my Mom crazy.  He insisted every month a credit card bill was paid in full – don’t carry a balance – and I think he filed taxes on January 1st of each year as a New Year’s gift to himself. My Dad was, and still is to this day, incredible with money management.  He taught me how to balance a check book by the time I was 15, a skill that’s not lost on me today, in the age of online banking. 

For better or for worse, my parents gave me the entrepreneurial gene.  My first venture was a the ripe age of 25 – I left a full-time job at an incredible company, a healthy salary, great benefits, all to follow my passion of “wanting to start my own business.” It didn’t matter that we were entering 2008 and the economy was crashing, I knew I was destined for more, and that, my friends, is how business number one, “Sarah Said She Would” was born.  For $10 an hour (legal at that time) I would do anything you needed! My website touted “Anything you need, I’ll do! Paint your walls (no professional experience of course), clean your house! (which I still to this day despise cleaning), walk your dog!” Whatever it was, I would do it.  And for 3 months, I actually had a few jobs that provided me enough content for a creative blog on the aforementioned website. But Sarah Said She Would found its demise one fateful afternoon, when I found myself locked in one tiny apartment, 6 inches of dirt, 3 cats, and not enough cleaning supplies in the City of Boston to make a dent, that sent me running back into the arms of full-time employment and my next chapter – this time in Chicago.  

Continuously feeling the pang of desire for something of “my own” – day after day I went to work, knowing that at some point, I would be able to take the leap again to start my own business.  I just need to figure out what “my own” meant this time.

I’ll spare you the journey of the next few years (and business 2 and 3), but in August 2014, I co-founded ESP Presents, as a “side project” event production company, that by 2016, afforded me a modest enough salary that I was able to leave my full time job once and for all. Fast forward to present day 2020, and ESP Presents has now grown to a team of twelve incredible people (including my co-founder & life partner), multiple contractors, plus a new office/event space in a prime location in the Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhood. #nopressure

Starting a business comes with one set of challenges, but growing a business is an entirely different experience, with an exponential amount of pressure and responsibility. No longer are you only responsible for yourself,  now you have a team, their families, your family – people are relying on you, and your leadership, for their livelihood. #nopressureagain 

The one variable that’s constantly part of the journey and adventure, capable of immense anxiety and looming in the background like a Stage 5 Clinger… MONEY.  Is there enough? Am I making enough? Can I afford this manicure? Can I afford this payroll? Can I afford to take the risk? Am I ok eating Ramen Noodles for the rest of my life if that’s what it takes? If the answer is yes to the last two questions – keep reading!!

Money is a fighter.  It’s a lover. It’s a hater.  It can do great things – and it can simultaneously cause emotional damage and destruction.  It needs to be controlled, tempered, respected, and celebrated. Money can, and will, send you on an emotional roller coaster if you let it. I consciously work on trying to temper the emotion that’s tied in to it, but I’m human and it’s hard.  By the way, I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t feel some emotion to money – that’s why I recommend you temper emotions, not eliminate them – otherwise that makes you an emotionless robot and we already have enough of those these days.   

Like many things in life, I believe you have to ask for what you want, and then figure out how to make it happen.  I ask for money all the time (including out loud, with no one accept the Universe listening, in my own solitude when I’m trying to manifest the next big win). I also write it on sticky notes and stare at them when I brush my teeth.  Weird? Maybe, but it works, because I’ve focused by intention on asking for what I want and believing I have the power to get it. 

Right now, I’m asking for financial peace and stability… one day, hopefully in the next 5 years (if not sooner!) I’ll achieve it. It won’t happen right this second, but I’m staying focused on the big picture and trying not to be too hard on myself because I’m not able to save, save, save like my parents did.  I’m not able to pay off a bill before receiving a statement. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have an uncomfortable amount of credit card debit because of all that I’ve invested back into our business(s). There’s that Stage 5 Clinger again, woof. 

I still doubt myself sometimes because I handle my finances differently than my parents – but it’s important to remember, that the same equation isn’t right for everyone. Be honest, authentic, and focused on how you want your money landscape to look and why. Take advantage of the plentiful educational resources that are out there to learn more, and then when it’s time to make a leap, trust yourself – you’ll be slowly and systematically counting that pile of cash over a White Claw before you know it. 

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