HELP IS SWEET

Tracy Keating, owner of Life is Sweet on Main Street in Keene, shows off some of her shop’s wares.

After Tracy Keating finishes cleaning up after a cupcake-making party at her Keene shop, the aroma of sugary frosting still hanging in the air, she approaches the front door several times to open it and call out to potential customers, “I’m sorry — We’re closed.”

The Washington Street location — her second — is only open on weekends and for special events. It’s where she hosts children’s parties and bakes all of the cupcakes for her business, Life is Sweet. The main location of her business, which opened in early 2007, is in downtown Keene, below Brewbaker’s. That’s where she sells all her sweets: chocolates, ice cream, 150 jars of candy and of course, cupcakes. Last year, her sales increased by 20 percent.

Her next venture, this spring, is to consolidate the two Life is Sweet locations into one Central Square storefront.

Seeing how bustling her business is, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when Keating didn’t know how she was going to keep the doors open another week, let alone grow.

Keating used about $2,000 of her own money as start-up capital for the Main Street store. A mother of three, she home-schooled her children for eight years before they decided to attend public school. Opening a business was a way for her to spend her new free time.

Right before the opening, her husband, John, lost his job. They had some credit card debt that lowered their credit rating and Keating had invested all her savings in the store.

“It had to work,” she said of her business.

Being put in the position of sole income provider for her family made Keating think outside the box in terms of opportunities to get her business the kickstart it needed. She began attending meetings with other business owners at the N.H. Small Business Development Center in Keene for some advice. One of the members had used the N.H. Individual Development Account Program to get his business off the ground.

The grant program, administered through the N.H. Community Loan Fund, is designed for low-income residents who want to start or grow a small business. For every $1 up to $2,000 a business owner saves, the IDA program will provide $3. It’s a government-nonprofit-corporate partnership. A stipulation to receive the matching funds is 10 hours of financial education.

Keating thought it would be a perfect fit for her and her business. “I couldn’t get a loan through normal channels,” she said.

The Community Loan Fund does have small business lending programs — loans start at $1,000 and go up to $500,000 — but those programs don’t work with start-up businesses, as the IDA program does.

Keating opened an IDA and saved $2,000 in 10 months. The $6,000 match she received from the program was used to hire a business coach to assist with her accounting and marketing.

“We looked at my store layout, my profit margin — things I didn’t think of,” she said of her time working with her coach. She also focused on her business mission. “I realized I wanted to sell an experience,” she said. “Life is Sweet is not just about buying some Swedish fish.”

Marcy Meyer, the Community Loan Fund’s director of asset development, said in addition to being income-eligible for the matched-savings IDA program, the business plan needs to be viable.

That might mean it needs further development, and part of her job is to connect business owners with organizations that provide technical assistance to create a viable business plan.

The rest of the IDA funds Keating spent on advertising, which she said brought in a lot of new business.

Her husband went back to work after that first year, and in January 2011, she opened her Washington Street location. Since using the IDA program, she’s added a staff of six, a make-your-own sundae bar at the bakery and a food truck to sell her sweets on the road.

With her husband’s salary to support their family, Keating is able to put all the money she makes at Life is Sweet back into the business. She pays for everything in cash.

She’s grateful to the IDA program for its free continued support. She recently enlisted the expertise of the staff at the Community Loan Fund as she is moving her operations to a new location.

“It’s nice to have somebody think you’re great and point out things you might not think about (as a small business owner),” she said.