How to get started: Advice from a small business pro

Katherine McHenry, Building Blocks Toy Store (Lakeview, Wicker Park)

building blocks store owner

For as long as she can remember, Building Blocks Toy Store owner Katherine McHenry has been selling: “I’ve always been a retailer, since I was nine. … I sold candy for my first business.”

After graduating from Rutgers she started to wonder if having a traditional desk job was her only option: “There wasn’t that entrepreneurial energy like there is now, of thinking outside the box.” After about a year in the corporate world, she thought, “You know what, I really like retail. Let me pick something that I really love, which is working around families and kids and smiles and joy.”

Katherine founded Building Blocks in 1996, and now she is a go-to source of wisdom for many self-starter women. With locations in Wicker Park and Lakeview, Building Blocks supports schools, charities, and family organizations in multiple Chicago neighborhoods. And as a parent, Katherine understands the value of convenience, offering a “shop by phone” service. Customers can call, choose an item with help from a staff member (who will even send photos), and then swing by to pick up the wrapped gift.

So what advice does Katherine have after 21 years of running an award-winning business?

On getting started

Be authentic: “There’s no shame or embarrassment to being in the startup phase, where you’re struggling, asking for a lot of help, and you’re the only person in your store, which I was. It was me, myself, and I.” In other words, let that startup phase look however it looks, and don’t try to pretend you’ve miraculously skipped the crazy, messy early days. This authenticity will lead you to people who want to help: “There’s no shame in the hustle. Asking friends for help, asking for free stuff.”

building blocks toy store women owned chicago

Get your partner on board: Your support system is going to be crucial as you take on this challenge: “Your partner has to be really really into it as well. They have to be supportive, because it’s gonna be an uphill battle if that person is asking you, ‘why did you stay up until three, and now you’re too tired to make breakfast for the kids.’ They don’t have to be in the business but they have to be for the business.”

Follow your passion: “You have to really want to do this business for the right reasons. It can’t be just to make money, because when you run a business it takes a lot of your time and mental energy, because it’s always there in your head.” Starting a business is exciting, but it’s hard work. And passion will be your fuel: “Passion, and true love and joy of what you’re doing is the key. It will fuel you through the bad yelp review, the bad client, the ‘my employee quit on me.’ … It fuels you through everything because that’s your expression.”

On avoiding common pitfalls

Mentally prepare: “One of the common mistakes I think is just not knowing how hard it is to gain momentum and get out of that startup phase. … Being comfortable with all the startup phase requirements, the time, the money, the energy.” It’s especially hard to anticipate all of the tangible stuff that would be required: “I didn’t know I’d have to get a truck!”

Beware of romanticizing: Keep in mind there will be the everyday dirty work that you usually don’t see on the outside of businesses. “People come into my toy store and are like, ‘This is so much fun! I’d love to have a toy store.’ We’re not going to tell them we deal with hundreds of boxes, they’re heavy … one of the pitfalls are not understanding what you’re getting into.”

building blocks toy store sign

On growing the business

Allow yourself to outsource: “If you’re not in the startup phase, and you’re growing and doing well, there’s no shame in outsourcing as much as you possibly can, especially the stuff you really don’t want to do. We tend, I think, women tend to think, ‘I have to do it all.” But  by freeing yourself up, you’re also empowering yourself to continue to grow the company. “If you don’t enjoy something about your business and your business can use you and your talents in much better ways and you’re not in that startup phase, outsource it. Pay for the help.”


Her last piece of advice? All the hard work is beyond worth it. One of her favorite memories happened just last holiday season. Katherine was sitting at her desk doing administrative work in the back of the shop. The store was closed and the lights were off. She noticed a family looking through the window, and one of the children tried to open the door. “I put my pen down, got up, I went and I unlocked the door. I said, ‘would you guys like to come in?’ And the kids looked like it was Christmas. I turned on the lights and the music and let them look around. … To them it was magical that the store was just open for them.”

Isabel BenatarComment