Choosing the Road Less Traveled
Named for the backroads marked blue on old American highway maps, the Blue Highway Lodge is tucked into the small town of Union, just outside Hillsboro, in Wisconsin’s Driftless region. Originally built and operated for motorcyclists, the lodge still caters to that loyal clientele, and now it welcomes other travelers who also enjoy the road less traveled.
“I don’t care how you get here–by car, taxi, bus, bike, horse, or on foot–you are welcome here,” says Karri Bartlett, a UW-Madison alumnus, who runs and owns the lodge with her husband Nate Toth.
In 2019, Bartlett was working as a Public Health Supervisor for the City of Madison and Dane County, which she describes as “a good government job,” but she felt pulled to nature and a quieter life. Frequent campers, Bartlett and Toth had talked beside many campfires about running their own campground or lodge and had a pretty complete list of what their ideal Wisconsin retreat would include. Bartlett started exploring opportunities to learn about entrepreneurship and participated in the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative, where she learned about the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison (SBDC). She enrolled in the SBDC’s Entrepreneurial Training Program (ETP) in the fall of 2019.
The eight-week ETP program included entrepreneurs in different stages of their businesses. Some, like Bartlett, were still thinking about how to turn a dream into a viable business, and others had run a business for several years and hoped to learn how to avoid future mistakes. The businesses included a construction company, a girls’ STEM camp, and Bartlett’s vision of a retreat off the beaten path. The course teaches participants how to conduct market research and secure funding with a solid business plan, and participants learn how to build a team that likely includes outside experts, like accountants, lawyers, and mentors.
“They did a good job of highlighting the common mistakes new business owners make and how to avoid them,” Bartlett says. “Entrepreneurship is risky, and sometimes lessons are learned the hard way. ETP helped me avoid those common mistakes.”
Bartlett says ETP helped her put her vision into action–she has a Master’s in Public Health but hadn’t taken any business classes yet.
“I thought my grant writing experience would help me,” she says with a laugh. “It did not.”
SBDC Business Consultant Anne Inman supported the ETP students and helped Bartlett write her business plan.
“I am seriously so grateful for ETP and everything I learned from the SBDC,” Bartlett says. “I would not have developed such a strong business plan or secured a traditional commercial loan without that class. I also wouldn’t have been as well prepared to deal with all the challenges and potential pitfalls of starting and running a business. I felt like the course really set me up for success.”
~Karri Bartlett, Owner, Blue Highway Lodge
Inman helped Bartlett develop tangible, realistic financial projections.
“To sit with Anne and talk specifically about my business was helpful,” says Bartlett. “I have a background in public health and zero business expertise, and the depth of knowledge Anne brought to the conversation about my business strategy was really helpful.”
During ETP, Bartlett also worked with Badger Consulting, the student-run consulting club at UW-Madison that the SBDC supervises and mentors.
“They did a deep dive into market research for my business plan,” Bartlett says. “They did an analysis of other resort properties and cool things they were doing that were performing well for them, like providing a vegan menu. They put it all in a comparative report with a summary and presentation. I was working full-time, so the time they spent on that was awesome for me, and it was helpful to have their unbiased perspectives.”
Bartlett says it was also helpful to have student input on her business concept.
“Working with millennial travelers was a huge part of my whole plan, so having people who could bring that youth perspective was helpful,” Bartlett says. “I was impressed with the students; they were very committed to this project.”
In February 2020, Bartlett went to a campground buyers’ workshop in South Carolina, as the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. gained steam.
“The world shut down on our way home from South Carolina,” she says. “But we kept going. ETP put us on course, and we started looking for properties.”
Bartlett wrote her business plan using the ETP framework, submitted it to a commercial lender, and secured a $450,000 loan as a first-time business owner. She continued working full-time remotely at her public health position, while spending another 40 hours a week searching for the right property. She and Toth bought the Blue Highway Lodge and moved onto the property in November 2020. In February 2021, Bartlett gave notice and opened the resort. Since then, she’s hosted over 800 guests.
“ETP shored up for us what we wanted to do,” Bartlett says. “We had a vision; I took the course; and we made it happen within a year, during a global pandemic.”
Bartlett joined the SBDC for a second course, Financial Management – Sprint, in May 2021. The curriculum provides a deep dive into business finances, and Bartlett found the slides and resources valuable as she worked to master her own business finances.
Bartlett says her experience with SBDC courses and consulting built her confidence and skills to be able to be successful on her first try.
“I saw the scary Bureau of Labor statistics that 20% of all new businesses fail in their first two years, and I thought, if I’m going all in, with all my money, I have to make it work,” she says. “And now, I’m starting my third year of business.”
Bartlett stays in touch with Inman, who recently provided her with updated IBIS reports to use in further market research for a planned expansion of Blue Highway Lodge.
“Having access to resources for fine-tuning and expansion is great, and having a mentor and cheerleader to celebrate your successes is an unexpected benefit of consulting,” Bartlett says. “I feel comfortable reaching out and knowing the SBDC will help me.”
As she begins her third year as a business owner, Bartlett says she still loves it. She managed a small profit in 2022, after two years of expenditures on her capital-heavy business. Now that she and Toth have made improvements to the property and created a small farm complete with animals, they are ready to expand.
“Part of our original business plan is to expand our lodging options within five years of opening to include secluded glamping spots, like yurts and tents, for summer,” says Bartlett. “We also plan to make energy improvements to reduce our energy use and move on from fossil fuels.”
Bartlett is Blue Highway Lodge’s sole full-time employee; Toth works full-time remotely in network IT security and handles property maintenance.
“We inherited some repeat customers when we bought the place, and we get many referrals,” says Bartlett. “We also use traditional social media, and Google reviews are very helpful. We also advertise in Driftless region travel brochures.”
Bartlett helped start a new Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce in 2022 and is on the inaugural board, which has helped her network with other businesses in town and get her business name out to the local community.
“I tell people about it, and they’re like, ‘It’s here?’, and I say, yep, right up the road!” says Bartlett. “Economic development for this community brings people to the area. It’s a long game.”
Bartlett knows many people dream of doing something like she’s doing, and she credits ETP with preparing her to take the plunge.
“It allowed us to feel confident enough to make the move,” she says. “I had enough information to take action. We made mistakes, but nothing derailed us. Taking a risk is scary and hard. We have a lot of guests who ask, ‘How did you get here? Are you dot com millionaires, or something?’ I’m like, no we’re more like desk job thousandaires that had a good business plan. That’s how we got here.”