Always being willing to learn is key to starting and running a business, five Hays women said in a panel discussion Tuesday at Fort Hays State University.

From setting out on their own in a field they had experience in to taking over a family-owned franchise to trying something completely new, the business owners spoke of their experiences in the discussion sponsored by the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce and the FHSU Center for Entrepreneurship in an event for Women Entrepreneur Week.

The panel was moderated by Sarah Wasinger, executive director of the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce. Panelists were Lisa Kisner, founder of Lisa's Custom Interiors; Bonnie Pfannenstiel, founder of Popt! Gourmet Popcorn; Kiley Rupp, owner of Body + Soul Day Spa; Deanna Doerfler, co-owner of Doerfler's Harley Davidson; and Tammy Wellbrock, founder of Girl Twin Solutions.

Each panelist talked about what inspired them to start their business, lessons they thought would have been beneficial at that time, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

A common theme among their answers and advice for up-and-coming entrepreneurs was voiced by Wellbrock.

“Your learning doesn’t stop once you leave these walls,” she said of the university. “Truly the key about the college experience is it’s really teaching you how to continue learning for life.”

Doerfler echoed that idea in explaining that when she and her husband purchased the Harley-Davidson business 26 years ago from his father and uncle, the company required owners and employees to attend a “Harley University.”

“I went to every class and I absorbed everything I possibly could. It was hard for me because I did not have a college education, but what I really could put together is that I actually had tools to use the day that I left the class,” she said.

Seizing opportunity has been important for the business owners as well. Pfannenstiel explained how she took her gourmet popcorn business down a different path than most in the same market.

She started Popt! after helping with the remodel of the Cerv’s store at 27th and Vine and trying to find some specialty items to sell. They decided on flavored popcorn, and Pannenstiel trained with a business owner in Dallas.

The training was intended to help people start a retail business, but Pfannenstiel wanted to offer her popcorn wholesale.

“So I kind of forged a new trail in that business that he hadn’t done before,” she said.

“The springboard of having it wholesale through Cerv’s was great. And then I realized that we could wholesale other places, and that helped me to get to a bigger facility that we have now and become the retail store that I trained in,” she said.

The business started five years ago in a 600-square-foot area of Cerv’s Main Street location and now operates in a 1,600-square-foot storefront at 1106 E. 27th. About half the facility is where the popcorn is popped and processed, and the rest is retail space that also includes candy, homemade fudge and frosted nuts.

She said even though brick-and-mortar stores seem to be giving way to online shopping, her business continues to grow, spurred in part by billboards that bring in traffic from Interstate 70. She expects to move into a larger store in the next couple of years and said her goal is to one day have a 10,000-square-foot store.

“The great thing about Popt! is that it’s my business. It’s not a franchise. I can do what I want,” she said. “We’re constantly evolving and basically this business is your imagination is your limitation.”

Kisner and Rupp moved into entrepreneurship in fields where they had years of experience working for others. Kisner opened her interior design firm after her then-employer decided to close the business.

“I was kind of at a crossroads as to what to do next. There’s not a lot of design businesses here in town and so I had to make a decision,” she said. “I am so passionate about interior design and I knew I couldn’t give that up, and I didn’t want to move, so I decided to take the leap to go out on my own."

She quickly outgrew her original 600-square-foot office.

Rupp had worked in the cosmetology industry for about 13 years and had been the manager of Body + Soul before she took over the business in May.

Rupp agreed with Doerfler that learning business accounting software would have been a benefit to her in starting out and also said creating a “championship team” is key.

“Find the people that see your vision as you do and that are willing to go for some of the bumps that your journey is going to entail,” she said.

All the women said they struggle with maintaining a work-life balance, but the effort needs to be made.

“When you open your own business, it’s personal,” Kisner said. “To separate yourself from your business is a very difficult thing to do.

“The best advice I can give is to find a hobby. You need to find that and also surround yourself with supportive people,” she said, adding she rides horses and participates in barrel racing.

Time management is important, Rupp said. Being able to take her young children to day care early and going to work before the spa opens is one way she’s learned to do that, she said.

“I’m not the greatest at it yet, but I’m learning,” she said.