From Artist to Entrepreneur: New Jersey Business Owner Takes Accessory Company to the Top

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Entrepreneur Ninotchka Johnson, winner of the Start Something Challenge business pitch competition, plans to use the $10,000 cash prize to upgrade her mobile storefront and assist local designers.

Ninotchka Johnson deliver her business pitch in front of a panel of judges.

I never planned on starting a business. My business practically started itself and grew by the demand for my products.

From passionate artist to dedicated business owner, Ninotchka Johnson grew her self-taught sewing hobby into a bustling business, Top Notch by Design, which offers hand-made accessories with unique designs. For four years she relied solely on her Facebook business page to build her client base and conduct sales, however that all came to an end with the recent launch of her new e-commerce website. What sets her apart from other accessory retailers is her mobile storefront aptly named Bus ‘n Boutique, which allows her to host “bag parties” and reach a wider base of customers in person.

“I never planned on starting a business. My business practically started itself and grew by the demand for my products,” Johnson explained. A full-time special needs teacher, she began making bags several years ago after a friend gave her an old sewing machine. After learning to sew through YouTube tutorials, she created a tote bag to bring to work.

“My female co-workers loved my creations so much that before I knew it, my bags were being sold off of my shoulder and I was receiving requests for more!” She said, “That was about four years ago, and I have gone from sewing once a week and selling out of a box in my classroom, to sewing seven days a week, and selling online and out of the Bus ‘n Boutique.”

With the help of her immediate family, Johnson converted and ordinary bus into a mobile storefront, keeping her customers involved through picture updates on Facebook. In addition to using the bus as a storefront, Johnson also uses it to host ‘bag parties,’ where patrons can shop, drink wine, and listen to music. But this part of the business, while widely popular, brought on a problem for her. In order to run the lights, music, and temperature control, she would need to keep the bus running while parked, which is a violation of idling laws in many places. She realized that she would need to upgrade the bus and instead of taking out a loan, she opted to enter Rising Tide Capital’s Start Something Challenge, a New Jersey Based business pitch-competition with a $10,000 grand prize.

“Participating in the Start Something Challenge allowed me to, for the first time, interact with other business owners who had tons of resources and were so willing to share them.” She added, “I plan on using the free Animoto platform I gained from winning the Challenge to incorporate video into my marketing tactics, with video walk-throughs of the bus and bag parties.”

The competition included three rounds in which the competitors would first create a business video using the program Animoto, and garner as many views as possible by sharing it through social networks. The 30 videos with the most views would advance to the public viewing and voting round, where the top 10 would be selected. The Grand Finale brought together the ten finalists to pitch their businesses in front of a panel of esteemed judges. With the help of classes and tutorials offered by Rising Tide Capital throughout the competition, Johnson managed to pitch her way to success, winning first place and the $10,000 prize.

“It pushed me out of my comfort zone. For a while I didn’t know where to start as a passionate artist and someone who is new to entrepreneurship.” She said, “The Start Something Challenge became a solid base, served as a good starting point and pushed me in the right direction.”

Just over a week after the competition, Johnson is still working vigorously on her business, launching her website and participating in more vending opportunities. She plans to use the money gained from winning The Challenge to not only upgrade her bus, but also hire help, market her business and eventually feature the creations of other local designers.

To other aspiring artists and entrepreneurs, Ninotchka Johnson says to “embrace what makes you unique and to always follow what inspires you!”

The Start Something Challenge (SSC) is a statewide pitch competition and business strengthening opportunity for New Jersey entrepreneurs. If you are interested in networking, perfecting your elevator pitch, gaining visibility for your business venture, and winning a $10,000 business grant, the Challenge is for you.

The Challenge is funded by visionary supporters and organized by Rising Tide Capital, a non-profit organization that helps entrepreneurs start and grow successful businesses. To ensure that every participant has a chance to win the top prize, Rising Tide Capital will provide each entrant with hands-on coaching and mentorship. Free to enter, the competition is open to any New Jersey resident 18 years or older, who operates a microbusiness or has a strong business idea.
To learn more, visit today.

About Rising Tide Capital
Headquartered in Jersey City, Rising Tide Capital, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded with the mission to empower entrepreneurs to create and grow small businesses which transform lives and communities. The organization's vision is to build a replicable model for high-quality entrepreneurial development services that can be adopted locally in other low-income communities. Learn more at

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Shanea Phillips
Rising Tide Capital
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