NCET Biz Tips: Reflections of a toddler proprietor

Why supporting small businesses is essential right now

Sarah Johns in a dozer at her family’s small-town hardware store, Don’s True Value, in Auburn.

Sarah Johns in a dozer at her family’s small-town hardware store, Don’s True Value, in Auburn.

“Hi! Come on in!” The customer looked down at the barely three-foot-tall child wheeling up on a tricycle.  

“Uh, hello.”

“How can I help you?” the puny proprietor petitioned.

“I need a washer.”

“Do you have one I can see? Or can you describe it?”

“It looks like a flat doughnut.” 

“OK, follow me.” The toddler steered the handlebars back through the aisles. The customer had no choice but to follow the pink trike and child back about 100-yards. The child pointed up from her vantage point at his knees and said, “It should be up there – second shelf from the top.” Sure enough. The customer found exactly what he was looking for.

That toddler was me.

Sarah Johns


Growing up in a small business was one of the best, and truly one of the most foundational of experiences. My parents owned a small-town hardware store, Don’s True Value, in Auburn, California. There were late nights of my parents doing inventory while I slept in a wheelbarrow. My after-school care was wheeling around the warehouse in my tricycle… graduating to roller skates… and finally, shuffling in my tap shoes down each aisle. It was at the hardware store where I learned the value of hard work, integrity and a handshake.

My parents’ small business is also where I learned about hardship, sacrifice, and the economy. One day after school my mom slipped and tore her jeans.  To this day, I can picture her sitting on the bottom shelf in the painting aisle among rollers, painters putty, and masking tape, with her head in her hands crying. Crying because we couldn’t afford for her to buy a new pair of jeans. Pretty soon my favorite employee, Smitty, stopped coming to work. Not long after — my parents had to auction off the hardware store. They were victims of the recession of the 80s.
Fast forward to the past two years — and what has happened to small businesses in our region. We aren’t just talking about the Covid shut down. Finding employees to come back to work is difficult. And while inflation is showing signs of leveling off, supply costs are high — while people’s spending money dwindles.

You hear the phrase “small businesses are the lifeblood of a community.” I dare say, they are so much more. Small businesses don’t just inject tax dollars into the Truckee Meadows. Small businesses don’t just employ our friends and neighbors. Small businesses also inject the blood, sweat, and sometimes tears, of those who dared to open the doors to begin with. With every tap of your credit card or handing over of a bill – you are supporting someone’s dream.

Now, more than ever, is the time to show support for our community’s small businesses.

Now, more than ever, is the time to show patience when service might be slower than you expect.

Now, more than ever, is the time to appreciate the fact that someone’s parent or child has a job working in a small business.

It’s in this vein that I hope to see you at the NCET Small Business Expo on Oct. 7 at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center. Billed as Northern Nevada’s Best Business Networking Event – the NCET Business Expo will showcase new businesses in town. The expo will also have resources for those seeking employment, and resources for businesses looking to fill those open positions.

Sarah Johns is President and Chief Executive Officer of NCET - Nevada’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. Sarah joined NCET in 2022 when Dave Archer retired after 16 years at the helm. Sarah was recognized in 2017 by the Reno Tahoe Young Professionals Network as one of Northern Nevada’s 20 Under 40. In 2018, Sarah received the 2018 Sierra Nevada Top-20 Powerful Women award from Northern Nevada Business Weekly. When not working to further the NCET mission, you can find Sarah spending time with her husband Dave Lawrence Johnson, their two young children, and two rescue dogs. 


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