NAGS HEAD — As Jon O’Neil sat behind his music shop counter, an opera played in the background. But it was the didgeridoo that got him moving.
O’Neil picked up the long, slender instrument and began piping. The shop was suddenly awash in the eerie sounds of the Australian Outback.
“I can’t do it quite right,” he said. If he kept on going, “I would turn blue and pass out.”
O’Neil, 42, opened his Nags Head shop in November. He calls it Naiant and has filled it with instruments from across America and beyond. Near the didgeridoo were flutes known as ocarinas and Irish drums called bodhrans. Lutes and bagpipes hung on a wall.
Like many business owners on the Outer Banks, O’Neil didn’t grow up here. He’s among those who fell in love with the Carolina coast while vacationing and wondered: What would it be like to live here?
Many who have made the leap end up piecing together a living. O’Neil managed to get by for years doing accounting and making miniature microphones before gathering the courage for his big bet in retailing.
He said he’s looking forward to the tourist season with a dose of reality.
“We’ll see if this works in just a few months here.”
There are no available records to show how many of the Outer Banks’ estimated 2,200 businesses were started by transplant entrepreneurs. But “they contribute a lot to the vitality of the economy,” said Taylor Sugg, a regional vice president for TowneBank.
Karen Brown, president of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, said the same principles for success - having a good business plan, working hard and networking effectively - are essential for non-natives.
And new entrepreneurs should not spend all their money making sure everything is perfect for the first customers, said Michael Twiddy, regional director of the Small Business and Technology Development Center based at Elizabeth City State University.
People underestimate the impacts of a hurricane or road closures that can shut down the business for the rest of a season. “Don’t spend every dime trying to set up,” he said.
O’Neil liked his job as a Washington, D.C., accountant and was making good money. One Friday afternoon nine years ago, however, he returned to his Fairfax home after battling traffic and told his wife that he was done with it. Four weeks later, he was living in Kill Devil Hills. He had vacationed there once and liked what he saw, he said.
Hedging his bets, O’Neil continues to do accounting work. He’s also kept on making microphones, and does so in a back-room shop of his store, Naiant Musical Imports, located off South Croatan Highway at milepost 11. He does not hold a patent, but the tiny, cigar-shaped devices sell from $60 to $100 each. He sold roughly 1,000 last year.
The slow winter season has given him a chance to ease into direct sales to tourists. He’s sold a harp and high-quality wind chimes, among other items.
“I asked myself, what would a tourist look for in a music shop?” he said. “That’s the piece I’m still trying to figure out.”
He paused for a moment.
“Ukuleles could be big.”
Brian Klauser, 41, and his wife, Amy, were avid snowboarders from New Jersey who traveled the country and world. The couple occasionally vacationed on the Outer Banks. After three straight winters of nonstop snowboarding, they were ready for warmer weather.
His wife bought an art shop, and the couple moved to Nags Head in 1998. Klauser took what he thought was a temporary job at a windsurfing and watersports shop in Avon.
“I stuck with it,” Klauser said.
He advanced to assistant manager, then manager. His boss was on the West Coast.
In 2008, he bought the building set on the Pamlico Sound. The next year, he bought out the business. Klauser is expanding OceanAir Sports and will put more focus in the upcoming season on lessons for novices. His original space is preserved for hard-core enthusiasts, he said. He employs about 10 people during the peak season.
The dock for launching into the sound lies just below his shop’s windows. The water remains shallow for hundreds of feet out - a great condition for beginners, who tend to fall a lot.
For this transplant entrepreneur, the Outer Banks’ famously fickle weather has been the biggest learning curve. Hurricanes Irene and Sandy put crimps on 2011 and 2012.
A perfect week brings high wind, medium wind, low wind, even no wind. Warm temperatures mixed with cooler days helps boost shop sales.
“We need the right mix of warm, cold, wind, no wind, rain, no rain,” Klauser said.
“Occasionally, we get the perfect week.”
While his business has done well, doing what he loves in a place he loves is more important. “This is something I am passionate about,” he said. “I’m very happy to come to work.”
Brittany Finch opened her shop, Carolina Keiki, in Duck in the fall with the intention of offering what other children’s clothing stores do not.
Hanging on a back rack recently was a purple floral maternity dress with a pink sash, a product suited for the newer trend of taking photos of mother and baby with a smartphone immediately after birth. The photos go everywhere in seconds through Facebook and Instagram.
Finch, 27, moved from Cincinnati to the Outer Banks after spending summers visiting with her half-brother. She met her husband, Sam, here while she attended Regent University in Virginia Beach. After their two children came along, she began thinking about starting a business that catered to the parents of newborns.
Keiki is Hawaiian for child. She learned the word while on vacation in the tropical island chain, she said. Her shop, in The Waterfront Shops along the Currituck Sound, is open only on weekends through the winter. But business has been steady.
“I think we’ve had a good start,” she said. One Sunday last month, “I didn’t sit down at all.”
As she gears up for her first tourist rush, Finch said, her biggest concern is how much stock to order.
Most of her products are handmade, and many come from North Carolina. One friend makes baby headbands, and another makes leather booties. Finch’s husband, a native of the Outer Banks, works in his family’s construction business. That cushions the risk of her venture.
But her Midwestern roots could come in handy. After all, many of the tourists who stroll into her shop will be coming from cities and towns far from any ocean.
And no doubt some of them will wonder whether someday they can make a life for themselves here, too.