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If you are an entrepreneur just starting out, you’ve probably already gotten a glimpse into the hard work that goes into launching and running a business. While it’s rewarding, there can be sleepless nights and a slew of new challenges you did not anticipate.
You’re not alone – a new study this summer by OnePoll revealed that 84 percent of small business owners said they feel like they wear several hats, such as being their own human resources, operations, and customer service. But the drive to succeed is often what sustains the business — 40 percent reported they have high hopes of growing their business even during this challenging time and the same amount say they enjoy the grunt work of owning a business.
At GS1 Connect: Digital Edition 2021, we talked to three small business owners from different industries to learn what keeps these entrepreneurs going. During the session, they shared details about where their passion comes from, how they took the first step, unforeseen challenges and important advice for other aspiring small business owners.
- Carlton Chamblin, Founder of Farm2Cocktail
- Monti Leija, CEO of Delta Development Team
- Joelle Mertzel, President of Kitchen Concepts Unlimited
A passion for their products
The three panelists represented different product categories, but they had one thing in common—an unrelenting drive to grow their product’s reach.
For Chamblin, a Georgia-based entrepreneur and veteran of the farm-to-table restaurant movement, his drive to grow his business only intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. “At Farm2Cocktail, we make shrubs, which are vinegar-based syrups infused with fruits, herbs, and spices. It’s designed for a mixology experience at home. This passion only grew stronger during the pandemic since so many people were exploring new hobbies at home.”
While Chamblin’s product made lockdown more palatable, Delta Development Team, on the other hand, was focused on saving lives. “Our company makes small ruggedized autonomous refrigerators for storing blood to be provided in a military setting,” said Leija, a retired U.S. Special Forces medic from Arizona. “Our passion is to save lives where it was once impossible to do so. It was something I knew about firsthand from being in the Special Forces. We built the device for the military, and they were heavily involved in the process.”
In many ways, Mertzel’s passion found her. The owner of the California-based housewares company that makes Butterie, a one-piece butter dish, saw a unique opportunity once she learned that butter did not have to be refrigerated. “I wanted to spread the word about it and understand if other people knew about this, too,” said Mertzel.
Taking the first step
Turning an idea into a business is a big leap. The business owners described the critical first step in their startup journey.
“I literally had a dream that I had to reinvent the butter dish!” said Mertzel. “Once my kids were in school, I just went for it and started networking right away. I went to a housewares trade show, which helped me make important connections that I rely on to this day.”
“I knew the military was actively searching for someone to make this portable refrigerator,” said Leija. “It was the combined knowledge of how much this was needed and the idea that the military was going to fund it that really drove us to start creating it.”
“At first, the shrubs were something I was just selling at farmers markets, but it was hard to keep them refrigerated and keep the products from spoiling,” said Chamblin. “Then, a professional kitchen opened in my town, and I started making the products shelf-stable to be able to sell more widely.”
There is a saying that goes “Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.” The entrepreneurs discussed challenges they experienced (and still experience), but they still feel rewarded by the idea that they built their own companies.
“Just getting into stores and homes was a challenge,” said Chamblin. “Luckily, I had a graphic designer that helped me make it easy for people to shop online. Also, stores loved the artisanal look of the packaging. We are in the farm-to-table capital of the world in northern Georgia, so we knew we had to get the product to people but also have it speak to them.”
“Money is always a challenge, from designing the product, tooling, patents, and other up-front costs,” said Mertzel. “It took some time before I was really making money because as the business grew, the demand of the business grew. I had to transition to a warehouse and I needed to hire employees—each of those things required a significant amount of reinvestment back into the business. It took four years to really hit a ‘payday’ and I learned that I’ll always be reinvesting.”
“Our engineers had the most challenges with logistics and supply chain in the beginning,” said Leija. “Last year, semiconductors were delayed, and we couldn’t finish the product without them. Production in general is difficult and expensive right now. Even with a team of people constantly analyzing risks in a risk matrix, there are unforeseen challenges.”
Entering the marketplace
Launching a product involves many tasks, but one in particular stood out to the entrepreneurs as being a defining moment—getting their first barcode.
“When I got my first barcode, I felt that I had become a legitimate business,” said Mertzel. “It was so important to me that I memorized it! I wasn’t going to just buy any barcodes that weren’t the real deal because I was thinking about how to protect my brand and grow. I bought a GS1 Company Prefix, which allows to me to make up to 100 UPCs and I have used 51 one of them. I am always developing new variations like new colors or bundled packs.”
Delta Development Team knew that getting a barcode wasn’t even a question—it was a necessity. “Getting a barcode meant we would meet FDA requirements, which is an important part of bringing a medical device to the market,” said Leija. “We also put our barcode on everything—business cards, spec sheets and other materials, which gives us credibility and keeps everything organized.”
“I was able to work with a new distribution network once I put a UPC on the bottle, so it opened up more opportunities for me,” said Chamblin. “I really wanted to up my professional appearance and delivery. I’ve got products selling in states like Oregon and Connecticut. I think to myself ‘Wow, I’m on the shelf of a store that I’ve never even been into!’ “
Advice for other entrepreneurs
These determined and multitalented business owners relied on others along the way, making key contacts at retail chains, seeking advice from mentors and listening to motivational audiobooks. Here’s the advice they would pass along to others just starting out.
“Do your research to figure out if you really have an audience for your product,” said Mertzel. “I did my own research at soccer games, schools, the airport. Seventy percent of the people I asked said they would buy my product and I built on that.”
“We also thought research was important,” said Leija. “We talked to end users and medics, and their input was critical in the beginning. It pushed our engineers to find out what the real need was and develop the product the way that it would be most effective.”
“Entrepreneurs need to know that people don’t know what your product is like just by looking at it,” said Chamblin. “You need to learn how people find new products and get their attention in the shortest amount of time. Get them to try it.”
As these three business owners demonstrate, starting and running your own business requires a lot of hard work, creativity and drive no matter what your target market or industry. But success comes easier to those who focus on learning best practices from others who have come before you, and by maintaining a growth mindset.