What’s the one thing that unites a company that grows crickets for food, one that solves an embarrassing health problem, and one that sells beverages that are helping to save the planet one bottle at a time? They’ve been helped by a small business mentor.
While their stories are inspiring and instructive, the best part is that you can steal their secret to success, and it won’t cost you a dime.
Cowboy Cricket Farms
When Kathleen Rolin told her husband James that she wanted to become a cricket farmer, he thought she was nuts. But instead of nixing the idea, he ended up going all-in and now their business, Cowboy Cricket Farms, is the largest producer of Acheta domesticus (the common house cricket) in all of North America,
Cowboy Cricket Farms grows food-grade crickets for human consumption. Crickets are environmentally friendly and high in protein. Compared to beef, for example, crickets use 2,060 times less water, 14 times less feed, and a fraction of the land mass. Cricket powder is used in baked goods (like their popular Chocolate Chirp Cookies), chips and energy bars. And roasted, flavored crickets are proving to be a popular healthy, high-protein snack.
The couple started their business in November 2016, and began breeding crickets in January 2017 with hopes that they would fill a 1500 square foot facility. They had no idea it would take off so quickly. “It’s hard to keep up with demand,” says Kathleen. “The demand for our flavored crickets have been so high we have had to shut down orders on our website a few times in the past to play catch up,” she explains. In response, they created a network of “Partner Farmers,” and currently have six partner farms up and running and another twelve in the on-boarding stage.
Their SCORE mentor, Rick Sanders, who volunteers with Bozeman SCORE, helped them develop their business plan. He encouraged them to apply for business grants, despite their skepticism. They ended up receiving every grant they applied for. He also helped them with ideas for gaining valuable press coverage. “Rick is an amazing mentor and has allowed us to really focus on what we do best,” says Kathleen. “He holds back nothing and is super straightforward with us. We know that we can always depend on Rick as a confidential sounding board and a shoulder to lean on.”
Pip & Grow
When my daughter was an infant I fashioned a portable sleeping space for her from an under-the-bed storage bin. I was a safety nut and felt it was pretty safe, but it was bulky and I worried at times, especially when carrying her from room to room while she dozed.
I would have been the perfect customer for Pip & Grow, which has created a portable bassinet box that contains a firm mattress and cotton sheet. Weighing just two pounds, their Smitten Sleep System has handles that make it easy for mom, dad or other caregivers to keep baby safe and close.
Pip & Grow was launched over a girl’s getaway weekend by three friends, Kate Compton Barr, Lauren Hughey and Amber Kroeker. Kroeker is an infant safety expert who has been concerned about preventable SIDS deaths. She had received a grant to develop an American version of the Finnish “baby box” that’s popular in Europe, but needed help to get her business started here.
Since that weekend in 2015, the three have formed their company, obtained trademarks and a provisional patent, secured American manufacturers, and launched Pip & Grow in October 2016 at the ABC Kids Expo.
“We were so naive,” says Kroeker. “We just thought showing up was enough. We had retailers lined up asking us questions that we didn’t even know what half the words meant.” (They googled answers from the back of the booth.) But they quickly discovered there were people who love both the story and the concept. Several “big name” bloggers stopped by the booth— many after doing a double take— and they were in business.
“We are so excited to be profitable in our second year,” Kroeker marvels. “We always thought we were on a three year trajectory for breaking even, so it feels pretty amazing to be experiencing that type of growth. It demonstrates that there is a tremendous market demand for the simple, beautiful and safe.”
The trio live in different parts of the country, so Hughey was the one to find a SCORE mentor, Jon Stuart, from Manasota SCORE. She’s been meeting with him for more than two years, at least once a month and sometimes more. Kroeker laughs that before she discovered who he was, she thought he was “stalking” them on social media. Finally, in a conversation with her business partners, Hughey explained that he was their SCORE mentor.
“Jon has literally been our best cheerleader in everything we do,” Kroeker raves. “Our success is his success, and that is the best kind.” Compton Barr adds that Stuart has worked with them “near and far” to grow the business. “We lean on Jon for business know-how and the encouragement to keep going when it’s not easy,” she says. “I wasn’t prepared for the hardest part of being a scrappy startup: Uncertainty!”
Blue Ridge Bucha
What started as a side gig selling kombucha from the trunk of their car in 2010 has now evolved to a business that sells its fermented tea-based beverage in more than 80 locations with no signs of slowing. Blue Ridge Bucha, founded by Ethan and Kate Zuckerman, stands out for its emphasis on both quality— it uses organic ingredients and pure Blue Ridge Mountain water– and sustainability. In many locations where it’s sold, customers can purchase a refillable bottle and then fill up at the “kombucha fountain.”
The Zuckermans were lucky in one sense: they were already selling their beverage when demand for kombucha took off. “We started out with huge growth year-over-year (1100% in year one), but have settled into a more sustainable pace, explains Kate. Next year, for example, we are projected to grow between 40-50%.” They are also convinced that their focus on providing a premium product has helped. “Making a delicious, handcrafted, Certified Organic beverage gives us a loyal following of customers,” Kate adds.
The couple is quick to add that also measure growth not just in sales but in bottles kept out of the trash or recycling system. They’ve saved more than 800,000 bottles to date.
“When you are a small business growing quickly, it’s important to have experienced business people you can turn to for advice and support,” notes Kate. “Steve Cooper, our SCORE mentor, has helped us navigate some of the cash flow, inventory, and distribution challenges we have faced over the past six years.” Cooper volunteers with Central Virginia SCORE.
Sharita Humphrey, Speaker & Coach
There’s nothing that Sharita Humphrey likes better than to see the light bulb go off in her client’s heads when they realize they can get out of debt, improve their credit or start a successful business. A certified financial educator and coach, she teaches individuals and groups who are budding entrepreneurs, struggling with their credit scores, or trying to achieve other specific long-term financial goals. “During ongoing sessions or my Debt Management Mastermind Course, I teach my clients how to properly manage their business and personal finances to achieve multiple goals across a wide range of income brackets,” she explains.
Business growth these past few months has been “surreal,” she says, and in addition to growing her client base, she’s getting regular requests to share her knowledge as a speaker and guest on podcasts and vlogs (video blogs). “I had a vision for my business a year ago and wrote notes in a binder about how I wanted to start a business teaching the importance of financial education,” she says. One of the first things she did was schedule a meeting with SCORE Houston. There she met her SCORE mentor, Raj Mashruwala.
“Raj has helped me establish marketing objectives, fine-tune my business model, measure my ROI, and set future goals that challenge me,” she notes. “I always leave our meetings feeling motivated and capable.”
Humphrey can’t recommend SCORE highly enough. “The education, advice, and support given by SCORE definitely helps any business achieve heightened levels of success,” she notes. “My mentor has lead me to truly believe that, with a good team, the sky’s the limit.”
Common business advice is to” find a problem and solve it.” Entrepreneurs Randy Choi and Billy Thompson have taken this to the next level, starting and growing Thompson Tee to more than $10 million in annual revenue. The problem they identified? Excessive sweating. Their solution? A patented technology that keeps clothing dry.
Thompson Tee produces t-shirts and undershirts for men and women that blocks underarm sweat. Both co-founders suffer from a medical condition called hyperhidrosis (or excessive sweating) and wanted a solution to help keep them dry and comfortable throughout the day.
Their business was not an overnight success by any means. It took them over ten years to develop the product and once they did they tried the “spray and pray” approach to marketing, trying to sell through any avenue they could find including infomercials, retailers and more.
Working with several SCORE mentors in the Orange County, California office (primarily John Pietro and Larry Tucker) they received lots of valuable advice. The most important, they say, was to learn to focus their efforts and to develop a digital sales strategy, which means selling directly to customers online. “SCORE introduced us to our digital marketing partner which has dramatically helped our business grow,” explains Thompson. “Around the same time, John Pietro recommended we focus solely on growing our online direct to consumer channel, which we did.”
It’s paid off. Thompson Tee has experienced 100% year over year growth for the past 5 years, landing a spot on the popular TV show, Shark Tank, last year. The company has customers in more than 135 countries and it has created jobs for a diverse workforce in Southern California and now, recently, Nevada after relocating this year.
Even with all that success, the founders still turn to SCORE for help. “We will always be grateful to SCORE for the advice and recommend any business owner to tap into this amazing and free resource,” says Thompson. “We still rely on SCORE for business advice.”
Find Your Mentor
SCORE is a non-profit resource partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration. It’s one of a few organizations that provide free and low-cost consulting to small business owners. (Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) are another.)
SCORE provides confidential advice through a network of more than 10,000 volunteers nationwide; there is never a fee for consulting. Whether your business is new, stuck in a rut, or taking off quickly, SCORE mentors are eager to help. You can find a SCORE mentor here.
This article was originally written on December 5, 2018.