This is the first in a series of posts profiling entrepreneurs. Sharon O’Day, a maestro of entrepreneurship herself, is our guest contributor.
To remedy the busted economy, older people are turning more and more to business start-ups. So while the first person you think of as an “entrepreneur” is a techno-20-year-old starting a business in a dorm room, Amy Wilkinson, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said that the average age of someone starting a business today is 40.
To me that sounds about right. What I see all around me, in small offline and online start-ups, on forums, and at conferences and Meetups, is a deluge of people scurrying to get something started. Whether to supplement an existing job, as a hedge against losing a job, as a replacement for a spouse’s lost job, or just as a way to feel at least a little control over their lives, people are starting businesses. Whether they are natural entrepreneurs or not.
But do they have the skills for entrepreneurship?
Many are jumping in feet first and could greatly benefit from some simple courses pertaining to a business administration degree in basic strategy, accounting, marketing, hiring, and government reporting. But with that sheer perseverance for which Americans are famous, even those short on skills are figuring things out as best they can, inhaling every bit of information available on the Internet.
I see all skill levels. I see everything from pie-in-the-sky to hardened realists. I see some who will likely never get anywhere because who the heck would pay for that?
And every so often, I see an ember that’s been nurtured and fanned for a while … and suddenly starts to burn. That’s the case of Mari Ann Lisenbe of Houston, TX, and her MariGold Bars.
The new entrepreneur: run, stumble, recalibrate, repeat
Mari Ann and I are part of a foursome that met for two years as an every-Friday-morning “Breakfast Mastermind Call.” I knew Mari Ann had taken her IT background at Hewitt Associates and combined it with her passion for nutrition and healthy bodies. The result was a terrific fitness program including:
- a series of yoga-based exercises she had developed
- an eating plan she had designed, and
- motivational brain-training videos she had produced.
All of it original. Unique. And effective.
In her mid-50s, Mari Ann was the poster child for how well all the pieces worked together, and she enthusiastically taught courses locally as she built out a beautiful web site. Once launched online, she tested pricing. In addition, she tested:
- different packages of services
- membership vs. one-time payment
- more and better videos
- online advertising, Pay-per-click, Facebook ads
- tapping into the Christian market, contacting local radio shows, and so forth.
No matter what she did, she couldn’t get enough traction to indicate she had a solid success on her hands. Every stumble led to a new approach. Every failure lasted just long enough to get past the frustration and try something else.
And as she continued with her local classes and her steady base of customers, she kept hearing one thing: “Can you recommend a good gluten-free protein bar?” And she couldn’t.
Making one ingredient at a time to capture the golden opportunity
I remember the day Mari Ann first said she would find the right ingredients, which none of the larger bar manufacturers were using. She would try to make her own bars with whey from a certain kind of cows. She researched and sourced ingredient by ingredient. And she started sharing her sinfully delicious bars with friends and customers.
As demand grew, her husband Steve joined and together they started teaching themselves about manufacturing and distribution. Contract kitchens were out because of potential gluten contamination. So they built their own facility, boned up on FDA product and packaging requirements, and studied to get certified as food manufacturers.
Mari Ann and Steve are bootstrapping this business because the “new entrepreneurs” want to keep control over their own destiny. And in the absence of easy bank loans, they’re using crowdfunding through Kickstarter to purchase the next critical piece of production equipment. Check out their fun Kickstarter video re MariGold bars.
They are now in full marketing mode, contacting all of the influencers in the healthy foods category. The response they are getting … plus all the people who are suddenly investing … tells me this is going to be one successful start-up!
Why? Because they found something that people were actually seeking … but could not find. Today Mari Ann and Steve Lisenbe are in the catbird seat because they learned:
- Go above and beyond in fulfilling people’s expectations
- Become experts in every aspect of the industry
- Don’t cut corners but do keep costs to a minimum and use creativity in place of dollars wherever you can
- Have a clear strategy, and
- Never take “no” for an answer.
If you’d like to be part of another successful start-up (in exchange for some yummy gluten-free protein bars with names like Chocolate Praline and Healthy Addiction), click over to their MariGold Bar Kickstarter page and make a pledge!
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