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Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

How Timeless Vodka Became a Thriving Alcohol Brand

Amber Ferrell-Steele traces the origin of her business to the five love languages: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and receiving gifts. According to the book that popularized the concept, each of us experiences and expresses love through one of these five languages. Ferrell-Steele says she founded the Houston-based Timeless Vodka as an act of service for her husband, Bruce. At first, the vodka was supposed to be a small-batch present for the couple to enjoy on special occasions. But after she figured out what it should taste like, landed a distiller, and sampled the final product, it was clear there was potential for a successful business. The corn-based, gluten-free vodka hit stores in January 2020 and has since become one of the fastest-growing craft vodka brands in the country. Q&A with Amber Ferrell-Steele of Timeless Vodka Hello Alice chatted with Ferrell-Steele about how she mastered the ins and outs of the liquor industry, her company's unique approach to partnerships, and why she's not afraid of networking at trade shows, HOA meetings, or anywhere else potential customers might be hiding. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Why did you choose to go into the beverage industry? This whole entire business was supposed to be a gift — a one-time, small-batch labor of love that ended up taking about two years. My husband's love language is not gift-giving, so I was wondering what act of service I could do that speaks to him. With research and lots of trial and error, I ended up with a small batch of teeny-tiny sample bottles. I thought this was going to be our thing to consume ourselves and with friends and family. But once I started letting people try the vodka, they wanted to buy it! Unlike some entrepreneurs who are solving for something or trying to create a business, ours was the reverse. We had to catch up to the demands of the business. This all sounds expensive! How did you finance your business from the start, and how have found the capital to continue to grow? My business started from very, very, very, very — and I can't say 'very' enough times — humble beginnings. I still had my corporate job, but I had enough money and savings that I felt comfortable using some of it to start this craft product. Some people are going to spend it on their toys or a bag; I saved enough for this mega-gift that I wanted to give my husband. What I had to do is be very, very lean with my overhead. We don't have a lot of team members. Most of our team members are out doing tastings, so they basically pay for themselves. Getting capital is something that we're still navigating and learning. We have used Lendio, which has been a huge help. But for the first year and some change, we did not pursue any investors or any small business loans. We just now started dabbling in the idea of getting additional working capital, but we're still taking out less than what we need. Alcohol production and sales is such a highly regulated and specialized industry. Where did you look for the knowledge and connections to get started? I relied heavily on my distillery, and Google truly is a wealth of information. If you can fish through the weeds of the internet, there's a lot of information there. I also called my state alcohol commission and said, 'Hey, this is what I'm trying to do. I don't want to make a mistake, and I don't want to get in trouble. Who can I talk to that will lead me in this direction and make sure that I have what I need to have?' Every single state is different. In some states, every county has its own rules. So it's definitely a lot. Our distributors have definitely helped us navigate everything. Amber Ferrell-Steele How did you find your distiller? It took me about a year and a half to find them. There are a lot of distillers that will co-pack and create your own formula, distill it, bottle it, and package it for you. But a lot of them have constraints: you have to do this, or they don't do that. So I needed to find someone who: a) could speak to the flavor profile I wanted, b) would do a small enough run because, you know, we weren't selling pallets yet, and c) someone who was also going to allow us to make modifications and changes as needed. After a while, we narrowed it down to about five different distillers. One thing that I wanted was to be corn-based. We found a distiller that had an article published about their Iowa corn and the competitions it had won. When I started talking to them, it just really clicked. Before I even met this distiller in person, it really felt right. They were very patient with me, and they weren't trying to nickel and dime me. We've grown to be family, but it really started there. I flew up to meet them, and the rest is history. So you're still working together with that Iowa distiller today? Yes! We grew a lot last year, and we're still growing this year. They're a small business, so it got to the point where they were like, 'Okay, you guys are probably going to leave us now, huh?' And actually no, this isn't a breakup! We're not going to leave them unless they're trying to leave us! We made the decision to go ahead and stay and kind of create more of a merger where we're working in a really great, mutual relationship. They're close to our family, we're close to their family, and it's nice that even after 5 o'clock we can talk and have a conversation. I don't foresee us ever leaving them. We want to grow together and potentially have additional satellite locations or a tasting room together. I don't want to go anywhere else. It's so great to hear about people growing with their partners like that. What about your distributor? Okay, that was not as cut-and-dry as finding someone to make the product. To be honest, finding distribution in the alcohol industry is like finding a tic-tac in The Galleria: You have no idea where to start. For instance, Texas is a massive state for alcohol sales. I think my distributor told me they get about 1,000 pitches a month for someone to take their product. When I actually wanted to get Timeless on shelves, I didn't even know I needed a distributor. I'm not afraid to admit that I didn't know! I actually went to Total Wine and did my whole sales pitch. They told me I needed to pitch to the district manager, so I emailed her. She got back to me and was like, 'Sure, we can schedule the meeting. Who's your distributor?' I'm kind of embarrassed to say this now, but at that moment, I was frantically googling 'What is a distributor?' It turns out that in Texas, there's a three-tier system, and it's illegal for you to sell directly to retail stores if you have a product over a certain ABV! That's when I started looking at different distributors. There are the big names that serve Bacardi and Tito's. Then there's the middle layer and small options that really focus on craft. I started emailing everyone my sales deck. I kept getting rejection after rejection, and then this one particular distributor responded to ask me about my price point. I let him know, but he never responded. That frustrated me. You can tell me 'no,' but I can't be ignored! I decided to call him. It was about 5 o'clock on a Friday, and he's in gridlock Houston traffic going nowhere. We had a long conversation, and I told him about my product, how it was created and formulated, and how much I'd love to present it to him. I told him, 'If this isn't something for you, you can tell me 'no,' but I don't want you to tell me that without trying it!' So he asked me to come in, I pitched it, and they sent us a contract on Christmas Eve. And here we are! They always joke with me: 'Don't you get too big and leave!' I tell them not to worry. I want to ride this deal until the wheels fall off. They're great. Our kids go to each other's birthday parties — it's really nice. I try to formulate a bond or special relationship with all of my vendors and suppliers, all the way from the small, independent liquor store to the big chains. What kind of marketing is the most impactful for your product now? Social media is always going to be king, but we're a premium product. Everyone is used to buying a product like Tito's, where you can get a handle for $26. We're 750ml for $20, depending on the location. So social media drives people into the store or piques their interest, but the tastings are what allow people to fall in love with the product. We're pretty confident in the quality of our product and our taste. We tell people to do their own taste test against what they have at home. You can sell anybody anything one time, but the repeat customer is what's important. We really pride ourselves on making sure that we're engaging with people in-store and having a conversation with them. What sort of networking events have you found most helpful? I've gotten a lot out of trade shows! As exhausting as they are, trade shows are actually excellent networking events. Another interesting networking event that we placed ourselves in is HOAs. During the pandemic, tastings were shut down, and people were just kind of panic-buying what they knew. We reached out to some HOAs and were like, 'Hey, can we maybe do a virtual cocktail tasting or meet and greet?' Maybe they had a demographic to where they're not really feeling comfortable getting out yet — whatever the case may be. We've admittedly had to be a bit more creative. Now that things are opening up, we're having to learn what it is really like in the liquor industry versus the pandemic industry we started in. What is your vision for Timeless going forward? Do you see yourself becoming the next Tito's or Absolut? We definitely want to be a household name and a household brand. We want to be in the top 10 list of successful vodkas. We also launched a rum about three weeks ago, and it sold out in two weeks. We just got it back in stock, but having the family of our vodka and our rum is something that we want to be proud of. We're not trying to have one of each thing and try to be the next, like, Diageo, but we're not going to only have a vodka. So far, I think that we've created a nice little family of brands. I'm excited to continue to grow and thrive! For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Jul 28, 2021 • 7 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

This CrossFit Gym Wants to Redefine What Fitness Looks Like

Until a few years ago, Troy Valls thought he would be an "advertising lifer," with a clear-cut career trajectory. Then an HIV diagnosis motivated him to spend more time in the gym focusing on his physical fitness. In 2018, he and some friends decided to start their own gym, Move.Lift.Live. Located in Miami's Brickell neighborhood, the business practices an integrated approach to fitness that combines CrossFit principles with the services of physical therapists, massage therapists, and on-site doctors. The idea, Valls says, is to take care of the whole self so that clients are both building physical strength and an understanding of how their bodies work in order to prevent pain and injury. Hello Alice chatted with Valls about his path to gym ownership, his integrated approach that blends fitness and wellness, and the gym's hyperlocal focus on customer acquisition. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. You have a long, long resume in the advertising and marketing world. Was fitness always an interest that ran parallel to your career? No, not really at all. In retrospect, I can see kind of the turns that led me to this point, but I never thought I'd end up where I am. When I was graduating from school, I was set on advertising. I thought I was going to be an advertising lifer. Fitness was something that just kind of always mattered to me. I was very active, but I never really knew my way around the gym until much later. I was never a hardcore fitness junkie like I am now, or like the people I'm surrounded by. There are a lot of gyms, and there are a lot of CrossFit gyms. What was the business opportunity that you saw with Move.Lift.Live? A lot of it has to do with my personal experience. A little more than a decade ago, I had moved back to Miami and been here for about four years. I was working out at the gym, but I had been in the middle of a slump. Fast forward to 2010, and I actually tested positive for HIV. It was at that point in time when my health became a concern. It used to be about casual fitness and trying to maintain stuff, and now it was like, 'Oh, shit, now I really have to think about doing the best things I possibly can for myself so that I have a good shot at living a long, healthy life.' Around the same time, I was dating someone who was doing CrossFit. I had never actually heard of it, and it turns out that there was a location not too far from me. I instantly fell in love with it. It's hard, it spoke to my competitive side, and it spoke to the side of me that loves to overcome things. But the truth about CrossFit is that it's also a really, really good tool for identifying people's weaknesses — and I had a lot of them. Years ago, I had been hit by a car on a bike. That yielded a lot of troubles with my lower back, and it would kind of come and go in episodes. Enter CrossFit, and it was becoming this recurring thing. There would be that one deadlift that would put me out for a couple of months. At this point, I'm 35 years old and thinking to myself, I'm too young for this. My doctors were starting to steer me toward the steroids injections and surgery. I knew there had to be another way, so I started doing my homework. I was doing yoga, seeing a chiropractor, going to massage therapists. But it was this method of postural realignment that actually fixed me. In one session, I already felt better than I had in years. Not only that, but I was starting to notice the stuff that I was doing at the gym felt much more secure and stable. I was starting to realize that I had a little bit more understanding of my body. I had a lot more self-awareness, and therefore a lot more control. That's when the lightbulb went off. You wanted to integrate that wellness aspect into the gym environment? Yes! So many people go to the gym and ignore these little problems that they have, whether it's their knee or their shoulders or their elbow. We know the gym thing is right for us and feels good, but we tend to brush these issues aside because they're the things that would inevitably pull us away from the gym. Instead, we ignore it until it's a major problem. The fitness system is broken. Yes, we're training physically, but that should also incorporate an understanding of what might be going wrong. That's where the idea for Move.Lift.Live. was born. How do we create a CrossFit environment where we expose weaknesses but also have the solutions to those weaknesses? So I started getting certifications, and I started learning, learning, learning. Two friends became my business partners, and we started to kind of shape this idea until I wrote the business plan. Yes, we do CrossFit, but we also have an integrated partnership with a physical therapy practice. We have three doctors on site, and we have trainers who are very much mindful in terms of movement. This is about creating that comprehensive approach to the way we actually allow people to find their fitness so that it's truly sustainable. We want people to get out of pain cycles so that they can do this stuff for the longest time possible. That holistic approach means you have a doctor, physical therapist, and massage therapists. Does that pose any challenges for you as far as costs? Actually, quite the opposite. The way that our partnerships are set up, it actually becomes a revenue stream for us. Our partnership with both our massage therapists and also our doctors, they actually pay us rent to be part of the facility. The benefit of having them there is that we kind of triage all our members. Instead of leaving the gym to go to PT somewhere else, our members just do it at the gym. We get to understand from the doctors what stage they're in and if they can find their way back to the gym and what kind of modifications we have to make. Really, it makes us all more intelligent about what a client's progress is and what they require. Same thing with a massage therapist: You know whenever we have a member whose back was really tight after that workout yesterday. Everything is kind of full circle there for our members. How are you are acquiring your customers? Most of our stuff is organic. We had the luxury of being a small business that really is focused on getting as much traction as possible in a very, very specific community. Brickell is an interesting area. We're part of downtown Miami, but downtown is split by the Miami River. People just don't want to deal with the bridges to get to Brickell, so we're really focused on our immediate area. Brickell is not big, but it's densely populated with 40,000-plus people now. We've done a lot of social media, but we're out on the streets, too. So many people come into the gym saying, 'Hey, I saw your people running in and out of your gym and I was curious.' We get people off the street like that all the time. Finding strategic partnerships with local organizations or local groups or local individuals also allows us to continue to talk to people in Brickell who haven't yet heard of us yet. We're still in this little corner. Some people don't even know we're there, especially because Brickell tends to be somewhat transient — you get a lot of new people in town. That's been our focus: the investment in the grassroots stuff and the organic stuff that we're doing locally, and just making sure that people are actually exposed and seeing us. What would you say are you greatest business challenges right now? We're really trying to evolve what people expect from their gym. Most people have a hard time carving out space for themselves. They're doing the 9-to-5 that they invest all their time and energy into, which means they don't want to really think about their health and fitness. They want someone else to do the thinking for them. What we're trying to do is bring that degree of self-awareness to people. That's the hardest thing to do because most people just want to know that they checked that box of getting a workout in and be done with it. That's cool, but then you have this knee problem that you've been ignoring or this shoulder problem. People try to sweep that under the rug; they expect physical therapy to be this big thing that they're gonna have to undertake, so they don't touch it at all. What we're trying to do is really simplify it for them so that they realize there's an intuitive path to correcting these issues all at once. That's so interesting. Your long-term, integrated approach is really different from concepts like ClassPass, where you're taking different classes at different gyms all the time. Exactly! That's the tide against us, right? That's what we're kind of up against. In the longer term, do you want to focus on this one location, or will you expand? We went into this calling it 'the lab.' This is the place where we would kind of perfect our craft and create a system. In the long-term, I'd love to see it as more like a franchise. I'd love to see this up against the Barry's Bootcamps of the world where we truly become seen as a place where it is like a health clinic. This approach shouldn't be reserved for boutique fitness places; it should be something that becomes readily accessible to the masses. If we can perfect a system that can then be scaled and replicated, that's the goal.
Jul 23, 2021 • 6 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

How Lei Nichols Got Her Home-Brewed Teas into Supermarkets

Lei Nichols was working as a high school teacher in Boston when she noticed her students constantly drinking sugary beverages. So one day, she decided to make chrysanthemum tea and bring it to class as a healthier, natural alternative. “The students tried it, and they liked it,” Nichols says.  Soon after, Nichols started a tea class at school where she had students sample natural teas that she grew up drinking in China. The positive response gave her the idea to turn the beverages into a business. “All the teachers and students would come into my class and drink the tea,” she says. “I thought, I should do something about it.”  Nichols first contacted the Massachusetts Food Safety Department to learn about the regulations and permits that would allow her to sell her teas commercially. From there, the department connected her with Cornell University’s Food Processing Development Laboratory, which helped her develop a recipe for the product. In 2016, Nichols officially launched Wise Mouth Tea, an all-natural tea beverage line inspired by Eastern herbal remedies. The Boston-based company offers drinks like Cranberry Jasmine Green Tea made with goji berries and Chinese dates and Happy Ginger Orange Tea infused with fresh ginger and rose petals. Nichols says that using fresh ingredients has helped the business stand out from other bottled tea drinks from bigger brands. Wise Mouth Tea beverages Today, Wise Mouth teas are sold in Stop & Shop grocery stores around Massachusetts. According to Nichols, getting her products on shelves has been wonderfully straightforward. [Hello Alice Guide: Learn About Food & Beverage Distribution] “I just drove one day to Stop & Shop and told them I had a local tea business and that they could try the products,” says Nichols. “After a half-hour, I got an email back saying they were looking for local beverages and food products. So they set up a meeting with me, and the next day, they bought my tea.” While Nichols lost most of her independent retail distributors due to COVID, she credits the CommonWealth Kitchen and Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation (MGCC) Small Business Assistance Grant Program for growing the business into more Stop & Shop stores during the pandemic. And what’s next for the business? Nichols hopes to expand her presence in the New England market by finding the right co-packer to produce larger quantities of her products. Until then, Nichols is taking the business one step at a time.  [Hello Alice Guide: Scale Your Food & Beverage Manufacturing] “You will get there,” Nichols says. “It’s not easy, but on the way, you will learn about yourself, your business, your work. Every tear is worth it. I really think so.” For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Jul 22, 2021 • 2 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

New Owners Brought a New Era to This Hawaiian Footwear Company

For three decades, Kiani Wong watched as family friends Mich and Dorothy Aach built and ran their own footwear company. So when the Aachs started to contemplate retirement a few years ago, the former retail buyer had an idea: Why not purchase the business and run it herself? Today Wong is the proud owner of that business, Kaka'ako Kasuals. Based in Honolulu, the company creates and sells sandals reflective of the community identity on the islands. Hello Alice chatted with Wong about everything it takes to purchase a business, what the post-pandemic tourism boom has been like, and how embracing authenticity has set her brand apart. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. We love the backstory of you buying the business from family friends. What do you think someone should know when they're thinking about purchasing an existing business? There are so many things. With our situation, it was more, 'Do we have the pieces to kind of make this little puzzle work for us?' I had a lot of experience in retail buying and wholesale purchasing. Then we had other family members who were very skilled in marketing, operations, and accounting. So we had the foundations, and having that going in is super helpful. If you don't, it can be really hard to find those things to make it all work. Also, we saw a lot of promise in the future of this business. This is a tourism-oriented space right now, but we saw so much potential to where we could grow the business into things that were more culturally relevant and exciting for different generations. Obviously evaluating the financial aspects of it and doing your due diligence is really important, but there's a lot to be said about seeing that trajectory of your business over the next five, 10, or 20 years. What did you learn during that period of due diligence before purchasing the business? So much. For me, I was lucky enough to spend an entire year with the previous owners shadowing them. And so during that due diligence process, we were looking at finances, looking at whether they had enough working capital, looking if they have a good turnover ratio — these things were really important to know. But due diligence doesn't just include financial aspects and things like that. It also includes a lot of intangibles that you can't see from the balance sheet or a profit and loss statement. That shadowing experience really solidified that we were making the right decision. Were you ever afraid of upsetting the previous owners by going in a different direction? There was a little bit of that at first, but that stopped once I started talking to them about the awesome ideas that my family and I had come up with. I really tried to pick their brain and say, 'Okay, if you had the opportunity to reinvent your business or do things that you've always wanted to do but never had the time to do, what would you have done?' They were really forthcoming with me. They told me that they would have used this technology, they would have introduced this product, or they would have looked at this one revenue stream. At that point, it was really easy for me to start thinking out loud and having these open discussions about what my visions were for the company and where we were interested in taking it. The previous owner is actually one of our sales reps, so he still comes in all the time, and we have a great relationship. If it wasn't a supportive situation, it would have been a little more difficult to change the trajectory of our business. You've spoken elsewhere about your choice to use a dedicated accounting partner to help you with your business financials. Why did you go that direction instead of relying solely on an off-the-shelf software solution? We needed something that was going to be able to help us really track our inventory and expenses in a more granular way. When we took over the business, it was still in a good place, but it was on a more of a downward trajectory. We wanted to turn that around. We needed somebody in our corner to be able to consistently give us guidance and feedback about the things that we needed to do to really fine-tune the business for long-term growth. If you find the right partner, it can be a really good relationship that can help your business turn around. We could have just gone and found a QuickBooks adviser, and that would have been fine. But that person isn't necessarily somebody that can help us with long-term growth; it's more of a quick planning session. We were figuring out how to position our business so that we're cutting certain costs and then incrementally shift things around so we can change course. That kind of planning was what we were looking for, which is why we wanted an ongoing relationship. Kiani Wong Hawai'i is experiencing a huge, huge tourism boom after the pandemic drought. How are you making the most of that? That transition from zero to 1,000% has been amazing but absolutely insane at the same time. Last year, we pretty much shut down tourism during the pandemic. Locally, we understood why, but it really hurt the tourism segment of our business. It's a little bit jarring because we went from nothing to selling so quickly that we can't keep some of our top sellers in stock. Right now, it's really trying to manage our existing inventory levels and our access to capital so that we can fund ways where we can grow again. To put it another way, it feels like the paddles were on our heart — a total jumpstart. That's been fun but kind of crazy. Going forward, are you targeting more of an e-commerce presence, or are your retail partners still going to be your bread and butter? Moving into this year, we're trying to shift a bit more of a balance between e-commerce and our B2B. You know, B2B was our bread and butter for over 30 years, but there's a huge opportunity, especially for a local Hawaiian company, to come in and really pursue this as a direct-to-consumer brand. During the pandemic, our sales shot up direct to consumers through e-commerce because they weren't able to buy us in the stores. This year we're actually launching a crowdfunding campaign to create a product that we've already been testing. It's really cool — we're using algae in our soles to replace petroleum. Going forward, we're trying to shift away from the low-cost provider that we traditionally were and embrace sustainability. You've been working with different artists for different designs. How do you develop new colorways and those partnerships? I'm not sure if you're too familiar with areas of Oʻahu, but Kaka'ako is actually a small section of the island. This area is has been known for a long time as very industrial, and within the last 10 to 15 years, it's kind of changed. There are huge murals all over the buildings around Kaka'ako so that pretty much if you walk on any street, you're gonna see amazing art from local and international artists. We wanted to reflect that feeling in our slippers. So far, we have partnered with two artists who have done murals in the area to create unique artwork for our footwear. It's really exciting because these people have given us different perspectives. While we understand color trends and things like that, they get to do amazing things with their art. As a Native Hawaiian, how are you trying to integrate your identity into the brand? Everything we've done from the very start of our business has been trying to integrate that aspect of ourselves. We've been trying to align the outward face of our brand with our internal values as a family, as Native Hawaiians, as a woman-owned, queer-owned business. We're trying to bring a lot of these things that are generally in the background of a lot of brands to the forefront. The sustainability aspect, for instance — that's a personal value that we have. Naming our company Kaka'ako Kasuals is giving it a location in Hawaii, as opposed to just any other footwear brand. We've used primarily Native Hawaiian artists in our products. Also, renaming styles to the street names of Kaka'ako was really important to us because that gave us even more value here to say that we are from here, we're local. Do you see yourself growing the business over the long term, or is the business something you hope to sell to another person one day? In my family, there's a long history of running family businesses. I would hope that eventually, somebody in our family would want to continue it, but sometimes the kids in the next generation don't want to buy the business, or they don't want to work in it anymore. If Nike comes calling, I wouldn't necessarily say no! But for now, we plan to build and grow the business and hopefully pass it down to somebody who cares. Whether that's family or not is yet to be determined.
Jul 20, 2021 • 6 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

Operation: Doggie Doody Is a Seriously Profitable Small Business

KB Burdick started with the math. According to her calculations, the average dog produces about 274 pounds of waste per year. Multiply that by the thousands of dogs in any given town, and she had more than enough proof that her pet waste removal business, Operation: Doggie Doody, would never have a problem with demand. What is Operation: Doggie Doody? Based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, O:DD serves hundreds of commercial and residential clients. Technicians roll up to each client in a truck, methodically sweep the property for pet waste, and hygienically dispose of whatever they find. Burdick says that her number two operation is now a six-figure-earning business. "If you think this might be for you, but you're not a fan of puns, you can't do this job," she says, laughing. "You got to get ready for the worst jokes in the world and giggle about it every single time." Q&A with KB Burdick of Operation: Doggie Doody Hello Alice chatted with KB about the challenges of funding a business with personal credit, marketing with memes and referrals, and how her business plans anticipate her retirement plans. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. You've worked in shelters, vet clinics, and other animal environments for decades. But what first got you interested in animals? I think the earliest memory was taking our dog to the vet at 4 years old. My mom told us that the vet was going to fix our pup, and I was like, 'Yep, that's what I want to do!' By 12, I was working with trainers and starting to learn some techniques. Then came some pet sitting and volunteering with animal hospitals where I would actually clean kennels in exchange for viewing surgeries and shadowing appointments. Obviously, it has shifted significantly from becoming a veterinarian to working in dog behavior. That is 100% the passion of my life. What ultimately brought you to the pet waste industry? I actually kind of randomly came across pet waste management. After my stepdaughter graduated from college, my partner and I decided to run away. We moved out to Colorado for a couple of years, and at the time, I'd been working as a dog trainer. There was a pet waste company that was hiring that had a groomer and a vet tech on staff, and I called wondering if a trainer could be a good fit for the business. The guy on the other end told me what the job was and asked me to come and check it out. I went out with him for one day, and I was so in love with what this business is. So many pet industry jobs involve a lot of stress for the animals. But in this case, the dogs are relaxed and in their own space. They show me where the ball is in their yard and want me to toss it for them — it's this amazing place to be! So, when we decided to move back to Virginia, I told my boss that pet waste management is what I want to do. He amazingly wrote me a check and was the first investment I had in my company. That funding combined with my background sets our business apart from other folks who do this. A lot of people look at this industry and they see that it's a low startup cost; they think they can just go out there and pick up some poop. But when you come to somebody like Operation: Doggie Doody, it's not just picking up the poop. Waste is a huge indicator of health, and we're looking for things that could help us say, 'Hey, there could be a problem with your dog.' What are some examples of problems you've spotted in clients' dogs? Well, the most obvious one is dogs eating things they shouldn't. If I see that they've eaten something like socks, I can be that person who can go to the owners and say, 'Hey, listen, I have been there for surgeries that thankfully saved a dog's life because of obstructions. You need to make sure the socks are put up.' I also see these dogs once a week, which allows me to see changes in them that their owners might not notice. One time there was a cute boxer that was older, probably 10. I'd see her every week, and one day I went to her owner and said, 'You know, her belly looks like it's expanded a little bit. I'm a little concerned and think you should get a vet to check on that.' She called me that night and told me, 'Thank you so much. She was riddled with cancer and was going to die any minute.' So the owner and her dog were able to have a peaceful goodbye that they wouldn't have been afforded otherwise. That's so sad, but it's great that you were able to facilitate that moment. Yes! I've got another woman right now who told me, 'Oh, we have a puppy, but you can't see him right now because he's at the vet because he has parvo.' Somebody who doesn't know what parvo is might not understand, but there's a protocol that has to go into place. She looked at me like I had three heads when I told her that I shouldn't even be in her yard right now. Almost immediately, I got her a separate set-up that stays at her home. Even my shoes stay at her house because I don't want to move anything from that yard to another house; that parvovirus can actually live in the soil for a long time. In fact, parvo is so virulent that all it's going to take is me getting it on my shoes, walking into my next client's yard, and if they have a puppy that hasn't been vaccinated yet, it could easily infect that puppy, too. Wow. What does a more typical Operation: Doggie Doody visit look like for a technician? Once we're in the yard, we immediately start a pattern. We go in one direction through the entire yard in about a two-foot pattern all the way across. We also do a four-foot cross pattern to ensure that they've gotten all the waste, which should lead you basically back out of the yard. Finally, we leave a post-it note that generally says something like, 'Have a great day, so glad to see the pups!' If there's an issue, like if they're digging a hole under the fence or the dog has diarrhea, we'll put that information on the note as well. Then we leave the yard, double-check the gate, and go back to the truck where we take our 13-gallon waste bag and put it into a black trash bag so everything is double-bagged. Then the bucket and pick go into a sanitizing solution, and we have a boot wash that we also use before we get in the vehicle. Earlier you mentioned that this is an industry with a low startup cost. What did it take for you to get Operation: Doggie Doody up and running? I started with $4,000, and most of that money was to buy a truck. Then there's insurance. I've got million-dollar coverage for any incidents that might happen. For instance, if something terrible happened and a dog got hit by a car — my insurance company covers all of that. If you don't know where to look for insurance, you're gonna pay thousands of dollars a month, but we started out at about $300 a year. That's not very much. The rest of it was regular expenses for SEC filings, state filings, and all of those things that in the grand scheme of things are just nickels and dimes along the way. As long as you have a truck and you buy a little bit of equipment — the stuff that's sitting on my truck right now is maybe $200 — that's all you need. So it was pretty cheap to start. Have you ever needed outside capital to fund your growth? For sure. The payroll costs when you're training and hiring are just out of this world. As it currently stands, I have three trucks on the road. I could probably put two more trucks on the road so that I can focus on marketing to sustain all of those people full time. My financing issues are trying to find a line of credit so that we can float that extra payroll to bring on new employees for a few weeks while, for example, we're also adding six new paying customers. Part of the problem there is my own personal credit. Years ago, when my mom was going through cancer treatments, I defaulted on my student loans and gave up on my credit. I've worked really, really hard to fix it, but even at a 700 credit score, trying to get any kind of business financing is next to impossible. Meanwhile, I have a four-year-old business that has had 63% growth during a pandemic. Personally, I think there's some value there! How do you go about marketing a business that's all about dog waste? Yes, the job itself is gross, but people love pictures of cute dogs. That's why we utilize our dogs as much as possible. What we started to do is things like memes. If you look at our Facebook page, that has been one of the biggest sources for us as far as getting new clientele. There's a lot of recommendations through there, and people share our posts a lot. Recently we posted a meme that's one of my French bulldogs who has slobber all down his face and his eyes are closed with a caption that says, 'Caution O:DD will make you make your pups... COOKIE DRUNK!' That got six shares, which really, really helps. The other thing is definitely word of mouth. We spend very little money on advertising dollars right now, but what we do spend goes toward incentivizing referrals. Everybody that refers somebody to us, that person gets a free week of service. A meme shared on the Operation: Doggie Doody Facebook page. What are some of your biggest business challenges right now? You're catching me at noon on a day that is supposed to feel like 105 degrees; global warming is something that's a real concern for us. I look forward to being able to make some changes in that direction as we grow. We're not at a point where I can go out and buy a brand new fleet of electric trucks, but that is certainly something that I want to look forward to. I want to face the challenge of lowering our carbon footprint as much as possible. Another big challenge is keeping employees on board. For a lot of people, this is a pass-through job. This is not their forever job because they don't want to pick up dog waste for the rest of their life. I have all of the passion in the world, but trying to translate that passion to employees who are picking up dog waste for money is not always the easiest. It's really up to them and their heart to see that what they're doing is making a difference. But along the way, I'm happy for us to be a stepping stone, and I care deeply about making sure that my employees have a good work-life balance. I want to make sure that they feel valued and that they have places to grow, either with the company or wherever they're going beyond this. How about you? Do you plan to be doing this for the rest of your life, or are there plans to sell the business one day? My long-term goal is to build up my business. First, I want to have employees in positions of management so that I can back off being in the yards. That way I can support my employees and check in with my dogs and my families and focus on the marketing. Eventually, I'd like to be able to turn to those employees and give them some options. I'll say, 'I'm ready to retire now. You can buy in, and we'll take care of the admin stuff for a percentage of your sales. Or you can buy your route for this amount of money, and now you have your own business.' My retirement goal is to have a bunch of companies potentially branch off of this so that as I go, my legacy continues. For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Jul 16, 2021 • 8 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

How Terrance Williams Grew an Etsy Shop Into a Successful Business

Terrance Williams’ path to entrepreneurship started with a Christmas gift. After his sister gifted him a sewing machine, he took up sewing as a hobby, making his own clothing pieces. Then in 2014, Williams started selling the items on Etsy. Since then, he has grown his business, Terrance Williams Designs, into a full-time, successful fashion line. Incorporating his passion for sustainability, Williams designs and makes the pieces in small batches using ethically and sustainably produced fabrics. Q&A with Terrence Williams  Hello Alice caught up with Williams to discuss turning a hobby into a full-time business, being your own boss, and why it’s okay to promote yourself on social media. You started sewing as a hobby. Was there a turning point where you decided to launch a business?  I had thought about it for a while, and I had set up an Etsy shop, but I didn’t list anything. When I would come to work and wear my own designs, everyone kept telling me, ‘You should sell it.’ Everyone told me that every single day. It was my coworkers who came up to me, and they were like, ‘You seriously need to sell your stuff because it’s so amazing. There are people on Etsy who sell their kids’ macaroni artwork for $500. So if you can sell that, then you can sell your stuff.’ And that was the catalyst for me to start my business. How did you grow your business into a full-time venture? It wasn’t something that happened overnight. It definitely took a really long time. But I was doing my business on Etsy and working my full-time jobs from 2014 until 2019. Every time that I went into work, I would be thinking and saying to myself, there’s so much that I could be doing for my business right now. So I quit my full-time job, moved to Dallas, and started my business full time. That’s when I launched my own website, rebranded, and designed a bunch of new products.  It was absolutely terrifying because I was so used to having that safety net of another job and consistent income. But I had been making consistently enough with my Etsy shop that I felt confident. I’m a firm believer in speaking things into existence, and I had been speaking this into existence, and I wanted to do it full time, and I was going to make it happen. I saved up my pennies and rallied my friends and family around me and said, ‘This is what I’m doing.’ And they all said, ‘Okay!’ And here I am! What are the pros and cons of being your own boss?   Working for yourself and running your own business is amazing because you get free creative control of whatever direction you want your business to go. You really get to make your own schedule and delegate your own tasks. I think it’s amazing that you could have a dream and passion, and you could wake up every single day to do that passion. I get to wake up every day and create things.  But with that, the cons are you are in control of everything. There are parts of my business that I absolutely love like fabric shopping, sourcing fabric, and designing. But then there are the other things like the financial stuff. I’m not good with numbers, so I have every software known to man to do that for me. It’s a lot of work, but it’s work that I love to do.  [Hello Alice Guide: Set Up a Bookkeeping and Accounting System] You create your pieces with your customers in mind. How do you communicate with your followers to help guide what you make?   I’m very blessed that I have followers who are super engaged with my content and are constantly giving me ideas and suggestions. It’s sometimes difficult being in charge of everything because I know the prints and patterns that I like, but I’m not the one who’s buying my items. It’s important to do a little bit of market research because not only are those people following me, but they’re also buying my item. If they want to see a certain print or pattern, even though I may not be into it, it’s important to provide that for them. [Hello Alice Guide: Write a Market Research Report] They’re constantly leaving me suggestions in the comments. I get on Instagram and do different polls. Last week, I asked, ‘If I just did plain colored headbands, what colors would you want to see?’ because I’ve been getting a lot of requests for that. I got hundreds and hundreds of responses. It was a little overwhelming, but it was good because it tells me exactly what people want to buy, which really helps me in the end. How did you find your customers?  I think it’s difficult at the beginning for anyone. You have products that you absolutely love that you think other people are going to love, but posting it on the internet with a billion other websites and especially on Etsy, it’s really hard to get seen. But I’m not afraid to put myself out there because this was something that I was really passionate about and that I was going to make work.  I use social media to the fullest: Facebook, Instagram, a little bit of Twitter. I was also handing out business cards, talking to small businesses, and networking — everything that I could to get my name out there and doing it consistently.  [Hello Alice Guide: Establish a Social Media Presence] I think a lot of people have a fear of starting their small business and then over-promoting themselves. I always get the feedback, ‘Well, I don’t want to post on Facebook all the time and annoy people.’ And I always say, ‘Post all the time because the people that are annoyed, they can unfollow you, they can unfriend you, they can mute your posts, but they weren’t going to support you anyway. There are people on Facebook who are going to support you and want to see your content, so you need to keep going.’ Every time that I posted on Facebook, there was someone who would say, ‘I didn’t know you had a business,’ and I would get a sale. It’s just important to keep promoting yourself.  It can seem a little overwhelming, and people might say it’s tacky, but at the end of the day, I’m trying to run my business. Could you tell us the importance of implementing sustainable practices in your business?  Fashion is one of the biggest contributors to the decline of the planet, so for me, I didn’t want to add more weight when I was creating my line. Even from the very beginning, when I started out at Etsy, sustainability and human rights were super important to me. I went to college at the University of Delaware and got my degree in political science with a concentration in Global Studies and a triple minor in African Studies, Asian Studies, and Women’s Studies. So human rights have always been really important to me. I was going to go to law school, took the LSAT, and decided not to go. I was at a crossroads like, how do I combine my love of fashion with my love of human rights? [Hello Alice Guide: Embed Purpose Into Your Business] That’s why I started the whole sustainability aspect. Sustainability is such a broad topic, and it addresses multiple issues, not just the earth and saving the whales and the environment, but also making sure that people are paid fair wages in safe working conditions. When it comes to my business, I source fabric where people are paid fair wages and in safe working conditions and use mailers that are made from 100% recyclable material, so they can be composted, recycled, or reused. Five percent of all sales from the website help companies who are removing carbon from the atmosphere. There are many things that I’m doing, big and small, to help with the sustainability movement. Do you have any advice for those who want to start a fashion brand of their own? Number one is to be authentic. A lot of people want to start a fashion brand, and they want to take the easy route and do what everyone else is doing, which is buying things on Alibaba or another place in bulk and just reselling it. But everyone is doing that. People are looking for different items and not necessarily things that they can get from everywhere else. [Hello Alice Guide: Create a Brand Identity] It’s also important to have an idea of a mission that you want to accomplish. Mine is sustainability. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be on an activism route; it could just be providing fashion that is unique. It’s really important to tailor your message to something instead of just saying, ‘I just want to start a brand.’ There has to be some kind of brand identity behind it. For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Jul 14, 2021 • 6 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

Introducing the Inspiring Force Behind The Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund by SIA Scotch

Carin Luna-Ostaseski is one of the first Hispanic founders of a scotch whisky. Her journey as a first-generation Cuban American challenged conventions every step of the way and has inspired others to achieve the unexpected, a mantra that SIA Scotch Whisky now lives by. In her mid-20s, Carin would not have considered herself a scotch whisky lover. But a friend encouraged her to try something new, and hosted a tasting for her, which changed her life. She then began a grand tour of her local spirits purveyor, sampling over 300 bottles of whiskies and scotches, and falling in love with the category, all while becoming a dedicated student of the spirit. Carin started hosting tasting events to share her favorite blends with her friends and loved ones, and through this process, she realized what the world was missing: an ultra-premium yet affordable and approachable scotch whisky, perfect for the connoisseurs as well as the curious. She wanted to change the way people thought about the category and challenge those old, stodgy conventions. What began as a casual pastime quickly became a life-altering passion. Now, to pay it forward to the next wave of entrepreneurs of color, SIA Scotch Whisky and Carin have partnered with Hello Alice to launch The Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund. Open to entrepreneurs of color, the program offers twenty-five $10,000 grants and mentorship to selected recipients who are twenty-five years or older (as of September 14, 2021) and operate and/or conduct business in at least one of the following states: California, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, New York and/or Texas. Applications are open now through August 10, 2021, at 6 p.m. ET. For grant eligibility, application qualifications, and other details, see the Terms & Conditions. To introduce her to our community, Hello Alice talked with Carin about persevering through rejection, how she financed her business, and why you should never, ever be afraid to ask a question. When did your interest in scotch whisky shift from a hobby to an actual business? I started tinkering with the idea in 2009 or 2010. At first, it was a passion project, right? I started doing tasting events and visiting Scotland quite a bit to dip my toes into the water. Then I finally realized that I couldn't not turn my idea into an actual brand. I think these days people call it a side hustle. [laughs] That's when I started reaching out to anyone and everyone who could possibly help me, and I also kept getting rejected time and time again. I remember I got 80 rejections because it was the eighty-first person that finally said, 'Yes, we can help you through this process, we've got resources and connections to help you.' The lesson there is to just keep pushing. Your background is in marketing and design. How did you get your foot in the door in an unfamiliar, male-dominated industry? I was going into this “old boys club” — or so I thought. In reality, throughout my journey all of the big doors have been opened to me by women. The first major donor was actually two women, Lauren Mayer and Gabby Shayne. They work in the spirits industry, and it’s been a family business for three generations. They loved my concept of bringing a modern, unexpected blend to the world for younger consumers and my vision of breaking those stereotypes of scotch as your grandfather's drink. They said, 'Yeah, we've got some connections for blenders and some manufacturing connections and distributors when you're ready.' Through the years of us working together, they eventually invested in the brand and became partners. How did you get introduced to Lauren and Gabby? I met them with a cold email if you can believe it.  Wow, is there a special formula for making those requests? It’s pretty simple, I think. ‘Hey, this is me, I've got this passion, I'm really interested in this, this is my concept. I don't know many people in the industry. Would you be open to having a short conversation with me? Would you like to partner on this?’ It’s about making the bold request. I also really believe that there's magic in the act of paying it forward. Any time I get any entrepreneur request — on email, phone call, or text — I answer it. I've mentored quite a few companies along the way myself. I know a thing or two, and I'm happy to help give that back through mentorship programs and accelerators. And now, through this amazing Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund that we just launched with Hello Alice. You’ve actually been on Hello Alice as an owner for years. What resources have been helpful along your entrepreneurial journey? Being in the beverage industry, I keep up with all of the resources from the Hello Alice WomanMade community. That’s something I've tapped into many times over the years. Also, when I first joined Hello Alice, it was in the middle of my fundraising stage, and it was great seeing all the different options out there and all the grant programs available to entrepreneurs. Being a Hispanic woman, it feels like there's not a lot for me, especially in Silicon Valley, where everyone here is like, ‘Is it a SaaS business? Is there artificial intelligence enabling it?’ I’m like, ‘No, this is a scotch whisky!’ So seeing a Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) focus on Hello Alice was really important for me —  just seeing what was out there and using some of the templates offered. It’s really a wealth of information. Hello Alice owners typically tell us that funding is their biggest challenge. How did you get the capital to launch SIA Scotch Whisky? At first, I had my full-time job, and Lauren and Gabby were helping me along as consultants. I needed to pay for them, so I took on freelance design work on nights and weekends. Besides bootstrapping, I also took out a home equity line of credit. I made sure that I had credit cards too so that in a pinch, I had access to those as a safety net. Then I launched on Kickstarter. When that happened, it was 2012, and people didn't really know what crowdfunding was, so it took courage to go out and ask my friends and family to put money onto a platform that they've never heard of. And also, it was a challenge putting myself out there to the world and saying, ‘This is what I'm working on.’ That was really scary and intimidating for me.  Later, I brought on angel investors. Lauren and Gabby’s father became an investor and so did another gentleman, a friend of his who had had an exit from a spirit brand before. They became my smart money business partners. One thing I like to tell a lot of entrepreneurs — if you have a CPG brand especially — is to get these smart money investors early on. They took a pretty sizable chunk of the business, but it paid in this huge way down the line. They said, ‘Where brands like yours will fail is that your margins aren't high enough.’ So they worked with me even before they put in a single penny to help get my margins to be a sustainable business. And then they said, ‘We're going to be your bank. We are taking a sizable chunk of equity, but you'll never have to go out and raise money for inventory. We'll pay for your bottles, your liquid, your caps, corks, boxes, factory production, freight from the U.K. to the U.S., and storage. Then as purchase orders come in, we'll keep our portion to get our money back, and then you can use the rest for sales and marketing.’ Over the years, that was several million dollars that I didn't have to go out and raise or give up equity just to create the product.  Long story short, I didn't come from a big distilling family or background, so I had to find creative ways to fund the business! There has to be a lot of red tape, lingo, and technical details in an industry like yours. How did you fill those knowledge gaps? You'd be really surprised to find that people are very friendly. Especially in my industry, it doesn't feel like a competition. It really feels like people are genuinely trying to help you. Don't be afraid to ask and speak up when you don't know something. For example, my distributors were talking a lot about something called ‘OND.’ I looked it up on Google, and I couldn't find anything. Finally, I asked somebody else, and they said, ‘Oh, it's October, November, December. It’s the busiest season for alcohol sales.’ So yeah, I’d say not being afraid to ask questions, especially early on. What other advice would you give to women following in your footsteps? Again, I think finding a community is important. If you can't find one, create one. Dr. Nicola Nice approached me about joining this group she started,  a women’s cocktail collective, where we could all help each other and find alliances for things such as events, cocktail recipes, menu placements, and more. That's been really refreshing for me, to be part of a group like this.  Scotch whisky is traditionally an older man's business, especially in distribution. There were times where I'd go into a business meeting or a sales pitch and there might be 13 white men sitting around the table, and I was the only woman, the only person of color. That was tough. Now we are hopefully at the beginning of a tide that's going to turn, and it takes people just doing it and also putting money back into the community and supporting brands that are smaller and scrappier. The Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund is part of that solution, right? Yes! This is a dream come true. Every year since I started SIA Scotch Whisky, at the end of each year, I check out what my sales were and we take a percentage and donate it to different organizations that help disadvantaged entrepreneurs start and run their own businesses. This year, I'm really really excited to have launched The Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund, which is donating $250,000 in grants to multicultural entrepreneurs and small business owners of color that tend to be underrepresented when it comes to funding. This program is the biggest initiative that I've ever been a part of, and I'm over the moon for what the potential can be to help put money back into our communities. Are you an entrepreneur of color who would benefit from a $10K grant? Applications for The Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund by SIA Scotch are open now until August 10, 2021, at 6 p.m. ET. For grant eligibility, application qualifications and other details, see the Terms & Conditions. Sponsored by SIA Scotch Whisky. PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY. SIA Blended Scotch Whisky. 43% Alc/Vol. Imported by Diageo, New York, NY. Do not share with anyone under the age of 21.
Jul 13, 2021 • 7 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

This Publication Is Filling the Need for BIPOC and Queer Voices

Ashton Brooks is the co-founder and editor in chief of Chaos+Comrades, a digital publication amplifying BIPOC and queer voices. Working as an associate producer at WNET, New York’s PBS affiliate, Brooks saw a lack of people of color and queer folks in the station’s documentaries. That’s when he had the idea to start his own magazine. “As a person of color, as a Black person, I felt like I wanted to create my own platform to represent and tell stories of specifically those communities because I’m at the intersection of both,” says Brooks. He soon began taking design and editorial classes at a local New York City college before launching Chaos+Comrades in July 2019. Hello Alice spoke with Brooks about building a multimedia publication from scratch, growing a team, and the importance of telling stories of marginalized communities. What follows are his own words, edited for length and clarity. How did you get into multimedia storytelling? I was in the Air Force for six, seven years. Afterward, when I left, I moved to New York for film school. I’m a very creative person. I like being creative and exploring different ways of honing that creative skill. So I decided to go to film school to learn how to direct and create visuals.  Through that two-and-a-half-year process, I got on a producer track and learned a lot about producing films and television series and more behind-the-scenes types of things. That led me to my fellowship at WNET. That’s when I got a chance to see how documentaries were being told and put together.  How did your experience at WNET lead to starting your publication? It took me on different paths. Once I saw how that big machine works and how it oppresses and leaves out certain voices, that’s kind of when I was like, I think I have enough skills and knowledge and resources to start my own. I wanted to apply it more to BIPOC and queer voices versus something that wasn’t really aimed at my community. So I jumped ship, and I’ve been working on Chaos+Comrades ever since. Once you had the idea, what were your next steps? The first thing that I did was recognize my limitations and my skill sets, then learn those other skills that I would need to be a good leader. I wanted to learn how to speak to a design team and how to speak my ideas. So I took several courses at SVA, School of Visual Arts here in New York, and learned those skills. Organically, I went out, did a lot of networking events, and found people that believed in the vision. I met my co-founder, who came on board in 2018. Then, it started growing from there. We started offering internships and fellowships, and through that, those internships turned into people that have stayed with us and continue to work with us. And the company just kind of grew. Can you share with us the importance of amplifying BIPOC and queer voices? The most important thing is making sure that my team and my company look like the world does, which is inclusive of people of color and queer voices. I think working in the film industry in New York and seeing a lack of those voices being heard or being oppressed in different workspaces, I wanted to create a space for those people who don’t get the chance to be heard to come in and tell their stories organically, for us and by us.  I think that organic truth-telling is something that saves a lot of lives, and there’s a lot of queer children growing up that need that representation and need someone to look up to. A lot of content when I was growing up, there wasn’t a Black queer guy that I could look up to. For me, this platform represents creating space for the next generation to see themselves reflected in the people doing work nowadays. How did you grow your audience when you started from nothing? It’s something that I’ve learned more so recently. I was in grad school for publishing, learning and making connections in the industry that would allow me to grow that audience. One thing is that a lot of people don’t take advantage of the amount of grants that are out there for minority-owned businesses and queer businesses. That helped us a lot. There’ve been so many grants that we’ve applied for over the past year that we were able to get. Some of those are just keeping your ear to the street like looking on social media, doing Google searches.  [Hello Alice Guide: Apply for Minority-Owned Business Grants] I think great content is where it starts. Whatever you’re doing, you have to make a great product and great content. Then, you have to create great marketing and distribution channels like making sure you have a strong social media presence and branding. Those are the type of things that bring your audience in, and the constant content keeps them with you. It’s what we’ve been doing. Through that process, we decided to relaunch our brand in the coming weeks because we learned so much over the past couple of years. We wanted to redo our branding and start growing the audience even more.  Can you tell us more about your rebranding process? We always have focused on content for the past year and a half, making sure that we amplify the voices of BIPOC and queer people. That was first and foremost for us. Then it was like, ‘Okay, our competition is stepping it up. Everybody is stepping it up.’  Last year, we started sitting down as a team and thinking about what we want our brand to look like. Because of the pandemic, everything was so digital. There was so much digital noise that it was hard to stand out. For a brand to stand out, they had to have a stronger branding than they did prior to the pandemic. It was several months of a process of reaching out to different people and experts in the field and talking with my team. But it’s starting with what we like, what we don’t like, and putting things together. Eventually, we had a whole style guide of new branding and how we wanted to take our brand to introduce this new era. It sounds like your team plays a significant role at your company. How did you find your staff? There’s a tool that universities use called Handshake, where brands and organizations can post job opportunities. We started our internship program a little over two years ago, and we started posting opportunities there. That’s how we found most, if not all, of the people still on our team to this day.  Through that came more opportunities. I’ve had so many colleges and universities offer us grants to hire their students who want to get experience or learn about what it’s like to go into publishing or digital media. We had a partnership with MIT at the top of this year for January internships, and they gave us a grant to hire one of their students. So that’s a huge thing, putting postings on universities.  Social media has been another tool. We do a lot of editorials, so I like to have personal essays of people from the community. We’ll use social media with a blast like, ‘Hey, we’re looking for Black trans writers to write about this issue. We pay this much for the article.’ There are certain groups on Twitter that you can send that to, and we’ve done many submissions based on that. You’re launching a print publication this summer. Can you tell us more about that? It’s a print newspaper that will come out four times a year. The idea is for people to share stories of BIPOC and queer communities that normally wouldn’t read, listen, or be exposed to these communities.  The idea is like when you go to Starbucks and pay it forward: You go through a drive-thru and pay for the coffee of the person behind you. In our case, you subscribe to the print quarterly, you get the digital, and then you send your print version to, like, your mom or dad or grandma. Through that, they’re getting to learn and grow into their understanding of communities outside of their own. Read more Chaos + Comrades content, including their helpful "Woke Guides," at chaosandcomrades.com. For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Jun 29, 2021 • 5 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

Entrepreneurship Helped Maureen Cacioppo Start a Family, Give Back, and Find Balance

Maureen Cacioppo and her wife wanted to start building a family together, but that goal wasn’t compatible with her career in outdoor education that required lots of travel. So in 2016, Cacioppo left her job to start her own business called Florida Pure Sea Salt. Harvesting the salt by hand from seawater, Cacioppo and her team create a range of products from traditional sea salt to salts infused with chipotle, rosemary, and black truffle. Best of all, being her own boss allowed Cacioppo and her wife to fulfill a longtime goal to get licensed as a foster home for children. Hello Alice talked with Cacioppo about turning a hobby into a business, navigating different red tape and certifications, and how the pandemic forced her to rethink key parts of her strategy. What follows are highlights from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity. On starting her business: “Coming from a large family, it was an important part of the culture to get together and share meals. Harvesting salt kind of made sense. I love the outdoors, food, and was just curious about that process of making it. I started in my backyard, and I learned a lot about pots because seawater is super corrosive. Then, I started really getting into more of the chemistry of it, the history of salt making.  When my wife and I weren't able to get on with certain family goals that we had set for ourselves because I was leaving Florida a lot for work, we decided that we were going to either have to change those goals or change something else. That’s when I thought, we could have this hobby be a business. One of our big goals for our family was to get licensed as a foster home for children. We have been fostering kids for the last two and a half years. It's a lot easier to be a parent when you’re in the state. So that's been really cool in this job, although being a small business owner, there's stress and uncertainties and things that kind of come up and also a lot of good stuff that comes up. You're creating a culture and you're affecting your community in different ways. Those are all great opportunities to really do good things. There's a balance being a small business owner, and I'm really liking the balance right now.” On navigating the paperwork and red tape: “As I started to kind of get into the process of starting the business, there was so much red tape involved with what we were doing because no one really knew what we were doing. People were really curious. I had to get different certifications, checking with different government entities. Once I started going through, that I was like, whoa, this is quite a process. It took about six months. I think that's going to be a lot longer than other companies because of the business we do. But just like anything in life, you have to remind yourself to be patient. I also did research; the internet is an incredible tool, so a lot of what I learned was being curious and wanting to do the right thing that led me to reach out to a governmental entity. Then, having a conversation led me to reach out to another. It was really wanting to make sure that we cross our t's and dot our i’s.” On the process of harvesting salt: “Each company does it differently. Some companies go to the sides of mountains and use heavy machinery and just tear it right out. There's some companies doing it that way, which is, I think, really aggressive for the earth.  We take seawater. We have little to no byproduct; the byproduct we have can go right back into the seawater. It's actually cleaner than when we took it out. We're not hurting sea life or creatures or changing the landscape forever. We gather buckets of water, we test it, we filter it. From there, we'll boil it to reduce volume and remove some of the minerals that make salt bitter.  Then, we infuse salts with fresh ingredients. It's small-batch, and our hands are doing it, not machinery. We're able to really control the process and the ingredients going into it, so it's not, you know, dried rosemary from another company that's been sitting on a shelf for six months, and then gets moved to a grocery store. It doesn't happen like that. Because we're small, it's so fresh, and we can use the best ingredients. And that makes all the difference in the world. When you use your hands and control all aspects, you get a really phenomenal product.” On finding resources to grow her business: “We have a wonderful resource here in St. Petersburg called the Greenhouse. It's a small business incubator, so they have a ton of resources. They provide coaches that are well versed in different business aspects, whether you're building out your website or you're needing basic accounting assistance. I think, stepping back and saying, ‘Okay, I know myself well enough to know that I need assistance in this area x, y, and z, and then seeking that guidance,’ is really important.” On how she responded to the pandemic: “When things were shutting down last year, it was a really scary time because everyone's yelling, 'Pivot! Pivot!' I’m going, 'We’re a salt company. There's really no way to pivot to.' What I decided at that time was that there were a few things that we could change in order to come out stronger — and that was building out our back end.  We wound up spending quite a bit of money on areas that we were able to grow and strengthen, so we could come out stronger. And the back end for our website was searchability. We got a new social media company. We did a couple things to strategically place us in a better position when we came out, and it's working. We are facing some challenges right now with my bottle company not being able to manufacture what we need. But again, it's kind of like, ‘Well, we've been putting off doing recyclable pouches for a while. Let's do that right now. Our customers have been asking from us. Let's see how it goes.’  We are also sourcing other bottles to see if it’s something that can help with challenges like putting on labels. It's very time consuming to put on labels with the way our bottles are created. It’s incredible when you're pushed to grow and be put in your challenge zone instead of your comfort zone — that's when the growth happens. We've been doing a lot of growing.” On becoming a Certified B Corporation: “During the last year, we have gotten to some of the projects that I've been wanting to do like becoming B Corp certified. We're a for-profit company, but we recognize that we have an effect on our environment, our community, our staff. There are five areas of focus, and this process takes months and months to get through your first initial process before you even ask for certification.  USF, which is a college down here, put together a Business for Good pilot program, and they gave us undergrad and grad students to help us online for six months. They were amazing at writing policy and helping us through that first initial process. There were some things that I didn't know about that they were able to provide even more tools or resources that will help us have a more positive effect on a couple different things of our community and the environment.” On starting a social initiative at her company: “Last year in 2020, we started giving a percentage of our market sales to different organizations. What we did this year is we blew last year away, and we designed 11 labels for 11 different organizations that are supporting different causes, whether it's veteran support, protecting the planet, clean water. We're now able to give back 20% of each bottle sold for the entire year for all 11 nonprofits.  We're just trying to get the word out on social media about these organizations that are doing some really cool things and just another way to support, whether it's buying salt to support us and them or just going to their website directly making a donation.” On why she gives back: “I think it's because of my background that we run this business a little bit differently. Coming from nonprofits, seeing what that can do for people, I think that sets a different tone. It was very intentional from the get-go when I started putting on paper what I wanted this business to look like. I definitely wanted to have the support for our staff, our crew, the community, and the waterways. And in knowing that we have an effect on everyone that we've come in contact with — we can have a positive effect or a negative effect. I feel a responsibility in the fact that you can affect all the people and the environment that you're touching.” For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Jun 24, 2021 • 6 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

Starting a Business Helped Stephen Burt Become the Lawyer He Was Meant To Be

When Stephen Burt decided he wanted to be a lawyer, he knew he wanted to help people. And that's what he and his team do every day at the Orlando-based S.K. Burt Law, P.A. Specializing in immigrant law, family law, and estate planning with an emphasis on assisting LGBTQ+ clients, the boutique firm was only months old when the pandemic hit. But Burt has been able to keep the firm afloat and continue to offer his services on a sliding scale to those most vulnerable — something, he says, he wouldn't have been able to do had he taken a job at a bigger firm where he was not the owner. Q&A with Stephen Burt of S.K. Burt Law, P.A. Hello Alice recently spoke to Burt about finding his way to law, relying on his loved ones for support, and how networking can usually solve most of your business problems. What follows are his own words, lightly edited for length and clarity. You started your career as a high school band director. What drove you to change course and become a lawyer? Teaching was definitely my trajectory for a good portion of my early adulthood, but I ended up not finding it as fulfilling as I had initially anticipated. Luckily, one of my friends out of undergrad ended up going to law school and asked if I ever thought about becoming a lawyer. It'd never even crossed my mind, but I looked into it and thought it was really cool. So I decided to sign up to take the LSAT three weeks later — which I would never recommend, by the way — and I somehow magically did really well. Then I applied to school and graduated in three years. There are a lot of law firms out there. Why did you choose to start your own? Well, there are two reasons. The first is because I couldn't find a job. [Laughs] The second reason was a little more intentional. As a teacher, I learned a lot about the work environment I needed for my own mental health and my own abilities to succeed. A lot of law offices don't take into consideration mental health, personal life, and people's individual needs. That was something I knew I needed to thrive. On top of that, my parents are business owners. My dad has owned a construction company for the greater part of my life, so I kind of have that small business mindset and grassroots, grow-from-nothing concept of work. I also saw it as an opportunity to give back to the community that I really am passionate about serving and providing legal services to individuals who are in need. You don't always do that at a big firm, because big firms are driven by money. Money is obviously necessary to run a law firm, but I have a little bit more control in my current position as a business owner to pick some clients who are in need and may not even have the ability to pay at all — and I really like that! Do you find it difficult to be a good lawyer while also being a good small business owner? Yes, it's very, very difficult! Truthfully, one of the biggest ways that I've been able to work through that exact issue is through some of the Facebook groups that I'm part of and some of the smaller networks. For example, there are a handful of Facebook groups designed solely for solo or small practice lawyers who work by themselves or in small towns. So really, those networks have been absolutely incredible for me to be able to have the opportunity to learn how to how to manage both sides. There are some lawyers that only do the legal work and hire an office manager to help run the business side of things. But there's also a good portion of us that falls in the middle somewhere. For me, I know it'll evolve. I'm having to split my time 50–50 between practicing law and running a small business. Often, the law takes over, and I don't have as much time to focus on my small business. On the flip side, there are times where I have more than enough time to work on my business, and I'm frustrated because I can't get the legal work to keep up. So it's going to change over time, and I don't know exactly what role I'll take when it's all said and done. The hardest part of starting a business is usually figuring out how to pay for it. How did you fund your firm? The costs of starting a law firm aren't that great — we don't have a lot of overhead, for example. So in terms of startup costs, I was really lucky to have been able to receive a little bit of support from my parents. But also, I didn't take an income for the first year of the firm. I'm really lucky to have the full support of my husband, who has singlehandedly allowed me to take this venture on at times where there isn't any income from my side of things after I pay my staff and cover our expenses. So that was an advantage that I had that I know other colleagues of mine don't have. Friends of mine who I graduated law school with that tried to start their own business — they just couldn't do it. They needed a steady income in order to survive. I'm really blessed to have had the support of my husband that allowed me to take a little bit of a risk there. I know that not everybody is in a position where they can take on that kind of investment. Free and sliding scale services are part of your mission. But does that also make projecting month-to-month revenue difficult for your firm? Yes, and that's something that I've had to work on. I do have a staff to pay and bills to pay and expenses that come up throughout the course of running a business, so learning how to manage that has been a challenge. We've been lucky to have a business for almost two years now, and there have definitely been some ups and downs. None of our success would have been possible without my colleagues who have been so gracious to provide insight and mentorship over the years. Just like anything, I've learned the importance of being patient and not freaking out when you have a low month. Simultaneously, I know not to blow everything that I have when we have a good month. We've been able to grow through those challenges and rise to the mission. If I were a lawyer looking to start my own firm, what would be your biggest piece of advice? Take it slow, and know that it takes time to develop a clientele. In my first month in business, I had three clients, and they were all friends of mine! The other thing is making sure that you're putting yourself into positions where you can meet people. A lot of small firm lawyers, your number one source of clientele is going to be referrals. So you have to put yourself out there in places and positions where you're going to meet people that you know are going to refer clients. One of those resources for me is Orlando's Pride Chamber. I'm in a networking group there and fostering relationships with those individuals who are other small business owners — creating a network, basically — has been of absolutely immeasurable value. It's hard because that takes time out of my day, but, in turn, I reap the benefit of that. Plus, it's been great to continue to dig into the LGBTQ community here in central Florida and find my place in the business community. For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Jun 23, 2021 • 5 min read