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 all been helped by a small business mentor.
While their stories are inspiring and instructive, the best part is you can steal their secret to success, and it won’t cost you a dime.
Cowboy Cricket Farms
When Kathy 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’ crickets are food-grade crickets, which are high in protein and are grown for human consumption. The crickets are environmentally friendly, and compared to beef, for example, use 2,060 times less water, 14 times less feed, and a fraction of the land mass. Cricket powder is used in the company’s baked goods (like the popular Chocolate Chirp Cookies), chips, and energy bars; roasted, flavored crickets also have proven to be a popular healthful, high-protein snack.
The Rolins started their business in November 2016, and began breeding crickets in January 2017 with hopes that they would one day fill a 1,500-square-foot facility. It turns out, their idea took off quickly. “It’s hard to keep up with demand,” says Kathy. “The demand for our flavored crickets has been so high we have had to shut down orders on our website a few times to play catch up.” In response to the high demand, the entrepreneurs have created a network of “Partner Farmers,” and currently have six partner farms up and running, and another 12 in the onboarding stage.
The Rolins’ SCORE mentor, Rick Sanders, who volunteers with Bozeman SCORE, helped the couple develop their business plan. He encouraged them to apply for business grants, and 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 Kathy. “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, the 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 girls’ getaway weekend in 2015 by three friends: Amber Kroeker, Kate Compton Barr, and Lauren Hughey. Kroeker is an infant safety expert who had 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 getting her business started here.
Since that girls’ weekend, the three formed a company, obtained trademarks and a provisional patent, secured U.S. 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 their booth.) And they quickly discovered there were people who loved 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 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, during a conversation with her business partners, Hughey explained 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 to 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 also quick to add that they measure growth not only in sales but in bottles kept out of the trash or recycling system. To date, the company has saved more than 800,000 bottles.
“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 and coach
There’s nothing that Sharita Humphrey likes better than to see the light bulb go off in her clients’ heads when they realize they can get out of debt, improve their credit, or start a successful business. As a certified financial educator and coach, Humphrey 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, and 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 block 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 10 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 SCORE Orange County 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 paid off. Thompson Tee has experienced 100% year-over-year growth for the past five years, and landed a spot on the popular TV show Shark Tank last year. The company has customers in more than 135 countries and has created jobs for a diverse workforce in Southern California and now 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.