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Programs help ground entrepreneurs’ dreams in reality

February 22nd, 2013

News Coverage:

Programs help ground entrepreneurs’ dreams in reality

Posted: Friday, February 22, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 7:55 am, Fri Feb 22, 2013.

By Rick Farrant
rfarrant@fwbusiness.com

Lindsey Hively began her entrepreneurial quest at the age of 5 or 6 when she set up a roadside stand at her Churubusco-area home and tried to sell unadorned rocks from the driveway.

She recalls selling just one rock — to her parents, whom she presumes returned the stone to the driveway.

In the childhood years that followed, she tried other endeavors that never really took off. A card-making business. Designer bank bags that could be used to hold all sorts of things.

And then at 20, Hively, along with her father, Gary, began what would become Kernel Coladas Gourmet Popcorn in Columbia City. Over the next almost five years she grew the business, which sells roughly 30 colorful, flavored popcorn varieties to walk-in customers and also ships the bags to people throughout the United States and soon to Canada.

But the vivacious Indiana University- Purdue University Fort Wayne marketing graduate had no formal business plan, and even though she had gleaned much from her course work and self study, she was, by her own admission, guided by dreams more than business principles.

Programs offered by the Whitley County Economic Development Corp.’s Small Business and Entrepreneurship Initiative — especially a recent Market Maker program — brought structure to Hively’s efforts. “I’ve read a lot of books,” she said. “I’ve had my college courses. And I’ve had almost five years of experience just doing it and living it. But I don’t think I’ve learned anything as beneficial as this tool or these matrices and the process I’ve learned from Market Maker. It kind of just clicked for me.”

SBEI’s free programs are funded by a variety of sources and managed by Bruce Stach, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, strategic planner for ITT Corp. and now owner or co-owner of two consulting firms.

Since the programs began in 2008, SBEI has served 55 business interests, ranging from entrepreneurs with little more than an idea to established businesses looking to expand.

“The majority of the entrepreneurs in this country,” Stach said, “have had no formal business training. They have an idea, they have a dream, they know what they want to accomplish.

“We felt we could increase the probability of success if we offered a structured method that provided rudimentary business education for these companies. That’s sort of the baseline we started from.”

The success of SBEI, though, is not being measured in traditional forms, just as the overall success of the Whitley County EDC is not determined by standard outcomes.

“Some of (the SBEI) participants have gone out of business,” Stach said. “The idea didn’t work. Some of them have grown tremendously. Some haven’t changed. It’s the mix you’d expect.

“Too many people are fixated on numbers instead of the mental impact you’re having on these companies,” he said. “They now have a future well-defined.”

Hively began her SBEI learning in a program called Greenlight, which Stach said is largely geared toward entrepreneurs who haven’t yet started their business.

“The idea is take a client, walk them through a structured strategic process and decide if this is something that can succeed,” Stach said. “You know, should I cash in my 401(k) account or should I just keep my day job?

“About a third of them decide (the business) is not a good idea, and those are successes because they haven’t impacted their family’s future in a negative way trying to do something that wouldn’t have worked.”

Hively next participated with eight other companies in Market Maker, which began with three half-day workshops and is designed, Stach said, to help businesses “develop a new product or service for an existing market or take a current product or service to a new market.”

Market Maker is supported by industry and market research analyses supplied through Manchester University and specifically with the help of Manchester accounting and marketing grad Felicia Fahey.

In the first session of Market Maker in January, Richard Meyer, manager of faculty and innovation services at the Purdue Manufacturing Extension Partnership, took participants on an educational journey filled with principles like stimulus mining, leveraging diverse thinking, developing clear messaging, exploring benefit promises and identifying what is meaningfully unique about a product.

For Hively, what resonated was focusing on what customers want. It is a concept that sounds simple, she acknowledged, but it has changed her approach to Kernel Coladas.

“Market Maker gave me system,” she said. “And I guess you’re right. We started with popcorn and, ‘Hey, who can we push this to?’ But now I’ve flipped it. You know, stop thinking about the product first. Start thinking about the customer.”

So one day in early February, there she was working on strategy in her office down the hall from neatly arranged rows of bags of popcorn with exotic, playful labels like Tahitian Vanilla, Caribbean Cherry, Island Green Apple and Bahama Blueberry.

She had just completed a matrix of what was important to customers: freshness and taste, reasonable prices, variety, ease of event planning, superior customer service and impressive presentation. On a white board near her desk were improvement goals to reach for, including this: “Capture the voice of the customer.”

Hively said business has grown steadily at her three-employee company, largely on the strength of wedding party favors and corporate gifts orders.

With the help of the SBEI, she sees even greater things ahead.

“We’re trying to flip,” she said, “from small-town, small-minded thinking to let’s be a big company that delivers whatever the customer wants.”

She has, she said, come a long way from a 20-year-old kid who “just jumped in” and “then kind of cleaned things up along the way.”

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