Beginning a Startup in the Unknown

Beginning a Startup in the Unknown

Have you ever been hanging out with a friend, talking about things, when suddenly an exciting idea pops up in the conversation?


It can be a business idea or it can be any type of activity seemingly a bit out of the box given the context. From my own experience, these conversations are fun but usually aren’t taken seriously. It’s fun to talk about strange ideas, but to actually pursue them is a different story. And so the idea inevitably dies a quick death after a protracted silence or when somebody changes the topic. This could have easily happened to us, but it didn’t.


The idea for Spark Mints came to us while we were at the Dave Matthews Band concert at the Gorge Amphitheater in Washington State. It was late in the day and hot. We were tired. But we didn’t want to drink a lot because we were also standing in front of the stage, and leaving for a restroom break would make it more than difficult to get back to our spots near the stage. We needed a boost of energy without a drink, and we realized that an energy mint would have done the trick.


It sounded cool, but how do you make a mint? In particular, how do you make a mint with the things we want in it? This is beyond simply following a recipe to make cookies in the kitchen. Maybe this was just one of those times we faced something that excites us in our lives, but we should immediately dismiss it because it’s just too challenging.


In truth, making a mint only seemed challenging to us because we’ve never done it before. In fact, we’ve never made any food products before. However, other people have and we could learn from them. So the first thing we did was find an expert. An expert who has done exactly what we want to do.


The closest we were to a mint expert was a friend of mine who has her own successful baking company. I immediately thought of her and while we were discussing the idea right in front of the stage, I pulled out my phone and texted her for help. She responded that while she didn’t know how to make mints, she could point us in the right direction and she offered to help.


After I returned from the concert, I wrote down all the questions I had about mint making. How do I find a recipe? How do I get a prototype? How do I get ingredients, into retail stores, packaging material, distribution, and insurance? The list went on and on. I dumped all of my questions onto a sheet of paper, and then I took her out for a drink.


She spent over two hours with me going through all the steps she took to build her business and make her product. She told me how the food industry works. What food brokers are, what fees they charge, and what sort of margin we need to have in order to be profitable. She told me how to find mint manufacturers, which was simply a matter of looking on the back of labels of existing products and contacting the distributor listed on the product. She taught me the importance of the telephone, which is so often neglected these days. Her advice was to get on the phone and start making calls. With instructions to be confident yet inquisitive, she assured me that people would respond to our inquiries. She taught me that when roadblocks get in the way, I needed to ask people for referrals, for the name of someone else who could help.


The conversation I had with her gave me a plan, and suddenly the task of making a mint didn’t seem so daunting anymore. The plan provided a roadmap, a list of probable obstacles and expectations, and most importantly a mindset with tactics to deal with what was going to happen.


Looking back, this first step has been crucial for our development. My friend continues to be a mentor, advisor, and sounding board for our ideas, concerns, and progress.


The principle of finding a mentor cannot be overstated. Our mentor has saved us time, money, and loads of stress that we would have had to deal with. For anyone who wants to start a project, and has no idea where to start, the place to start is in finding someone who has done what you want to do. There are experts out there, and I believe that most people genuinely want to help each other. Why read an outdated article about someone’s experience when you can learn the tricks of the trade directly from the source?


I was lucky to have a friend in the industry, but if I didn’t, I would look on LinkedIn to get an introduction to a 2nd and 3rd degree connection who is an expert. I would ask for help by posting on my Facebook and Twitter accounts, and tell people what information I needed. I would email people in my network who are well connected and ask them if they know of anyone. The goal isn’t to network here – it’s to find a bonafide expert that can tell you how to get from A to B.


After you have a mentor or a few mentors in place the next step is to get on the phone. Blaze a path for yourself but do it over the phone. It’s faster than email and it develops better rapport. Call someone in the industry and piece your way to the solution you’re looking for. One phone call will lead to another, and the next thing you know that crazy idea of yours will start to look like there might be something to it after all.

Bryan Leeds


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