By Valerie Young
In my last post you heard about some of the inspiring entrepreneurs I met at last year’s New England state fair known as The Big E.
(If you missed that issue and want to catch up on the tomato lady, the woman selling pumpkin seeds on QVC, and much more you can always find back issues in the Changing Course Newsletter Archives.)
A few weeks ago I went back to the fair. And entrepreneurs I met on this year’s visit were equally inspirational — and educational. Each offer valuable lessons you can easily put to use to start or grow your own small business.
Stand Out from the Crowd
Too many people never launch their business because they think they need to come up with something totally new. Rubbish. You don’t have to totally re-invent the wheel. All you have to do is start with a basic product or service and then look for a way to differentiate yourself from the crowd.
For example, a staple at any fair is the wonderfully bad fair food. Personally other than the clam fritters in the Rhode Island building, I usually pass on the fried Oreos, fried onions, and of course fried dough. But when all three local news channels featured a vendor selling fried butter, even I was intrigued.
So I set off to find and interview19-year fair veteran Paula Cushing-Pote and personally sample the product — purely part of the job you understand :). It turns out that fried butter is really a pat of butter inside a golf ball-size ball of fried dough sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. (One is actually quite good, three is overwhelming.)
The real discovery was that Paula is a savvy mom-preneur with a knack for spotting the next big thing. Coming up with something unexpected like fried butter and fried jelly netted her tons of media coverage. Google “Big E and fried butter” and you’ll see the dozens of newspapers and TV stations that covered Paula’s unique treat.
Money wise her strategy paid off. Basically, she sells a few tablespoons of batter and a pat of butter at $5 a pop, which means the profit margin is enormous. Finding a way to stand out netted a ton of press and major profits as well. Paula told me she’s already planning her next stand out idea for 2011. For now though she’s not spilling the beans… or the butter.
Branch Out in Unexpected Ways
No matter what business you’re in, there’s probably a way to do your thing — but in a different medium. Sculptor Jim Victor could have stuck with the usual mediums like wood or stone. He certainly could have been perfectly happy to have his work appear in prestigious New York Times, Philadelphia Magazine, Der Spiegel and others or to have his work in private and public collections including the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.
But where’s the fun in that when Jim could also travel the country, indeed the world, as a food sculptor! Among his many commissions are various food sculptures, including butter, chocolate, vegetable and cheese sculptures for many State Fairs, organizations and people.
How can you do your thing but in a different medium or arena? If you usually run teleclasses, offer a live class. Instead of making quilts out of fabric, think about creating one out of, I don’t know, birch bark or something. It may not keep your customer’s warm at night but I guarantee you’ll find an audience!
Go Where the Crowds Are
You could set up an online or brick and mortar business and hope customers will come to you. Or if you want to make massive sales in a short period of time then you can see where the crowds are going and bring your product to them!
For instance, pet collars are not exactly a novelty item. Yet Keith’s Critter Gear booth was absolutely mobbed with eager customers. Partly it’s because of the growing trend toward buying products that are handmade and American made. Buyers love that every single one of the colorful pet products are personally hand sewn by Keith Kolapakka and his partner Aaron Letourneau in their home in Concord, New Hampshire.
Like most enterprises, this one was launched on the side while the two men worked their full time jobs. Neither knew how to sew at the time. But here’s the key: They were willing to learn. (Click here for Kevin and Aaron’s complete start up story.)
However, the other reason these guys are so profitable is because they aren’t sitting around hoping someone will find them online and place an order. Instead they go where the people are. Given they’ve sold at the Big E now for 8 years, it’s safe to say their strategy has paid off.
Someone else attracting a big crowd at the fair was former automotive designer turned children’s book author Joan Klatil Creamer. Joan wrote and illustrated a fun line of books based on The Magic Scepter.
The primarily market for children’s books are parents and grandparents. And while both groups can be found in bookstores, they show up in droves at fairs. Which is exactly why Joan struts her creative stuff at fairs across New England and as far away as Pittsburgh and Maryland rather than rely on the usual venues. You can find her very full fair schedule at www.TheMagicSceptre.com.
If you sell a highly specific niche product, this model may not work for you. But if you’re in a broad enough niche like food, pets, children, cell phone accessories, and the like then think seriously about going where the crowds are and let the crowds flock to you.
It is the small things like these that can make all the difference. As you think about your current — or future — business, look for ways to apply the lessons learned from these inspiring entrepreneurs to grow your own dream!