Career Passion and a Leap: Starting a Small Business

by Julie Anne Russell | October 20, 2020

Want to know what it really takes to start a small business? Successful entrepreneurs share what they learned beyond business school to help transform personal passions into thriving companies.

Perfectly-crafted business plans and large initial investments might sound like the must-haves for starting a small business — but many entrepreneurial stories have simpler roots: an idea and the drive to bring it to life.

It might also seem that hard-earned wisdom taught in business school is what's required to successfully steer a company through the inevitable ups and downs, but there's more to success than that. It also requires calculated risk, innovation and gut instinct.

Travis Weaver learned this when he started his small business, Manready Mercantile, in 2012. He didn't begin with a large investment or a complex line of products. Weaver simply believed that in-demand products, such as candles — which had proven success but mainly marketed towards women — could take off with men as well.

Investing just $100 of his own money, Weaver made a batch of soy candles in whiskey glasses in his kitchen and created labels that were more unisex than the typical high-end gift candle. He then sold them door-to-door at local businesses, markets and even from the back of his truck.

Just six years later, Weaver’s business has blossomed into an online store with hundreds of premium products geared towards men, as well as a brick-and-mortar store in Houston, TX, and 18 full- and part-employees. “You’ve just gotta just start somewhere, with something,” says Weaver.

Like Weaver, other small business owners have found success by bucking traditional wisdom and replacing it with hard-won expertise wrought from experience.

Think outside the business plan

Don't get us wrong — you definitely need a business plan. However, business plans are meant to be adapted and expanded as your knowledge of your markets grow and your aim evolves.

Steph Lawrence and her business partner Aashi Vel learned the value of thinking beyond the business plan. They are the co-founders of Traveling Spoon — a culinary twist on Airbnb, but instead of a night’s stay, you cook a meal with a local host in her kitchen in Vietnam. Or Morocco. Or Iceland. One of the most empowering lessons they learned was the idea to ditch the formal business plan entirely and, instead, craft a one-page summary of their mission — and then just get going.

“The question we wanted to answer was, ‘Are we two crazy people, or do other people like this idea as well?’ So we found student travelers, we found a host, and within an hour we had a sold-out dinner with a waiting list,” Lawrence explains. “We realized there’s so much we can test before we build a line of code.”

Today, Traveling Spoon connects travelers with home cooking experiences in 128 cities in 48 countries around the world. Although the company now has a global reach, Lawrence says that beginning simply — with one meal, rather than a grandiose objective — was critical. “A grand notion can actually get in your way,” says Lawrence.

Ditch the formal business plan entirely and, instead, craft a one-page summary of their mission.
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Go lean at launch

Funding is, of course, an essential part of any launch, and being creative about it is the key. In fact, Weaver didn’t seek funding at all, but instead, he went from that initial $100 investment. So what are some other ways to innovate your first funding round?

Ian Szalinski, founder of Evoke Foods in Rochester, NY, started with his own money, and then he secured a bank loan and a line of credit. He also took advantage of close relationships and leveraged connections in his city by looking to family, friends and other connected investors for funding.

Traveling Spoon sought angel investors for their launch. However, Lawrence notes that there’s so much you can do that doesn’t require massive funding. They felt pressure to get money but found it was more important to simply begin. Their advice: Don’t let lack of all the funds you need stop you from getting started. Find a way to break ground, even if it means starting small.

Test small business ideas in creative ways

No matter how well you prepare, the business you end up building may be very different from the business you imagined building. And that's a good thing. Rather than rigidly adhering to your plan, you get the opportunity to test and learn every step of the way and adjust your business model based on your findings.

For Szalinski, testing his product and connecting directly with his customers was also a critical ingredient in the launch of his cereal company, originally called MuesliFusion. Szalinski was eating muesli every day at home, but found the options in the U.S. market lackluster compared to those in Europe, where muesli is popular.

Szalinski took his savings, rented space in a commercial kitchen and secured a booth at the downtown farmers market. His idea was straightforward: to test his muesli product with minimal risk, financing or overhead, and see if he could transform his own passion — and a product with a market overseas — into a viable business. The company now employs two full-time employees, offers nine types of muesli and is sold in more than 1,800 retail stores around the country. By conducting research and learning at the outset, Szalinski was able to build his small business on strong foundations.

The business you end up building may be very different from the business you imagined building. And that's a good thing.
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Take calculated risks for your small business

Every entrepreneur reaches a point where continuing to build their business requires a big leap of faith — one that involves financial uncertainty. Szalinski was only a couple years out of college when he started the business, while also working a full-time job. “The company wasn’t making enough money for me to support myself, but I knew to get to that point it would take me working on it full time,” he says. 

“It was a big leap to leave the comfort of a salary for the unknown — and something, statistically speaking, unlikely to work. But I saw at that the time that it had the opportunity to grow into something bigger.” Taking that risk proved a wise decision for Szalinski, who is now expanding Evoke’s product offerings into single-serve packs sold at airports, hotels and college campuses.

Taking a calculated risk also paid off for Vel, who says that after starting Traveling Spoon with a minimum viable product, or MVP — the tech-world term commonly used to describe a smaller feature set that can be tested for future product development — the momentum she and Lawrence had gathered was something she couldn’t walk away from.

“It’s not one moment where you say, ‘yeah, this is it.’ It’s a series of moments,” she explains. When an Indonesian host thanked the company for the income he now used to put his children through school, it resonated deeply with Vel. Start a company whenever and however you can, she says, “and then you know whether you need to continue or not.”

Evolve and expand your small business model

Continuing and expanding a business also requires evolution, as Vel and Lawrence discovered. Traveling Spoon offered meals in just three countries in the first year, but the interest from hosts was strong around the world. “We grew organically because we had so many hosts coming to us,” Lawrence says. “We made the strategic decision to find a way to include hosts, instead of only looking for hosts in particular countries,” she says.

Similarly, Szalinski changed course from the initial conception of his company. “I thought I’d be focusing on e-commerce, and I found out that grocery sales are still dominated by brick-and-mortar stores,” Szalinski says. “I had to be flexible and be willing to deviate from that.” He also changed the name of the business when his retail partners suggested that a different brand would allow the company to expand beyond muesli into other food products — an opportunity Szalinski is currently exploring. Gathering expertise from partners and knowing the customer allowed Evoke to grow.

This is a trajectory that Weaver also followed. “Marketing really does works,” says Weaver. “Knowing the audience works.” As he explains it, the Manready image of high-end, premium products, largely made in the U.S. resonates with his customers. “I have a story,” he says. And a big part of Weaver's story is his passion for knowing how to do things hands-on, being a maker and connecting with other makers to sell their products along with his own.

Entrepreneurship at its best is when you’re creating something you love.
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Whatever the passion, staying true to it is what pulls a small business owner through. “Entrepreneurship at its best is when you’re creating something you love,” says Lawrence. “That’s what gets you through the lows. If you ask me ‘Do I believe in what I’m doing?’ unequivocally the answer is always yes.”

Julie Anne Russell

is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist. She writes on personal finance, small business, travel and more.