Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Swim with the Sharks

I started my first business at age thirteen. It was nothing special, just mowing lawns to earn some spending money.  Sir Richard Branson, billionaire entrepreneur and owner of over two hundred companies, started his first business at age nine… selling Christmas trees.  But this week’s story features an entrepreneur who started even younger…

Lani got her first business credentials when she was only seven years old, selling hand-crocheted hair scrunchies to her Pittsburgh schoolmates so she could buy an iPod.  It’s hard to imagine this as the beginning of an entrepreneurial career, but for Lani, the next step would come very soon.

Lani had extremely sensitive skin from the time she was born.  This is normal for babies, but for many children, the sensitivity goes away by the time they start grade school.  Not for Lani.  She remained easily irritated by many of the additives, scents, and colorings in common soaps and skin products, and had to be extremely careful with what she used.

When Lani was eleven, her mother suggested that she and her siblings make their own Christmas gifts for friends and family that year.  Given her skin difficulties, Lani decided to take her mother’s idea as an opportunity to make an original gift while helping herself in the process.  Her mom drove her to a local health food market where she purchased sugar, olive oil, vitamin E, vanilla and almond oil.  With these ingredients, she created her own all-natural body scrub that was free of irritants, and gave jars of it out that Christmas.

What she didn’t expect was the response:  by Valentine’s Day, recipients were asking for more.  Lani realized she must have a good idea on her hands, and began doing research to refine it.  For nine months, she studied the effects of chemicals and preservatives on skin, as well as the skin-care market.  She learned that everything you put on your skin gets absorbed into your bloodstream, just as if you had eaten it.  With that in mind, she began experimenting with the gentlest yet most effective all-natural ingredients she could find.  She tested her various mixtures on herself and her family, then gave some out to friends, asking for feedback. 

Lani finalized a formula that not only worked well, but was also technically edible. Her mother’s friend tried it, and loved it so much that she purchased a large quantity for her company.  Suddenly, Lani had secured her first corporate client.  Turning the family basement into an office and functioning lab, Lani’s family helped her personally make, package, and label the jars of her scrub to fulfill the orders.  And they kept coming.

It wasn’t long before the local media heard about this eleven-year old CEO, and featured Lani in a variety of newspapers and local television.  But despite her young age, she realized quickly that she was serious about her business.  By age fifteen, she was selling over $40,000 per year of her scrub and was featured in Forbes Magazine, all while balancing the life of a high school sophomore.  A typical day saw her get to school early for crew practice, followed by classes, then more practice, dinner, homework, and somehow, she still kept on top of managing her business.

The real coup came a year later, when she began working to get her product into the Whole Foods health store chain.  It took several months as Lani worked through all the requirements of the lengthy process.  Nearing the end of the nine-month negotiation, the only remaining hurdle for Whole Foods was the price.  On the phone with Whole Foods’ buyer while riding in her mother’s car, Lani finally said, “With all due respect, are you trying to tell me your customers are price sensitive?  Because if you are, you haven’t spent much time in your stores.”  At the end, Whole Foods agreed to carry Lani’s scrubs at her desired price.

At age nineteen, Lani Lazzari, CEO and founder of Simple Sugars, appeared on the investment TV show Shark Tank, where she successfully made a deal to secure $100,000 from billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban to help grow her company.  Lani’s advice for young entrepreneurs is applicable for anyone:  “You have to be passionate about your business and really love what you do. Don’t start a business because your parents want you to or because someone else tells you it’s a good idea. You have to really want it or you won’t be able to motivate yourself enough to succeed.”

Dreams that fall apart are based on someone else’s work of art.  Dreams that come true are born deep inside of you!

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams

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