Entrepreneur Report – Bob Greiner, HMC Farms

HMC Farms is a largely family owned and operated fruit farm in Central California. Bob is an owner in the company, however a non-family member in the HMC line. HMC was started in 1887 and has survived many changes and difficult times in the farming industry. This post is less about HMC directly, and more about Bob’s experiences as an entrepreneur.

Bob is one of three siblings, each of which are entrepreneurs or have tried their hand at creating a business. When asked about this, Bob recalled a conversation between himself, his older brother, and their father: “We were underachievers; lazy, undisciplined. One day Dad sat us down and asked us what we wanted to do with our lives.” We didn’t have any real answers, and eventually one of us asked him what he, an electrical engineer, would do if he had to do it over. “He said he would either be a dentist or a CPA.” Lo and behold, several years later Bob became a CPA, going on to earn his MBA from UW while his brother became a dentist. Bob’s path to entrepreneurship was a little different than many. “A lot of it just happened. It wasn’t really intentional – I started off at a CPA firm, and even worked for Boeing for a time, but when I got the chance to be an owner in a business I jumped at it. I’ve always been a bit of a risk taker – an entrepreneur needs to be, and needs to be forward thinking. You can’t be consumed with the right now and you need to be willing to endure some things for the future benefit. When I was much younger, I was a crab fisherman. We were paid on how many crab we caught, not on the number of hours we worked, so there was always that thrill of ‘did we let our pots down in the right spot, did the crab come?’ Part of entrepreneurship is the thrill of the hunt, like crab fishing.” Similar to the mystery of whether you have successful pots, have the decisions you made helped company come together or not.

“Entrepreneurship is a lot of hard work – nothing is as easy as it seems in the dream phase. There are some down times, some scary times.” Bob recalls a specific time when he questioned whether he had made the right career choice. In the late nineties, our business was much different. We were more of a marketing company – we had fruit of our own, but also a lot of fruit wasn’t ours but we did the packaging, etc. “The boxes for the grapes had big wooden ends, they were rigid, costly, bad for the environment. We did a bunch of research, tests, and designed new corrugated boxes to use. We developed the specifications, ordered the boxes – we said ‘we are going to take everyone to these new boxes, save all our farms a ton of money.’ Then a couple months into storage the boxes started collapsing. Fruit was molding, the gasses weren’t escaping…it was a complete DISASTER.” It turned out the box manufacturer hadn’t built the boxes to specifications and after a year of legal pursuit, Bob’s company won out. However, the prolonged legal proceedings took our attention away from running the company so long that “we thought we were going to lose it all. We were dancing along the edge of the cliff, but we were able to put together some deals to save the company. I would have much preferred to have been doing anything else other than that…that was scary.”

Being an entrepreneur has also been very rewarding. One of the best things has been “seeing the business come together and be successful…that taking those lumps early on has paid off. The company persevered through those hard times.” If my son or daughter wanted to go it on their own, “I would say Great! I would counsel them to be better planners…do your homework and be knowledgeable about what you’re doing. Align yourself with good people.”

Bob’s final words to all of us aspiring entrepreneurs; “Know your business. Align yourself with good people. Be optimistic. Persevere. Realize that nothing is as easy as it seems.”

 

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Ahoy! Shore Excursions with Liquid Alaska – Port Promotions: A Chat with Founder & President, Jeff Fanning

After a long, azure stretch of open ocean, cruise ship passengers are often looking for the best means of stretching their restless sea legs. Founded in the spring of 2009 by Jeff Fanning, Liquid Alaska Tours saw the opportunity to create more value in that space where cruise tourists can find their adventurous bearing on land during their sojourn at port. After having worked in the industry for several years, Jeff was surprised that no vendors had taken advantage of the opportunity to centralize tour sales. Previously, vendors either sold tours to cruise ships – who in turn sold them to passengers at a substantial mark-up – or to passengers directly. A centralized system that provided all tours available at a given port that could be accessed in advance of arrival (usually online), as well as a kiosk on the dock for those who failed to book in advance, would provide better access, service, options, and prices for eager tourists.

The crux of their value proposition is how Liquid Alaska disrupts the pricing of tours in this market. Typically cruise lines offer the same tours that vendors sell on land but at a far higher price, whereas shore-bound vendors would rely on higher volumes but at lower margins. By creating an online marketplace where passengers could book in advance, it rewards them with lower prices and a reserved position on a tour, and it provides the seller the means to smooth sales revenue in advance of the inundation of tourists when a cruise ship arrives at port. Fortunately, Jeff’s entrepreneurial acumen proved insightful, and in five years, the Alaska native was able to grow his company substantially, ultimately acquiring the assets of a global tour provider and bringing them under the umbrella of his company. Now, Liquid Alaska – Port Promotions operates in over 200 ports around the world and favorable winds are blowing it toward even greater expansion.

The company has fundamentally positioned itself as a comprehensive tour broker that offers shore excursions at wholesale rates. It is difficult to segment the target consumer in this space, given the nature of the cruise ship industry, but broadly speaking it is the cruise ship passenger looking for an onshore excursion. Jeff pointed out that his ‘target’ demographic is between 30 and 70 years of age and, generally speaking, the younger half is more inclined to access his services online and the greying half can be found in port, at the kiosks. Very early on, the first customers were acquired the old fashioned way: in person, on the dock. However, that quickly gave way with growth and today Liquid Alaska – Port Promotions reaches out largely through digital channels, from online publication advertisements to Google AdWords to the standard players in social media.

It is an exciting industry but is not without its quirks – such as a near non-existed customer retention rate (as expensive cruises tend to be once-in-a-lifetime expenditures) – but the growth and promise of new ports ahead make sailing these entrepreneurial waters rewarding, exciting, and full of new horizons. Land, ho!

An Interview with the Founder of ModeSens

I sat down in the Starbucks Reserves on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and through the huge windows next to my table, I saw Brian Li walking to our meeting with his shinning Christine Louboutins. Brian is the founder and CEO of ModeSens, a Kirkland-based fashion startup that aims to disrupt women’s luxury goods market.

What is women’s luxury goods market, specifically? Well, if you follow bloggers on Pinterest or Instagram and are highly influenced by what they wear; if you purchase designer handbags and occasionally purchase shoes that are worth more than 500 US dollars, you are exactly Brian’s target customer. As an experienced software developer who loves and follow fashion, Brian realized over the years that the luxury goods market is fragmented with different websites and apps exist for different purposes through a customer’s buying process: consumers receive fashion information through bloggers, fashion shows, magazines; Then they write down the brands and styles they like, so that they can purchase through department stores. Finally, they share their own looks through social media channels such as Facebook and Instagram. Brian consolidated all of these steps and created ModeSens, a website that positions itself as your best personal shopper because it feeds you information, learn your shopping behaviors, gives you information about where to get the best price, and even allows you to share your purchase inside the ModeSens community. When consumers get used to ModeSens, it surely is disruptive enough to change consumers’ behaviors.

However, how to get customers to trust, adopt and stick with ModeSens has been and remain to be the biggest challenge for Brian. “We want to get as many users as possible because that’s how we make money, but at the same time we want this website to be exclusive and by invitation-only so that customers feel special”, as Brian explained during he interview. After careful considerations, Brian decided to forgo some of the revenues in the early stage and build the site as an invitation-only personal shopper because in the end of the day, his target customers are people who have large disposable income and who shop for luxury goods, and exclusivity and status is definitely something they value.

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Limited Invitations are sent to customers’ emails once they request access

Although it is a lot slower to grow the customer base with the invite-only method, Brian was able to get more than 100 subscribers within the first 3 months through promoting among his friends. Although Brian is an ordinary software developer, his wife has been working in the fashion industry for years and personally knows a number of celebrities. In terms of how to acquire new customers outside of their friend circle, Brian said that he is giving Facebook ads and Instagram a try. Since ModeSens’ target customers are clear: females who are 25-50 years old and have high disposable income and love fashion, Facebook would be very helpful to feed ads to these people through targeted ad campaigns. A piece facebook ad can cost anything from 20 dollars to a couple thousands. A $20 ad can reach 6,000 people if you set up good keywords, and if your product is valuable to these people, a conversion rate (people who like your page) can be 5-10%.

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ModeSens’s Facebook Page

Instagram is a different story: ModeSens needs to create attractive content and slowly acquire followers on Instagram because of the nature of the app. However, Instagram is where fashion lovers and bloggers share their outfits and purchases, therefore it is necessary for ModeSens to build up its presence there. Moreover, ModeSens is planning to partner up with Instagram influencers (specifically shoe bloggers who have at least 100K followers on Instagram) to promote itself, which should bring in at least 300 followers with every campaign.

If you read this blog all the way through here and love ModeSens’s business idea, give a try. I signed myself up a couple of weeks ago and am getting addicted to it. I had a great interview with Brian, and I am very looking forward to the success of this innovative fashion startup.

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Photo with the Founder of ModeSens, Brian Li

Entrepreneur Interview: Kevan Brown – Northwest Hoops Leagues

I decided to interview Kevan Brown – an entrepreneur who is currently enrolled in the Foster School of Business Evening MBA Program at the University of Washington. Kevan started Northwest Hoops Leagues: a Seattle based company that provides a high quality recreational basketball league for players 21 years and up. In addition to the competitive nature of the game, Kevan provides players with stats, a profile specific to each player, box scores, and photos accessible through Facebook and the League’s website (http://northwesthoopsleagues.com/). Unique from the other basketball leagues available to players, Kevan provides the entire schedule for each season so players can plan for games more in advance.

The type of market that the company is pursuing is a working professional who is physically active and has played basketball in the past. Kevan wants to bring a level of competition available for all skill levels. As mentioned above, the unique attributes of Kevan’s basketball league is providing the boxscore, stats, and player profile to each player. Kevan’s not trying to re-invent the wheel, but what he is doing is providing Seattle with a league unlike his own with the unique attributes that he provides his basketball players.

Going into year 2 of his basketball league, Kevan is continuing to position his company as a recognized brand within the recreational basketball community. His league is currently full, consisting of 10 teams and a waitlist of teams wanting to compete in future seasons. The Northwest Hoops League is now a recognizable brand, but it took Kevan time to experiment through several social channels for brand recognition. When Kevan first reached out to his first customers, he tried using Facebook Ads and bought ad space online to advertise his basketball league. Unfortunately, the success of these channels to attract new basketball players did not result in what Kevan was looking for. Instead, Kevan says that the best channel to get new basketball players and to grow his brand is through word of mouth from current players talking to their family and friends.

In talking to Kevan, I got a sense of the time, emotion, and energy he has put into his Northwest Hoops League. I want to thank Kevan for letting me interview his experience as an entrepreneur and I wish him the best of luck with his company and the pursuit of his MBA. Thanks again, Kevan!

Entrepreneur Interview: Shoes of Prey

Buying a pair of women’s dress shoes can be daunting. Even if you have a plan in mind, you’re not only limited to the types of shoes available, but by the brand’s preferences for sizes and widths.

Enter Shoes of Prey, an online store that allows you to build custom dress shoes from heel to toe. While they already have one brick-and-mortar in Sydney, they’re expanding this week to the US with their new store in Bellevue, Washington. I met with Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Jodie Fox to learn more about their positioning and early marketing.

Shoes of Prey

What is the market your company is pursuing?

The global women’s shoes market, for women of all ages, excluding women’s athletic shoes.

Are you creating a new market or disrupting an existing market?

Disrupting.

How is the company positioned?

The current women’s shoe market is set up for sizes 5-10, rarely covering half sizes, and you choose from their pre-set heel heights and colors.

Shoes of Prey instead offers sizes 2.5-15, with half sizes, and offers not only width adjustments but the option to select the best heel height, style, and color for your needs. Our goal is to offer custom shoes for less waste.

Shoes of Prey

What were the channels in which you attempted to reach your first customers?

Phase one was grassroots. We emailed our personal networks for referrals and testing, with incentives of $50 gift cards to pass along the information and to try out the brand. This period heavily relied on word of mouth. However, in our first two months, we were a finalist in the Crunchies, which brought a lot of organic press and interest.

Phase two started roughly five months into the business, about five years ago. We hired a youtube blogger [Blair Folwer] to run a campaign with us, which was rather new at the time. This brought in a huge amount of word of mouth interest.

Images provided by Shoes of Prey.

Mirador Biomedical

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Mirador Biomedical, Seattle based company incorporated in 2009, is dedicated to develop simple-to-use and economical medical devices. One of the primary devices that Mirador is producing is a compass vascular access, a pressure transducer for central venous catheter insertion that enables physicians to simultaneously view their hands, the patient, and the pressure. Similarly, the company also provides compass lumbar puncture device, a disposable medical device that provides opening pressure reading; quantitative pressure measurement during spinal taps; used for lumbar punctures; and enables physicians to simultaneously view their hands, the patient, and the pressure.

Mirador’s devices are currently being used in many hospital settings (like the ICU, the ER, and the OR), but also offers applications to care providers working at the point-of-injury access to technology previously only available in the hospital. The expansion of the platform, Mirador’s technology, is a significant milestone for the medical field, which is accelerating the commercialization of Mirador products. Recently, Mirador’s devices have won FDA clearance to officially market its medical devices for a new set of uses, which physician have been asking for months. Mirador knows that hospital will pay for its technology to help prevent costly medical errors, and because it provides greater convenience in everyday workflow than existing methods that relay on clumsy cables and equipment; giving an unique market to Mirador.

It is clear that Mirador has chosen an industry that is exponentially growing and very profitable. Mirador’s strategic alliance with hospitals and physicians across the northwest as well as the focusing their intellectual forces into only pressure monitor devices have made them standup in their market and acquire numerous set of customers. Many would say that Mirador is rapidly expanding its business, market, clients and I agree. They had chosen a service that is high in demand and will be vastly use in multiple patients (e.g., age, sex, and body complexity); making Mirador’s devises unique in their industry.

Mirador Biomedical main goal is to offer simple-to-use medical devices that make procedures safer, faster and easier.

Postcardly Interview

Recently I had the opportunity to interview the founders of Postcardly, the Seattle based internet start-up that allows you to send physical postcards via email or mobile application from anywhere in the world.  Paul Hughes and Tom Marshall began working on Postcardly in 2009 and officially launched the product in 2011.

I really enjoyed meeting Tom and Paul. They were extremely friendly and eager to talk about their business. They immediately offered to have me try out their mobile app and I sent a postcard to my parents. My parents were impressed by the card they received and the idea of the service. After having the opportunity to try out their service I began to ask them about the marketing strategyof their business. The company started with the hope of providing real tangible moments to friends and family in the form of a postcard. The market for this service could involve parents of small children that want to send cards to their friends and family as well as baby boomers looking to stay in touch with their children or friends with something tangible that could mean more than just an email photo. The value to the customer is definitely the feeling that they are going above and beyond the traditional electronic photo to send their memories to their friends and family.

Postcardly has successfully been able to acquire and retain their customers by providing a high quality service. The company undertook extensive testing with their product to make sure that their photos could make it through the mail system and look and feel like a normal postcard, they even include an actual stamp. This personal touch and the large, high quality picture that is placed on the postcard definitely gives Postcardly a competitive advantage.  Another thing that Postcardly did well was to lead an effective Public Relations campaign. They have been featured in both Geekwire and C Net and that has helped solidify their initial customer base.

Postcardly is an innovative company that solves a very difficult problem of reaching friends and family in a very meaningful way. In this busy world where no one has time to send mail anymore, the special touch of receiving a postcard from your friends and family can go a long way. Paul and Tom and their team are passionate about this mission and have created a great product. Visit their website at Postcardly.com and give it a try!