Amy Hilliard, is the founder and CEO of The ComfortCake® Company, makers of “Pound Cake so Good it Feels Like a Hug and Healthier Baked Goods That Truly Taste Great!" Customers have included United Airlines, Wal-Mart, Jewel-Osco, and The University Of Chicago. The ComfortCake® Company is also an approved supplier to McDonald's.
Additionally, Amy owns The Hilliard Group, a strategic marketing consulting, product development and speaking firm whose clients have included IBM, American Express.
Often when starting on the entrepreneurial journey, visions of huge success loom large. It can be heady to think of the possibilities of owning your own business, when there are stories all around of folks who went from nothing to multiple millions with one idea. The vision of huge success is one thing, but creating it is entirely another.
As anyone who has ventured on this path will tell you, it is not for the faint of heart. Customers, suppliers and contracts come and go, trends change, recessions and market crashes re-arrange the landscape for financing...often as the famous movie line said; you better "fasten your seat belts, for it's going to be a bumpy ride". That's entrepreneurship...and it can be a Shark Tank. Yet we keep going, pressing on, working to build the big dream, to make that vision a reality.
But sometimes as I've gone along this ride, moments happen that make meaning more important than ambition. That happened again this week when our ComfortCake HUGS Foundation hosted 20 students from Urban Prep Academy at our offices as part of their Discovering Our City Initiative. This initiative engages businesses and organizations to introduce students to parts of Chicago and career opportunities that they may not have ever been exposed to. I'm proud that this is the second year we've hosted them.
To me, there is nothing more meaningful than to see lights of interest come on in the eyes of positive, young people. To get their curiosity flowing about possibilities, to add to their menu of options, to field their excellent questions while sharing stories of what it takes to complete an education, start a business, and give back to others...it was priceless. We all know that the images portrayed of our youth is much more negative than positive. Yet, there is positivity all around us, and we can all do something with our youth to let them know we care about them and about their future, because it is our collective future.
I think it is important to let young folks see us doing what we do as entrepreneurs, whether times are good or times are hard. Let them see that as the old African proverb says, "To stumble is not to fall, but to move forward faster". I made those young men promise me that as long as they could look up they would get up as they go through this life. And being with them, sharing with them gave such meaning to my soul. This is what matters more than ambition to me. I could have had them stay all day because of the hope they engendered in me.
What can we all do? As our city copes with such astonishing violence and a mindset of hopelessness, we can reach out to our youth. It doesn't always take a program or a foundation. Sometimes it just takes a moment. When you see youth engaging in something positive, stop and let them know it's appreciated. When you see something needing correction, don't be afraid to correct with a loving touch or tone. For example, this week my cable was out, and the young technician who came to fix it was on time, which was terrific. But he came to the door with the straw from his soft drink hanging from his mouth, and started trying to go through his analysis with it hanging there! Now, I wasn't his momma, but I just had to stop and let him know that while I was glad he was on time, that straw was not building my confidence that he knew his stuff. I said it directly but with a smile...and he promptly got the point, trashed the straw and ended up doing a great job. It felt wonderful to then give him high marks when a survey call came later. Who knows, perhaps he will think about the impression he leaves when on future service calls, and the good survey marks will encourage him to succeed.
So, each one can reach one. In a store, on the street, look young folks in the eye. Say Hello...Smile... Engage...say "you're doing a great job!" We used to do that in our communities all the time to build each other up. You know, but for the grace of God go all of us...your son or daughter could be the one needing encouragement from a stranger one day. If we find ways to pay it forward - both small and large - then moving from ambition to meaning will become easier, and life can become sweeter for us all.
As the new year begins, we all have the chance to put a stake in the ground about our goals and objectives for the following 365 days. As entrepreneurs, it's important to annually look at our businesses to be sure that the plans we had in place last year are still working for us this year.
But even more important in my view, we must make the decision to fully COMMIT to our vision, each year. Unlike when we know it's time to make a strategic pivot which we discussed last week, sometimes we have great ideas and skip from one direction to another with each wind that blows.To commit, however, means to "concentrate, dedicate, devote, grind, hustle, persevere, pull out all the stops and be diligent". And, as business owners, we generally know how to do those things pretty well, and if we decide to do it again this year, well, that's how we do what we do.
It's only part of the success journey though. The other part is to RELY. Rely means to: "believe in, have faith about, trust, expect, bank on, feel confident that things will come to pass" if your reliance is well placed. For me, I've learned that we entrepreneurs need to work like it depends on us, but trust that it really depends on God. After all the best plans in the world are developed, we still must rely on the divine order of things to see our vision manifest.
I found this out in my business, ComfortCake. A few years ago, I thought we had "hit it"; gotten the big break that we worked years for. But the timing wasn't right then, and things were suddenly put on hold. Wow...talk about disappointed! But, sometimes windows are closed so that doors can open. We had to look for additional customers to diversify our revenue options. So we went after Walmart. If that other opportunity had manifested then, we wouldn't be in the position we are in today--that is getting ready to ship our Gourmet Lemon Pound Cake Mix into 500 Walmarts next month. And, Walmart will be testing here in the Chicago area our newest line, Sweet Benefits™ Cakes - Red Velvet and Caramel squares- that have all the goodness of sugar without all the guilt. They are sugarless and delicious!
And what about that earlier opportunity? While I can't go into details, suffice it to say that it is still a very real possibility! The timing is now more in line. So that "no" then really meant "not right now", but stay tuned.
As you go into the New Year, look gratefully at the windows that may have closed for your business last year. Because now, doors can open in their place. When you COMMIT AND RELY, you will be prepared for the path ahead, even if you can only see clear enough to put one foot in front of the other. The detour that you have to take now may turn you down the road of prosperity that you might have missed! And yes, new paths can be challenging. But all challenges have lessons to make us stronger. They add strength training to your entrepreneurial workout.
The strategy of COMMIT and RELY comes from Jennifer Rothschild, author of Self Talk, Soul Talk. She really inspired me, and I'm glad to share this path with you. Take some time today to look at your entrepreneurial workout to see how you can COMMIT AND RELY as you plan for the year ahead. What three things can you do, change, or adjust to keep things going forward for your business? Write them down. Share them with your team. Ask your team for their three ideas. And soon, you'll have lots of stakes to put in the ground to keep it fertile for your success.
The Art of the Pivot - Knowing When to Make a Move
As we approach the end of 2012, it's a good time to reflect on the good, the bad and the opportunity. ComfortCake will enter its 12th year in February 2013. 12 years!! We started out in 2001 producing pound cakes made from a recipe that my grandmother helped me to perfect.
Why pound cake? Well, pound cake is my favorite dessert, but I had grown tired of buying it. After trying recipes out, I thought I had mine down, but sought my grandmother's blessing to be sure it passed the true test. She took a taste and said, "Baby, that's fine, but if you want it to really taste good, you have to do THIS!" So I did just that. Perfected the recipe and kept my job, but wrote the first business plan in 1999. By the end of 2000, it was time to make a decision. Time to do things differently...to pivot...to make a move.
Should I stay in corporate America as senior VP of Marketing for Soft Sheen or jump off the deep end, quit and start ComfortCake?
Had to pray on that one! As a single mother with two kids to put through college with a very nice paying job, a lot was at stake. So I prayed and God talked to me. He said loud and clear to "Take My Hand and do ComfortCake. " Said it twice.
So, I made my move! Quit my job, sold my home (couldn't get a bank loan) and launched The ComfortCake Company, makers of "Pound Cake so Good it Feels Like a Hug" in February, 2001.
Fast forward to 2010. ComfortCake® has been sold on United Airlines, in Walgreen's, 7-11, Jewel, Dominick's, Walmart and in the Chicago Public Schools our biggest customer, since 2002. But winds of change were in the air. Michelle Obama launched her "Let's Move" campaign, and less desserts were on school lunch menus. To keep the company moving forward with our largest customer, we had to look for other opportunities; we had to pivot-- to make a move.
Knowing when to pivot is about evolving, doing what it takes to meet the needs of your customers in order to keep things moving. My customer asked me to develop a whole-wheat pizza crust, and needed it by a certain date. We said, "If you want us to do that; we will." So we worked hard on creating a tasty crust, got samples done and delivered on time. Got the business in a tough process, and launched a new division, The ComfortCake Kitchen Division. And now, Chicago school children are enjoying a delicious whole-wheat pizza on a crust developed by an African-American woman entrepreneur!
Do we still make pound cake? Absolutely! But will we be willing to pivot to do things differently if it meets the needs of our customers and the mission of our company? Always.
What about you? A New Year is coming. Is it time for you to move into a new direction? Is it time for you to PIVOT and do something new? According toINC. Magazine, here are three steps you can take as you seek to pivot your business:
1. Talk to your customers. What do they need now or do they see needing in the future? Ask for what I call an "exploratory" meeting or phone call so your customer knows you're not selling, but serving.
2. Study the numbers. Are sales trending up or down for a particular product, category or industry? Technology is causing big shifts in all kinds of ways, as are consumer preferences. Keep aware of what's hot and what's not.
3. Be flexible. Don't be so married to one way of doing things; you may miss a big opportunity! We started selling slices to CPS in 2002; pivoted to frozen batter in 2006; and now sell pizza crusts and Oatmeal Apple Bars in 2012. We'd be out of business if we insisted that CPS only take sliced pound cake!
So, go ahead...PIVOT! Don't let fear hold you back. Make a move and keep your eyes on the prize. If we remember that Faith makes things possible - not easy, we will all move forward if we put one foot in front of the other and change direction when we need to in order to grow.