DURHAM – One woman helping others get healthy with her own specialty food line — after losing more than 100 pounds herself. A young couple who started making homemade grooming products out of their kitchen. Two teenagers on a mission to design the first-ever swim parka for female swimmers.
These are some of the startup stories that will be shared when Big Top kicks off its inaugural Startup Crawl on Monday night.
Formerly known as the Triangle Startup Social, Big Top has rebranded the event as part of its new mission to build connections between regional talent and local growing startups.
The event still takes place on the third Monday of each month, but will now be hosted at startup offices around the Triangle and will have a theme. This time around, it will be held at Spreedly’s newly renovated office at 733 Foster Street in downtown Durham starting from 6pm. Founders from three rising startups – Tracy’s Gourmet, Beard and Lady and Wotter – will be there, all of whom have recently participated in Startup Stampede, the South’s product incubator funded from an NC IDEA grant.
The Startup Crawl is an opportunity for startup teams to make connections, share their stories and learn from other companies along the way—and to get an under-the-hood look at some cool spaces you may not have seen before, notes WRAL TechWire’s Shannon Cuthrell.
“For the Big Top team, the first quarter was focused on really understanding the needs of the community,” said Big Top director Molly Demarest. “The Big Top Startup Crawl is a result of that, offering a chance for the community to get an inside look at those farther along, while still serving as a moment for founders and their teams to connect.”
Here is a look at each of tonight’s featured companies:
Weight-loss success story gives rise to gourmet food business
Back in 2005, Tracy Scott weighed 257 pounds. Around the same time, her father died unexpectedly of a heart attack. She knew if she didn’t make some real changes, she’d be on the same path.
She started incorporating salads into her diet, but still wasn’t losing weight. She soon realized the commercial salad dressings she liked were high in calories, fat and added preservatives. “I said, ‘I think I can make them by myself’. And that’s what I did. That’s when the weight started coming off.”
Scott lost 115 pounds, but gained a new calling. When her work colleagues started asking to buy her dressings, she knew she was onto something.
Fast-forward a few years: Scott launches Tracy’s Gourmet, a specialty food line that offers healthy and affordable dressings and marinades out of Morrisville. That same year, in 2013, she wins Count Me In Urban Rebound Entrepreneur Competition. She starts selling her dressings at farmer’s markets and festivals. By 2015, her products are being stacked at Whole Foods Supermarkets.
“It started snowballing,” she said. When she sold 40 cases (480 bottles) in six hours one year at the Got to Be NC Festival at the NC State Fairgrounds, she realized starting her own business might actually work out.
“I compare the growth process to me running a half marathon,” said Scott, who also works as a training consultant to supplement her income. “The first three miles are the hardest, then it feels better because I’ve got a nice pace going, but then the rolling hills come and they never stop. So I’m always trying to get my pace back.”
This month, she’s set to dramatically expand her business as she moves from making small batches at a local facility to working with large-scale distributors and co-packers. That will see her production jump from 500 to 10,000 units per month.
“I’m surprised by the speed [of growth]”, she said. “Now we can fulfill palate orders.”
Still, she admits, there have been unexpected challenges, especially trying to break in as a woman of color. “You have to work a little bit harder to get the attention of buyers. I wasn’t prepared for that because I had so much success selling directly to consumers. It’s a big difference working with retailers and buyers,” she said.
But she didn’t give up. “I kept pushing. I’m fortunate that I have a good customer base. I’ve had to sacrifice more than I expected. But because it’s a joy and something that has been life changing for me, it’s too important to stop.”
Beard and Lady
Couple starts business from kitchen
Lance and Lacey Hendrix got the idea for their business sitting around the fire pit one night with friends, Youtube celebrities Rhett McLaughlin and Charles Lincoln “Link” Neal of “Good Mythical Morning” fame.
“Why not sell high-quality, all-natural grooming products?” Lance, 36, suggested half-jokingly to the well-coifed comic duo, who were already marketing other products like t-shirts and mugs on their website to their huge fan base.
Without even asking her first, Lance volunteered his wife to make them. With no prior business experience, she jumped on board, doing some research and developing a few samples.
Shortly after, the parent company, Beard and Lady, was born. Lacey, 31, set up shop in the kitchen of their farmhouse just outside Raleigh, hand pouring lips balms and other self care products, while producing a separate “Mythical” line of beard oil and lip balm in collaboration with Rhett and Link.
They launched in October 2015. “It took off like wild fire,” said the mother of three. “We planned to sell a few hundred products during the initial launch, and we sold that many before breakfast on the first day. We then received an order for 15,000 lip balms and 3000 beard oils. When asked if we could do this in about two weeks, we just said yes and then hung up the phone and figured it out.”
Last year, the company grossed over $500,000 in sales – with about 60 percent of sales coming from over Amazon. “That has contributed to our growth and exposure,” said Lacey, adding: “Our story is empowering because we didn’t have a business degree or experience. We pitched an idea, figured things out, and got things done quickly.
She also credits some of their success to teaming up with YouTube influencers. “We spent zero upfront in marketing costs,” she said. “YouTubers are millennial’s celebrities. I think we will see a lot more of them marketing their own products. We happen to be one of the first ones to make that fit,” she said.
Teens launch “girl empowerment” swim gear line
For Wotter co-founders Niki Vilas Boas and Becca Segal, both 16 and sophomores at Cary Academy [pictured at the top of this post], it all started with a school pitch competition and a vision to design the first-ever swim parka specifically for women.
Competitive swimmers at Triangle Aquatic Center, they were surprised to learn that they could only find the out-of-pool cover up in unisex design.
“They were big and boxy like a garbage bag,” recalled Boas. “We got the idea to create something girls would actually want to wear.”
Working closely with designers, they designed a parka with features that accommodate the female physique, including an oversized hood for ponytails and topknots, female styling, enlarged zipper pulls and quick “wrap and snap” storage. The parka retails for $139.
Last November, with the help of Niki’s mother, Katherine Cooley, they launched a Kickstarter campaign and in just two months, raised more than $36,000 in startup funds, and $100,000 in standing orders thanks to large request made by a leading swimsuits eRetailer. They are about to receive their final prototype this month and deliver their orders by August.
That’s not all. They were recently a finalist in Startup Stampede’s pitch competition and presented their product on a new reality TV show, Entrepreneur’s “Elevator Pitch,” which is due to air on C-Suite Network next month.
“This has been the most fantastic ride of our lives,” said Becca. “It has completely changed our idea of what is possible.”
To them, their parka has also come to symbolize something more than just a cool piece of swim gear.
“We see it as a cloak of confidence that validates and elevates girls in our sport,” said Boas. “Currently, girls are twice as likely as boys to leave the sport of swimming by the time they graduate high school. There is a failure to validate girls with gear that makes them feel confident and comfortable on deck and in the water. If we can offer that, we can have a real impact.”