— Try everything. Some of the best ideas are ones you will discover by accident.
Each Sunday, the AJC brings you insights from metro Atlanta’s leaders and entrepreneurs. Matt Kempner’s “Secrets of Success” shares the vision and realities of entrepreneurs who started their dreams from scratch. The column alternates with Henry Unger’s “5 Questions for the Boss, ” which reveals the lessons learned by CEOs of the area’s major companies and organizations.
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“We don’t pretend to know what we don’t know.”
“I wouldn’t say I had a business plan per se. I had a gut feeling that I could make something with fruit, interesting flavors, mix it up and sell it for a good bit more than it cost me.”
Laid off from an insurance job at 25, Steven Carse’s idea to launch a one-man store selling ice pops never got off the ground. That probably was a good thing.
Instead, his Inman Park-based King of Pops business has about 80 push carts, a catering operation and a wholesale line supplying places such as Whole Foods. All are focused on flavored ice on a stick. Last year he sold between 700,000 and 800,000 pops, each for $2 to $3, pushing fresh ingredients and funky flavors like chocolate sea salt and pineapple habanero. So far, he figures they’ve offered customers about 400 flavors concocted in King of Pops’ kitchens.
At 30 years old, he and his brother Nick pulled in just over $2 million in sales in 2013, he says, with projections for $3 million in this year. Carse’s 100 employees, roughly 20 of them full time, are spread over operations in Atlanta, Charlotte, Charleston, Richmond, Chattanooga, Savannah and Athens.
Carse graduated from the University of Georgia with a journalism degree and eventually got a job— with help from one of his two older brothers — as an insurance product analyst at AIG.
I didn’t like how my decisions made little to zero impact on the business. I was a cog.
Then came the recession and eventually he was laid off by AIG. He remembered a business idea he had talked about with his brothers while vacationing with them in Latin America. They had sought out street vendors with pushcarts who sold frozen pops made from fresh fruit with interesting flavors.
It became the thing that we would look around for on all of our trips. We had talked about it in the type of way that you are sitting on a beach, drinking a beer talking about what might be a great idea or not a great idea. The second that it seemed real was when I got laid off.
I was thinking do I want to stay in this not-as-satisfying-as-possible career path that is safe or do I want to try to open a business? I decided I didn’t really have anything to lose. The upfront cost to open this type of business was pretty low. I moved back in with my brother on his couch to begin with. I talked people’s heads off about flavors and different ideas they had on how to do things. It became an obsession.
I wouldn't say I had a business plan per se. I had a gut feeling that I could make something with fruit, interesting flavors, mix it up and sell it for a good bit more than it cost me. I thought I was going to have one spot making enough money for myself, basically doing all the work. I planned on using my savings. I had about $10,0000 I was planning on spending on the equipment and another $5,000 or $6,000 I could rely on for my own living. And I vended cotton candy at Braves games. That was my back-up income when I was starting. I had a lot of self doubt about whether it was going to work.
A million obstacles got in the way right before we were planning to start. My original plan was to be in a storefront. The upfront costs ended up getting way, way, way more than I could handle. I approached the place where I was going to set up and asked if I could set up a cart until I figured out what to do. Eventually the cart became very successful.
I’d push my cart and pass people and they would yell, what are you having? I had tangerine basil and banana pudding and chocolate sea salt — these flavors that I thought were really great. They said, “Can you just make me a strawberry?” Next day I would make a strawberry to sell those guys. If you try to force your idea down everyone’s throat, they are not going to be receptive unless you are just an absolute genius and happen to pick the perfect idea, which I think is rare. I think it is important to let your business be shaped by what people want and what’s going on around you.
The first months were trying to explain the product to people. It was very awkward to me with people I didn’t know to sell them on the idea of a higher end, all–natural healthyish popsicle. The hardest was just the work: the amount of hours and physical nature of it. Sun. Dry ice. It’s a chemical you shouldn’t be handling, but I was touching it every day. I lost about 30 something pounds the first year just from being out in the sun and missing meals.
Three months into the business, he convinced his next oldest brother, Nick, to leave his lawyer job and work in the business full time.
My plan from the beginning was for it to just be incredibly simple. I don’t have any culinary background but I knew that if you mixed two to three very good things together, more than likely it is going to taste very good. We had no experience in the production: how to package them, how to freeze them, where to keep them, how to put them in the cart even. All that stuff we had to learn on our own and not be afraid of screwing up. We had to learn lessons like when you freeze something it doesn’t taste the same as when you taste it in the liquid form.
I was thinking I want this to be like an experience where people are trying new things always. We make several new flavors every week.
One big advantage he had was that Atlanta’s street food movement was starting just as he launched his own business. And he became adept at using social media to let customers know where his carts would be each day.
The first year crazy, crazy, crazy times working. That didn’t really stop. We added people but we were always understaffed. This year has been the first year where I really kind of feel like we can take a breath and try to run the business as a business instead of just trying to keep our head above water. It’s been different challenge for me this year.
We don’t pretend to know what we don’t know. That translates to every part of our business. If somebody in the kitchen helps me make a flavor, and I don’t necessarily like it, if more than one person in the kitchen likes it, we put it out there and let the city decide if they think it is a good flavor.
I wanted people to feel like they were a part of the business. The people who started visiting regularly were not just interested in which flavors I was making that week, they also wanted to know what I was going to do next, giving me ideas of places I should go or flavors I should make. Which becomes tricky as a business grows. At some point there are so many ideas. We grew a little bit too fast to some of our new locations before we knew what we were doing. There is a space where I need to become more comfortable with implementing what I think are the best ideas.
He said he pays himself $1,000 a week, working 60 hours a week, down from 80 hours or more when the business was starting out. Most of the company’s profit rolls back into the business.
We want to be responsible to the Earth and responsible to our community. And I want to be a very, very good employer.