CPG School Offers Inspiring Start-Up Stories

CPG School presented by Selling to the Masses, an annual day long CPG focused conference, opened its doors at 7am at the Northwest Arkansas Community College Shewmaker Center. After opening its doors, registering guests from all walks of business life, and providing plenty in the way of coffee and breakfast the conference began with a warm welcome from Rick West, founder and CEO of Field Agent

First things first, he had the audience identify themselves as either someone who could “offer services and help” and others who potentially “needed services and help.” He encouraged tons of networking and mingling for the CPG School attendees. He did so by stressing the invaluable nature of the connections made during the first few years of his own career. 

The first speaker up was the delightfully down-to-Earth Burt Hanna, founder and CEO of the Hanna Candle Company. His successful start-up story was one amongst many that were presented throughout the duration of the day. However, his story in particular helped to set the upbeat tone of the conference right at the start. Hanna took the audience back to the beginning of his own story, setting the scene in the 1980s as a young twenty something ready to make a debut into the entrepreneurial world. Hanna says he found his calling somewhat by accident, like most entrepreneurs tend to do. After reading about the multi-million dollar success of potpourri company Aromatique, Hanna hauled himself to the library and began extensively researching the process of making potpourri.

Afterwards, Hanna started a small operation from his basement. He gathered his materials such as almond shells and wood chips from local factories. He even recalls gathering pinecones as close to home as his own front yard. He’d take his materials, dye them with Walmart bought Rit Dye, and add fragrance. The first year was slow, but after landing several major accounts in year two and three his business boomed and kept on booming.

As time went on potpourri, much like the acid washed jeans of the nineties, started quickly fading out of style. A friend of Hanna’s encouraged him to look into making candles instead. Seeing the market shift, Hanna shifted with it. He went back to the library and learned how to make candles just as he had learned how to make potpourri. Candles and candle production quickly became the majority of his business. This continues today as Hanna’s company contributes regularly to the candle aisle at any of your local Walmarts under the MainStays brand.

If anything, by the end of his speech, Hanna wanted to make it known just how important perseverance and the ability to “pivot” is. Making quick, responsive changes in the business world is essential. He also stressed the importance of becoming a “student of the industry.”

This sentiment would be equally stressed and reiterated all day long by nearly every speaker in the queue.

Two other entrepreneurs made their way to the main-stage in the hours to come. The first of the two, Victoria Lynden, shared the story of how she went from corporate burnout to coffee maven. Lynden, says that much like Hanna she found her passion for coffee purely by accident.

In a chaotic world, coffee had the opposite effect on her than it does most – it slowed her down. While on a solo trip to Hawaii, Lynden made her way into a tiny shack café and had, arguably, the best cup of coffee of her life. She quickly made friends with the owner, a Texas native with a penchant for coffee roasting and a degree in science named John. Over several days in that little Hawaiian shack, lit by one teeny tiny light bulb, John taught her the basic process of coffee production. Lynden’s passion for coffee quickly deepened and that passion did not seem to lose its luster after returning back to her real life behind the corporate desk.

She knew she needed to bring the Hawaiian style coffee she had learned to produce on her trip to the entire world. First, before tackling the world, she needed to set up operations in her hometown of Austin, Texas and win over the local markets. Quickly, Lynden found her coffee – dubbed Kohana Coffee – on the shelves of two local Whole Foods stores and a few other small establishments.

Lynden, though still actively juggling a desk job, managed to make time for Kohana. She sat day after day outside of Whole Foods demoing, making, and handing out coffee to shoppers. She’d ask opinions, concoct new drinks, and get her product in the hands of as many people as humanly possible. She advised strongly to “start in the parking lot” with your product like she had done with her own. Lynden said gathering lots of feedback over time was what allowed her Kohana coffee brand to continue rising the upward ranks of success. This feedback allowed for a strategic brand and package redesign that helped sales to nearly triple.  

The last start-up story of the CPG School day belonged to Tim Barklage, Co-founder and President of Better Life. Better Life was and is brand of all natural, completely safe cleaning products made from plants. Barklage said his main interest in safe, all-natural cleaning products was ignited after having his first child. All of the toxic chemicals found in standard cleaning products were a source of both annoyance and concern as a new parent. It just so happened a good friend of Barklage shared a similar interest after finding fatherhood and had a 13-year background in formulation chemistry. It was match made in heaven.

After landing deals with local Whole Foods stores, the duo quit their day jobs in order to focus on Better Life full time. However, the brand was more or less unknown to the general public and the limited number of stores didn’t seem like enough to sustain two growing families. Barklage acknowledged how hard times could sometimes get, but clearly emphasized the value of perseverance. The two made sure their cleaning product was top notch and focused much time on crafting a relevant, vibrant brand behind it. The pair also placed an importance on remaining cash flow positive and debt free. After four years of hard work and bootstrapping, Barklage and his partner got the opportunity to appear on the popular television program Shark Tank.

Barklage acknowledged the immense opportunity of being able to appear on the show. He claimed that regardless if he was able to strike a deal or not, having access to hundreds of thousands of potential customers in just a matter of minutes was enough of a perk to make going on air a worthwhile endeavor. Luckily, Barklage and his business partner were able to land a deal. With the help of Laurie Greiner, Barklage and his team will be bringing Better Life to an even wider audience. It’s only a matter of time until it is, without a doubt, a household name in cleaning products.

In addition to these three amazing start-up stories, CPG School offered some great content and speakers that capitalized business tips and CPG trends. There were three separate panels filled to the brim with industry experts geared up to talk about topics like “Utilizing the Crowd” and “E-Commerce.” Our own CEO Justin Urso was invited to both moderate and lend his expertise on the "Utilizing the Crowd" panel. Another popular panel, featuring Vanessa Ting of Retail Path, discussed the ins and outs of how to get on and stay on major retailer shelves through the eyes of a buyer.

CPG School, at the end of the day, was an action packed conference that served as the perfect platform for networking, hearing some great start-up stories, and getting the inside scoop on the latest trends and relevant information when it came to all things CPG. This conference offered up a breadth of amazing speakers and industry savvy experts that could make the most uninformed of patrons feel ten times more confident battling their way into retail. That's saying something.