Like a lot of entrepreneurs out there, I just knew I wanted to be in business before I even knew what a businessman was.
One day I gathered together a bunch of old VHS tapes, used toys and some of my sister's belongings and slapped a sign on the outside cellar door that said "Bargain Basement." Then it was just a matter of waiting for my customers to arrive during the hours I wasn't in school. My store didn't last very long. It turned out that my parents weren't very excited about their 10-year-old inviting total strangers into our house.
Still, you learn from your failures. I learned that ideas always need a good business plan. I applied that lesson at 17, after spending several years involved in youth theatre and deciding I wanted to do more than act. I wanted to be in charge.
Starting with what I knew
I knew the historic 90-year-old State Theatre in my hometown of Stoughton, Mass., had a great stage, balcony seats and financial troubles. So I started the Independent Theatre Company, and brought together adult actors, directors and managers, and produced plays. It was a lot of work, and a ton of fun, but we never made much profit. I put I.T.C. on hiatus when college demanded more time.
Starting I.T.C. was a leap of faith and taught me that the difference between being an entrepreneur and a "wantrepreneur" is taking that first big step. Confidence and courage are key, just believing that once you do it, things will work out. That's what entrepreneurship is all about.
The growth of my boutique healthy vending company, KarmaBox Vending, has definitely been an awesome entrepreneurial journey for me. It started as one of those lightbulb moments.
I was a college freshman and, like most students, I was exposed to a lot of vending machines. I started thinking about getting my own vending machines but after I started looking into it I realized the junk food market was saturated.
About a year later, in 2010, I was sitting in my dorm room and had an amazing vision. I thought "wait a minute, how come there aren't healthy snacks in vending machines?" This happened around the time I started becoming healthier myself. I'd gained, then lost, a bunch of weight and was a spin instructor, so healthy eating was on my mind.
I looked into it and found that the market was open. I saw it as such a viable idea that I dropped out of college and pursued this business. I started it off as a full-service company. I had six machines, got the locations, and stocked and serviced the machines myself.
Part of my mission from the get-go was to build a brand of vending machines. They're everywhere but the only thing that sticks out about vending machines to most people is Coca-Cola, which isn't a vending company. So I created a specific look for KarmaBox to build brand identity for people looking for healthy snacks on-the-go.
I was a 21-year-old college kid trying to run a business and make it work. I went in and just figured it out. I was calling schools, hotels, airports, athletic centers and pitching to them. This was up in Nova Scotia, so it was easy to talk to people because Canadians are friendly by nature. I landed some great placements, but as for selling people a $3 granola bar, the timing wasn't right.
Learning and growing from setbacks
About this time, I got a chance to appear on "Dragons' Den," Canada's version of "Shark Tank." Before the shoot I imagined seeing my business explode. I didn't get a deal, but that turned out to be a fantastic experience for me. I was asked what about my business was proprietary. At that time, the answer was nothing. That kind of crushed my dream.
After that, I pulled my machines, moved back to Boston and put them into storage. I started working at Starbucks, but as I found myself slipping farther into "employee" mentality I struck up a friendship with a customer who was a successful businessman. I showed him my revised business plan, and that including making KarmaBox Vending a business opportunity where we support other entrepreneurs, find their locations — now a proprietary aspect of the business — and teach them the secrets to success.
That man agreed to invest $20,000 in KarmaBox and that was just what I needed. I rented a small office and hired my first employee to find locations. I waited tables to pay expenses until we signed our first customers. Within one year, we moved our headquarters to San Diego and turned that $20,000 investment into more than $1 million in sales. At the start of 2017 we're a multi-million-dollar business and KarmaBox is set up in more than 50 major metropolitan areas across the U.S. We're back in Canada, too.
I realized that my favorite part of KarmaBox is helping families, retirees - all sorts of people — launch successful businesses. I had another lightbulb moment and created LaunchPad Nation, a platform that guides entrepreneurs through the mental and physical steps of bringing their ideas to market. Sure, you build it with blood, sweat, and tears sometimes, but once you do that, you pivot your way to success.
While many of those I spoke with had business sense, most didn't know what steps were required to launch their own business. I realized people needed a resource, a million-dollar startup bootcamp, to help them avoid the common pitfalls of entrepreneurship. The goal of LaunchPad Nation is to give people the tools, resources, steps and personal coaching to take their idea, or their existing business, to the next level.
What's your 'why?'
If there's one key lesson I've learned in business is that it's all about the why. I ask, why do you want to be in business for yourself, instead of working for someone else? For many, the appeal is about being in control of their own life and career, and being able to fully profit from their own hard work.
If you don't have a big enough why, then the roller-coaster ride of entrepreneurship is a lot harder to handle. Making money isn't usually a good enough why. What's your passion? What do you want to build? What speaks to your soul so much you need to share it with others?
There's your why.
About the author: A.J. MacQuarrie is the founder and CEO of KarmaBox Vending.
Edited for length and clarity by Shannon Gausepohl. Have a great entrepreneurial story to tell? Email your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org.