Editor's note: This is another in an occasional Q&A feature seeking to highlight the successes and challenges facing small business owners operating in San Luis Obispo County. If you own a local company that’s been operating at least three years and has up to 15 employees, contact Julie Lynem at 781-7932 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Businesses will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
For Michele Fellows, it was the love of a special person in her life, namely her daughter, Alexis, that motivated her to open a Los Osos bakery.
Since 2008, Sweet Alexis has sold baked goods — cookies, breads and cakes — that are dairy, egg, peanut and tree-nut free. Recently, however, Fellows’ business faced significant business challenges and almost shut down. She turned to crowdfunding, a way to raise money from a wide net of financial backers using the Internet, to keep it afloat. So far, she’s collected nearly $20,000.
“This money is sacred to us, and we are using it to revamp not only our image but to focus on wholesale, corporate and national sales,” she said.
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Fellows shared her thoughts on what it takes to operate a business and her future goals.
Q: What is the single biggest priority for your company now?
A: We have been in business more than six years and have concentrated on Internet and retail sales. One business entrepreneur recently asked me: "Were there one or two sales that just blew you away and what were they for?" I would love to tell you, but that is proprietary. What I can say is that we still have our base Internet customers and walk-ins, but we are now focusing our efforts on the larger projects. As a small company we wear many hats and can find ourselves running ragged. Therefore, if we concentrate our efforts on the moneymakers, our business will grow and flourish.
Q: What were the three most important ingredients to starting your business and why?
A: Passion, perseverance and a good support system (and a killer product, but that would be four things). Running a business is like nothing else. The challenges you face as a business owner are varied and can be extreme. There are highs and lows, tribulations and pitfalls. Sometimes, there is great joy, and more often there are extreme lows and times of self-doubt. If you don't have the passion, perseverance or support system, you will never be able to make it through.
Q: Explain the toughest challenge that you faced when you started. How did you overcome it?
A: The toughest challenge I faced as a new business owner was confidence. Not only was I new to owning a business, but also my products are a niche and many, many, many people questioned why there was such a need for a product like ours. It took some time, but now I can confidently say we have some of, if not, the best products in the "Free From" marketplace.
Q: Who inspired you to become a business owner/entrepreneur and what advice did he/she give you?
A: My inspiration came from my daughter Alexis. Alexis was born with multiple life-threatening food allergies, and when she was little (now aged 12), there were little to no options, let alone those that tasted good. I wanted her to have safe and delicious cookies and cupcakes and share with those around her.
Q: What has been your — or an employee's — best idea that increased sales, profitability or both? Explain why.
A: My employees are few, but amazing. One of the best ideas that they have had will be rolled out this summer "Cookie of the Month Club!" Every month a new cookie will be featured, which will give us steady and constant sales even during our down times.
Q: Where would you like to see your business in the next five to 10 years?
A: In the next 10 years I would like Sweet Alexis Bakery to be a well-recognized national brand of the best "Free From" cookies and cupcakes on the market.
Q: How have you used the Internet/marketing via social media to your advantage?
A: Social media has been an integral part of our branding and marketing and is a must for all companies. We use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, you name it. You have to have your fingers in all of it. It takes a great deal of time and work but can increase sales, exposure and credibility. Also, it is an excellent way for consumers to connect on a personal level with your brand, which is extremely important for longevity. This, however, can be a full-time job but well worth it in the long run. Social media is not only an excellent way to promote new products and specials, but to connect with your customers in a very personal way. The most response we get is when we comment on a personal situation. This attachment to the product is important, but if the consumer creates a type of identity with your brand they will become loyal customers.