By Marcia Heroux Pounds
Entrepreneur Jilea Hemmings doesn’t tout her success. She spotlights her failure.
Hemmings, the creator of Greenie Tots, wants other newbie entrepreneurs to understand the pitfalls of starting a business — the things she learned the hard way.
She and her husband, Jamie, started Greenie Tots in 2009 to sell a frozen meatless entree aimed at children. The Plantation couple managed to take the business national, but it died six years later, even though they took many of the right steps to succeed.
First, Hemmings test-marketed her products, which experts recommend.
After creating meatless meals for the health of her children, Hemmings tried them out on neighbors and got rave reviews. Then she sold her vegetarian entrees at a farmer’s market in Plantation, where the couple lives with their three children.
“Our customers started asking, ‘Are you available in stores?'” Hemmings recalls.
So the Hemmings came up with frozen versions of the entrees and began marketing them to local grocery stores.
They didn’t quit their day jobs — initially. The Hemmings worked by day at their jobs in the pharmacy and health insurance industries, working by night in a local commercial kitchen.
“We had a niche,” she said. “The product was in high demand, but [we] couldn’t keep up with it,” she said.
Greenie Tots gained entry into Whole Foods Market in Florida and later in its stores in California and New York, as well as Publix Greenwise in Florida and other grocery stores in the Northeast. At the height of Greenie Tots’ production volume, sales reached about $100,000, she said.
To take their products national, the couple outsourced their production to New Jersey to produce the meals. They both joined the business full time in 2013.
“We were expanding too fast because we thought we had an investor,” she said.
A turning point came when the Hemmings were set to go on CNBC-TV’s “Shark Tank” show to pitch their business to multimillionaire investors. But during the same period, they got an offer from what they believed to be a credible investor — and family friend — who offered to finance their expansion. So they turned down the producers of “Shark Tank.”
But after signing a memorandum of understanding, the investor simply disappeared. Hemming said the investor said he was taking a trip to Brazil and they never saw him again.
The Hemmings scrambled to see whether they could get back on “Shark Tank,” but that door had shut — Jilea thinks the show’s producers were concerned they might back out again.
So earlier this year, the couple pulled the plug on the business. They had invested more than $250,000, emptying their 401k retirement savings and leveraging their home.
“We did it so wrong and took it so far,” said Hemmings, adding that the couple lost their home in the process.
Now Hemmings, 35, has a new business, Eshe Consulting, which works with startups. Jamie Hemmings, 36, has taken a new job in food distribution sales.
She wrote an account of her experience, “The Untold Truth About Building a Startup.” Last week, she spoke at a Startup Grind event at Broward College’s Innovation Hub.
Dion Taylor, who co-founded a food business, Raw One, said Hemmings helped him as a mentor, even though she was still trying to turn around her own business.
“People don’t understand how deep her knowledge base is on the financial and marketing sides. She’s one of those people you want on your team,” said Taylor, who has since sold his business and bought organic farms in Dania Beach and Ocala.
Taylor said his family liked Greenie Tots’ entrees. “It was a great product. My wife and I are vegans, and my children are vegans. We liked the taste. Pre-packaged vegan foods are not particularly tasty. She found a meat substitute that was not tofu. They had burritos and macraroni and cheese. My kids gobbled that stuff up.”
Hemmings also thinks children should be given early entrepreneurial education, so she started the I Am a Kid Boss organization, giving entrepreneurial workshops for children.
Lisa Dixon of Cooper City took her two sons, Maxwell, 11, and Matthew, 7, to the workshop. “I believe the kids got quite a bit out of it,” she said. “It gave them a little insight into what the business world would really be like.”
In her new consulting business, Hemmings warns those looking to go into the food business about the challenges she faced, so they can better navigate them.
“One of biggest surprises in dealing with a brand you don’t realize when you sell the product to the store that you’re still liable. If a customer wants to return product, now you owe them — you’re selling products at wholesale; but you’re responsible at the retail price,” she said.
Hemmings also found out that the retailers wouldn’t do any marketing or tracking of her product sales — that was up to her. “The store is just giving you the house. You’re responsible for keeping the lights on,” she said.
“You have to have a tremendous amount of capital,” she said. “When someone tells me, ‘I want to get into these big retailers,’ I say, ‘How much money do you have?’ Capital is key.”
Hemmings said the lessons she and her husband learned from starting the business will serve them for a lifetime.
A startup “really tests what kind of leader you are, how much tenacity you have when it doesn’t work out,” she said.
“We were distributed nationwide — to me that was a success. Did we build it the right way? Absolutely not,” Hemmings said.