Jana Farmer: “Everybody is not going to like what you sell”

There are only so many hours in a day, decide every day how many hours you are going to work and schedule time to play. There is always something that needs to be done, always. It is equally important to be present for your family and friends and if you are spiritual, to worship and […]

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There are only so many hours in a day, decide every day how many hours you are going to work and schedule time to play. There is always something that needs to be done, always. It is equally important to be present for your family and friends and if you are spiritual, to worship and reflect. Read the book ‘Margins”.

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing…Jana Farmer. By 2009, Jana Farmer had been making homemade candy for family and friends for years. As the popularity and demand of these delicacies only increased, she decided to shift her hobby to a full-fledged business.

After various career paths, Jana began to pursue her candy business at the age of 68. In 2017, she launched Ms Jana’s Candy. She began by finding a co-occupied kitchen in which she could make her treats and insuring the business. Then she hit the ground running.

By connecting with the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC), an organization which supports and helps accelerate business development growth for women and minority entrepreneurs, “Ms Jana” was able to gather tools to grow her business. In fact, she recently secured her first loan from CIBC bank, and was approved within two weeks with guidance from the WBDC, helping her financially grow her business.

For Ms Jana, age did not stop her from pursuing her business. Instead, she leveraged her life experiences to help her business succeed. She had amassed a large network and credits her success to referrals from friends and family. Her dream is to leave this venture to her son and continue to expand Ms Jana’s Candy.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I was born and raised in South Los Angeles, California and was a teen during the 60’s. My parents divorced when I was very young, I lived with my mother. At that time I had a younger brother and sister. My mom worked as a pediatric nurse and had long work hours. So the responsibility of being the babysitter fell to me and my brother. As a result of being raised in what I would later learn was deemed poverty, we learned to cook. We cooked everything. When we had fast food, we made it. Popcorn and French fries, we made it… we cooked everything. During my early childhood, I learned respect for elders, pride in my appearance, learned to starch and iron our clothes, had a strict curfew, rode bikes and had roller skates without helmets. We walked everywhere, to the laundromat as well as church, to the dentist and to the park. Life was wonderful and full of friends and family, celebrations were an important part of my childhood…always with lots of good homemade food.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?

For most of my adult years I was a stay at home mom of four children. I’ve had many part-time jobs and hobbies I’ve tried to turn into something I could make money from. I’ve made handcrafted dolls, as a self-taught seamstress I’ve made and manufactured choir robes, ice skater’s dresses, prom dress, and sewed for the theater. My biggest adventure was when, out of need for my daughter as a young ice skater, I designed and manufactured an insulated boot cover called “ToeCoats.” It became a registered trademark product as well as NAFTA certified. I sold my product to Disney and to the US Figure Skating Olympic medalist Jane Torval. We eventually moved and I lost my sewing room, so I stopped manufacturing that product. On a whim one day in 2007 when my mom, who loved peanut brittle, asked for another box for a special occasion I said out loud to her “I’m going to learn how to make that stuff, and I did. It took a while but I got really good at it. I continued to sew small projects to make my extra money. I worked hard at my crafts. Year after year I continued to make candy for Christmas only, always adding new recipes. After years of perfecting my recipes and making candy as Christmas gifts I realized the large volume of candy I was making and that people really loved the taste. The “ah ha” moment for me was in 2016 when my cousin in Dallas, TX asked me to make candy as gifts for her women’s group. In 2017, those women asked me to make gifts for them; I shipped over 70 pounds of candy to that group. I was doing the laundry one morning in January ’18 thinking about how many new requests I had. Then I said to myself “I need to sell that candy” so I set down and started a business. No business plan, no place to cook, no staff. My start up equipment was four pots, some sheet pans and a candy thermometer and a name, Ms Jana’s Candy.

There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge

In my case I did not see candy as something that could be a business until I saw the repeated demand at Christmas; my candy had history and I did it because I loved cooking and the response I received when I shared the candy with my church and friends, and my husband’s co-workers and kids. It was a special thrill, my big yearly challenge. I just loved it. Once I did make the decision to take that same product (candy) to the marketplace, I spent my first year making sure it was something the greater public would purchase and that I could ask what I perceived the candy should cost to sustain the expense associated with manufacturing and selling it as a business. It’s true, with age and experience comes wisdom.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

In my case, early after I made the decision to introduce my candy to the marketplace, which I define as people who don’t know me or anybody associated with me, I was introduced to the incubator concept. My plan had been to become a farmer’s market and on-line sensation selling Ms Jana’s Candy. Upon learning I had become a business, a friend of mine who had been encouraging me for years to sell it introduced me to a trained chef for his professional opinion. The chef’s validation that the product was good was a turning point. That chef asked if he could share with another professional chef located in Chicago. I was immediately invited to offer my candy through an incubator called “The Apron Exchange.” That changed my life. My strong advice is to test the marketplace before investing heavily in equipment and supplies or even hiring anyone. An Incubator for me is the first step in answering the question ‘is this a product people will purchase at the price I need to sell to actually run a business?” The second and most important step I highly recommend is to enroll in another type of incubator; in my case I enrolled into a cohort called “Scale UP” through The Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) in Aurora IL, the WBDC is an organization that supports and accelerates business development and growth, targeting women and minority business owners to strengthen their participation in, and impact on, the economy. ScaleUp is a program that brings connections, capital and capacity straight to business owners to scale to the next level. This most beneficial step probably turned my passion into a legitimate business. Upon completion of the 12 week series I had three goals; 1) to become certified as a woman owned business 2) to establish an official company payroll, and 3) obtain my first business loan. I have all three with the help of CIBC Bank as a part of participating in the cohort. One thing I learned going through each step was how much I needed to learn.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

I learned years ago that if you could do something day in and day out that you love, that’s what you should do as a business. You’ve got to love it first, be realistic about the potential to make a profit and then validate the possibility by testing in the marketplace. Being a small business owner is a lot of work, there is stress and never enough money but when you enjoy the process, it’s like working on a hard puzzle. Do the best you can daily, have a cut off time so you stay “normal;”, and seek wisdom through classes and focus groups. When working in the kitchen I often listen to motivational and business help audio books. I love what I do.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

I sell candy, nobody needs what I make…but they want it. I am upfront about the fact that it’s not low calorie, in fact my slogan is “butter is my best friend,” that what I make needs to be eaten in small amounts and that candy is usually given to someone we love or have respect for. I love it when people taste my buttery sweet and salty peanut and pecan brittles, crunchy butter toffee, and creamy caramel as well as my version of the Turtle I call the “Salted Chocolate Kozie” and go “ohhh yesss.” Candy for me is celebration, and I sell that — sending love and respect through sending something sweet. While I love the presentation part, owning a business is real hard work. The downside for me is people don’t understand the sacrifices involved and the necessary time away from friends and family that are so important to being social. I’ve had to say no to going to lunch, shopping and hanging out to work on accounting, purchasing supplies or packaging for a show, etc. I just do what I have to do and remember that the prize is ahead when we can one day obtain a reasonable market share of the candy and gift business that will provide the revenue we need for profit.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual jobs and how you thought the job would be?

When I got the big idea to take my candy to the greater marketplace I thought I just need to get more pots, find a certified kitchen and make lots of money at farmer’s markets and online through my website. I was totally in for a rude awakening. I quickly learned I could not meet the demand by making candy by myself on the scale I was thrust into. I had to purchase my first piece of capital equipment within 3 months of starting my business. And that was the easy lesson. I would become painfully aware of all the legal and government accounting and filings I needed to learn because those duties were critical to advancing to the greater marketplace. And without you cannot. This is where I turned to resources like the WBDC who helped me with the logistics and the administrative framework that was involved in business development, the organization exposed me to some great resources to help me tackle these challenges head-on. The WBDC connected me with CIBC bank, where I was able to take out my first loan, which ultimately helped me financially grow my business.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?

In my case I started my business at age 67. Yes, 67… what was I thinking? My husband was retiring, in fact I was planning his big retirement party for later in June that year when I decided to start my business in January saying to myself it would be my side job. It was not an option for me to find another job but I did think maybe I got in over my head at my age. After all it takes years to build a successful business brand and I was already a senior citizen. I was fortunate enough to have a son who is a Marine veteran who was looking for something he could make a living from that didn’t involve a desk or overseas travel. I approached him saying we all work for someone and that he come work with me. He agreed and learned to make candy. Today I call him the Confectionaire Extraordinaire. I reached out for the help I could trust. That was a critical move.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Doing my first pop-up in Chicago I had to learn to make eye contact with people, inviting them to come to our display table for a tasting of our candy with the goal of them purchasing small bags of candy. That was new for me and I was nervous. I saw a gentleman who people seem to like a lot as he came into the restaurant. They patted him on the back and shook his hand. In my mind I nicknamed him Bob the Accountant from the 12th floor and determined to catch his attention. And I did. I asked if he had his lunch yet and encouraged him to return to my table for his dessert. He kindly asked me about my product and if I was enjoying what I did. I begin telling him of the wonderful incubator opportunity offered by the Apron Exchange, etc. I was so enthusiastic and grateful for the opportunity to be there. He reached for my hand and shook it, then introduced himself as the owner of the restaurant. The lesson? Sometimes Bob the Accountant from the 12th floor is your benefactor. Treat everyone the same, don’t judge just show your product respectfully and be ready always for the next unexpected guest to cross your path. I am enjoying this journey.

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

The gentleman who visited my booth, Mr Jim Kallas. We now recognize one another and it’s always warm, familiar and, encouraging. He has invited me to attend a showcase event at the United Center and participate in a promo video for the program that gave me my start, The Apron Exchange. He inspires me with this excellence in managing his many restaurants with a great team of supportive chefs and managers, all available to us. Mr Kallas said he was moved by the many women and minorities trying to get a start in the foods business at farmers’ markets. That’s when he decided to open his doors to entrepreneurs like me and offer incubator space in his restaurants. I have total respect for him and his big heart. He is a true game changer.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I pay my experience forward. Whenever possible I share our story of progress with people desiring to start a business as well as other people doing the same thing I do. We can always learn from one another. I love sharing extra packaging with fellow food vendors (which can be expensive) when I’ve purchased something we can’t use. I always make time for fellow business owners when they reach out to me. I know how important it is for someone to hear you out when the answers needed seem impossible.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Being in business comes with a high cost. It’s not easy and there is never enough money for the things you know are needed and important. You have to learn how to negotiate, to keep your word because your business ethics are on the line, and still remain balanced and energized. Sometimes the first presentation is the only presentation.
  2. Stress can seem like a panic attack! No kidding. I didn’t know that adrenaline builds up and the body protects its self by shutting down. This happens in both good and stressful situations. I was so excited going to the United Center I couldn’t breathe.
  3. Learn that someone else can do things as well (or better) than you and you should let them. Let go of hovering over your “baby” — Micro managing your business is like putting a chalk line around it. It is restrictive for others who bring new and fresh ideas and does not allow your business to embrace new techniques and strategies. Let go and let the business grow.
  4. There are only so many hours in a day, decide every day how many hours you are going to work and schedule time to play. There is always something that needs to be done, always. It is equally important to be present for your family and friends and if you are spiritual, to worship and reflect. Read the book ‘Margins”.
  5. Everybody is not going to like what you sell. In fact, selling is a numbers game. People are very honest and don’t mind sharing their dislikes. It’s not personal, its business and you should keep it always about the business. Learn to listen. If it’s something you can agree with, then it’s good feedback. If you don’t agree with the feedback stick with your plan and be confident about your product. Your customer is out there looking for what you offer.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would like a movement to take people back to cooking from scratch. I would love to take people with little money for groceries and teach them that most great foods/dishes were once enjoyed by working class people using inexpensive available ingredients like stews, casseroles, soup, bread, cookies, ice cream, etc.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My mom always spoke to us in parables… my favorite is

“A cow will need his tail again in fly season”

Don’t get so full of yourself you mistreat the people who you once turned to in a time of need. She’d say “the same people you meet going up are the same people you will see coming down”

As I write this I realize I could fill a page with her great parables. She passed away 6 years ago this month but her legacy lives on in everything I do. I miss her but her parables inspire me and my Florease’s Buttery Peanut Brittle is my brand’s original product.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I am a faithful follower of the show The Profit with Marcus Lemonis. He is in the Chicago area and helps businesses that are in distress. I have learned from his show to know my cost to produce a product, total packaging cost, break even analysis and how to price a product properly. I’ve enjoy his shows tremendously. While I am a new start up I feel he would be helpful in advising me about what next steps are needed to bridge where I am today with potential to becoming a nationally recognized brand within the next five years.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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