We know how daunting it can be to start a new business, especially if you’re disrupting an industry or creating an entirely new one. When there is no path to follow, the biggest question is, where do I start? There is so much to do but before you get ahead of yourself, let’s start at the beginning. To kickstart the process (and ease some of those first-time founder nerves) we’re asking successful entrepreneurs to share their story in our new series, From Scratch. But this isn’t your typical day in the life. We’re getting down to the nitty gritty from writing a business plan (or not) to sourcing manufacturers and how much they pay themselves, we’re not holding back. If you want to know how to start a business, you’ve come to the right place.
It’s not every day you hear about a career pivot like this one but when you do, it’s definitely an inspiring read. It makes us all ponder the possibility of a switch in gears and whether we’d enjoy it more or regret our decision. The good news is, all of the people we interview who’ve embarked on a second life are incredibly passionate and don’t have any anguish about their leap of faith. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. They couldn’t be happier.
Case in point, husband and wife team, Alison and Jay Carroll, founders of the super chic and delicious Wonder Valley olive oil. Jay is an artist and the former creative director at Levi’s while Alison was in advertising and PR previously to working in California olive oil industry. They fell in love with the desert town of Wonder Valley, about 160 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and it’s where the idea for their heavenly small-batch olive oil line was hatched. In just a few short years, the line has become incredibly popular (they can’t keep up with demand) and they just launched face oil, body oil, and an oil cleanser.
Read on to hear more about their inspiring story and don’t give up that dream of turning your side hustle into your career.
Did you write a business plan?
My husband, Jay, and I started Wonder Valley five years ago without a real plan. We spent the first few years putting passion first into the brand, and are just now starting to put together a real strategy toward growing the business.
How did you come up with the name? What was the process like?
We started Wonder Valley with just the olive oil without the idea of doing much else to start. We had a lot of oil-centric brand names, but decided against it, which in hindsight I’m glad we weren’t too myopic—it gave us room to grow. Wonder Valley is a real place, about 30 miles east from where our home and shop are in the high desert of Joshua Tree, California. It is a far out town on the edge of a national park, marine base, salt flats and the Mojave desert—a limitless stretch of sand and imagination. The place is a muse but we’re not a literal representation of it. We wanted to create an imaginary world around our brand, not just singular products; so having it named as a physical place gives that sense of arrival.
What were the immediate things you had to take care of to set up the business?
We set it up as an LLC which I did through a small business clinic at a local law school. I recommend this as it saved money and I learned a lot in the process while also being able to work with rad undergrad law students. They also helped with a sellers permit. From there we built a site, set up social media, got a bank account and hit the ground running.
What research did you do for the brand beforehand? Why would you recommend it?
We did basic trademark, domain, and social media account searches to make sure we weren’t stepping on any toes. I didn’t spend too much time doing homework on what e-commerce platform was best or SEO or anything. From our perspective we had our first olive oil harvest that November and wanted to get it out in the world as quick as possible (since it is a perishable product). We launched a few weeks later in January.
I did take the time to talk to other small business owners and get tips on things like packaging resources, how to do your own fulfillment and eventually insurance policies. We’re so lucky to live in a time that setting up a small business has never been so easy or inexpensive.
How did you find the vendor that you use? Did you have any bad experiences? What did you learn?
We got into this business because of my background as the marketing director for the California Olive Oil Council; I oversaw the only professional taste panel in North America whose main function was to annually certify the 400 + producers in California as extra virgin grade or not, as well as industry advocacy and education. It was a wonderful experience and exposed me to the whole process of California olive oil; growing, milling, bottling facilities, packaging vendors, etc. I left that role with a rolodex of all the contacts I needed to get started and the advice of true experts in this field. Our miller is someone I met during that time and who really helped make this a reality.
Did you self-fund the company? Did you raise seed money or initial investment money? Why/Why not?
We’re 100% self funded and we’ve used profits to double the production each year for the past five years. It wasn’t so much that I recommend this path or to conversely seek funding, but it’s just what we did. It certainly gave us freedom to do things the way we wanted to do them and to create out of passion not just focusing on the bottom line. As we’re hitting the fifth year and really starting to expand (we have a physical brick and mortar shop, we’re using a fulfillment center, our team is growing and our product line is expanding), I’m grateful that we’ve been such boot strappers.
It’s allowed me to actually do every role myself; shipping orders for five years, running our sales, bookkeeping, social media, wholesale management—you name it. So I know what our strengths are and where our opportunities lie to grow, and where best to delegate. We’ve been able to grow this business holistically because we’ve had our finger on the pulse the whole time.
How big is your team now? What has the hiring process like? Did you have hiring experience?
The core team is myself, my husband, and two part-time employees. We have dedicated freelance help for bookkeeping, marketing and design work, and now a fulfillment center. It’s challenging when you’re small and adding on a few key people—what I don’t want is for any one to feel overwhelmed by how much there is to do, or at worst, feel disempowered on how to help. I am crystal clear on what the role entails and what the pay is. I am clear on what our goals are for the upcoming calendar year and how I think they can contribute to that growth.
I also don’t expect someone signing on to solely aspire to being a shop girl or studio assistant forever, so I take the time to find out what their personal goals are, what their skillsets and interests are and give them room to take the reins a bit. Ultimately I want to hire people who are better than me so we can take this to the next level.
We’ve also made our hires by word-of-mouth or broadcasting on an Instagram post, which we were so pleased with the responses even in a small town. It helps to pool from people who are already excited about what we’re creating and want to be a part of it.
Did you hire an accountant? Who helped you with the financial decisions and set up?
That was my achilles heel for a while. I couldn’t find the right accountant and was being upsold on services I didn’t need. I have a great accountant now (who I found through another Instagram post asking for recommendations), who specializes in working with small businesses. I do the monthly bookkeeping and she does the quarterly and year-end filings but can take on more as we grow.
We use quickbooks, which I do like for its functionality for invoicing, P&L reporting, payroll and quarterly forms all in one. I also just have an old-school weekly sales report that I do myself every Monday since we started the company; I quantify our sales by channel and products, evaluate our traffic and analytics. This allows me to make informed decisions and to have strategy on whether it makes sense to spend more money to pursue trade shows, and events, what product categories to expand, or what retail markets to go after. What’s been invaluable is just dedicating an hour each week to really look at our numbers, and make really empowering decision-making.
What has been the biggest learning curve during the process of establishing a business?
You cant (and shouldn’t) do it all yourself. Know the difference between working hard and working smart.
How did you get retailers to start stocking your product? Were you told no? How did you handle that rejection? What advice can you share?
While working at the olive oil council, I saw an opportunity; I wanted to bring California olive oil to a whole new audience. So while we work with some excellent specialty grocers, we’ve carved out space where olive oil has never been before— in home good shops, museum stores, juice bars and Beauty Counter. We didn’t have big expectations at first and literally produced as much olive oil as we could store in our home office that first year—which sold out in about a month.
We’ve continually had a waitlist for wholesale accounts that are doubling production each year, and we’ve never been able to meet it. So that’s a good problem to have but still a challenge in its own. And sure, in that process, there’s been plenty of rejection. As with anything in life, don’t take it personally. Let it put fire under your seat to work harder on your elevator pitch. For some of our bigger accounts, I’ve physically knocked on doors with samples to close.
Do you have a business coach or mentor? How has this person helped? Would you recommend one?
I don’t have any one like this for me. I have a tremendous network of other small business owners many who I’ve met through participating in a bi-annual tradeshow, the Echo Park Craft Fair. They have all been great sounding boards to bounce ideas off of, ask advice on new retail markets, tradeshows, finding a good accountant or fulfillment center or all these common denominators as business owners.
How did you promote your company? How did you get people to know who you are and create buzz?
I went to college for marketing and worked in advertising and PR for years before working in the olive oil industry. My husband was also the creative director for Levi Strauss before starting Wonder Valley with me, so we had a leg up in terms of branding and marketing. Above all, we see the value in content, storytelling, and imagery so that’s a main focus. Things like SEO, media buys, social media algorithms make my eyes cross so that’s something we outsource since it is vital to promoting our company. A lot of our growth has been spending the time on social media content, leveraging good press, a strong stock list of retailers to help tell our story, and having a physical storefront all has helped spread the word.
At the end of the day, it’s our product that is the backbone of the company, to make something worth talking about and taking a photo of. A lot of consideration and immeasurable time went into designing that first bottle, getting the blend of oil and the harvest timing just right as well as my unshakable belief that good olive oil is a key ingredient to the Good Life; that it is a true superfood and fountain of youth ingredient.
What is one thing you didn’t do in the setup process, that ended up being crucial to the business and would advise others to do asap?
I don’t know if there was anything that dire that we missed in the beginning. I wish I found this accountant sooner, I wish I spent more time evaluating e-commerce options sooner, but it just was what it was. Not to say we had it all figured out off the bat, hardly. I just think there’s value in learning as you go and giving yourself room to make mistakes.
For those who haven’t started a business (or are about to) what advice do you have?
Owning a business is the most rewarding, creative, self-confidence boosting, non-stop, draining thing ever. I think there’s this notion that if I can just get it to this next level, or pay myself this salary, or hire a few more people it’ll be on autopilot and I can get a break. I’m only five years in but I haven’t found that to be the case. There’s an endless list of things to do and hardly enough people to do them, and that can translate to guilt or pressure and the business having a vampiric affect on your life.
Self-imposed boundaries are important, like I’m trying to tuck my phone away in the other room at the end of the day so my days aren’t bookended with emails and stress and deadlines when I wake up and go to sleep. I’m claiming those for my time to replenish the well, so to speak. I read morning and night and cook all our meals, I go outside and take a bath or meditate, walk the dog, catch up with my husband. These are the true job perks. Likewise, if you work with a spouse or friend or family member, it has its own challenges and the business can really steamroll the relationship if you’re not careful. Jay and I have made really formal job descriptions within the business so we’re not micromanaging each other, but instead working separately but in tandem. It’s a constant practice, but when I’m mentally off the clock, there is no more work talk. Happiness is the goal, after all.