Crash Course

A Southern Success

It was the chicken and dumplings that ultimately gave Marlene Wyatt her sudden success. Wyatt's two little boys loved them--in fact, they were all the boys wanted to eat. So Wyatt made them. But the process of creating this edible opus from scratch was leaving her kitchen a dough- and pastry-covered mess.

Ironically, Wyatt had grown up without a lot of dough--her family was poor. Wyatt, now 43, grew up with 11 siblings on a 40-acre self-sufficient farm, where the family raised cattle, chickens and hogs and had an extensive garden. They made do, but they were never rich and they had to work hard. Which might explain why Wyatt, instead of buying something to fix her doughy-mess problem, decided to do something about it herself. In the late 1980s, Wyatt made what is now called a No Mess Dough Disc, a contraption that allows dough and pastry to be rolled and kneaded without sticking to the countertop and making a mess.

Fast-forward a holiday or two to when Syble Whitlock, Wyatt's sister, strolled into Wyatt's kitchen and said, "Where'd you get that?" And minutes later: "I think we could sell these things."

In 1990, Wyatt, her two sisters (Whitlock and Pauline Dillard) and her niece, Mona Elliott, began Wood Family Enterprises, dedicated to selling the No Mess Dough Disc. They began selling the disks at crafts fairs and in local crafts shops, but nobody quit their day jobs. And then in 1995, Wyatt managed to get her product on the cable shopping channel QVC.

In five and a half minutes, Wyatt sold 2,494 No Mess Dough Discs--roughly the quantity the partners had previously sold in an entire year. Later that week, she received an order from QVC for 6,000 of the disks; an order for 12,000 came soon after that. And the orders kept flooding in. Three months later, when Wood Family Enterprises was pulling in 20,000 orders per month from QVC, and $67,000 in start-up debts had been paid off, Wyatt dissolved her day-care center to concentrate on selling the Dough Disc. This past year, Pyatt, Arkansas-based Wood Family Enterprises' sales topped $2 million. The company now also sells cookbooks and other culinary items, including gourmet dough mixes.

How does Wood Family Enterprises keep up with its orders? The company assembles and ships its products to its customers, but vendors do their own manufacturing. Wyatt says her main secret for success has been to never accept more orders than the company can fill. "Never agree to do more than you know you're capable of doing," she says. "That will ruin you faster than anything."

In the beginning, Wyatt had half a dozen ideas for what she wanted to sell to the public, but she only introduced one item at a time--"and each time we made profits, we turned a big part of those profits into a new product," she says.

It's also important for you to keep things in perspective when the success comes rushing in. "Don't become too full of yourself," says Wyatt. "I think if I had, I would have been knocked down fast."

Conversely, Edlebeck warns not to be insecure when your business suddenly takes an upswing. "Success is always something you read about somebody else achieving, and when it happens to you, you may mistake it for something else, like not being prepared or not knowing enough," says Edlebeck, who plans to take his bed and breakfast registry to other cities, like New York City and Los Angeles. "It wasn't until I started looking at our growth as the culmination of everything I'd been working for, as opposed to not being ready for all the new business, that I was able to start moving forward again."

And perhaps the best reward for managing success has nothing to do with money or business. Wyatt enjoys having the financial freedom to help out her family, such as when she was able to fly family members out to visit her ailing mother and when she was able to offer financial assistance to a seriously ill older sister. "That never could have happened without Wood Family Enterprises," says Wyatt, who credits her company's success not to intelligence but to diligent work and a watchful eye from above.

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the January 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Crash Course.

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