The goal of most entrepreneurs is to make it big--after putting in a decade or two of sweat and sacrifice, and riding out a few bumpy patches before hopping on the gravy train. But some business owners come out of the gates running--hitting their stride before earning their first gray hairs. Timing, luck and hard work all play a role, but the business prodigies we profile all have one thing in common: Smart ideas. Meet four young pros with seven-digit revenues, and the road map to early success.
A Life of Spice
Name: Brian Taylor
Company: Kernel Seasons
Location: Elk Grove Village, Ill.
Brian Taylor can thank his tired taste buds for his expanding popcorn-seasonings empire. As a student at the University of Michigan in 2000, the Chicago-area native was bored of snacking on butter-and-salt-flavored popcorn every night, so he copied down the ingredients in his favorite potato chip flavors and took a trip to the store to buy spices and cheese powders. Through trial and error, he came up with a hits-list of popcorn flavors. Word spread, and soon dozens of dorm-dwellers were knocking on his door asking for shakers of his barbecue or Parmesan blends.
"My friends laugh when we remember the first time we packed up seasonings in my room," he says. "We used to fill 100 bottles by hand. We've grown a lot since then."
Today, Taylor's Kernel Seasons low-calorie, no-fat popcorn seasonings are available in 70 percent of U.S. movie theaters and are sold in more than 30,000 supermarkets, including every Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target and Blockbuster Video. But that ramp-up didn't happen overnight. Realizing his hobby might be a viable business concept, the philosophy major shelled out $7,000 he'd saved from teaching tennis to hire flavor consultants to develop commercially scalable blends of his seasonings. After graduation, he moved in with his parents in Chicago's northern suburbs and became head spice mixer, chief marketer, accountant and salesman. That first year, he sold his mix to one movie theater.
After years of steady growth, Kernel Seasons, based in a 31,000-square-foot, 41-employee facility in Elk Grove, now runs four production lines that produce 14 flavors. The company also recently started selling its brand of gourmet popping corn and movie-theater-style butter topping. Up next: Taylor plans to launch a line of drink mixes, seasoning blends for potatoes and pasta, and sweet blends for oatmeal, yogurt, cereal and toast.
In 2003, the last time he released revenue figures, Kernel Seasons was bringing in $2 million. Since then, the company has grown roughly 50 percent per year.
"The great thing about being an entrepreneur is that I'm not always at the office," he says. "Like my dad always said, 'I keep my office between my ears.'"
Taylor and his wife, who had their first child in January, make time to travel, ski and golf. He's also working on an MBA from the University of Chicago and keeps a firm grip on his company.
"I'm very focused on product development and sales and marketing," says Taylor, who doesn't see himself selling his business anytime soon. "I'm always on edge of discovering new products. But now I have the luxury of picking new paths for the company and leaving my ideas in the hands of others."