At age 88, New York-based Earl Fultz and his wife, Gloria Elmaleh, 85, started commercially bottling and selling the Moroccan sauces and spices she had been concocting at home under the brand name, "cHarissa." After Gloria passed away, Mr. Fultz, now 91, soldiered on and even expanded the business, winning a variety of accolades including a best-in-category award at last summer’s Fancy Food Show.
So, how does one get the entrepreneurial bug at almost 90 years old, and what lessons can he share? Here are some of Earl’s entrepreneurial pearls of wisdom.
1. Try to focus on what you know.
Earl is very cognizant that statistically, more startups fail than succeed, so he advocates that you pursue a business in an area you know. Both he and his wife came at this from a different perspective.
In creating the business, Gloria, who was originally from Morocco, experimented with spices that she was familiar with in an effort to find a way to easily bring Moroccan flavor to familiar foods. She ultimately tamed a very hot Moroccan sauce / condiment called "Harrisa" by removing the hot jalapeno and substituting Cumin, the world’s second most popular spice.
They named it "cHarissa" to denote the difference but to also indicate it was kind of a third cousin to Harissa. It was her specific knowledge of the product that led to something special and differentiated.
In running the business, Earl had some familiarity with the food business. He explains, “I wrote and produced sales meetings for General Foods and bottler conferences for Pepsi and Coca-Cola. But that experience is only starting from the top. Starting from the bottom is different.” However, he believes that his experience allowed him to have a good working knowledge of the industry that he could leverage and increase his chances for success.
2. Get a real proof of concept.
While Earl says that is was family that originally encouraged his and his wife’s business, it wasn’t a real opportunity until there were third-party paying customers.
“We first exposed cHarissa at a birthday party for Gloria and her sister with over 40 family members," he says. "It got compliments, but it was at a cousin’s party the following year when we were urged to try to market it. I agreed to do the groundwork, find a supplier and get a label.
"By this time, I had met [his current 'right-hand woman'] Jeri Woodhouse, who had a commercial kitchen and was very active in promoting home-grown and healthy foods. She gave me some of her space at the local farmers’ market. The response was terrific. The first week was less than $100 in sales. By the fifth week, sales were over $500.”
3. Do your best to attract people who are smarter than you are.
Earl believes that a big part of his success -- and that of other entrepreneurs -- is to attract smart people. This includes Jeri, mentioned above, and business advisor Ellen Rohr. This allowed Earl to leverage the knowledge base of others while he built the business.
As Ellen Rohr said, “When I first met Earl, I assumed that he was just dabbling in a hobby business, hoping to keep busy. Boy, was I wrong! At our first meeting, Earl announced that his goal is a billion-dollar company. He intends to knock the other hot sauces off the tables of America -- and the world!
"Earl has more energy than a 9-year-old. While physically, he moves a little slower than he used to, mentally he is a force of nature. As a result, he is an excellent delegator. Jeri, in her 70s, reports in to Earl daily, and they operate off a written business plan and updated projects list.”
4. Expect to make mistakes.
With a lifetime of knowledge comes the knowing that you don’t ever know everything. Earl says, “I think the biggest problem is one's lack of experience -- aka ‘The frog's dilemma.' The frog knows it has to jump to get anywhere but doesn’t know what direction to jump.” The same problem is inherent in start-ups -- and even companies who are growing to a new level.
The solution, says Earl, “Ask for help. You don't have to take it. And like the frog, keep jumping, just expect some hard landings.”
5. Don’t undervalue the purpose.
While Earl has so many wonderful things to say about entrepreneurship, he says, “I value having a purpose in my declining years. I value having something to get me up in the morning (good or bad).”
While profits are important to keeping a business going, Earl now has something that not only honors his late wife but fills the void of her being gone. He’s also been able to add to his life experiences with such accomplishments as becoming a “guest chef” at Yankee Stadium and meeting Matt Gibson, Executive Chef at the NY Yankees Legends Restaurant. His connection with Matt led cHarissa to being served at the Revolving Restaurant atop the World Trade Center.
He says, “It’s a kick!... I wish I had learned earlier how liberating a startup can be. And fun.”
6. Make your own luck.
Earl believes that timing and luck play a role in an entrepreneur’s success. However, he thinks that you are able to influence the course of that luck with your actions. He says, “I think business colleges should have a course called ‘Luck 101.' My premise is simple -- luck comes to those who have a passion, who have goals and who aren't afraid to take a chance. I've had a lot of luck.”
As for the future of cHarissa? Earl’s goal is to keep going into his 100s and then, “…someday Warren Buffet will wish he had bought us.”