How 3 Entrepreneurs Went from Welfare to Multi-Million Business in Five Years

The CEO of Zaycon Fresh shares the entrepreneurial lessons he learned from taking his circumstances and turning them into a major business opportunity.

learn more about Carol Roth

By Carol Roth

Zaycon Blog
Mike Conrad, CEO of Zaycon Foods

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Zaycon Fresh is an unusual business with an unusual story. Two brothers and their cousin, all on welfare after they fell on hard times during the recession, decided to start a business. Today, this business holds events throughout the country where they deliver proteins like chicken, bacon, salmon, steak and more in bulk to customers -- directly from farmers -- at value pricing.

After starting with a test event in 2009 that brought in revenue of $40,000, the company is on track to do $30 million for this fiscal year, it says.

I first heard about Zaycon Fresh from my husband, who has had a client relationship with the company. That's how I was introduced to Zaycon's CEO Mike Conrad. With no formal business background and no college degree, Conrad talks about the entrepreneurial lessons he learned from taking his circumstances and turning them into a major business opportunity.

Related: The Simple Customer-Service Mistake That Cost $800

Timing is everything.

For Zaycon, the third time was the charm, so to speak. Mike Conrad's brother, J.C. -- who was a co-founder and is no longer with the company -- conceptualized the business when he was a meat manager for a supermarket. He did a proof-of-concept test to see if he could get customers to buy in bulk at discounted prices and it was a significant success.

He took that proof-of-concept and tried to launch the business himself in 2000, but was not successful. It wasn't until after the Internet infrastructure was built up enough to support this event-based business -- and he found partners in his brother and cousin, Adam Kremin -- did this concept get legs as a standalone business.

Remember that even the best ideas may not be successful if launched at the wrong time.

Build your brand the hard way.

Building a business and a brand is difficult, so Conrad and his co-founders decided to start where they had support: with local churches. These institutions helped to spread the word about their premier Zaycon event and continue to be big supporters. The events are often held in church parking lots where there is often extra unused space. Plus, the church benefits from awareness in addition to a Zaycon donation of food.

After the success of the first event, Zaycon's next endeavor was to engage coupon and deal-oriented bloggers. They reached out to 1,000 bloggers to see if they would be interested in reviewing the company's product and approximately 450 responded yes. Since Zaycon delivers farm-fresh product, they wanted the experience to be authentic, so they rented a few trucks and hand delivered the 450 boxes of product to bloggers all across the country. This extra effort, while time-consuming, made a big impact. As these bloggers raved about Zaycon, they started adding thousands upon thousands of customers to their database. This was the catalyst for major growth.

Too many entrepreneurs want to do traditional marketing strategies from the get go, but sometimes, doing the high-labor-intensive, out-of-the-box efforts create the foundation that your business needs for growth.

Related: The Future of Customer Loyalty

Create the "right' team.

To take the business from nothing to $30 million in sales, Conrad says was a true team effort. It was all about having the right people in the right places at the right time. While his brother was a co-founder, he ultimately felt he wasn't suited for business growth and was bought out of the business.

Also, as the company grew, Conrad and his cousin knew that there many traditional business competencies that they didn't possess. They sought advisors and hands-on investors who could help supplement those skill and knowledge deficiencies and bring the company to the next level.

Involve your customers.

You might not think that bulk meats is an enthusiast-driven business, but Zaycon proves that it can be. By involving the customers in everything from initial marketing -- (new events are set when a core group of interested customers in a certain geographic area sign-up) -- to creating a fun experience, the business gets extra mileage.

As Conrad said, "People wanted to be involved in your business. When they feel involved, they want to support you." That has certainly been the case for Zaycon's excited customer base, some of whom "volunteer" for free food at events and certainly create a community around Zaycon's model that helps the company to build its business.

Create a defense with intellectual property.

While the price point and freshness are customer selling points of Zaycon's model, their secret sauce is actually their logistics. They have invested heavily in creating software systems that help them manage the farm-to-customer logistics of food delivery and event production.

Conrad relates that while the business seems simple in concept, the logistics are very complicated, and their investment in logistics IP helps to create barriers to entry from competitors.

Be willing to change.

Conrad's parting words are the ones that he thinks are maybe the most important for entrepreneurs. "Be malleable," he said. "You have to adapt and change. There were at least four times when we thought that the business was dead, but we knew that was not an option. We couldn't quit, we had to keep going."

He also said that the willingness to change comes into play in terms of listening. "Always believe you are not the smartest guy in the room and let other people bring ideas to the table," said Conrad. The path you start for your business -- and often your endpoint as well -- will change drastically as you build the company.

Zaycon Fresh continues to grow and prosper and will rely on their own history lessons to move them forward to the next level of success.

Related: How One Boutique Uses Technology to Help More Brides Say Yes to the Dress

Carol Roth

Entrepreneur, TV host and small business expert

Carol Roth is the creator of the Future File™ legacy planning system, a “recovering” investment banker, business advisor, entrepreneur and best-selling author. She is also a reality TV show judge, media contributor and host of Microsoft’s Office Small Business Academy. A small business expert, Roth has worked with companies of all sizes on everything from strategy to content creation and marketing to raising capital. She’s been a public company director and invests in mid-stage companies, as well.

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