Three Pittsburgh entrepreneurs share a behind-the-business look

From convincing a lender to give you money, to creating a product, to making your first million, every entrepreneur goes on a different journey.

At Duquesne University’s 18th Annual Entrepreneur’s Growth & Networking Conference, three successful entrepreneurs looked back at what went wrong and what went right.

Act on your big idea

Founder and Managing Director Nicole “Nikki” Narvaez Manns didn’t expect to be an entrepreneur. She found a problem she could solve — Nikki’s Magic Wand is designed to retrieve leftover product from cosmetic tubes and containers — so she ran with it.

pit_ftr_NikkiNarvaezManns_0716“A lot of times you have those ideas, and they just get left. Your kid starts asking for something or your husband says, ‘We don’t have the capital for that,’” Manns says.

It’s so easy to let it sit, she says; so you have to always have belief. It’s also frustrating and time-consuming to learn where to go next.

“If you don’t know what to do, do something. Take some action,” Manns says.

Today, her product has sold out on QVC and sells in Anthropologie and Forever 21, but she still has her full-time day job. Manns plans to go part time, but for now she’s filling orders at midnight or 5 a.m.

One thing she’s discovered is that rejection can be awesome.

Manns planned to develop Nikki’s Magic Wand through a licensing company that would then own 30 percent. However, the product was a few points shy of being fully funded, according to that company’s formula.

“That rejection was exactly what we needed at that time,” she says.

She and her business partner ultimately produced it themselves, and retain ownership. Manns also initially only sold Nikki’s Magic Wand online. She says getting the bloggers behind the product was key to growing sales.

She’s learned to be mindful of how you spend capital, as well.

“Every dollar counts in the business. It’s not like you’re at a 9-to-5 and some days you might not feel like working. They are going to give you that check in two weeks, it’s coming,” Manns says. “Not so here. So, every action equals money. Lack of action, zero cash.”

She says it’s important to market to infinity and beyond. You’re never done, but also keep in mind the overall brand. Manns didn’t do an “As Seen on TV” infomercial.

It would have been great exposure, but she didn’t want that label on her box.


Love what you do

Barry Young, president, COO and head distiller at Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries, the distillers of Boyd & Blair® Potato Vodka, has more titles than most.

Young worked as a pharmacist and in the business side of health care, but he wanted his own company, rather than working for other people’s startups.

pit_ftr_BarryYoung_0716“So my midlife crisis, I guess at 38 — I have a baby, a 2-year-old and I said to my wife, ‘You know what, I really think I can be a distiller,’” he says.

He’d fallen in love with distilling in college but had little practical experience.

Boyd & Blair® Potato Vodka is distilled from all Pennsylvania potatoes. Today, it’s distributed in 41 states, four countries and is a three-time winner of Spirit Journal’s top vodka in the world.

“I love it. I love getting up every day,” Young says. “(But) I don’t love it every day when I get home — sometimes you’re beat up and spit out.”

A few years ago, he faced some tough challenges and had a personal gut check moment.

“There’s no formula for it. I’m either doing the right thing or the wrong thing, and it was the right thing,” Young says.

Young faces industry competition from huge players, so he focuses on what he can do that they don’t.

“Two years ago our marketing budget was $25,000,” he says. “They are dropping that on a lunch.”

But he can put a face to the vodka and add a personal touch to stand out, like handwritten notes or a business card printed on very thick paper.

Young also says you can never have enough cash flow. He pays a $2.14 excise tax on every bottle sold domestically.

“If I have a huge sale, I could end up having a $25,000 tax bill, due in 14 days, and I get paid 30 to 75 days out,” he says.

In hindsight, he would have done more research in the company’s early years.

“One of the biggest things in doing your own business is — there’s no one next to you to say, ‘What do I do next? How do I solve this problem?’” Young says.


Always learning, pivoting

Chairwoman Wendy Mascio and husband, President Luigi Mascio, founded Medical Equipment Source LLC 15 years ago out of necessity more than anything else.

They saw an unmet need. Laboratory equipment cycled out of large health care providers to sit in surplus warehouses or dumpsters, while smaller labs couldn’t afford the latest equipment.

pit_ftr_WendyMascio_0716With Luigi out of work because of a merger, the Mascios decided to buy old equipment, remanufacture it, warrantee it and then sell it.

“That’s how our business was born — over a discussion at dinner,” Mascio says. “No formal outlines, strategies or anything else, we were just going to give this a try.

“We made a deal that if we made a profit in year one, we’d keep going,” she says.

They knew the medical industry, but didn’t have business experience. Luigi focused on the technical aspects, so Wendy took on operations.

“One thing I do know how to do is I know how to learn or find answers,” she says. “So that’s really what got us through a lot of this.”

It wasn’t easy, though. When the Affordable Care Act passed, fearful doctors stopped equipment changes. Revenues dropped 30 percent. Mascio says the employees stepped up. Staff took over snow shoveling and mowing; the sales team cleaned the building.

“Everybody just pulled together and we cut every expense that we possibly could, but nobody lost their job,” she says.

Luckily, the company was diversifying.

“We weren’t as far into it as I would have liked to have been when this hit, but we had started,” Mascio says.

Medical Equipment Source pivoted into international markets under the name VIVO Worldwide Inc. Today, it has been in 28 countries and sets up clinical laboratories.

“I don’t think small businesses should be afraid to go overseas,” Mascio says. “We are a global market and you can play well in that global market. It’s just a matter of learning a few basics, learning how to protect yourself.”

For example, she says 50 percent of international sales are due upfront, and all but $50 is moved out of that account immediately to avoid reverse wires.

She says VIVO also led to university affiliations by being a resource for those developing medical devices into new markets, and the downturn pushed them into service and maintenance contracts.