April 20

Vera Stewart: Trailblazing Entrepreneur and Founder of VeryVera

Vera Stewart: Trailblazing Entrepreneur and Founder of VeryVera

Vera StewartWhat adjectives do you think of when you think of trailblazing women entrepreneurs: maybe resilient, tenacious, adaptable, creative, even driven perhaps? You can package all those descriptors together and what you would have is the awesome Ms. Vera, founder of VeryVera. The brands she has created since her first career as a teacher, through love, sweat and probably a few tears are as remarkable as her own personal brand.

To meet Vera is like meeting a lightning bolt–you better hold on because you are about to be inspired, energized and want to go out and conquer whatever obstacles you have in front of you. You might think that Vera is a life coach, which she probably is, or in leadership development, and that would be a true statement. However, what this entrepreneur creates is a passion for others to really love good food. Like any strong brand, you must have a brand story that is impactful and Vera’s story will have you saying, “hallelujah” from the very beginning.

Since Vera and I are contemporaries, it was easy for us to dive deep into what it took to start a business in an era, 1970s, when women business owners were not widely accepted. That may have been a fact of the day but it wasn’t going to stop Vera. So how did her journey begin?

Early Influences

Like many young women in the South, Vera’s love for cooking was passed down through the generations. She was fascinated by the boxes of hand written recipes from her grandmothers. Early on, she engaged in the process of managing and organizing this piece of her family history. She loved learning all about cooking but also relished her role as a steward of her heritage, helping her hone her craft as chef, baker, super organizer and manager. It all seemed to come naturally to her.

One influence that helped propel her natural abilities into a possible career was her homeroom teacher her senior year in high school. Vera was not signed up for a Home Economics class but it just so happened that Ms. Dupree, her homeroom teacher, was also a Home Ec. teacher. Vera found herself coming to school early to help her teacher organize and learn cooking techniques. Ms. Dupree’s impact was so strong that Vera has honored her in the forward of her new cookbook VERY VERA. Recently, Vera had the pleasure of reading her tribute to Catherine, now 97 years old.

A Lifetime of Entrepreneurial Accomplishments

Fast forward, over the last 30 plus years Vera has started a catering company, a mail order cake company carried by top end retailers like Newman Marcus, a retail store and café, a syndicated cooking show and a children’s cooking camp now in franchise. Is your head spinning? All the while, she has stayed nimble and adaptable to needs and changes in the marketplace. She mastered differentiating her products by having exceptional packaging that her competitors could not duplicate. Her strong entrepreneurial skills, I believe, come naturally and are hard to teach. Her mentoring to up-and-coming entrepreneurs is a badge of honor she wears proudly. Did I mention that Vera did all the above while raising two successful young men?

Vera’s Latest Ventures

In recent years, Vera has contemplated her exit strategy. Don’t confuse that with stopping working and continuing to do what she loves. She has closed her retail store, freeing up time and energy to write a cookbook that will be out in April 2018, a must buy at VeryVera. Vera will also continue to focus on her TV cooking show and the cooking camps. You can check out all her projects at veryvera.com.

Lest you think Vera is all work and no play…some little-known facts about our role model entrepreneur: she never misses a chance to dance to Carolina Shag or Big Band music, she is known as a silly grandmother with rules, and Vera’s special day is most Sundays when she spends the afternoon with her grandchildren playing in the fairy gardens they have created in the backyard.

Oh, And She Beat Bobby Flay!

There is so much more I could have written about Vera, like that fact that she beat Bobby Flay in the Carrot Cake Throw Down and her ability to understand the science behind cooking. If you have the desire to start a business and live the entrepreneurial life, I hope you have the opportunity to cross paths with Vera the Wise One.


Q and A:

Q: What drove you to start the business?
A: After starting my career as a teacher, I decided I wanted to stay home after my first child. The catering business was my answer to a cottage industry. After a second child and a few years under my belt, I made it an official business in 1984.

Q: What did you learn from your previous career that helped you with being an entrepreneur?
A: I actually still think of myself as a teacher. Writing lesson plans and pre-planning are still an essential part of my business. Each employee turns in weekly lesson plans on Sunday evening and we review them on Monday mornings.

Q: What are your distinctive selling points or how do you distinguish yourself from others in your space?
A: The selling point to all VeryVera products was the fact that they were all handmade and shipped with exceptional packaging and care. We continue to capitalize on these in our other endeavors.

Q: What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to someone starting a new business?
A: I adopted a “school” approach and grew my business as my sons grew, allowing me to grow it slowly and manageably. I encourage other entrepreneurs to stay the path. The rewards along this journey will far outweigh any pitfalls and at the end of the day, you will feel a deep sense of pride and joy.

Q: What is your favorite part of owning your own business?
A: Definitely the investment I’ve been able to make in other people and the blessings they have been to me.

Q: What is the best investment (money or time) you’ve made in your business to date?
A: Looking back, I think my attention to detail and expecting the very, very best out of all staff and not selling for less has paid off for the integrity of the brand.

Q: How do you maintain a work life balance?
A: First, marry the right person. An entrepreneur is driven, determined and courageous, not always the definition of a doting wife. A successful home is like a successful business, in terms of organization, communications and expectations. When all these things are in place, the balance comes naturally.

Q: What is your personal definition of success?
A: I would consider myself as a servant leader. Anyone who I have served in my business over the last 33 years, as a client, customer or associate, who has been positively affected, turns into a “win” for me. The ones who may have had a complaint or problem became part of the growth and allowed me to be better by expressing that concern so they are “wins” too. If you look at it that way, every day is successful.

March 7

Writing a Compelling Brand Story

Writing a Compelling Brand Story

Writing your brand story can seem like a daunting task. If we step back and look at why your customers buy from you or engage in your brand experience and what a brand story should look like, the task is more approachable.

First, let’s talk about what a brand story is not.

Brand stories are not marketing materials. They are not ads, and they are not sales pitches.

Remember that marketing materials —ads, brochures, websites, etc.—should be shaped by the story, not shape the story. Effective marketing materials will serve the brand, not drive it.

Then, what is a brand story?

You can get started by asking, “Why does my business exist?” and then building your story around it. Every story has a beginning, middle and an end. Brand stories are no exception. The three-part model should have a natural progression.

  • Beginning: Problem. Explain the problem that you set out to solve or niche you are trying to fill.
  • Middle: Differentiation. Describe how you differ from your competitors.
  • End: Success. How does this benefit or connect with your customers or clients?

TOMS® shoes is a good example. Founder Blake Mycoskie was inspired to start the company after doing volunteer work outside Buenos Aires and noticing how many children were without shoes. He developed a shoe based on an Argentinian design, and now the company uses its “One for One” concept to donate a pair of shoes for every pair sold to communities in need around the world. Mycoskie’s inspirational spark is clear. TOMS differentiates with its South American-inspired shoe designs and the corporate responsibility business model. The brand builds a connection with its consumers who feel good about the benefits that their purchases bestow on communities in need around the world.

How do I know if my story is good?Attributes of a Good Brand Story

Now that we have outlined what to include in a brand story, let’s talk about the attributes of a good one. Think of these as the benchmarks against which you measure your story.

  1. Succinct
    Concise is the name of the game. If it takes you longer than a sentence or two to convince someone why they should buy your experience, it’s too long.
  2. Emotional Connection
    Invite your customers along for the ride. Sharing why you started your business and what niche you are trying to fill creates an emotional connection and communicates that you understand their needs.
  3. Authentic
    Be you. Use what differentiates you; all your expertise, dreams and desires will help tell your story.
    Are you a powerboat racer? Are you multi-lingual? Did you have a different career that brought you to the point of starting your business?
  4. Rooted in Purpose
    What experience are you trying to deliver? Not the product or service but the customer experience. Being able to articulate the experience builds loyalty with your customers and clients.

What is your story?

Here’s the challenge – break down your story into the beginning/middle/end components described above, turn it into a narrative, and practice telling it to anyone who will listen. As you refine it, check it against the attributes of a good story and continue to refine. You may be surprised by how well the story comes together and the positive impact that your messaging has on your bottom line.

February 20

Honing Your Unique Selling Proposition (USP)

Honing Your Unique Selling Proposition (USP)

Every day we are bombarded with blogs, new products and social media messaging about marketing tips, what clothes to buy, decorating ideas, etc. What breaks through all the clutter and gets your attention? In marketing-speak we call it a USP. Before you think it is some disease, let me clarify: it is your Unique Selling Proposition. A USP is what differentiates you from others that sell similar or the same product.

Definition of a Unique Selling Proposition: The factor or consideration presented by a seller as the reason that one product or service is different from and better than that of the competition.

Unless you can pinpoint what makes your product, service or business unique in a world of homogenous competitors, you cannot target your sales efforts successfully. Can you identify your USP? Generally speaking, business owners find it difficult to identify their USP when asked. With a little soul searching and creative thinking, you should be able to pinpoint your key selling points.

Take these steps to help identify your USP:

Identifying Your USP

Observe Your Competition

One of the best ways to learn about how you are different from your competitors is to write down the words they us to describe their products, services or business. Do they specialize in one particular area of service offerings? Is it the shopping experience they represent? Do they use history to sell their product? Knowing what words are used to describe their product or service is key. If your competition is everyone who sells wedding gifts, then look who is in your market and make sure you are doing something different, better and distinguishable. You might even want to visit their place of business and websites.

Identify Your Target Market

Do you really know who your target market is? Go beyond the typical demographics of age, gender, race, income and geographic location to understand their psychographics. What motivates them to buy? Narrowing your focus and identifying what they read and where else they shop are keys to developing a strong and distinguishable USP. Look at your social media analytics to see whom you are attracting.

Put Yourself in Your Customers’ Shoes

A key mistake many entrepreneurs make is falling in love with a product or service and forgetting that they must satisfy the customer’s needs, not their own. Step back from your daily operations and scrutinize what your customers really want. What problem is your product or service solving for them? If you are a gift store, what will make your customer come back again and again and again? The answer might be the quality of your products, specialized gift-wrapping, or concierge customer service. An easy way to do this is to ask your customers why they shop with you. This feedback is key. What we think is a differentiator might be different than what your customers think.

List the Benefits Your Product Has Over the Competition

Now that you are armed with the above information, write down what advantages you have over your competition. Clear your mind of any preconceived ideas about your product or service and be brutally honest. This can be difficult. You can use a focus group approach with your sales associates and/or staff. Maybe invite a few of your best customers to join you for lunch to discuss. Evaluating what features jump out that that set your apart will get you closer to a dynamic USP.

Write It In A Paragraph

Take all you have learned and, first, write it in a paragraph. Does this paragraph:

  • Clearly make a proposition to your customer that is not just words, or product puffery or advertising speak? It must say to your customer “buy this product or service for this specific benefit.”
  • Offer a unique proposition that your competitor cannot or does not offer?
  • Motivate both new and repeat customers with a strong value proposition?

Cut the USP Down to a Customer-Motivating Sentence

Here is one you will all remember: M&M’s. “Melts in your mouth, not in your hands.” In 1954 M&Ms used, a patented hard sugar coating that kept chocolate from melting in ones hands, thus inventing a chocolate soldiers could carry. No other brand had that ability.

Remembering Why You’re In Business

Most of us are not solving the world’s problems with what we do but you wouldn’t be in business if you did not think you could provide a unique product or service to your client base. You will be able to hone your marketing messaging once you discover your true Unique Selling Proposition (USP).

December 13

You Don’t Need an MBA to Understand Servant Leadership

You Don’t Need an MBA to Understand Servant Leadership

A funny thing happens when you travel half way around the world on a mission trip: the world becomes smaller. There are so many reflections I could share from this life changing trip: the warmth of the people, the unconditional love of the children or even the incredible human spirit that perseveres in the most difficult of living conditions. All these are true and have left an impact on my heart and soul forever. But what was profound were the similarities we all share when given a common goal of servant leadership.

Kenyan classroom with fellow servant leaders

Servant Leadership for Teachers

A major part of our mission trip was to work at the Renguti School, north of Nairobi, Kenya. To give you a mental picture, imagine stone and corrugated tin roofed classrooms with no electricity or running water. The meal the children receive at school each day might be the only thing they eat all day. In spite of it all, we were greeted with an abundance of love and appreciation that I have never experienced before. The director of the school, Lucy Tush, a bright and energetic women around 30, approached me and another fellow mission worker, Kim Spivey of Spivey & Olmstead, LLC, and asked if we would run a workshop on servant leadership for her nine teachers. We were both amazed that in rural Kenya the concept of servant leadership was even known. It is usually a leadership concept taught in MBA schools and by professional leadership coaches. You may or may not have heard of that term before but many of you do it every day without thought.

Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world. Being a servant-leader is not about being servile, it is about wanting to help others. It is about identifying and meeting the needs of colleagues, customers and communities.
Robert K. Greenleaf, “The Servant as a Leader”

Articulating Leadership Styles

Lucy wanted to find a way for her teachers to work better as a team in the school, and out in the community. We vigorously obliged and went about discussing how we would present this concept to these teachers. Most of the teachers were under 28 years old, with no knowledge of servant leadership. We decided to ask each of the teachers to describe their leadership style through a picture and leadership statement and present it to the group. In addition, we asked them to come up with a “team agreement” that they could work on all year long. Here is where our world shrank, and we were awed and touched. Their leadership statements were moving and right on target, and their “team agreement” could have been written by any top-tier MBA group in the USA.

Teacher Sarah presented a star and said, “I see myself as the light in the darkness for these children, and it is my job to lead them from that darkness into the light by educating them.”

From teacher Avoline, “My job is to leave a thumb print on the heart of every child and give them the love and encouragement to move them forward in life in a positive way.”

Embodying Servant Leadership

These teachers truly believe they are responsible for the future of their country through the education of the children. It was not hard to imagine that they already embodied many of the other attributes of a servant leader through their dedication to these children that have so little but to dream of better. That leads to the some of the other attributes of servant leadership:

  • Creating value for the community
  • Empowering and developing people
  • Humility
  • Authenticity
  • Self-reflection
  • Stewardship
  • Putting subordinates first

It seems with so few resources, many of which we take for granted every day, these beautiful teachers live and breathe servant leadership. There is a lesson for us all here.

Team Agreements

Team Agreements

A Team Agreement

The second part of the exercise was a “team agreement.” Understanding that tribalism is a big issue in Africa, we needed to help them work together across tribal loyalties for the betterment of the children. Written on a simple chalkboard this is what they came up with:

  1. Exercise patience
  2. Embrace diversity
  3. Give grace when mistakes are made
  4. Ask for help
  5. Proper time management
  6. Flexibility

The lesson from half way across the world in a land with no running water, no electricity, no computers in schools, and very limited resources, is that we should strive to get back to the core values that are important as leaders. If we lift up others, we all will be lifted. I hope this reflection of my trip to Africa will have a an impact on your life as it did mine.