I’ve technically been a businessperson for 8 years. I can’t really believe that number when I say it out loud, or in this case, write it down on paper, but it’s true. 8 Years ago, after I had finished my first year of grad school at SDSU where I was working towards getting a degree in English Literature (not business), my best friend and I had the idea to bring an East Coast product called Italian Ice to the West Coast. And that bright idea is where it all began…
I’ll give a little background and I’ll try to be brief. I am a teacher by trade. I got my dream job teaching English Literature at San Diego State University right after graduating with my MA in English. On the side and just for fun (or so I thought), I started a company selling Italian Ice, an all-natural sorbet. In case you’re not familiar, this is an incredibly popular and profitable product in the summer months on the East Coast. When I realized it was nonexistent in San Diego, I thought I had hit the jackpot of brilliant ideas. It seemed I had happened upon a niche market; although at the time, I had no idea what that phrase even meant. Chris, my business partner, roommate, and best friend (also from Delaware) started the business with me, and we worked together to figure out how to make Italian Ice in our kitchen. We named the company after my dad, Claudio, who taught us how to make authentic Lemon Italian Ice. Once we learned the process, we rented space in a certified kitchen, and we started selling our two flavors, lemon and strawberry, at street fairs and farmers markets. It was, quite frankly, an awful way to make a living. The sales all depended on the weather, our position in the line up of other vendors, and the time of day that we were selling. And, even though San Diego tends to be sunny and warm on most days, we realized that in order to sell lots of Italian Ice, it needs to be hot and humid. Those days are rare in San Diego, so it made for a pretty miserable summer. We literally had to build up a storefront every day only to tear it down just hours later with only $100 in our pocket, and that was on a good day. Thankfully, we realized within 6 months that this was not going to be as lucrative as we originally thought, and we decided to pivot, as entrepreneurs tend to say (also a phrase I was not aware of at they time).
This time, we decided to make the best tasting Italian Ice on the market that we could sell retail in pint containers to stores. So, in other words, we wanted to create a retail product for grocery stores. I had no idea what that process entailed either. Are you seeing a pattern here?
I did know enough to start scoping out the competitor products. I knew the hole in the marketplace for this category was creating Italian Ice that still had the flavor and the consistency of Italian Ice that was just made and scooped for you right out of the batch freezer. Generally, the store bought Italian Ice was hard as a rock, and you either had to scrap it out of the container to eat it, or you had to let it melt for awhile before you could touch it. We found a competitive product that had the consistency and flavor that we were looking for, so we knew it was feasible to make. We thought with better branding and better flavors, we could surely surpass what this other competitor was doing. Looking back, it’s incredible to me how much we truly did not understand about what it meant to create and market a retail product. It’s a true testament to how ignorant and blindly optimistic we were at the time. I simply thought that everything I had wanted to accomplish up to this point in my life, I’d accomplished, so this would be just another one of those items on the list. Creating a retail product and making it successful is not quite in the same realm as becoming class president or obtaining my dream teaching job just a few days after graduating, but in my young and optimistic brain, it felt like it was all on the same playing field.
About 6 months later, we got smart again and realized that Italian Ice was not going to work for us. One night, all of my friends were over and we rang out of mixers for our cocktails, so everyone started using the Italian Ice in my freezer instead. In that moment, a new idea was born. Everyone loved these cocktails because they were mixed our simple mixture of all-natural juices, water, and sugar instead of the sugary, neon-colored mixers that were our options from the liquor store at the time. Claudio’s Italian Ice was fresh tasting and low in calories, and my friends couldn’t get enough of it. Once again, I had stumbled upon a niche in the market place. There were no mixers at this time that were all-natural or low in calories. This was before the Skinny Girl craze, so once again, it seemed like a huge opportunity to fill a hole in the marketplace. So, we decided to transition to a beverage product. We would create a retail ready Margarita mixer, and we would call it SoCal LowCal. And, it would of course be fabulous. This time, it would actually work!
If you liked this lesson check out more of my business and life stories here. My writing was also featured on Finding Cupid. Check them out for some more great business and personal development articles!
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