These entrepreneurs reveal what it takes to run two completely different businesses.
By Laura Tiffany | September 21, 2007
A lawyer with a chocolate business, a pilot with a crawfish company, an accountant with an ice house venture. Entrepreneurs sometimes find their lives split between seemingly incongruous businesses. Some intentionally turned a hobby or interest into a moneymaking venture, while others saw an opportunity for a side business and seized it.
Just as fascinating as how they came to own two disparate businesses is how they manage to sustain this double life. Whether it means keeping a suit at the factory or calling on friends in a pinch, these entrepreneurs share how they make it work.
From the Courtroom to the Rainforest
Criminal defense attorney Shawn Askinosie has made a name for himself with headline felony cases that have been featured on Dateline NBC and Court TV. But these days, chocolate is his top priority.
After two back-to-back murder cases in the late ’90s, Askinosie began cooking to relieve the stress of the courtroom. He graduated from outdoor grilling to pies and finally to cupcakes and desserts using premium chocolate. In 2005, he had an epiphany and realized that he wanted to make chocolate–even though he knew nothing about the business. “At that time, I didn’t have any idea where chocolate came from. I thought it just appeared in stores,” says Askinosie. “So I did what I do, and that’s research and find things out. Within a few months, I was in the Amazonian rainforest of Ecuador studying cocoa harvest techniques.”
He contacted people in the chocolate industry, both farmers and manufacturers, but found it wasn’t easy to learn the business, as most chocolate makers keep their recipes and processes a secret. Askinosie worked in an Ecuadorian chocolate factory, sourced cocoa beans from farmers in South America and Mexico, and began acquiring equipment from Columbia, Scotland, Italy and Germany, some of it more than 100 years old.
Last year, Askinosie began building his factory three blocks from his law firm, Askinosie and Bilyeu LLC in Springfield, Missouri. The first chocolate rolled off the line in January, and now Askinosie Chocolate is available in specialty food stores across the country.
While he spends most days making chocolate, Askinosie keeps a suit in the factory in case of emergencies. “The chocolate has been receiving increasing amounts of time ever since my last jury trial, which was one year ago,” says Askinosie. “I have a partner and associate [in the law firm, who] handle most everything and really only contact me when needed. For the most part, I am a chocolate maker.”
Askinosie hasn’t yet reached profitability–he anticipates that happening in 2008–but he’s already implemented the same profit-sharing, open-book policy he employs in his law firm for both the employees and the cocoa farmers he directly sources his beans from and pays above fair-trade prices.
“I could see the possibility of me doing chocolate making for a long, long time,” says Askinosie. “But it needs to be profitable also. That hasn’t happened yet. I hope it does in the near future. But I’ll always have my law career to go back to, in some fashion.”
For David Snell, his hobbies and personal interests have always directed his business decisions. In college, he began giving airplane tours of Dallas while studying for his piloting license. Despite going into the tech recruiting industry, he never gave up Starlight Flight as a side business. Later, he and a former college roommate started throwing crawfish boils for fun. They purchased a beat-up trailer and set up shop–again, on the side while Snell was working full time.
Today, he runs both Starlight Flight and Cajun Crawfish Company himself, plus a third company he recently added to his roster. “I just bounce back and forth like a ball,” says Snell. “I go from one thing to the other and if I get bogged down, I’ve got a handful of assorted people who I’ve built relationships with who can help out.”
Cajun Crawfish Company is Snell’s main business these days. He’s booked during crawfish season, which runs roughly from January through June, and expects to bring in $400,000 in sales this year. With help handling the phones, he keeps Starlight Flight running, calling on local pilot friends, who also help with the crawfish boils, to fly during Valentine’s Day and Christmas, both popular flight times.
“For the past few years, I’ve just been living the dream,” says Snell. “I get done with crawfish season and go to the lake and try to improve on a very, very poor golf game.” To cover his summer living expenses, Snell started his third business, DFW Custom Wood Floors, which offers hand-scraped wood flooring.
Snell had his own floors done and was impressed with the group of men who performed the work. He noticed, however, that they had no marketing expertise, so struck up a partnership. Snell now helps the floor installers find jobs and collects a fee of $1 to $2 on each square foot. “That’s an extra $1,000 or $2,000 [per job], and all I’m doing is referring business because I had the vision of, ‘Wow, this stuff will sell itself,'” he says.
Snell’s motto is to work smart and lean. He uses voice mail to manage appointments, the web to market his businesses and relationships with friends to help him out in the busy times.
Dealing with Cold Hard Cash
Roger Laney has been an accountant for more than 30 years and owned his own accounting firm for more than 20 years. While investing in some property on the side with two partners, HT Waller and Ruben Laurel, he came across an intriguing and possibly lucrative side business: ice houses.
Yes, ice. When someone asked him to lease property to a 20-foot-by-40-foot self-serve ice kiosk, Laney’s initial response was “What? That’s crazy.” But 14 months later, he and his partners now run Alamo Ice and own five ice houses in San Antonio, Texas–the closest non-saturated area to their home base of Chipley, Florida. They also sell the machines in 12 counties they have bought licensing rights for.
While Laney still works full time at his firm, the ice-house partners take turns traveling to Texas once a month, and Laney has spent many nights and weekends building the business. But he says that once the machines are up and running, it’s hands off. “That’s the beauty of the ice machine business,” says Laney, who adds that two of the biggest headaches small-business owners have are employees and collecting money. The ice machines have neither issue as they’re managed and maintained by a contract company in Texas.
The partners plan to invest in 80 machines total in Bear County, Texas, and continue selling machines in their 11 other territories. At $130,000 each for full installation, it’s a deep investment, but one that Laney says breaks even in 30 months. “I anticipate keeping both businesses for an extended period of time,” he says. “Once we get the machines on the ground and operating, there’s not a lot to them.”