As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Don Harding.
Although Fresh Fruit Sensations was very well received from its inception, for a few years Don Harding operated it just to make a little extra money on the side. After getting a taste of the lager festivals, Don realized that there was definitely a bright future for Fresh Fruit Sensations if it were run more aggressively. Since then, Don has expanded the number of large festivals, private events, and grand openings by more than 50%.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Sure. All roads lead to my grandmother. We always seemed to be struggling financially. No father, seven kids, and two adults (Mother, and Grandmother). To help make ends meet, my grandmother would sell chips, and frozen cups out of the house. The entrepreneurial flame was officially lit. Moving forward, my one and only dream was to run my own business.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Just before we started our first successful business, we were 2 months behind on our rent. A close relative agreed to loan us the money for the rent. Simultaneously, a client that we were pursuing finally agreed to give us a shot. Decision time. Pay the rent or make the down payment on the mandatory Worker’s comp insurance. We decided to pay for the insurance. The event went very well. It seemed as though the gamble paid off. Then we found out that the client paid invoices in 30-to-45-day cycles. This meant that not only would I not be able to pay the rent, but it also meant that I wouldn’t be able to pay the staff on time either. What a mess. Low and behold, I bumped into an old friend. I told her what was going on, just to get it off my chest. Surprise of surprises, she loaned me the money. The rest is history.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
By watching my grandmother and heeding her words. On countless occasions I watched her assess the situation, determine the best solution, and immediately start to attack the problem. She taught me that you should leave home every day, prepared to do whatever it takes to get through and come out the other side of the day.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going very well today. As for grit and resilience, just like everyone else we were heavily affected by COVID. Our one and only focus was to keep our nose above water and come out on the other side as COVID began to subside. Doing so has been bittersweet as we have had to watch some of our vendors go under. Even though we realize that COVID is not over, we have already begun to reap the rewards of our having survived the worst of it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Our initial booth at the French Quarter Festival was located in the children’s area. We were very upset about this, as we thought we should be in the main area with the other vendors. We came prepared to produce approximately 300 drinks. The children’s area shutdown at 5pm. We ran out of product just as we approached 5pm.
During the course of the day, there were times when we were able to observe the other vendors. Based on what we saw, we would have run out of product with in two within opening the booth had we not been in the children’s area. Long story short, had the French Quarter Festival staff given in to our arguments we would have open at 11, closed at 1, and never be invited to the festival again. The lesson learned was to do your due diligence, understand the expectation, know what’s required to meet the expectation, and make certain you have what is necessary to meet the expectation.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think there are two things that really makes us stand out. One is the fact that we make our drinks completely by hand in this day of automation. Our customers seem to enjoy the process. Secondly, it never ceases to amaze me how surprised our customers are when they find out that we are using freshly cut fruit to make their drinks.
In our second year of participation in the Satchmo Festival, we decided to upgrade our process. We hired an Engineer to develop special blades for our blender. After two months he came back with the prototype for us to try. We put the blades in a blender and gave it a shot at a small event. The results were mixed so we brought the blades to the Satchmo Festival. They allowed us to operate two booths, one with blenders and the other our traditional handmade. The results weren’t even close. Although the blades produced a product that looked similar to our handmade drink, the taste wasn’t even close. The handmade process seems to be here to stay.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The number one thing I would advise them to do is to systematize. As long as processes are developed on the fly, and the ends and outs of the business are held in your head, you will not be able to delegate. Systematization makes it possible to train other staff members to run the booth. Other staff members running the booth in turns allows the owner to run the business and not burn out.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Again, it has to be my grandmother. Her sincere words of encouragement, in a world where access and encouragement for African American entrepreneurs were rare, helped me tremendously. Every relative gave lip service to that old standby, “You can be anything you want to be”. What set my grandmother’s encouraging words apart from all others was how obvious it was that she meant every word she said.
I remember when I was in a spelling bee in the sixth grade. I told my grandmother that I did think I would win but you get a prize for second and third place was well. She in turn told me, “What you do now becomes a part of your DNA for the future. Do you want to spend the rest of your life shooting for second? If you don’t want to win, drop out”. Although she did not state it directly, I felt her disappointment. I made the decision that I wanted to win. I redoubled my studying, was scared as hell, but I won the spelling be. That was my first taste of victory due hard work. That was also my first taste of being afraid but moving forward anyway.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We are currently working on a collaboration with Lemonade Day that would allow us to expose at risk teenagers to paid internships, the intricacies of running a business, while also allowing them to produce a revenue stream for their nonprofit. Very exciting stuff!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1) Know what you know, but more importantly know what you don’t know.
When we initiated our staffing agency in 2001, we started as a S-Corp. Not knowing any better, I hired a lawyer and spent $500 incorporating the business. I later learned that we could have accomplished the same thing on the Secretary of State’s website for $50 bucks. Simple though this matter was, it cost me $450 that I did not have to waste.
2) Systemize your business from the outset.
In our third year of participation in the French Quarter Festival I had a system to concur the crowd and have a successful festival. The problem was it was all in my head. We had done absolutely no systematization. I was fine with this, until the French Quarter Festival staff requested that we operate 3 booths. Due to lack of systematization we had to decline this request. Based on our net from the one booth we lost approximately $40,000 by not operating the two additional booths. Lesson learned.
3) Do your due diligence on your industry and your target audience.
In 2016 we were given an opportunity to open a location inside of Walmart. We were very excited, and immediately jumped on the opportunity. Long story short, we were under funded, and attempting to sell our high price product to the wrong audience. It was mainly because of these two factors that we shut down within one year. Never allow your emotions to make a business decision for you.
4) Never hesitate to ask a question.
As adolescents we are bombarded with, “Don’t ask any stupid questions”. As a businessperson whose success or failure may henge on the asking of one question, I say there is no such thing as a stupid question. During our second year of participation in Bayou Boogaloo, we asked one of the staffers in charge if we could place our own sign on our tent. She said it was fine. We wrote her name down and kept moving. We were then approached by the festival’s director. He instructed us that this was not allowed and could be grounds to bar us from participation next year. We immediately explained that we had asked someone and gave him the name. After speaking with her on the radio, he apologizes and said we were fine. The moral of the story is, had we not asked the young lady, as well taken her name, we probably would have lost Bayou Boogaloo.
5) Have a basic understanding of business accounting.
This statement applies to very very complex matters, as well as very simple matters. I recall the first year I was in the staffing industry. 2001. I was a security guard running my business part time. In our first year our gross was $70,000. Our net after salaries and other expenses was approximately $24,000. We proceeded to spend that $24,000 without prepaying any taxes. Needless to say, we were very unpleasantly surprised when we sat down to file our taxes. Of course, we recovered. However, with basic business accounting knowledge the situation would have never occurred.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
I would say, enjoy the highs to the fullest. Internalize the efforts that it took to achieve and allow your staff to enjoy the highs as well. The way I deal with the lows that you encounter as an entrepreneur is to reclassify them as temporary setbacks. This way of thinking is only effective if you are truly committed to doing whatever it takes to get through that particular day. If you have truly committed to doing whatever it takes, then you already know that you will survive the low, thus it can only be a setback.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If I were influential enough to impact large numbers of people, my message to them would be to first fine something that you truly love doing. Doing what you truly love ensures you of success. The simple fact that you participate in something that you love on a daily basis means that you have already succeeded. If we were all doing what we love, I think the good vibes that come from that would change the world.
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