Stonyfield Institute helps entrepreneurs of all stripes

A year or so ago, inventor David Hallmark was contemplating a business idea but did not have a business plan, psychologist Debi Warner had launched an idea but was carrying too much risk, and Pam Richardson’s tea-tasting business was just simmering rather than reaching the rolling boil she wanted.

Today, the businesses of all three entrepreneurs are far ahead of where they were 12 months ago, due in no small part to the Stonyfield Institute for Entrepreneurship.

Created by Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm yogurt in Londonderry and Michael Swack, dean of the School of Community Economic Development at Southern New Hampshire University, the third annual Stonyfield Farm Entrepreneurship Institute will be presented, in partnership with New Hampshire Business Review, on Thursday, March 29, and Friday, March 30, at SNHU in Manchester.

“You do get afraid and feel like you’re going out on a limb,” said Richardson, founder of In Hot Water, a traveling tea boutique that’s based in Nashua, and an attendee of last year’s institute. “But it helped to rub elbows with folks that are good in business but were once where you are now.”

Richardson has moved beyond home-party settings similar to the “Pampered Chef” concept to bring her tea tastings to corporate offices and even speaking engagements at businesses.

At the institute, Richardson said she made long-lasting contacts, expanding her network of business associates, but she also said she learned confidence.

“For me, being an entrepreneur means you truly believe in your business, and even though you feel the fear, you do it anyway,” she said.

Hallmark, a Portsmouth-based developer who is most noted for his award-winning Googolplex board game, is working on a new venture to bring back a vintage soda from the 1920s called Vin Fiz.

“Last year, I didn’t have a real business plan. I had it in my head, but nothing concrete,” he said.

Over the past year, he’s put his business plan on paper, developed a soda recipe, and has begun selling the grape-flavored soft drink – and garnering some early rave reviews.

“It was interesting to learn that all businesses are similar in each phase of growth,” said Hallmark. “Gary Hirshberg said during Stonyfield’s early days, he once had to borrow a fax machine to fax in a loan application. I know it sounds kind of corny, but you come away feeling that if Gary can become successful after facing all those challenges, you can too.”

‘Wouldn’t want to miss it’

Perhaps the most dramatic success of the three entrepreneurs has been that of Debi Warner’s Renovation Psychology business, which has grown from a concept to a full line of products and media opportunities.

A family psychologist in Littleton, Warner’s idea of helping couples and families cope and even grow during home renovations has expanded over the last year and developed into a book, a syndicated news column, radio and TV programs – and is even being considered for its own TV series.

“One of the most important things I learned from the institute was about finances. I do have investors now, and I am looking for exceptional growth, but I had to learn that each type of media outlet has its individual mindset and each approach to marketing is different,” said Warner.

Despite the level of success they have already achieved, all three entrepreneurs said they plan to attend this year’s institute.

“I don’t want to miss it,” said Hallmark, who attended the first two institutes. He said he’s looking to soak up whatever he can learn. “I go into these things with both eyes and both ears open and my mouth shut,” he said.

Warner is facing several lucrative contracts and is dealing with the enviable but no less stressful situation of explosive growth.

By attending the 2007 Stonyfield Institute, she said she hopes to learn more about how to make the right decisions for the future of her Renovation Psychology brand, how to mature the business model, and even make some considerations regarding the end game for her business.

“I was a complete baby a year ago. I’ve gone from carrying an insane amount of risk to a moderate level in just 18 months. Now I have some very important business decisions to make and some really big contracts to decide,” she said.

Richardson said she is looking to bring her tea company to the next level with the skills and information she learns at this year’s institute.

“I’m pretty confident I will find out how there,” she said.

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