What do college entrepreneurs do after they close up shop on their first business? They start another one of course! Jennifer Connor started a cowbell company called MerryBelles while still a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her cowbells not only became a regular for Badgers football games, but after landing a booth selling at the Republican National Convention, one of her bells earned a spot in the Smithsonian.
Leaving her noisemakers behind, Connor has moved on to a different sense: tastebuds. She started selling mustards in 2007 under the name, Mustard Girl.
After making a go of her first entrepreneurial effort while still in college, Connor was ready for another business adventure which took root during her collegiate days in Madison. She heard that her favorite local mustard farmer had put his recipes on the market.
When she approached him about purchasing his mustard business, he was wary of selling to her because of her art history degree. Connor said she was discouraged and looking for a sign when she heard a Sunday sermon about the seed.
"The priest said, 'It's like having faith in the mustard seed. If you have faith in the mustard seed, you will move mountains.' I just about fell off my pew because I couldn't believe my ears," she said.
The farmer told Connor the mustard business seemed like her destiny. Now, Connor's mustards can be found in 600 grocery stores across the Midwest. She said she hopes to be on the shelves of Whole Foods on either coast by next year. Mustard Girl can also be found on tables at Tavern on Rush and Gibson's in Chicago and the new Tom and Eddies burger joint.
The Mustard Girl herself said mentors helped her in both business ventures and she named the man behind the famous condiment, Sweet Baby Ray, as one of those mentors. According to Connor, Sweet Baby Ray advised her about her company branding. After re-designing her label, she also took his advice and took on the name "Mustard Girl."
Though she's now running her second business, Connor said she never had a clear idea of what she wanted to do as a career. After studying acting in Los Angeles, Connor, now 36, moved back to Wisconsin to attend college. Though she ended up earned a degree in art history, Connor said she was itching to do a project while still in school. She came up with the idea for MerryBelles when she heard one loud cowbell ring out during a Broncos-Packers football game.
She came up with a business plan that would allow her to obtain the rights to print the university's logos. "I had really no idea what I was doing in the beginning," Connor admitted. "I just took those risks and I did it one step at a time. I aligned myself right away with a lawyer, registered as an LLC and got an accountant too."
Connor set up shop selling cowbells for every football and hockey game. Her profits from MerryBelles helped pay her tuition, but she didn't stop with her success on campus. She decided to attend the 2000 Republican National Convention with red, white and blue cowbells.
Despite decorating her booth like the fourth of July, Connor said she struggled to sell bells in the beginning of the convention.
"When I got there, I got a note that there was no metal allowed in the auditorium so I got a list of all the cocktail parties going on in the city and I went in a cab to every single one with a bell in hand and a business card," she said. "One by one, I started getting calls from all these delegates. They said, 'To hell with the law, we're bringing in these bells to the auditorium.'"
By the end of the convention she found her perseverance had paid off. "These two guys came by my booth and said, 'Congratulations. This has been the best memorabilia we've seen in 40 years, you just got into the Smithsonian.'" I just almost cried," said Connor. "It was such an amazing moment."
Though Connor never pictured herself as an entrepreneur, let alone, a business owner twice over-- she said she always had a vivid imagination. Connor called college a "secure environment" for entrepreneurship.
For college-aged entrepreneurs looking to find their own mustard seed moment, she advised: "In my heart, I was worried that I would never find my little mustard seed, but what I realized is that everything will come in time if it's meant to be."
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