When Carl Rupp tells budding young entrepreneurs to keep at it, even after a major setback, he speaks with some authority.
In the late 1970s, Rupp, a Salt Lake City teenager at the time, launched a wildly successful snow cone business, only to lose it all 15 years later to drug addiction. After a bitter divorce, a year in prison, and buried in debt, Rupp cleaned up and began rebuilding his life. Last year, Snowie, a second snow cone business he and his brother started from scratch, grossed over $2 million.
"There are a lot of things that will knock the wind out of your sails," Rupp says. "But you just have to keep plugging away."
Rupp shared his entrepreneurial story in the first Self-Made in America contest, sponsored by Inc.com and The History Channel. Entrants were asked to recount their start-up or career-building stories in 300 words or less, illustrating a determination to overcome obstacles and succeed in reaching goals. More than 800 entries were received.
Like many great ideas, Sno Shack, Rupp's initial venture, started with a simple question. On a hot summer day back in 1979 in St. Louis, Mo., Rupp, a young Mormon missionary who was the fourth oldest of seven brothers and a younger sister, came across a crowd lined up at an outdoor snow cone stand. "Why would anyone line up for a snow cone?" he asked dismissively. After hours of pounding the hot pavement all day, he tried one and soon had his answer. Rupp immediately went back to Salt Lake City and built his first shack out of old cedar boards.
For the first few years, Rupp not only built the shacks and ice shaver machines himself, he often manned them, too. But business, as they say, was snowballing. By the time he'd setup 13 outlets around town and hired a crew of local teens as attendants, things were getting unmanageable, he says. Luckily, by then, others were approaching him with offers to buy a single shack and shaver to run it themselves.
"It went from me thinking I was going to own and operated a ton of shacks, to me setting folks up to run their own business," Rupp recalls.
At its peak, Rupp had rolled out some 150 shacks, all with his custom-built shavers and stacks of containers with several dozen home-made flavors--from blue raspberry and cotton candy to a sweet red concoction called Tiger's Blood, all developed in his own experimental kitchen. At about the same time, Rupp--a born tinkerer--developed carpal tunnel syndrome building a new house for his wife and kids. Eventually, he got hooked on the pain killers prescribed by his doctor. When those ran out, he turned to heroin. "I started playing with it and played with it too much," he now says.
After failing to complete a court-appointed stint in rehab, Rupp was sentenced to a year in prison. There, he says, he had plenty of time to reflect on everything he'd lost: "I woke up one morning and thought 'hey, I remember Carl, I liked him and want him back."
In 1996, with his time served, Rupp tried working for his now ex-wife back at Sno Shack. When that didn't work out, he started rebuilding his own business with help from his little brother Gordon--this time calling it Snowie.
Concentrating on special events, like the local weekly farmers' market and nearby college football games, Rupp and his brother have sold almost 500 shacks--many outfitted with air-conditioning, hot and cold running water, and a retractable roof to load supplies.
Rupp also includes "Tips and Tricks," a 40-page booklet that walks operators through everything from scouting out locations to getting a business license. "These are the baby steps," says Rupp. "We do as much as we can to help make it work."
Today, Rupp's entrepreneurial advice, which might otherwise sound trite coming from anyone else, resonates with a kind of hard-earned wisdom: "You gotta hang in there and be persistent," he says. "Don't get knocked down by a mistake."