Bananas, My Brand, and Me
This 22-year-old started a cottage business while she was still in school. Now she and her mentor are taking it to the big time
The last thing Jessica Nam wants to do is dress up in the banana suit. What if it makes her look like the Oscar Mayer guy? So she pesters her mentor, Steve Massarsky, about alternatives: How about a jacket with bananas hanging off it? What if I just hold some bananas? Massarsky is firm. Don't worry, he tells her, we'll make it look good. Think Carmen Miranda, he says, as if that helps. After all, the banana suit will be to-die-for marketing for the new product, Jessica's Wonders banana bread. "If you walk into a store and see an attractive woman's face staring out of a banana suit, you're going to pick up the package," he says.
The problem is that the 22-year-old Jessica Nam isn't just Jessica Nam anymore. She's now a brand, too. Her name and picture are going to be on the label of every slice of banana bread and every mocha brownie that her new company sells. That's not exactly what Nam had in mind two years ago, when she started baking goodies to sell in convenience stores in Providence, R.I. But Jessica's Wonders has grown bigger than she dreamed when she launched it, while she was still an undergraduate at Brown University. Even a low-tech bakery business like hers has benefited (albeit indirectly) from the Internet gold rush, which fueled a surge of interest in campus entrepreneurship and made resources available -- business-plan competitions, mentors, angel networks -- that most undergraduates couldn't touch just a few years ago. What boosted Nam's launch was "really the support of big, experienced businesspeople," she says. "I'm a risk taker, but not to the point where I'd do this on my own."
Nam started selling her homemade goodies mostly because she enjoyed it. Nam is a doer: her other activities, while she was in college, included teaching aerobics, competing in the Miss Rhode Island pageant, volunteering at a homeless shelter, and interning at a local TV station. Jessica's Wonders reflected Nam's own bright, bubbly, energetic personality. She invented flavors and named them after her friends, like Kelli Belli Jelli Banana Bread. She baked at night in her dorm room and made her own labels with colored paper and Magic Markers. The profits from her tiny business were good money for a student: $10 a loaf. She even got some school credit for the start-up as an independent study project under professor Barrett Hazeltine. In spring 1999 Nam was far enough along to compete in Brown's first annual business-plan competition.
Massarsky, a former entertainment lawyer who cofounded comic-book publisher Voyager Communications Inc. in 1989, had volunteered to mentor a student in the competition. He chose Nam, and not just for the tasty bread. As he was skimming through piles of business plans, her executive summary jumped out at him: "Bursting ripe bananas freshly baked in a moist bread with an oozing strawberry river running through it, and slices of real banana hidden in every bite. Topped with the perfect amount of cinnamon streusel crunch, this will leave you speechless!"
Well, maybe it was the bread. "You could taste it," Massarsky says. "I read it, and I said, 'Wow. This is something that's a little different.' " He was equally impressed by Nam herself. "She's so personable. She's the most marketable personality that I've met since Cyndi Lauper," he says, dropping the name of a former client.
After Nam took second place in the competition, Massarsky took her on as the first start-up in his own brand-new incubator, the New York City-based Business Incubation Group Inc. (BIG). Nam spent the summer of 1999 in New York, interning at an advertising agency during the day and dropping into BIG's Tribeca offices to work on Jessica's Wonders at night.
Her idea then was to start a bakery after graduation. Massarsky thought she should be more ambitious. "We kept saying, 'Are you sure it's a good idea?' but we let her think about it," he says. While she was thinking, Massarsky took Nam to a bakery, where she discovered that the baker worked a 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. shift every day. Nam decided that maybe she was more of a marketer than a baker. "I just knew I loved coming up with ideas and creating the names and the way I want people to think of it," she says. "I also like baking, but it's true -- I get sick of baking the same thing over and over."
So Nam revamped her business model to specify that the actual baking be outsourced, leaving her to concentrate on being a CEO -- and a brand. She and Massarsky intend to build a $13-million company in three years. "She understands that she's the product, she has to be a marketer, and we're selling Jessica to a large extent," says Massarsky.
Everything produced by Jessica's Wonders will deliberately have a homemade feel. "I don't want it to be corporate," she says. The labels will look like her old, hand-lettered ones. "Instead of a guy with a cigar saying, 'Whaddaya want?' " Nam says, fresh-faced student reps will deliver her product to stores.
Under Massarsky's tutelage, Nam has raised $750,000 from angel investors and this month will roll out her baked goods throughout New England. She plans to sell single servings of breads, cakes, and cookies to convenience stores and coffee shops. She's aiming for the impulse buy, not a reserved spot on the grocery list.
It's a long stretch from her initial plan to bake a few items herself and sell them. And there is the risk of a Svengali effect between students with modest business and life plans and mentors tempted to transfer their own grand ambitions to their young charges. So is this Nam's vision, or is Massarsky exploiting her youthful enthusiasm?
Massarsky says no, he just helped Nam lift her eyes to new possibilities by recognizing her already-existing talents. "I think when you said to her, 'You have a marketable personality,' she knew she gets along with people and people like her. I don't think she thought of herself as a marketable commodity," he says.
And Nam has always had a strong vision of the potential power of the Jessica's Wonders brand. Back at the Brown business-plan competition, Massarsky wanted her to do a conventional PowerPoint presentation. She overruled him and put on a skit with her roommates instead. "He didn't quite get it," she says.
Of course, there's still that banana suit to contend with. "This brand thing is weird," she says. "I'm still getting used to it."
The Young Entrepreneur's Survival Kit
Universities Cash In
Schools that traditionally allowed graduates to exploit technology developed on campus now want a piece of the action. Check out the amounts that some universities earned from licensing technology to businesses in fiscal year 2000.
Columbia University: $144 million
University of California: $89 million
Stanford University: $35 million
Students Start Up
Percentage of this year's Stanford business-school graduates who started their own companies immediately after graduation: 9%
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