To say Julie Bombacino's business grew out of her passion would be an understatement. When her son, AJ, was five and a half months old, he experienced a 30-minute major seizure, and after he underwent a slew of tests, doctors determined he had a malformation of the corpus callosum in the brain, rendering him unable to swallow properly. AJ was put on a feeding tube, but he didn't adjust well to being pumped full of formula. While researching online, Bombacino found a community of people doing something different--giving tube-fed loved ones pureed real food instead of processed chemical formulas. She tried it on AJ, who stopped vomiting, gained weight, and achieved better bowel function. "He just took off," she says. "He did so much better when I was making food for him. And psychologically, it was a lift for me, because I felt less like his nurse and more like his mom that I was making food for him and not just plugging him into a machine every few hours and pouring formula into his stomach."

AJ is three and a half now, and Bombacino is founder and CEO of Real Food Blends, a Chicago-based company that makes three versions of shelf-stable real-food meals, each containing a lean protein, a whole grain, a fruit, a vegetable, and a healthy source of fat. After beginning to sell product in January, Bombacino says, she's set to disrupt what she estimates to be a $4 billion market, considering there may be as many as a million people in the U.S. on feeding tubes. Not only that, insurers are now paying for Real Food Blends, a development that's helping the company ink deals with big names such as MedLine and Shield HealthCare.

Here's her advice on how to turn your passion into a thriving business.

Write a business plan.

She's not talking about a one- or two-page formality you can check off as something you were just supposed to do. Rather, by investigating every aspect of how you'll flesh out your idea, you'll force yourself to map your path to success. "That business plan was really my thought process, and it made me think through things that I wouldn't have had to," she says. "I had to put the market research in. I had to look at all the different avenues of getting this created and really bringing it to market. I think maybe only one of my investors actually ever read it, so it really wasn't an exercise for somebody else."

Create an advisory board.

Any smart entrepreneur will admit she doesn't know everything. In Bombacino's case, she found experts on food, nutrition, and operations upon whom she could bounce ideas and get advice. "As I was out there talking to potential investors, I was finding potential advisors as well, and that was a lot of referrals and word of mouth and people who knew people who knew people," she says. "I was very lucky being tied into Chicago, where there is a very vibrant startup community, so I was able to make those connections somewhat easily."

Raise funding.

Bombacino has raised $570,000 in angel-funded convertible debt, a process she likens to vetting an idea via writing a business plan. Persuading investors to gamble on her was not only time consuming but forced her to prove her mettle and argue that she had considered all the risks she would face and how she would overcome them. "It was not always the most fun part of being an entrepreneur," she says, "but it definitely was necessary, not only from the monetary side of things but also from the making sure that this was a solid business idea." 

Delegate noncritical tasks.

Maybe you don't want to hire too quickly or give up control of your operations, but getting help with things such as running errands or other administrative tasks can free up your time to expand the company. "Maybe it's only 10 or 15 minutes here or there," she says, "but it adds up very quickly and it takes up a lot of your time, and that opportunity cost is expensive." 

Hire professionals.

Bombacino found outside experts who could help her with things like legal advice and accounting--people she could continue to tap as her company evolved. "You've got to have access to those folks when you need them," she says, "and you don't want to have to start all over again every time you need to talk to an attorney or talk to an accountant. It's nice to have those folks in your back pocket, ready and able to help when you need them."

Piggyback on the brand equity of top organizations in your community or market.

The tube-feeding community is active on Facebook, so Real Food Blends was intentional about connecting with the many groups active on the social platform, not only for marketing purposes but also to learn from them and get survey information. "We're signing some pretty big distribution deals with some well-known names in our industry, and that elevates us as a true brand, not just this small little startup," Bombacino says. "If we're working with big companies like this, then there must be something there, which is part of that piggybacking."

Published on: Sep 9, 2014