Editor's note: People over 50 are among the country's most active entrepreneurs, starting businesses at rates higher than their young counterparts. In this series, Inc. profiles the new wave of Boomer founders.
Waiting for their close-up on the fourth season of Shark Tank, Charlotte Clary and Bev Vines-Haines felt intimidated. "We were with a group of 20- and 30-somethings. Honestly beautiful people," says Clary. "The girls were all in stilettos. The guys dressed up like they were in GQ. We could almost feel them condescendingly patting us on the head, thinking we were going to come out with crocheted toilet-paper holders."
In fact, Clary and Vines-Haines--then 56 and 72, respectively--were pitching Ice Chips, candy made with xylitol, a natural sweetener that protects teeth and is safe for diabetics. On the show, they billed themselves as "grannies" (they have 41 grandchildren between them). The Sharks, delighted, evoked "grannies" again and again while scrabbling to invest. Although their deal with Mark Cuban and Barbara Corcoran ultimately fell through, the appearance generated 1,000 additional wholesale accounts for the Yelm, Washington-based business, which has grown to $6 million in annual revenue.
Clary and Vinces-Haines have been best friends for 30 years. When their kids were teenagers they started launching tiny businesses: a murder-mystery dinner theater, CD reproductions of photographs, tabletop ads for restaurants. "We were probably bored housewives," says Clary. "We had no employees and made no money."
In 2004, the friends started a natural skin care line because they didn't like the products or the prices being offered by large companies. They fit out a one-car garage with stoves and sinks, bought ingredients in small batches, and printed their own labels. The candy idea came along in 2009. At first, they treated the product as a sideline, cooking it up in kitchen pans and selling it to the same health-food stores that carried the skin care products. "A couple would say, 'I have owned this store for 20 years and I have never had a product fly off the shelves like that,' " says Clary. "Then we started selling to other stores and it just took off."
The timing was providential. Both founders' husbands worked construction, and in 2008 business dried up. The skin care business wasn't enough to live on. "None of us were on Social Security. No pensions. Nothing," says Clary. The two couples were in danger of losing their homes and having to move in with their children. "We were like big airplanes headed for the mountain," says Clary. "And then Ice Chip sales took off."
Ice Chips now operates out of a 21,500-square-foot facility with a boiler room and a machine that fills and seals pouches. It has 34 employees, not including sales reps. The founders' husbands help, too, happy in later years to "no longer be running roof lines 30 feet up and working on their knees every day," says Clary. The company has done several high-profile cross-promotions, including one with Sony for the movie Goosebumps and with Disney for Finding Dory and Moana.
Clary says one reason Ice Chips gained traction when their earlier ventures didn't is the founders' ability to focus on it. "We were eating and breathing Ice Chips 24/7," she says. "If we had had young kids at the time, they would've been starving in a corner somewhere for lack of attention." (The pair are now relaunching their skin care line, although they've had to change the name from Healing Leaf, which became ubiquitous on other products after Washington legalized marijuana. The new name is Naked Newt.)
At this point, no one is talking retirement, although Clary and Vines-Haines use their new independence to travel whenever they want, chiefly to visit children and grandchildren. They eat well and they exercise. "Aging is not for sissies," says Clary. "You have to do the best you can to age gracefully and slowly as possible and not get sick."
When the founders aren't working or kayaking or tending their chickens, they answer a lot of mail from older people--women especially--who wonder if it's not too late to start something of their own. The company, meanwhile, is getting larger orders from national retailers and even from the military.
"We want Ice Chips to become a household word," says Clary. "Two grannies worked hard and got their product on the checkout stand right up next to the Mars Bars and the Snickers. Hello? That doesn't happen every day."