Students’ start-up company gets first taste of big success
UCF is one of 15 colleges and universities in the Blackstone LaunchPad network, a co-curricular, experiential campus program designed to introduce entrepreneurship as a viable career path and develop entrepreneurial skills and mindsets through individualized coaching, idea and venture-creation support.
At the end of October, the Blackstone Charitable Foundation held its inaugural Blackstone LaunchPad Conference and Demo Day in New York City, for which UCF students Jesse Wolfe and Ryan Atkins were chosen to participate and ultimately took home the $15,000, second-place award for their business venture, O’Dang Hummus.
A few months ago, Phil Santos, venture coach and community manager for UCF’s Blackstone LaunchPad, spoke to O’Dang’s founder for the UCF Starters blog (ucfstarters.org) to get the story behind Wolfe’s sensible, smooth snack. Here’s how the conversation went:
Q. Tell me a little bit about O’Dang Hummus.
A. With O’Dang Hummus, we’re really trying to revolutionize the hummus industry. Hummus has been such an ethnic dish that hasn’t changed in forever. The major players in the market right now are all doing the exact same flavors. We don’t want to do your classic, traditional hummus. Our idea is to be the rebels, the disruptive kids of hummus. We’re the guys who are coming out with the crazy color schemes, the funky logos and the fun ads. We’re making hummus fun and exciting. Our whole goal is to familiarize hummus across the United States, and then to go global.
Q. What’s your history with hummus?
A. I never really knew what hummus was until three years ago. I had my wisdom teeth pulled out, and I had my cheeks all swollen at home. I got tired of eating milkshakes and soups and that stuff, so I started eating Sabra [hummus]. And, that’s when it hit me that there are only four or five flavors of this stuff. So, I started going into the kitchen and whipping up my own hummus just to get me through the week.
My girlfriend at the time was taking it to work. She worked at a higher-end fashion store, and all those girls she worked with ate hummus regularly and said, “this is ridiculously good.”
Then, you know, its funny… Pam [Hoelzle, associate director for UCF’s Blackstone LaunchPad] substitute taught one of my classes here at UCF, and she gave us a pitch on joining the The Joust. I had 36 hours to submit an entry form. Fast-forward to the end of The Joust, and we end up placing third. We took home $4,000 in prize money, and it was validation. I thought, ‘Hey I’ve got nothing to lose. Let me run with this.’
Our idea is to be the rebels, the disruptive kids of hummus.
Q. How did your perception of O’Dang change over time?
A. The Joust was really what opened my eyes how big this really was. At first, I thought I could just do it as a hobby. You know, sell it to some people locally. But, I didn’t expect it to be the monster that we’re sitting on now. When you see something you’ve worked so hard at being picked up and people love it… We actually had one lady buy 18 tubs of hummus in one shot to give to co-workers, and friends and family.
Q. Have there been any struggles along the way?
A. Oh yeah. Struggle No. 1, just out of the gate, was actually getting into a farmer’s market. Lake Eola had a two-year waiting list. It’s crazy, and they’re very cut-throat. They should do a documentary on it — I’ll put it that way.
I’m a very persistent person. I was sending emails, sending emails — nothing back. So, I decided to be a little risky. I packed a lunchbox full of hummus, and I went down to the farmer’s market when they were doing it. I gave the guy changing trash $25 cash and said, “Take me to the person that’s in charge of this.” He took me over to this nice lady and I convinced her to try it. She was like, “Wow, this is really good.” That was Sunday. Monday at 3 p.m., I got the email from them saying I could start the following Sunday. And that was the biggest break we had, because in the farmer’s market world, Lake Eola is like the Superbowl.
Q. What’s your major? Have your UCF classes helped you out while going through this?
A. My major is business management with an entrepreneurship track. I found out early in college that I wanted to do entrepreneurship. I put so much of my major to use every day. Right now, I’m the head honcho — I do the marketing, the finance, the bookkeeping, I do all of the development, the packaging. I wear a lot of hats as a new start-up. I really can’t think of a class I haven’t utilized.
Q. What’s the outlook for O’Dang Hummus right now?
A. We’re in three farmer’s markets right now. I’ve got a crew of three employees. We’re in a huge commercial kitchen, which, I never thought I’d be in this size of a kitchen in a year, let alone four months. Going forth, I want to be in a showcase right next to Sabra. They’re so huge and corporate. We want to give them a run for their money because no one’s doing it.
Our goal is to get as many purchase orders as we can, with a main focus on Whole Foods, and to get investor money. We need to scale quickly to make an impact and to be the forerunners in this niche.
In the farmer’s market world, Lake Eola is like the Superbowl.
Q. Do you have any parting words for the starters reading this?
A. Network, network, network. I can’t express that enough. Just talk to people. Ask for advice. I’ve met so many people by just asking, “What’s your name? What do you do?” at events, and some of them are CEOs of major companies and you never would have guessed it.