Entrepreneurs gather to share lessons, inspire

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For some entrepreneurs, inspiration and innovation merge with determination and the right timing to spell success. For others, entrepreneurship is closer to happenstance.

“I grew up on the family farm in Franklin County and hated every minute of it, to be honest. There was a lot of bankruptcy and a lot of focus on running the business instead of growing it,” said Robert Elliot, founder of the Veteran Farm of North Carolina. “...Growing up like that, I wanted out, but I hated school, so the solution for me was the military and I went into the Marines.”

An injury led Elliot to switch to life as a contractor, but a layoff left him unsure of what to do. He went back to school, but a peculiar episode with a chicken changed everything.

Elliot was studying differential equations in his backyard while eating a sandwich when a stubborn chicken kept jumping in his lap and stealing bits of his sandwich.

“I put him on the ground again, and he jumps up and takes a crap in the middle of my textbook,” Elliot recalled with a chuckle. “It was like the chicken was saying school wasn’t for me. From that day forward, I started building a business and I grew it one thing at a time.”

He sold his prized motorcycle for $1,500 to buy more chickens and slowly expanded his flock. It wasn’t until he really studied his profit margins while doing taxes that he realized he’d unwittingly fallen into his parents’ footsteps.

“When I figured out what I was making in eggs was negative $13 a year, I started to trim off sections of the business,” Elliot said.

The reluctant farmer was asked to share his story and soon was contacted by other veterans looking to get into farming.

Now he uses his experience to help veterans and was among three entrepreneurs featured at the recent Gig East meetup at 217 Brew Works.

Elliot, Dispose RX President William Simpson and Envicor Vice President of Commercial Operations Jarrod Hamilton shared their stories — the high points and pitfalls — in hopes of inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Hamilton explained how Envicor set out to use technology to allow restaurants to better dispose of used cooking oil, but changes in the price of commodities forced the company to alter its course.

“I thought I’d be retired on an island by now, but apparently when you’re a little $5 million company in Smithfield, you don’t control the global oil market,” he said with a grin. “No one was buying our smart tanks with telematics on them. We faced a dilemma — we could double down, we could augment our product or focus on another side of our business.”

Hamilton said company executives decided to focus on selling the cooking oil tanks without so much technology and grow production of custom plastics.

“To me, everything thinks you’ve got to be the bulldog or a pit bull as a strong entrepreneurial force, but I think sometimes it is about being more of a border collie,” Hamilton said. “It is about being smart, but loving the work. You’ve got to be smart enough to know when the work is worth doing.”

DisposeRX developed a powder that, when poured over unused medication and mixed with water, forms a harmless gel that eliminates the potential for drug abuse. Simpson said the gel neutralizes the medicine and the resultant slush can be trashed without fear someone will extract the drug or overdose.

DisposeRX isn’t the ultimate solution to the opioid epidemic, he said, but noted it can be part of the fight against drug abuse.

“We decided to manufacture DisposeRX in Sanford, which works well from the standpoint of getting employees. We need people who are excited about our passion of saving lives,” Simpson said. “We decided to stay small and focus on where we are, which was easier to do in a small market like Sanford.”

Envicor also picked rural North Carolina when executives headquartered the company in Smithfield.

“The media talks about the big cities but don’t lose sight of the strategic advantages close to home,” Hamilton said.

“There are a lot of strategic advantages in Wilson. There might be an aging infrastructure like Smithfield, but it is a good infrastructure and it is close to I-95 with a talented labor pool.”

He said while areas like the Triangle or Silicon Valley are popular choices, setting up shop there isn’t a guaranteed success.

“Being an entrepreneur is about taking risks,” Hamilton concluded.