My first order: 10 tidbits of advice for the aspiring entrepreneur

  • Dr. Pearse Lyons reflects on his first customer order in founding Alltech.
Adapted from a presentation by Dr. Pearse Lyons to the competitors of the 2016 Alltech Innovation Competition.

You never forget your first order

You can only start a business by going with what you know, and I knew how to improve fermentation. So, when I came across a problem related to fermentation, I took the opportunity to explain to the potential customer how I could solve the problem.
At the beginning, I was a one-man operation. When I received my first order on a Friday for Tuesday, I said “no problem,” even though it meant manufacturing 4,000 pounds ... and I didn’t have ingredients, the needed equipment or any packaging.
I recruited my next door neighbor, bought bags at the local grocery and shopped for the 16 ingredients all over the city. Then, in my home garage, we took spoonfuls of our ingredients, mixed them in a drum and then poured the mixture into 16,000 Ziploc bags we had set up all across the lawn. Fittingly, it was Labor Day weekend.
After 36 hours, Alltech was ready to be launched.
I called the customer and said the order was ready, and, much to my shock, he said, “Sorry to tell you this, Pearse, but we’re going to be closing down, so we don’t need your product any longer. I meant to call you.”
I supposed to myself that I just witnessed the rise and demise of my business in one weekend.
“Shucks, go ahead and send it to me anyway,” he said. “We’ll get back up and running in another month or so.”
Then, I decided to tell him, “Well, there’s something else. Knowing you like I know you, I knew you’d quickly want more product, so I went ahead and made two batches for you.”
To which he responded, “Oh, alright then, go ahead and ship that, too.”
As soon as I got off the phone, it was back to the neighbor’s house.
“We’re working again this weekend,” I said.

My advice to young entrepreneurs:

  1. Take an order, any order. Don’t get hung up on the details, and take heart that you never get orders from the people you think you’ll get orders from.
  2. Work with what you know. Identify a problem and solve it.
  3. Always deliver what you say you’ll do.
  4. Stay away, as long as you can, from taking partners.
  5. Make a profit. Don’t sell yourself too short.
  6. Appear successful. 
  7. Create your own culture.
  8. Go with people who celebrate you, not those who tolerate you.
  9. Share your success and stay curious.
  10. For heaven’s sake, do something about your idea. Don’t get it right, just get it going.