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Entrepreneurs emphasize passion, people for success

By Liz Segrist
Published Jan. 25, 2013

Michelle Tunno Buelow began her baby and children’s accessories line with $6,000 and a determination to honor her later brother.

Buelow began Matthews, N.C.-based Bella Tunno LLC in 2005 to honor her brother, Matt Tunno, who had died from a substance-related death. She wanted to raise enough money so his environmental science research could be published.

Her business — and philanthropic efforts — far surpasses that original goal. Her baby and children’s accessories line, which includes items like diaper bags and bibs, is now available in more than 3,500 retail outlets.

The company donates a portion of every sale to Make A Difference Fund, which supports drug and alcohol-related education, prevention and rehabilitation programs. Buelow, the founder and CEO, also launched Bully in a Box, an iBook series designed to start conversations to end bullying.

“At the time that I launched it, I was at a crossroads of determination and desperation, but I was determined and uber passionate,” Buelow said. “Knowing why you do what you do gets you up in the morning. Making money is never enough. You need that passion.”

Buelow was one of four panelists who spoke on entrepreneurship Thursday at Ecoplosion, an annual event that aims to promote collaborative ideas to build strong communities and sustainable, livable environments.

Bill D’Andrea, senior associate athletic director for IPTAY External Affairs at Clemson; Peter Barth, program manager of the Iron Yard; and Stewart Spinks, founder and CEO of the Spinx Group, also spoke on entrepreneurship during Ecoplosion at Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research’s campus in Greenville.

Despite their different industries and startup stories, these entrepreneurs had common themes in their stories and bits of entrepreneurial wisdom to pass onto the more than 200 attendees.

Love what you do. Be your own best supporter and biggest critic. Surround yourself with good people and mentors. Research the markets, customers and audience to gauge your potential success. And mostly, be willing to take the plunge, they said.

Spinks, who formerly worked at Shell out of college, built the Spinx Group from the ground up. In 1972, he began with a home-heating oil delivery company and one gas station in Greenville. He didn’t have any seed money, and had to convince a local banker that he deserved a loan. Spinx now operates 65 convenience stores in the Carolinas.

Barth started several software companies before moving to Greenville seven years ago. Since then, he has stroked the entrepreneurial fire in Greenville. He became very involved with the start of the Next Innovation Center, a high-tech incubator of sorts, and he began The Iron Yard.

The Iron Yard is an investment and mentorship program for entrepreneurs. The 13-week entrepreneurship program began last summer in Greenville, accepting 10 teams from more than 300 applicants from around the world.

Those teams receive perks, such as space and mentorship, as well as $20,000 in seed capital. In return, The Iron Yard gets a 6% equity stake in each participating company. The first round of companies is doing well, Barth said. The program plans to launch in Spartanburg this fall and begin another round in Greenville in the spring.

“Find something you personally connect with, because being an entrepreneur is hard,” Barth said. “It’s also rewarding and fun, but there are crazy hours, and it is very, very hard. So, find something that’s not always work for you. Find something you’re passionate about.”

D’Andrea said the world of athletics is very similar to business by having to produce revenue, run a business and give a product to fans, which will entice donors to support the programs. He said in addition to giving back to the community, customer service and protecting the brand are crucial to success.

“It is so important to have good attitude, to take the high road and to have discipline when dealing with your brand,” D’Andrea said. “Customer service is like word-of-mouth. It builds momentum and support for your program or your brand.”

Often, these ventures start small and unexpectedly. Buelow began making clothes and accessories for her daughter by hand. With little startup capital, she had to get creative.

Buelow used a virtual sales team and bartered lawn mowing for website development with her neighbors.

“If you don’t have the resources, there’s a way to do it, you just have to be really clever,” Buelow said.

Ecoplosion is hosted by Clemson University’s Richard H. Pennell Center for Real Estate Development and Arthur M. Spiro Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership.

Subscribe to GSA Business to read the full coverage of Ecoplosion in the Feb. 11 issue.