Sometimes, the path to small business success is surprisingly sweet.
At least, it was for John Seeley, founder of Mill Street Treats. A family-owned and operated shop on historic Route 6 in Troy, Pennsylvania, Mill Street Treats sells a variety of flavored popcorns, roasted peanuts, ice cream, and more.
John, who relied on Bplans to help start and plan his business, was kind enough to share the story of Mill Street Treats’ unexpected beginnings and discuss his goals, challenges, and advice for other would-be small business owners.
Small business ambitions and accidental entrepreneurship
For John, starting Mill Street Treats was a natural evolution of his experience as an entrepreneur.
Though he worked as a shop teacher until his retirement in 2013, he had previous experience as a business owner. “I had a small sign shop that I sold when I went back to teaching,” he says. “I made wood crafts, and sold them along the way.”
Starting Mill Street Treats represented the fulfillment of a dream for John. “One of my goals and dreams was to make caramel popcorn,” says John. However, while he’d considered the idea, he didn’t actually set out with the intention of starting Mill Street.
“What I really wanted to be able to do was make caramel popcorn so my three kids could have Christmas gifts to give out, and in a way save them some money,” he explains. “Well, that didn’t exactly unfold that way.”
What John did end up with was a budding business. “I got a good deal on some popcorn equipment, and by chance, I got hold of a really good caramel corn recipe—secret, you know.”
The popcorn was delicious, and with rave reviews from his friends and family, John decided to take his new creation to the next level. “Talking to my popcorn suppliers, I figured out how to make flavored popcorn,” he says. “I used the best ingredients, always going top shelf, because, after all, it was for my friends and family.”
The rest, as they say, was history. “Long story short, my neighbor wrote for our local Pennysaver and she wrote a story [about Mill Street Treats] that came out a week before Thanksgiving in 2013. My son-in-law, who thought I was crazy, was having to finish his day job and help me make popcorn to midnight many nights. By January 1st, we were both excited and exhausted.”
Just like that, Mill Street Treats was born.
Working with what you have
With a blooming business suddenly on their hands, John and his family had to regroup.
“We saw the business was going to be a business, if you know what I mean,” he says. “On a shoestring, we bought used equipment to add to our repertoire of products: ice cream and roasted peanuts, and roasted coffee. One of the biggest challenges was organizing our efforts.”
As they hadn’t set out with the intention of growing a business, Mill Street Treats took up residence out of a shop that made up the bottom floor of their home. Luckily, the location worked out well, adding to the charm of the business.
John, who lives above the shop, explains: “There was a store space downstairs, and the shop area became our production area. The shop is really a very old building located on Route 6. We chose this location because it was what we had.”
Goals for Mill Street Treats
While the caramel corn business might have been half-long-term-dream, half-happy accident, John and his family have big goals for the continuation of their business.
“We plan for daily action every morning at 7 a.m. ‘coffee time,’” says John. He and his son-in-law, Shane, hope to remodel the entire operation, putting in stainless-steel counters and sinks, and a milkshake area.
While they have big goals, John is confident that they will be able to achieve them. “Shane and I are creative people and like to make things work,” says John.
The challenges of running a business
In some ways, John got lucky with Mill Street Treats.
After all, he hit upon a great product, was able to rely on support from his family to get the business running, and even had the perfect location right underneath him.
However, that isn’t to say that Mill Street Treats hasn’t faced and overcome challenges. For John, the biggest challenge has been dealing with organizing his business, and the fulfillment of the goals they’ve established for Mill Street Caramel Corn. “To pull [our goals] off is a pretty big challenge,” says John. “Taking it one day at a time is a good philosophy.”
Beyond that, Mill Street faces the task of organizing the expansion of their operation. “The goal to remodel and expand operations has taken a lot of time and planning,” he says. “We want to add on, and that is a goal that has been on the burner since we started.”
A great hook and the right product
What sets Mill Street Treats apart is how unique the business is, both when it comes to product and the means of creation.
“We hit on a product that was unique to our area,” says John. Not only that, but the business has vintage appeal, which has helped make the product stand out. “Our unique ‘hook,’ if you will, is our three antique coffee roasters.”
Mill Street Treats’ success hasn’t just been down to creating a cute, novel product, however. John realized early on the importance of providing a product that his customers actually wanted, rather than simply running with an idea that won’t sell.
“Do your best to sell what the customers want, and not so much what you want to sell the customer,” he says. Luckily for John, he found a product he both wanted to create, and his customers wanted to buy.
John’s advice for budding entrepreneurs
1. Find a bookkeeper or accountant early
“[My] advice: Start with an accountant first thing,” says John. The business didn’t use an accountant or bookkeeper from the beginning and is now having to deal with getting all of their financials in order.
“In July, we are hooking up with an account to ‘shake the sheets’ and get our accounting records in line,” says John. However, he recommends that new business owners start the process of finding a bookkeeper and managing the financials as early in the startup phase as possible.
2. Be prepared to work hard and experience the unknown
“You have to give to get,” says John. “Time, money, energy. You’ve got to like to adventure into the wilderness of the unknown and uncertainty.”
If this appeals to you, John believes you’re off to a good start. “If you like that kind of thing, and have a needed or wanted service or product, you can enjoy the trip,” he says.
3. Choose partners you can lean on
John’s partnership with his son-in-law, Shane, has been a good balance for the both of them.
“Shane and I work well together in good situations and in a difficult situation,” says John. He also adds that having someone to share the workload has made the experience of starting a business easier. “I would not want to do it all,” he says. “Neither of us can do as well as when we are both looking and listening to what’s going on around us.”
4. It takes money to make money—but you can get creative
“We—and most startups—don’t have it,” says John, noting the importance of having enough capital in place before you try to get your business off the ground.
However, John argues that if you are “enough of an adventure entrepreneur,” you can bootstrap your business and still achieve success if you have a good product. “The alternative is to wing it with what you have,” he says.
5. Write it down
John is an advocate of planning and argues that by simply writing a business plan, you will set yourself apart from other would-be entrepreneurs content to simply dream about starting a business.
“You have formulated the vision of how to succeed; write it down,” he says. “The business plan you first put down on paper is 20 steps away from the pack of those who dream of starting a business.”
When starting and planning growth for Mill Street Treats, John used Bplans resources to help with the planning process. “While you’re working your ass off every day to keep things going, the business plan I first wrote started to grow,” he says. “It took on a life of its own. Write out your vision with the help of a business plan.”
Drawing inspiration from satisfied customers
John derives inspiration for Mill Street Treats from his parents, who were also small business owners. He is also inspired by his customers; “I love to see the people come into our shop and try our coffee or popcorn or peanuts for the first time, and buy,” he says.
John values the ability to create a positive, enjoyable workplace environment for himself and his family, and emphasizes the importance of creating a great product and having a good time while doing so.
“In a year from now, we want this to be a creative, fun place to work and make money along the way,” says John. “If we are pleased with what and how we are doing, our customers will be too.”