Thursday, August 31, 2017

What I learned about business from a Girl Scout cookie entrepreneur

This story first appeared on the U.S. Small Business Administration blog on August 23, 2017. Thank you to Linda McMahon, SBA Administrator, Girl Scouts of Connecticut, and our very own G.I.R.L. and Cookie Boss, Julia! 

When I was a Girl Scout, selling cookies meant dragging a wagon full of boxes door to door in my North Carolina neighborhood. I didn’t have online tools or a marketing plan or even a real strategy.

But Julia Vieira Reis, a 12-year-old Girl Scout from Manchester, Connecticut, certainly did. She sold more than two thousand boxes. Her entrepreneurial success earned her recognition as one of the nation’s top cookie sellers of 2017.

I got to meet Julia when she interviewed me about how my Girl Scout experience prepared me for my career in business. She wondered what she and other Girl Scouts could learn from my advice. Turns out, she also had a lot of her own wisdom to share with me – and other entrepreneurs – about what it takes to succeed!

  1. Set a goal and follow through on a plan. Julia based her sales strategy on the calendar and product availability – building buzz in January with pre-orders and capturing impulse buyers in March. “In January it was a typical month to call people I know and in my mom’s contacts or go door to door.” In February, she delivered pre-ordered cookies and also had extra boxes on hand in case someone wanted to buy more. In March, she manned cookie booths in public places to sell to people with whom she did not already have an existing relationship.
  2. Have extra inventory on hand when you make deliveries. Don’t get caught empty-handed when someone wants to make an impulse buy. Julia figured out it paid to have extra boxes of cookies when she delivered her pre-orders. It sounds counter-intuitive, but when I was a CEO, I never wanted the staff selling merchandise at events to report a sell-out – how much more product could they have moved if they had only had more on hand?
  3. Get a business card so customers know how to reach you. Julia asked for a set for Christmas. She handed out her business cards with her mother’s phone number on them when she made a sale or a delivery, just in case a customer had a question or wanted to place another order. “It was a pretty useful tool,” she told me. “I think repeat sales are what helped increase the number of boxes. Some people bought a whole case at a time!”
  4. Tailor your pitch and have a strategy for the “tough” customers. Not every customer will be an easy sell. Some people may need convincing, and until you get a “no,” there’s a chance for a “yes.” Customers say they don’t like chocolate? Promote non-chocolate alternatives. They don’t eat sweets? Maybe someone in their family does. Julia perfected the pitch that $5 a box was an inexpensive way to treat yourself; if anyone still thought it was too expensive, she pointed out that it averaged just 40 cents per cookie.
  5. Go where your customers are. If potential buyers are shopping online, that’s where you should be selling them. The “digital cookie” option let customers simply click to buy cookies, and Julia says she worked especially hard to promote those sales. (She had to school me on this tool, which simply did not exist in my own Girl Scout days!)
  6. Use social media as a marketing tool. Julia made funny videos and cookie-themed parodies of songs that she shared on social media. It got people’s attention and generated buzz for her sales. Social media is so important, especially for businesses working to get off the ground. Entrepreneurs can speak directly to the public about a product. In years past, they’d have to spend money on marketing to get the word out.
At 12 years old, Julia has a wide variety of interests and isn’t planning to turn her cookie-selling prowess to business career just yet. But she says the experience has given her confidence and a skill set she thinks will benefit her no matter what her future holds.

“Engineering and science, especially oceanology, so I think maybe marketing could help somewhere in there. If I’m at a company that wants me to sell something, I could help with that,” she said.

“Or maybe starting my own business.”

Perhaps she’ll come back to SBA for help! - Linda McMahon, SBA Administrator