Sweet Success

How do you build your dream business when you have no experience in that industry? The road to riches may not be easy, but perseverance pays off.

How do you turn a love for baking homemade cookies into a product that’s a mainstay in the $4.1 billion cookie industry when you have no experience in the food industry?

How do you launch a successful new food business after the walls of the first one have come tumbling down around you? And how do you manage when your new business is based in New York, and you work from a home office in Hawaii?

“There’s no magic formula. You just do it!” says Wally Amos. “You put one foot in front of the other. If you don’t get the desired results, you regroup and start over.”

Amos, who lives in Hawaii with his wife, Christine, is the founder of Famous Amos® Cookies, and of Uncle Wally’s Muffins, both of which are sold in supermarkets and other stores nationwide. The muffin company, which sells about 40 million muffins a year, opened a new 43,000 square-foot facility in Shirley, NY this November, which will triple its capacity.

Amos is also the national spokesperson for the Literacy Volunteers of America and an accomplished author and speaker to boot. His latest book, The Cookie Never Crumbles; Inspirational Recipes For Everyday Living, was published in October, 2001 by St. Martin’s Press.

Success didn’t come easily, however. “People see me now and say, ‘It’s easy for you to be positive, you’re so successful.’ But I’ve had so many failures,” he says.

A high school dropout who earned a GED equivalency degree in the US Air Force, Amos started working as a supply clerk in Saks Fifth Avenue when he got out of the Air Force in 1957. He worked his way up and became manager of the department, but quit that $85 a week job when his boss wouldn’t give him a $10 raise.

Next, he took a job as a messenger with the William Morris Agency in New York, and in less than a year worked his way up and became the company’s first black talent agent. But six-and-a-half years later, after being turned down for two promotions because of his race, he left the agency, moved to Los Angeles and formed his own talent management company. That business lasted only a year.

So much for the easy road to riches.

Nevertheless, Amos maintained an upbeat attitude and believes his positive attitude is what made him successful. “Life isn’t always what it seems,” he says. Sometimes it’s a lot more. There are infinite possibilities for success if you stay in and play the game.”

Amos went to work for a friend, but before long, he was ready to set out on his own again, this time turning a hobby – baking chocolate chip cookies – into a business.

He estimated he’d need about $25,000 to launch the business, put together a proposal to raise the money, printed several copies, and stapled plastic bags with samples of his cookies to each copy. He distributed the proposal to several friends. “I called it a proposal because I didn’t know what a business plan was,” he explains. I had never opened a store and knew nothing about the food industry. What I discovered was that friends invest in friends, not in companies. They weren’t investing in Famous Amos. They were investing in Wally Amos.”

By the time opening day rolled around, Wally had only enough money left to pay for one ad. He supplemented that ad by distributing cookies once again, this time with invitations to the grand opening of his gourmet cookie store. The store, on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, opened March 10, 1975, and was an immediate hit. But what made the business really take off was Amos’ promotional skills. “I applied what I had learned about promoting people to promoting cookies. The cookie became the star. The cookie was the client.”

The business grew rapidly. Too rapidly. Cash was in short supply and cash flow problems were exacerbated by problems such a fire that destroyed the company’s administrative offices, and attempts to unionize a new facility the company built on the East coast. And on top of all that, Amos says, was his own lack of business experience. “I knew how to promote, but I had no business skills. And I didn’t listen to the people on my team. That was my downfall.”

And what a downfall! Eventually, as a result of agreements he signed with investors brought in to solve the company’s financial problems, he lost not only the company, but the right to use his own name and image to promote any type of product.

Even that didn’t stop Amos for long. “Life is all about perception,” he says. “It’s how you respond to events that really matters.” When his two-year noncompete agreement expired, he launched a new business called Wally Amos Presents Chip & Cookie, but was sued for using his name in the business. Forced to close that business, he started yet another cookie business, which, based on the circumstances, he dubbed, Uncle Noname. But by this time, the cookie category was crowded, and Amos ran into still more problems.

As a result, Lou Avignone, a partner in the venture, suggested they launch a line of no-fat muffins. That strategy paid off handsomely. The company evolved into a full-line muffin company whose products are sold in supermarkets through out the US, and the name of the company was changed to Uncle Wally’s Muffins after Amos rejoined the Famous Amos company in 1999 and got back the right to use his name and image.

What lessons has Amos learned along the way? And what advice does he have for other entrepreneurs?

“Learn from your failures and keep on working hard. Everything in life is related. Everything propels you like a stepping stone to someplace else. If you proceed, making adjustments along the way, you will either achieve your goal or achieve something greater. The only way you lose the game is if you quit.”

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