How 13 Stars is spicing up the market and giving back
13 Stars is a veteran-owned premium hot sauce company, supplying spicy goodness to everyone in America. CEO Sean Maloney takes extreme pride in delivering hot sauces that not only provide flavor and heat, but that also contribute to the veteran and first responder community. With every bottle sold, he gives back.
It’s never easy to start a business, but a lot of factors all aligned for Sean. ‘I was getting back from my deployment in 2018 and I knew I wanted to start a business but was unsure what. I have been a chili-head since birth and my business partner’s (Eli) father grows peppers ranging from Jalapenos to Ghost Peppers. So, we took his extra summer harvest and started making sauces, not thinking anything at the time. Over the next few months, we had friends and family say ‘Hey, you need to sell this!’ Then we brought the sauces to a Patriots game, and they said, “Hey, you need to sell this!”. The proverbial light bulb went off at that point and I’d found my business’.
Help and advice
To help Sean start, there wasn’t one person he can pinpoint. Rather there was a large network of help during his entrepreneurial journey and now has weekly meetings with his SCORE mentor Bill Cunningham, keeping him grounded and focused on the important parts of the business. A lot of his inspiration also comes from a book he read during his deployment called ‘Millionaire Fastlane’ by M.J. DeMarco. It breaks down the goals behind his business and life of pursuing his passion.
Sean also says you will make mistakes along the way but learn from them and apply any changes quickly. His business partner likes to say, Fail Fast; Fail Well.
Their first big break
To grow any business, you often need to stand on the shoulders of others. Sean said being accepted as a semi-finalist in the Hofstra Veterans Venture Challenge gave them an opportunity of a lifetime with classroom learning experience equivalent to a Master’s program at any well-known business school.
The final pitch then gave him insight into the important details of the business that truly drive sales along with how to create an actionable go-to-market strategy to outplay the competition.
Future vision and challenges
To future-proof the business, Sean must think ahead, and deal with the current business environment. Some of his tactics include:
- Expanding past their store footprint (currently in Massachusetts and Rhode Island) to the southern United States market, which is ripe for people that deeply connect with our brand’s mission.
- Lots of new products (sign up for their newsletter to be notified as soon as they go live)
- Supporting his mass retail wholesalers while building their own distribution network including a new channel to restaurants with new hot sauce vessels (bigger containers).
- Using E-commerce to scale, and ensure the website stays fresh.
- The next 12 months focus on acquiring as many customers online while working larger and larger events as COVID restrictions slowly lift
- Target bigger wholesale accounts such as regional supermarkets to increase the average order size
Giving back to a worthy cause
Sean decided very early that he wanted to help raise awareness of and support the threat of PTSD in the military and first responders. ‘It’s a real threat’ says Sean, ‘everyone handles it differently. Getting rid of the stigma is the first step to give our warriors a chance to heal mentally. These are professions that push you physically, emotionally, and mentally. They take a toll on you whether you think so or not.
So, with every bottle of 13 Stars sauce sold, a portion of the purchase is added to their Veteran and First Responder Project Fund and once they have enough funds to cut a check, they donate to their local charity partners to make sure their people get the help they need.
Sean also encourages veterans and first responders into entrepreneurship to keep the mind busy and hands active, to heal and get better mentally, physically, and emotionally. It also creates great networks. ‘Keith from Danger Close Paracord’ said Sean, ‘is another veteran owner, and I’ve appreciated him keeping me grounded and deal with the problems unique to the military lifestyle. We all need help at some time.
The best things that’s helped success
Sean’s tips include:
- Allocate weekly priorities and apply the 80/20 rule to make sure you put your time where it is most valuable each week.
- Every Sunday he sits down with Eli and writes down the top things to get done in the different aspects of the business in the week ahead.
- “Date your product” which involves incorporating lean manufacturing into their business as the current state might not be the best way of doing things in the future.
- Schedule time off during the week to just do nothing, as it can be hugely helpful when it comes to productivity. You may need processes in place to automate the business to have that flexibility. Don’t forget vacations.
- Document every aspect of the business to systemize and identify bottlenecks.
- Celebrate the milestones and take the time to reflect on your achievements and lessons learned.
Luckily for Sean, he noticed that once customers tried his sauce, they ‘got it’ and came back again and again. This repeat business allowed him to then focus on email marketing to his client base to re-order before they’re expected to run out, geared towards the culinary experience of recipes to use for the sauce ordered.
They also continue to build their online presence with paid advertising and spreading the word of 13 Stars with cool shareable content on Social Media accounts. Online is a must and they’ve found an online footprint that allows for another stream of revenue that scales well, driving traffic through paid advertising, social media content, and emails.
‘I love email marketing’ says Sean, as it's owned marketing and allows you to tell your brand to your loyal customers. The content in our newsletter is constantly evolving but our customers love our monthly recipe sharing, which highlights how customers use our sauces. Showing the product in a customer’s kitchen is a real game changer as it is social proof that our pictures are not stock photography on a website.’
For the wholesale business, Sean focuses on tasting events (something that they will push once travel opens up), pushing the new stores on our store locator, and our social media accounts. In 5 years, Sean hopes to be in every major food retailer in the United States!
We wish him all the best, it’s an inspirational story and a message to be supported. Check out the 13 Stars website and order some spice and love!
Advice for other business owners
Sean’s next steps for those in business include:
- Get a mentor to become your trusted small business advisor. As a first step go to the SCORE website to find a free mentor near you
- Find a copy of the Millionaire Fastlane (it’s here on Amazon)
- Focus on keeping things simple
- It’s ok to have a never-ending list of things to do, as it gives you something to strive for
- There is NOTHING more satisfying than seeing your business grow and succeed, have repeat customers, have people come up to you and tell you ‘I will be a customer for life
- Take time out of your day to read books about other entrepreneurs’ journeys. If don’t have the time, you can always use Podcasts (I recommend Shopify Masters, and Nerd Marketing)
For informational purposes only. There is NO WARRANTY, expressed or implied, for the accuracy of this information or its applicability to your financial situation. Please consult your financial and/or tax advisor.