Jolene Willis: Facilitating Entrepreneurial Start-Up and Success—and Economic Development—in Rural Illinois

Our last speaker in the Midwest Entrepreneurs class this semester was Jolene Willis, Sustainable Development Specialist, Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs and Associate Manager, Illinois Cooperative Development Center. Following are links to webpages related to these organizations.

Having Ms. Willis as our guest speaker helped attain two goals for the class this semester. One goal was to have more farming/agriculture-related guest speakers; Ms. Willis was the fourth such speaker in the class. The second goal reached was to have a greater diversity of speakers; in terms of industry, function, and stage of life product or firm cycle. In this regard, Jolene was the only speaker this semester that might best be referred to as a “facilitator of entrepreneurial start-up and success.” More specifically, in her positions—housed within Western Illinois University in Macomb—Ms. Willis provides a diverse wealth of information, assistance, and services to persons interested in starting or more efficiently running cooperatives and other businesses in rural Illinois; all with a view toward achieving the broader goal of stimulating and enhancing economic development statewide.

With regard to the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA), Jolene told the class that the Institute was created in the 1980s in response to the farm crisis that hit Illinois and the entire Midwest particularly hard at the time; a massive event with still-lingering impact that we had heard about from two other ag-related speakers earlier in the semester. She also informed the class that much of the IIRA’s operations involve staff members travelling statewide providing varied assistance in rural areas where information and other resources are particularly lacking.

The Illinois Cooperative Development Center (ICDC) exists within the IIRA and is operated through a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development Grant. According to the ICDC’s webpage, the organization “helps cooperatives and other businesses in rural Illinois start up and succeed, through technical assistance, training, and publications.” While most everyone has likely heard of “cooperatives,” one of the key things we learned in class is exactly what a cooperative is. Quoting from the Preface to “Co-ops 101,” a publication of the USDA Rural Development Program that Ms. Willis distributed to the class: “Cooperatives are business entities that people use to provide themselves with good and services.” She added to this basic definition the notion that co-ops are formed on the basis of need in the sense that if the co-op is NOT formed, the goods and services in question will likely not be available to local residents at all. She provided rural electric cooperatives as a prime example here. Further, Jolene noted that co-ops are a “key tool for community economic development” in rural areas.

Finally, the class was informed about ICDC’s ongoing efforts to assist in the formation of rural retail food co-ops. Here, Jolene reinforced something that I have told the class several times before this semester: What seems like a crisis to some people is likely seen by others as an opportunity. Specifically in this regard, Jolene explained that while ongoing retail concentration in the food sector—exemplified, for instance, by the growth of Wal-Mart and major grocery store chains—has caused many firms to close stores in rural areas, it also creates opportunities for entrepreneurs to start-up locally-sourced organic and other food stores in the communities in which they live. The ICDC stands ready to assist in this regard (as well as to help existing locally owned grocery stores adapt to changing market circumstances and stay in business). Jolene provided as a “success story” for the ICDC here the Macomb Food Co-Op (

All in all, our last guest speaker of the semester was one of the most informative. I myself came into class thinking I knew a lot about both cooperatives and assistance programs available to ag-related entrepreneurs. I left knowing far more than I ever thought possible (and also that I had grossly overestimated my level of knowledge on both matters).

The quantity and quality of the work done by Jolene Willis and her colleagues at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs and the Illinois Cooperative Development Center is truly amazing. Thank you so much for being our guest in class!


Prof. Gabel

Linda Lewis and The Flipple Story: A Great Idea Poised for Mass Adoption

Our next-to-last guest speaker of the semester addressed some entrepreneurial issues we have heard from others as well as at least one big new issue: How difficult and frustrating it can be to get mass acceptance of your product; no matter how great an idea and product you have.

This is indeed the “point in the entrepreneurial journey” where Linda Lewis of Galesburg, IL finds herself.

Among the most salient and oft-repeated entrepreneurial concepts in the class throughout the semester is that there must be adequate demand for your product; with this demand based most significantly on providing unique and meaningful benefits to targeted customers.

Linda Lewis has come up with a product that seems to do just that. Yet, as she told the class, she has become frustrated in “educating” the public on this “never been seen before” product called Flipple; a funneling adapter that attaches to bottled water so a nipple or sippy top can be added. She has been successful in placing Flipple in numerous stores across the nation but her target market is not looking for it. She also admits she does not take the time nor have the revenue to support the desperately needed channels of social media.

As Linda told the class, the made up “Flipple” name stands for “funnel-flip-add-a-nipple.”

The complete “Flipple Story” can be found at the Flipple webpage: Also see the firm’s active Facebook page; with 2,700 “likes” and counting:

The ongoing “Flipple story” is a long one—seven years to date—replete with a grand “eureka” discovery moment, commitment, risk-taking, hope, trial-and error, adjustment, and—first and foremost I believe—relentless pursuit of Linda Lewis’ entrepreneurial dream.

For more on this captivating story as it was told first-hand by the inventor/entrepreneur to the Midwest Entrepreneurs class, I now turn things over to class blogger Sawyer Shaw.

Prof. Gabel


Throughout this semester, we have seen great diversity in entrepreneurial businesses. Only one prior to Linda Lewis—Lee Miller—had concerned patenting a product. None had discussed such trial-and-error and ongoing challenge as Linda Lewis and her “Flipple” products.

The Flipple Company is a local business based out of Galesburg that creates ease and convenience for parents of infants by making universal “funneling adaptors” that fit onto water bottles and allows for on-hand baby formula any place, any time. Simply put, Flipple products can quickly and easily transform any water bottle into a baby bottle or sippy cup.

Linda Lewis, the “Grandma-preneur,” came up with this handy idea when a peaceful day at the lake with her family turned disastrous when she found that they had left all the baby bottles at home when her grandson became hungry. With her grandson’s increasing hunger pains, she desperately poured baby formula into a water bottle. This resulted in a very sticky, but fed grandchild. Linda Lewis and her family spent the rest of the afternoon collaborating on ideas on how to solve this messy conundrum.

The following days were spent experimenting—speculating and gluing and measuring—an attachment to water bottles that would made it easy to pour baby formula right into the small bottle opening and then attach a nipple. When they were done with the first prototype, Linda’s grandson even chose Linda’s personally made attachment over his commercial baby bottle!

Seeing how easy and convenient her new invention was, the light bulb turned on and the rest is history. Linda quit her job of 30 years to produce the bottle attachments full time and bring them to market. The Flipple Company had begun.

Linda did what many similarly driven entrepreneurs find they “must” do; risk it all and take the leap! She withdrew from the security of her job of 30 years, a decision that I am sure did not come easy. But for anything worthwhile, is it ever easy? There was no certainty to the success of her business venture. All she knew was that she had a great product that could make any parents young children relieved to have.

Next came the patenting of the product. Patenting is a very rigorous and expensive process, with patent lawyers charging around $550 per hour. Then Linda had to sell the product, something she still struggles with to this day. She was able to get some initial sales through Amazon and other outlets and then she experienced a major hurdle: The design of the mouth of standard water bottles changed. The Flipple products already in the market no longer fit correctly and she did not know how to get them out of the market place. The products received several bad reviews online due to this event which was completely beyond her control.

Linda did not give up. She did not lose faith at the sight of possible catastrophic failure. Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, once said: “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Just as Thomas Edison’s reluctance to accept defeat produced the light bulb, Linda’s reluctance to give up on her idea continued the growth and perfection of a great product. Linda has since changed the design to fit all water bottle mouths to increase usefulness and convenience.  She has also expanded the need by adding a special sippy top that can replace the nipple; thus turning a water bottle into a baby bottle or sippy bottle.

The Flipple Company is a relatively low-overhead business, outside of the single-cavity mold that cost $40,000. She operates her business by herself, in her basement. She even does her own packaging and order processing for online purchases. She doesn’t have employees, a shop, or many tools to pay for. Being low overhead means that one can keep the cost of production low, which is a plus. But at the same time, low-overhead businesses are limited to the amount and range of the work that can be done, as well as a lesser amount of exposure compared to larger-scale businesses.

Mass exposure of such an exclusive product like the Flipple at such small scale production has its challenges, as Linda knows. But everyone has got to start somewhere. To build the name and interest in buyers, Linda presently sells at very small profit margin, because if the price is too high for the risk of the potential store, the product is no longer attractive. To build exposure, Linda has entered Flipple products into many contests; including a large one sponsored by Wal-Mart. She has also built a very active Facebook page and maintains a company webpage.

Flipple products are available at BuyBuyBaby (, Amazon, Hy-Vee, Schnucks, and several other prominent regional or national retailers. Yet Linda still struggles with getting the level of awareness and acceptance with consumers that she wants. As she told us, she is continually “pounding the pavement” trying to get her products into more and more retailers. She said that it typically takes 4-5 calls to even get to the right person with most retailers. As she told the class, after seven years of risking it all and working very hard, Flipple products are “just now getting traction.”

Through trial and error, Linda Lewis continues to learn, grow, and adapt, and without adaptation, a business can never succeed! Linda has faced failure and did not give up on her product. Through creativity and ingenuity, Linda has created a product that appeals to parents by providing convenience (and lessening desperation). She left her comfort zone, sacrificed it all, and created a product that deserves to be in every brick-and-mortar and virtual baby aisle in America! I am sure she will one day experience the success she deserves.

Sawyer Shaw

Words of Entrepreneurial and Big-Corporate Wisdom from William Trubeck ’68

Last Thursday was scheduled as an “open/review” day to compare and contrast the past several speakers and to otherwise “catch up” on class matters.

But early in the week it dawned on me that we should  look for an opportunity to have someone from the Board of Trustees–or another Distinguished Visitor–on campus for President Clarence Wyatt’s Inauguration come share their wisdom with the class.

With the assistance of Gena Alcorn ’88 and Steve Bloomer ’83 in the Development Officethat opportunity was quickly and fully realized.

Bill Trubeck, a 1968 graduate of Monmouth College and a former Trustee elected to the Monmouth College Hall of Achievement in 2005, graciously agreed to be our guest speaker. Although Mr. Trubeck is not formally an entrepreneur, he was able to share with the class a wealth of knowledge about entrepreneurs, the entrepreneurial spirit, and the role of entrepreneurship in the U.S. economy stemming from both his several decades of executive-level experience in major corporate finance, as well as his personal business dealings and friendships with T. Boone Pickens and other well-known entrepreneurs.

Today’s class blogger is Celina Gonzalez. Below, she nicely recounts the wonderful stories and advice shared by Mr. Trubeck.

Thanks to Gena Alcorn ’88Steve Bloomer ‘83 and Bill Trubeck ‘68 for making last Thursday’s class one not to be soon forgotten!

Prof. Gabel


On April 16, 2015, we gladly welcomed our special guest speaker in our Midwest Entrepreneurs class former corporate CFO and Monmouth College Trustee—and major benefactor—William Trubeck ’68.

After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Monmouth College, Mr. Trubeck served as a U.S. Army Captain in Vietnam and Cambodia from 1968 to 1970.  He then earned a master’s degree in business from the University of Connecticut. With more than 30 years of experience in executive leadership positions, chief financial officer, and corporate director positions for Fortune 500 companies, including specific experience as the CFO at H&R Block, Waste Management and International Multi-Foods, he has led a variety of major corporate restructuring efforts during his career. In addition, Trubeck served on MC’s Board of Trustees from 2002 to 2014.

Mr. Trubeck spoke to the class about his extensive knowledge of doing business as a consultant, with many entrepreneurs by helping corporations make major strategic decisions.

With executive-level, and other, corporate experience, Trubeck informed the class on how he helped facilitate his entrepreneurial work as a consultant by helping corporations make major strategic decisions. He explained: “The body of information you accumulate over time will be used for future situations.” He then shared four main stories on highly successful entrepreneurs he has known and worked with over the years. He connected his dealings with T. Boone Pickens back to one concept: “Find where the opportunity lies and take advantage of it.”

Mr. Trubeck also informed the class that in today’s world, there are many successful entrepreneurs, many of whom took what they learned in the corporate world, built on it, and found a way to do something better than anyone else for certain customer segments. Executives, such as Trubeck, see the role of entrepreneurship in the national or global economy as being the most likely developers of the most impactful of all future innovations. They will do this, he said, driven both by the “entrepreneurial spirit” and their ability to “think outside the box.” Here, Trubeck urged students to “think outside the box, make a product unique, have the gist to do it, and be prepared to fail.”

Mr. Trubeck also discussed the importance of hiring people to gather and analyze information that can greatly benefit a business to help expand or start a new market. Yet, focusing on what will expand, with providing a unique essential service, or product, will change the world. Here, Mr. Trubeck again spoke of T. Boone Pickens’ long-term thinking about economic sustainability and water as a resource that is presently being underutilized. He explained the ideas Pickens has about innovative services that will allow the average homeowner to have a unit for their home that will effectively process saltwater into drinking water. Similarly, Trubeck’s other stories focused on stressing that there are markets that are in particular need of entrepreneurial attention that ultimately represent major opportunities for entrepreneurs. So, one has to find where the opportunity lies and take advantage of it.

We, as business students, frequently hear “strong work ethic and extraordinarily hard work is necessary for entrepreneurial success.” This, in fact, is true. However, the insight to be gained, as Mr. Trubeck jokingly mentioned, has never been mentioned before: “Marry rich.” So, it stuck.

Mr. Trubeck also discussed the largest “keys to success” and “hurdles to overcome” for entrepreneurs. The bottom line, as he told the class, is knowing that the brand building process requires capital and a strategy. The success starts from actually being able to have the funds to efficiently start the business. Furthermore, one of the largest obstacles faced is commonly financially being able to support and maintain the business.  It starts with an understanding that one will have to invest a great amount while being at a high risk of losing it all. However, although it is easy to understand, not many are able to risk so much. Those few entrepreneurs with a vision and strong, motivated characteristics realize the full potential of great entrepreneurial visions and seek to make it happen. Mr. Trubeck added: “Those with drive and enthusiasm are those who get up and take initiative. They go out and gather money from here and there to make their idea happen”.

He went on to tell us that the right idea will ultimately help you gain capital in the long run. Moreover, it is important to remember that you can always make use of more than one funding source. Personal savings, borrowing money from friends and family, or getting a loan from the bank are the most commonly used methods to start the funding of your business. Trubeck also explained that venture capitalism is an option; however, the investor usually wants a larger portion of the company’s equity stake than the entrepreneur might be comfortable with.

Mr. Trubeck also discussed how if the entrepreneur realizes the full potential of their venture, with the understanding that the brand is both intellectual property and how an individual makes their living, he or she will understand that difficult decisions are absolutely necessary for the long-term good of the business. For example, being in debt. Further, Trubeck noted: “You can’t be afraid of debt.” However, he explained that one of the main reasons many well thought-out businesses fail is because they simply run out of money. So: Realistically estimate your financial needs beforehand and leave room for the unexpected future, then seek to gain information on your market to analyze so that you will see the change and the hard times coming.

Mr. Trubeck also told the class that businesses must remain worthwhile. In a world that is constantly changing, one must learn to think or adapt differently by thinking creatively to set themselves apart from competitors. It is necessary to survive, but it requires a lot of thinking and good ideas. Analyzing markets and gathering information, however, can speed up the process. Moreover, the goal of every organization is to strategically use its assets to achieve a greater amount of success to generate revenue and pay off previous debt. But, where and from who will I gather the assets from to start the business is the main question one should ask themselves. A great plan is simply just a great plan. The entrepreneur has to have the drive, dedication, and strongly believe that they will succeed–but might fail–to gather up the needed money to properly execute the plan.

In conclusion, William Trubeck ‘68 mentioned that it was important to “get a business going, get it started, become successful, think for the future, and contribute by giving back to the community” With all the success that one encounters, I appreciated how Trubeck constantly feels obligated to “give back” to the community. We enjoyed hearing everything Mr. Trubeck had to say. Thank you Mr. Trubeck!

Celina Gonzalez

From the Beginning – A Passion Turned Into a Business

Today’s class blogger is Travis Gray. Below, he tells the evolving story of one of Monmouth College’s very own—Chemistry Professor Brad Sturgeon—and his passion for brewing craft beer; a passion he has both already turned into a small entrepreneurial business and is in the process of expanding significantly. You can find webpage and Facebook page links for Prof. Sturgeon’s DeNovo Brewing Company at the links below. Note: “DeNovo” is Latin for “from the beginning.”

I also must say that this is perhaps the most vivid manifestation we have seen in Midwest Entrepreneurs of the science-business partnership we champion here at Monmouth College; a science professor who has started an entrepreneurial business sharing his knowledge to help educate aspiring business students and future entrepreneurs!


Prof. Gabel


Having a career that involves doing something that you love is what everyone dreams of having. Now imagine having two jobs that you love, and owning a small business all at once!

Brad Sturgeon, co-owner of DeNovo Brewing does just that. He’s a full time chemistry professor, a part time pyro technician, and an owner of a small brewery.

For Brad, DeNovo isn’t so much a job; rather it’s a hobby that he has been able to turn into a business. Brewing beer is his one of his passions and eventually that passion grew until next thing you know, he was talking about opening up a brewery. Eventually, Brad partnered with Steven Murmann, who is a local dentist. Together they brew in the basement of Dr. Murmann’s office. Each one of them is knowledgeable about their product and can brew from start to finish. Together they both bring their own skillsets to the table. Brad knows the chemistry behind a good brew and Dr. Murmann knows how to weld and program some of the machinery.

The journey hasn’t been the easiest for them, but they’ve gained experience and have both learned a lot about state and federal laws.  They currently do not make enough to take home a paycheck, but the business is sustaining itself for the time being; and building a fan base in the Monmouth area. As Brad has said, “we’re neither losing money nor making money”. For a new small, part time business, this is not all that bad. It seems the two entrepreneurs are taking their time and getting to know the complex beer business before jumping in too strong.

Although it’s important to note that some of the expenses are already covered, such as rent, since they are in Dr. Murmanns Office.  That is a huge benefit to their whole project. There are plans to make more profit by possibly brewing larger quantities. There are several businesses in the area that would like to start carrying DeNovo. Currently Market Ally Wines, Fat Fish Pub, and Danny’s are the only places available to buy this small town beer.

Although Brad and Dr. Murmann haven’t thrown their selves into the deep end, they are certainly getting their feet wet. For two people with successful full time jobs, maybe that’s all they want. Who wouldn’t envy these two? They’ve taken their passion and turned it into a business. It’s a fulfilling part of their lives, and although it may always be a local thing, maybe that’s how it should be, just a couple of guys brewing beer to share with their local community.

Travis Gray

Erin Elliott and Maude Specklebelly’s: Flying High in Downtown Monmouth

As one of the judges for the 2014 City of Monmouth’s Retail Business Competition, it was my great pleasure to welcome to class as our guest speaker the co-owner of one of the Competition’s Award Winners: Erin Elliott of Maude Specklebelly’s Shopping and Retail Boutique. The young but already prosperous company’s Facebook page can be accessed at:

Below, today’s class blogger Edith Mendoza de Gabel does an excellent job of discussing some of the main points of Erin’s presentation. She even adds what is called in the world of scholarly and market research “an ethnographic perspective” by including in the data used to write this blog entry a personal visit to the Maude Specklebelly’s store in downtown Monmouth.

Of particular note is the discussion of how even though Erin and her business partner seemed very well prepared for the opening of the business in terms of financial planning, they still significantly underestimated the total cost of start-up. Luckily for the two beginning entrepreneurs, their planning was good enough and they were able to adapt fast and smart enough to have a very successful opening and first several months of business. Many lessor an entrepreneur has come and gone in but a few months when faced with similar–and amazingly common–circumstances.


Prof. Gabel


Erin Elliott has been the earliest stage entrepreneur guest speaker in our Midwest Entrepreneur’s class. She is the Co-owner of Maude Specklebelly’s Shopping and Retail Boutique located right here in Monmouth. This is the place to go to find that unique gift for someone special (or just for yourself). As it is stated on Maude Specklbelly’s Facebook page, this boutique offers “unique, limited quantity, hand-selected goods, many of which are created locally.”

The idea for starting the business happened in an informal setting, when Erin and some of her friends were celebrating the 4th of July in 2014. They were having a good time; chatting and partaking of some drinks. During the relaxed conversation, they talked about the “retail business competition” then being sponsored by the City of Monmouth. The idea of participating in this competition sounded to them like a fun thing to do but they also knew that they would have to take it seriously. Out of the group of friends celebrating the 4th of July, Erin and her old friend Jaime Ballard decided to participate in the contest.

Erin holds a degree in Marketing and Jaime is a Graphic Designer. Both had fairly extensive corporate retail experience in the past. Jaime was a home-stay mom for many years but she definitely believed that they could start and run a successful business in Monmouth. However, shortly after deciding they would enter the competition, Erin and Jaime did not know exactly what kind of store they wanted to have. But they knew that they had to have a plan to become successful entrepreneurs.

Erin told us that the initial plan they created for the competition was done in a very short period of time. One area that both Erin and Jaime were not very strong in was the financials of running a business. So, they got help from Erin’s father, who is a financial specialist. He was impressed with their plan, which was then entered into the retail business competition.  Even though they were, as Erin put it, “in the game super late,” their plan was chosen as one of the top plans in the initial round of judging. They then did a presentation to the panel of judges. In the end, to their surprise, “we won!”

Another surprise came shortly after beginning to get the business ready for opening. This surprise involved the amount of money it would take to buy inventory and otherwise start the business. Even though Erin’s father and the contest judges had been very impressed with their financial planning, Erin and Jaime soon learned that it would cost up to three times as much as they had initially thought. There were also delays in having their building ready. But, as Erin told us, this actually worked out to be good because they needed some extra time to get all their utilities set up and get their merchandize entered into their POS inventory system.

While speaking to the class, Erin was asked the inevitable question of where the name “Maude Specklebelly’s” comes and “What does it mean?” Even though the word “specklebelly” means a type of “goose,” that has little to with the origins of the name of the store. The inspiration for the unusual name comes from Erin’s father and, ultimately, her late mother.  When Erin and Jaime were thinking of what name to use for the store, Erin and Jaime asked Erin’s father for some advice. He texted back the word “speckelberry.” This comes from the fictitious name of “Maude Speckleberry” that Erin’s mother had signed to letters sent to a friend in the past. After giving it some thought, Erin and her husband agreed that the name, with “Speckleberry” changed to Specklebelly” to give it more meaning to others outside the family, would be the perfect name for the store.

All along, Erin and Jaime had a clear vision in mind for their business. They wanted to have a “cool store… with cool staff.” They wanted to offer a special shopping experience where customers would “feel like they are at home.” This vision became reality on December 5, 2014 when the doors to Maude Specklebelly’s were first opened; just in time for Christmas shopping. As Erin told the class their first month’s sale were great, far exceeding their expectations. And then after the hectic Christmas shopping season had ended, Erin and Jaime said: “now what?” To their surprise, the following months were great as well; to which Erin said: “cool!”

Another issue that came up in class is how do Erin and Jaime get the unique items they sell in the store? As Erin explained, they go to Chicago and many other places looking for those “just right” unique things that will be in demand in Monmouth. They personally choose the items; they have to be nice, unique, and of high quality. Most of the time, the two partners agree on which items to buy. Erin mentioned this frequent agreement between her and Jaime in a wide variety of types of decisions as being one of the keys to success for the business.

Erin also informed the class that if we want to become an entrepreneur we have to “believe in what we are doing.” Erin and Jaime believe exactly that. They also believe in the importance of supporting local businesses and the Monmouth Community. As a result, Specklebelly’s carries articles made by local artists, writers, and other businesspersons that need a space to sell their art or goods in.

Erin showed us some of the items that they sell in the store. Some of these items included a customized throw pillow (with Monmouth’s 61462 on it), books, some jewelry, handmade soap, barbecue sauce, and even some special “beard oil.”  This gave us a good idea of the very unique and high quality items that they have in the store. Erin also discussed with us the idea that even though most of the items are relatively high priced, they are selected on the basis of the believe that there will be enough customers willing to pay the price asked for that “just right” gift or specialty item. 

Before writing this blog post, I thought of going to the store since I hadn’t been there before. I wanted to “feel the shopping experience” that Erin had told us about. So I did… As soon as I entered the store, a lady with a beautiful smile—not Erin or Jaime—welcomed me. The inside of the store is really nice, with a lot of items nicely placed everywhere. While I was there, I saw some customers with little kids. It seems that the kids found something for themselves too. I stayed in the store for about 15 minutes and I saw more customers of all ages coming in to the store. For some reason, everybody seemed to be in a good mood and they were talking happily to each other. I met Jaime but she was too busy to talk because she was serving customers. By actually going to the store, I could understand better what Erin told us about “feeling the shopping experience” at the store. You feel welcome and you can definitely find in Speckebelly’s that unique item for that special someone or for yourself.

Edith Mendoza de Gabel

Bar Rescue to the Rescue: Lessons to (Adaptively) Learn as an Entrepreneur


Tuesday the inevitable happened… We ended up being without a guest speaker (due to one speaker rescheduling and multiple “backups” unable to make it on overly short notice).

Yet such is actually welcomed in Midwest Entrepreneurs; as long as it happens but once or twice a semester… It gives me the chance to reinforce one of the most important (general) things that business students can learn: The need to adapt to changing circumstances (and the need to be persistently ready to do so).

I turned to an old friend in this time of need: Spike TV’s Bar Rescue  (

If you are not familiar with Bar Rescue, the series stars consultant Jon Taffer, a no-nonsense former bar and nightclub owner who has owned, flipped, or somehow “rescued” over 800 such businesses in his career. Taffer and his crew of expert bartenders, chefs, and designers is brought in by bar owners–entrepreneurs–to save their declining and often severly neglected and dysfunctionally run businesses. After a period of surveillance and consultation and training meetings, Taffer brings in local contractors and other service providers to renovate and update the facility (based on his extensive bar/restaurant marketing and management expertise).

The episode that rescued Midwest Entrepreneurs Tuesday was a recent “Back to the Bar” special wherein Taffer and his colleagues went back to four previously rescued establishments to see how they were doing (roughly one year after rescue and relaunch).  One bar had been very successful; to the point where a second location was being planned. One bar was given a “jury’s still out” rating by Taffer. The other two had been miserable—if not also sadly comical—failures. This variety of outcomes provided us ample opportunity to look at common themes of “what was done right” and “what was done wrong.” We also developed several over-arching, macro-level themes subsumed under the heading “Lessons Learned.”

Below, class blogger Mack Fulton nicely summarizes the lessons we learned on Tuesday.


Professor Gabel


From going to having a guest speaker to watching Bar Rescue, it was the perfect example of how you have to adapt and to have a backup plan for a backup plan.

Tuesday in class we discussed several lessons entrepreneurs learn while they run their business venture.

Three things that entrepreneurs must do to be successful as business owners is that they must (1) Adapt to anything that happens that was unexpected, (2) Understand that their business exists to Serve Customers, and lastly, (3) Have a backup plan for a backup plan.

These three issues are essential for success because things will go wrong and entrepreneurs must be ready for it to happen. Another mistake some entrepreneurs make are that they have a product that there is not a need for in the area they are in business. Another major reasons entrepreneurs have setbacks is because of poor management and they are too focused on micromanaging. This does not allow a business to work at its capability. This would take away from the focus needed on the consumer.

While watching Bar Rescue in class we saw vivid examples of entrepreneurs who would NOT adapt and businesses that did not exist to serve the customers (instead, the owners were out to have fun and live care-free through the business). In comparison to these entrepreneurs, the ones we have had in class serve their customers and focus on the customer’s experience. None of the bars on the Bar Rescue show we saw had a backup plan: Until John Taffer came and overhauled their venture to become successful (or not).

Entrepreneurs are going to make mistakes, it’s human nature. It is how a person can adapt when the pressure is present. How they react to the pressure determines if the entrepreneur would be successful or if they would fail in their venture.

Mack Fulton

Rev. Dr. Kathleen Fannin: The Accidental Artist-as-Entrepreneur

One of the things I strive for in teaching the guest-speaker based Midwest Entrepreneurs class is diversity in as broad of terms as possible; meaning diversity with regard to type of business and industry, stage of the entrepreneurial enterprise, and historical and personal background of the speakers and their businesses.

As part of my incessant and ongoing quest for entrepreneurial diversity, I have for some time been looking to have an artist as a guest speaker. Unfortunately, although I have known and know a fair number of artists—painters, poets, musicians, and writers—I would characterize very few of them as also being entrepreneurs (and even fewer live anywhere near Monmouth, IL). Most are not artists in business or career but rather artists in their spare time (i.e., hobbyist artists).

This conundrum began to dissipate recently with each visit to the home of my next-door neighbor Rev. Dr. Kathleen Fannin (former long-time Monmouth College Chaplain and, in her recently enacted retirement, budding watercolor artist). With each visit of late, Kathleen has had more and more to tell me about her efforts to expand her artistic efforts beyond being just hobbyist in form into the entrepreneurial realm.

During one of these visits she excitedly and proudly told me of her ventures into turning her paintings into jigsaw puzzles and the posting of many of her amazing paintings—in a variety of forms—on her artist webpage ( I shortly thereafter came to the conclusion that I might just have located my desired artist-as-entrepreneur. I invited her to be our guest speaker on my next visit and she—although shocked to find herself referred to as an entrepreneur—graciously accepted the invitation. She was our guest this past Tuesday.

Below, class member Casto Flores tells the captivating story of Rev. Dr. Kathleen Fannin, an accidental entrepreneur who did not discover her passion for painting—or even her ability to paint—until after retirement from a formal career.

Prof. Gabel


In our mid-west entrepreneurs class we have had a good diversity of business men and women come speak to us, but yesterday we had our first artist share her experience with the class.

Rev. Dr. Kathleen Fannin’s business revolves around her hobby of watercolor painting. Unlike most entrepreneurs, Dr. Fannin started to pursue her business after retirement. She explained to the class that she never meant for this to happen.

One day, she went to a Blick art supplies store and decided that she wanted to learn how to watercolor paint. From the first time she painted, she discovered that she had a “gift” for this kind of art work. She enjoyed painting so much that she decided to share her gift with her family and friends by sending postcards with her art work on them as gifts. As time went by, she improved her talent and decided to take it to an art show. At the end of the show Dr. Kathleen’s painting won “Best of Class: Works on Paper.”  This left her in awe. She never expected that to happen. At that same art show, premonitions of her upcoming business showed. Again to her amazement, people started to want to buy her art work.

Ever since that art show, Dr. Fannin decided to sell more of her art work and in an increasing variety of formats. She started to sell to people near to her here in Monmouth. Then one of our Monmouth College Staff asked her if she could paint a portrait of her mother’s house for her. People started to notice that her houses were beautifully portrayed in watercolor paint and from there she has painted many of them.

After she saw how well her paintings were selling among the community, she decided to look to the world of online shopping to expand her business. She got word of a website—–that allows artists to sell their creations to buyers all over the world. For only thirty dollars a year this website takes care of almost everything from ordering to shipping and handling. Even though she has not marketed her website, she has made some sales from it.

Another tool that she uses in her entrepreneurial effort is Vistaprint (, which allows her to diversify her product offerings. This tool allows her to make prints from original paintings. This also allows customers who cannot afford an original painting purchase a replica of the art work at a much more affordable price. Vista Print also allows Dr. Fannin to create calendars with her artwork on them.

During her presentation someone asked her a question mentioning her plans for expansion. Dr. Fannin responded by stating that she wants her painting to remain fun and to not feel like she is actually running a business. In other words, she wants to enjoy her well-earned retirement (while still being an entrepreneur).

Some of her last words to the class were “don’t be afraid to fail.” As our Prof. Connell likes to mention in his classes, the world of business is full of risk, but only the brave ones who are willing to take that risk truly benefit. Rev. Dr. Kathleen Fannin is taking more and more risk as an accidental entrepreneur, but she plans to keep her risk-taking at a manageable level while living out her newly found passion as an amazingly talented watercolor painter.

Casto Flores




Rod Smith: From Old-School Hobby Racer to Monmouth College “Green Army” Manager to Global Race Car Parts Entrepreneur

Today’s Midwest Entrepreneurs class blogger is Ryian Sampson. Below, he tells the captivating and improbable entrepreneurial success story of Mr. Rod Smith. Pay particular attention to the importance of the trust-based (supplier) relationships—with some of the biggest names in NASCAR racing—that Rod has forged over the years and now leverages to the “ca-ching” ringtone tune of $400,000 to $500,000 in annual sales.


Prof. Gabel


Rod Smith is an individual who caught his entrepreneurial bug later in life. Everything started coming together for the man during some of his final days at Monmouth College. He attributes much of his success to the multitude of things he learned from co-workers from his time at this institution, where he was Assistant Director of the Physical Plant (in charge of the custodians, utility workers, grounds crew and student workers). While in this position, Rod had a very important concept down in his head: “The students are also the customers.” With this in mind he made it his mission to treat students as customers and that meant leaving no stone unturned when it came to the cleanliness of the campus and dorms. This idea stuck with Rod. He was able to apply it to a new venture he was trying to start. He understood the importance of his customer base and has painstakingly tried to keep those practices intact as well as polishing them over the years.

This carried over to his current business of selling used NASCAR parts and is the life blood of his success. Rod Smith, in his head, has a very wide range of specific knowledge that allows him to buy and sell used automotive parts and market them back to other individuals over EBay. In general, Rod sells auto parts worldwide and stops at nothing order to make sure that the parts he obtains are clean and in good condition and can be sold. At the end of the day it would be his name on the line and he cannot afford anything ill being said about him or the services he provides. Many years ago Rod Smith would partake in racing himself; this is where the passion and knowledge of his current trade comes from. Also from that time in his life Smith was able to build upon relationships with other racers that eventually led him to become one individual who most others will call upon in order to meet their automotive needs.

In the customer’s mind Rod Smith has an amount of trust that he himself has that other competitors cannot come close too. This is something Rod can pride himself on. The customer base he still has to this day is what is helping drive his sales. Word of mouth is a very powerful tool, especially for a beginning entrepreneur. With the help of some of his workers Rod has the ability to buy smaller more valuable car parts and clean them up in order to sell for a profit. This doesn’t exclude the plethora of other car parts associated with this industry. Rod has seen it all but chooses at this time in his life to handle smaller parts for his own health. The profit margins can be pretty big and it all comes down to if the customer has the ability to simply buy an item from Smith at his asking price. A lot of the items sold through EBay have the ability to be set up for auction and some of the money that is being made through sales are haggled on. Over the years some parts gain and lose value and Rod stays on top of a lot of information that is pertinent to providing the right price to those looking to purchase his wares.

There are a few high-trust customers that Rod Smith still stays in contact with to this day that provide him with enough work so that he can continue to see the cash flow. Some smaller  NASCAR teams have Rod in the back of their minds when they think of a salesman who can provide the parts that they need when they need it. In turn, these teams, because of their relationships with Rod, return favors like providing him with parts for extremely low prices that he can turn around sell whatever it may be for a handsome profit. The mark-ups on these items are where Rod really begins to see money start to accumulate.

It’s worthy to note that there is a bit of niche marketing occurring here with Rod Smith. Buying and selling is happening between this vendor and multiple NASCAR racing teams. Although this market is fairly small and the man has to sometimes travel down to Charlotte, NC in order to pick up some pretty specific racecar parts that someone may have an interest in after he cleans it up. A majority of his sales are made to car builders but that doesn’t mean that an average Joe could not contact Rod for motor or three.

Rod Smith’s trade mark has to be his “ca-ching” ringtone which has to have gone off at least 5 times in our class alone. Every time you hear that tone you know that Rod’s wife Debbie, who he refers to as “the brains of our operation,” will be arranging for packing and shipping and that there will soon be either be USPS or UPS delivery driver waiting outside of the Smith residence.

Ryian Sampson

Paul Rickey ‘76: The Farmer as Entrepreneur

File this under the mental categories of “serendipity,” “it is a small world” and “networking matters”…

Two weeks ago, immediately after our excellent guest speaker presentation by Penrose Brewery owner  Eric Hobbs, I headed downtown for the introduction of a new beer crafted by Monmouth College Chemistry Prof. Brad Sturgeon—a future speaker in the class—held at Market Alley Wines (owned and operated by Susan Schuytema, our first speaker of the semester).

While there—several samples of Sturgeon’s “Stout No. 2” into the evening—I was introduced to Mr. Paul Rickey, a 1976 business graduate of Monmouth College who had come to occupy space between Prof. Sturgeon’s refrigerated dispenser and I. It was then shortly learned that Paul is a long-time local “legacy farmer” and also that we have many local friends in common. Paul told me that we “need a farmer” to speak in the Midwest Entrepreneurs class. I agreed—honestly and happily—and spoke to him about his business at length (over several more samples of “Stout No. 2”).

Arrangements were made… By chance at the time, Mr. Rickey was scheduled to speak the same week as another ag-based local entrepreneur; Will Zimmerman. Thus “ag-week in Midwest Entrepreneurs” was serendipitously created.

I had been hoping to find a local farmer to speak in the class for some time. I had hoped that Mr. Rickey would dispel all notions that (1) farming is not a sophisticated business, and (2) farming is not an entrepreneurial activity. He did just that.

Today’s class blogger is Tyler Baxter. Below he nicely captures the essence and feel of Mr. Rickey’s intriguing entrepreneurial tale as told to the class on Thursday 19 March.


Prof. Gabel


“Agriculture week” in Midwest Entrepreneurs ended on a high note with guest speaker appearance of Paul Rickey. Mr. Rickey is a fellow Monmouth College alum from the class of 1976.

As he told the class, Mr. Rickey has never been too far from home, growing up in Seaton, IL, a small town exactly 26 miles from Monmouth. His family has been farming there for generations.  Since a young age, Rickey had an outstanding work ethic and could not get away from the farm for too long without either going back on weekends during college or even after classes here at Monmouth College.

Currently, Rickey farms just under 1,000 acres, and technically as well as literally works for his mother (who owns the land he farms).  It was Rickey’s parent’s decision to have him attend college, because they believed strongly in a good education.  Sure enough, right after graduation he headed home for the farm.  Ironically, Rickey says that his college education did not become a huge factor in his career until recently, where his business skills are becoming more important due to governmental regulations, competition, and increased need for loans. When he graduated from Monmouth College, Rickey’s peers and many other farmers did not see farming as a business.  However, Rickey seems to really grasp the business aspect of farming, with ample knowledge on commodity trading and the technological advances and finance that goes into running this increasingly complex type of operation.

Paul Rickey has a large amount of experience in not only row crop farming but, early on in his career, livestock. He compares raising livestock “to having children… but worse.” He described tending to livestock as a “guaranteed 7 day a week job” with the animals needing constant attention. During this operation, he was responsible for 50 heads of cattle and a skid steer was the main machine for organizing manure and other materials.

Mr. Rickey has always believed in staying in the family business on the farm and the land he farms has been in his family since 1847.  Rickey was the only son in the family, so the weight was on his shoulders when it came to taking it over.  Rickey recalls the price of the 160 acres he lives on being bought for $1,300 in 1847. He stated that it is worth over $1,500 per acre. He expressed very well how times have changed since he has been farming, and he also recalled the 1980 depression, and the negative impact on farmers.  He sees this trend happening again, but his experience allows him to be ready to take on another farming recession and he wisely has the equity to back up his operation in a down time.

Currently, Rickey specializes in row crop farming and he has recently invested in the newest GPS self-steering system in his tractor.  This year will be his first season with this technology and we could all tell how anxious he is to try it out and to test his patience with not being able to touch and control the wheel.  He also does his own spraying, which he says is rare now in days, because spraying can be very dangerous and also very time consuming.  He now hires enough help on the farm to be able to work a regular 5 day a week schedule and he also gave us a very detailed schedule of a “normal” season.  He will start his planting around April, spray all summer long, he will have a short lull where he can have a brief break, then he will spray repeatedly for weeds, then come late September, Rickey will start the plowing process until winter time (this year it was around December when he finished).

Mr. Rickey also gave us a few pieces of advice for any career, not only farming.  He expressed the importance of a good relationship with your local banker.  His local banker plays a huge role in his entrepreneurial business and can significantly impact his financial situation by approving or disapproving large loans that are crucial to Rickey’s complex and risky business.  He also spoke about not being too stubborn to keep up with technological advances.  He has invested a great deal of money in new technology, but it seems to be paying back great returns every season.  Education is another big piece of advice Rickey believes in, and the separation in work ethic between us students who are still in college as upper classmen, to the ones who could not make it through freshman year.  A great quote from Mr. Rickey is, “show up on time ready to go.”  This may not seem like much, but punctuality and good work ethic can get you a long way in a career.

In conclusion, I would argue that our visit from Mr. Paul Rickey was not a lecture, but an adventure.  He has been through generations of experience and has seen more than most of us can imagine in his field of work.  Ironically, Mr. Rickey never used to like speaking to students, but he made it seem like it was second nature to him.  Not only is he a great speaker, but also a good friend and neighbor to our very own “Dicky J” (Finance Professor Dick Johnston).  I think I speak for all of us in class when I express my gratitude for getting to have Paul Rickey join us in our class during agriculture week.

Tyler Baxter

“Ag Week” Begins with a Homegrown Entrepreneurial Success Story

Tuesday’s class began with a time-lapse YouTube video of the construction of an $875,000 grain elevator roughly five miles east of Monmouth, IL.

The entrepreneur behind this impressive project—and many, many more in the area—is “homegrown” in the sense that he is both a Monmouth College Business Administration graduate and a former Midwest Entrepreneurs class member.

This inspirational story of homegrown entrepreneurial success is told below by current class member Adrick Barreto.

Stay tuned later this week for more on regional ag-based entrepreneurship as our guest speaker on Thursday will be local farmer—and another Monmouth College business graduate—Mr. Paul Rickey.


Prof. Gabel


This Tuesday our Midwest Entrepreneurs class had a very intelligent and relatable entrepreneur speak by the name of Will Zimmerman, who owns and operates Avon, IL-based Modern Grain Systems.

Zimmerman, a 25-year-old former Monmouth College student that graduated in 2011, told us his story of how he owns a business that he bought before he even graduated from college. Will had been working for Bill Thompson, a man whose company built grain silos, when he was a teenager. He continued to work for Mr. Thompson until he was a Junior in college when he finally purchased the company from Bill, after years of joking about doing it.

During the first year he owned the company, Zimmerman had some help from the former owner, who stayed to guide him and to help him learn the ropes of managing the company well. The former owner helped him because he saw what every one of his customers and workers would see in him: a hard-working and dedicated man with strong values. This was made apparent to me when Will talked about how his company would bid higher than other companies for construction projects, but his company would get the bid anyway. The main reasons why he would get the bids is because he has a reputation for keeping his word and for working as hard as he can to ensure things are done the right way. To quote Zimmerman: “If you tell a guy that you’re going to do something, you better do it.” That is exactly what he does.

Will’s success stems from not only this, but also his willingness to work with and effectively communicate with his employees. He sets firm rules, enforces them fairly, and is always happy to roll up his sleeves and work alongside those that he employs. He also focuses on his core customers, careful not to stretch himself too thin by accepting jobs outside of a predetermined area so that his company can do its job, and do it well.

It’s because of Will’s impressive his work ethic and the quality of work that he and his company does that his company continues to grow and expand. People who he has worked with and work for tell others of his business and those people come to him when they need a job done. Will Zimmerman is a very inspiring entrepreneur and I am glad that he came to speak for our class!

Adrick Barreto