From Passion to Profit
Five entrepreneurs. Five passions. Five businesses.
See how these successful business owners followed their passions and turned them into sustainable incomes. Maybe we could all learn a thing or two.
Makin’ food look good
At age 35, Savannahian Libbie Summers realized that she saw food differently than most people. Food inspires her in everything she does. From home décor and fashion to crafting, entertaining, and more. It is that inspiration that led her to build her own lifestyle brand, A Food Inspired Life. “I began to focus on all dimensions of food as I embarked on a fresh view of my career and started using food as my muse for all aspects of my life,” says Summers. “It’s certainly a source of endless, beautiful, and unique content!”
A storyteller at heart, this self-made entrepreneur, loves helping her clients tell a story. “I take them on a visual content ride with design, video production, and still photography production. I work primarily with boutique brands and give them the tools they need to create their own branded content,” says Summers.
Summers, who is a three-time author, also runs a blog and has her own sprinkle company. “Sprinkles make people smile! My favorite part about #libbiesprinkles is the backstory that inspired each blend,” says Summers. “I pulled a memorable quote from each story and they appear on the side of the jars. They always render a giggle and make a great conversation starter!”
Her success didn’t just happen overnight. Summers believes everything we do is a step up the mountain. She says she’s still climbing, but she can see the peak. She’s done everything from owning a popcorn wagon at the base of Vail mountain to producing television shows and working in film. “In the beginning, I did tons of work for free to learn from others and hone my own craft. I definitely made a lot of investments in myself to grow my business. But I’m also a huge believer in giving back—sharing the knowledge I have with others,” adds Summers.
Her advice for anyone who wants to pursue their dreams: “Step outside your comfort zone. You sometimes have to say 'no' to good things, so you can say 'yes' to great things!” Summers says, “What do you really have to lose taking a chance on yourself ... nothing! Always bet on yourself!”
When asked if she had to take any risks to get to where she is now, her answer is, yes. Summers inked a quote on a piece of paper in college and it lives in a special place in her home today. “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.” — T.S. Eliot “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go."
Smokin’ the Competition
At 24 years old, Sean Geng is a self-made entrepreneur. As co-owner of Smoke Cartel, his business is booming. Smoke Cartel is an eCommerce, wholesale company that focuses on the smoking and cannabis accessory market. They sell anything from jars, pipes, apparel, to backpacks. Geng started the company in 2014 when he was a sophomore at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). “The timing was right. Colorado had just changed their laws,” says Geng. “I did some market research and there was nothing available here in the United States. The closest competitors were in Europe. Now we can ship right here from Georgia.” Geng decided to focus on his business and left SCAD. He hasn’t once looked back.
Earlier this year, Smoke Cartel moved into its new Savannah-based 28,000-square-foot warehouse. The company ships products worldwide. There are 37 employees in Savannah and another 13 customer-service agents scattered throughout the world who offer 24-hour customer support.
While marijuana currently isn’t legal in Georgia, Geng says one of the challenges is the stigma behind his business. “We really fight the stigma of what people think it is we do. We get to know our customers who are lawyers, accountants, and doctors who don’t want to be treated like they are bad people,” says Geng. “They don’t want to walk into a headshop. So, we are able to provide a professional experience. This is a real market to us and we are trying to educate people on the market. The cannabis-accessory business is one of the fastest growing businesses.”
Geng says he’s had a lot of support along the way and Savannah is a great community for those who want to start their own business. He realizes there are a lot of people who have really good ideas, but there are less people who jump on those ideas. Geng was one of the ones who jumped, working 80-hour weeks the first few years of starting his business. “Entrepreneurs don’t think you’re going to go into it and breeze through. If you’re looking to get rich quick, this isn’t it. You have to work hard,” adds Geng.
Geng believes that before the notion of success can be an option, the person has to be willing to take a leap of faith. He says if you don’t at least try, there’s no opportunity for success. When asked what Geng’s secret to success is, “My secret is to fail a lot because that means I’m trying.
It was 1999. Shawn Donnelly was 21 and six months from graduating with a degree from Georgia Southern when he entered the playing field of yacht brokering at Baker Marine, Inc., on Hilton Head.
“They contacted me and said, ‘Hey we need somebody who can work in the Hilton Head area.’ I had never even really thought at all about possibly being a broker, but I already knew the boats and I had a knack for sales.”
The youngest in his profession, Shawn had to prove himself as a salesman, and not just the type who can sell a washing machine or tupperware. Selling a yacht is more along the lines of selling a $3 million home on water. In order to gain the respect and reputation of a serious broker, Shawn worked on developing sincere relationships with clients, a technique that gained him recognition in the brokering communication and from his boss. After nearly seven years of working for the company that kick-started his career, Shawn made a decision to take his love for yachts and sales and turn a profit of his own.
The result of his endeavor manifested through Donnelly Yachts, Shawn’s proud establishment well-regarded among many yacht owners in the Hilton Head and Savannah areas.
“The rewarding thing is customer or client loyalty,” Shawn explained. “You do a deal with a client whether you buy a boat with them or sell their boat and you do a good job. They appreciate it and they come back to you. Client loyalty is really hard but it’s what you aim for.”
Shawn believes it’s his identity as an individual broker that sets him apart from the competition. Compared to big brokerage houses that have anywhere from 20 to 30 salesmen, Shawn is able to tend to his customers one-on-one, even making friends with some of them.
“The individuality and the knowledge of the boats make me stand out, because a lot of these brokers I deal with don’t really have it in their blood. They might know how to sell something but they don’t know the boats as well as I do.”
Lock & Load.
Sometimes the unknown is truly a blessing. Just ask Toby Hansen and Kyle Christiansen, co-owners of 17 South Rod and Gun Club. The two, who have a 20-year friendship, built the 300-acre gun club from the ground up. Christiansen says if he knew what he was getting into, he may not have had the guts to go through with it. “If you would have told me what it would have taken, I’m not sure we would have done it. Not knowing what you’re getting into can be one of the best things that can happen to you,” says Christiansen.
What’s impressive is that the pair did pretty much all of the work themselves. They installed flooring, put in wiring, built every beam, and begged and borrowed to get their hands on heavy machinery. “We spent every waking hour when we weren’t at our day jobs at the gun club,” says Hansen. “We would go there after work and worked most nights until 10 or 11. We were there every weekend.”
Hansen works as a manager for a local construction company and Christiansen runs his own veterinarian practice in Richmond Hill. Despite having full times jobs, passion is what pushed them to turn an idea into a lucrative business. “The idea started seven years ago. We both had little girls and we would take them to other ranges,” says Christiansen. “It was loud and we wanted to have a place where we could take our children and they would feel comfortable.” The pair also wanted to create a gun club with a unique twist. They say there wasn’t a club that offered everything you could do with a gun or one that provided a family-friendly atmosphere like they envisioned.
At 17 South Rod and Gun Club members have access to a variety of ranges, an archery course, a world-class sporting clay course, and tactical bays. There is also a 10-acre stocked pond, a pro shop and a clubhouse where meals are served every Thursday night.
The gun club officially opened in 2016 and Hansen and Christiansen had a three-year business plan to obtain 500 members; they signed those members in four months. Today there are 600 members and a wait list inked with names. Since opening they have doubled the amenities they offer without going up on price and employ 15 people.
“We look at other clubs that charge more money and offer a fraction of the amenities,” says Hansen. “We designed our club so that anyone can be a member; everyone is welcome.” For Hansen and Christiansen, their hard work truly has paid off, however, that doesn’t mean work stops. They are constantly striving for the best. “There aren’t a lot of gun clubs we can learn from. We’ve made mistakes and improved on those mistakes. We’ve rebuilt ranges to make them safer and user-friendly. This club really is a moving target and we won’t stop until we hit the mark each and every time,” says Christiansen.
Guns have always been a staple in Buck Holly’s life. From deer hunting as a kid to his nine-year stint in the marine core, there’s no doubt his fondness for firearms is more than just a passion. After years of different career choices—all involving guns, no less—he’s finally been able to start a business that allows him to make money, yet be with his family, while still actively pursuing his passion.
“When we had our third child, I wanted to be home more, travel less,” Holly says. “And that’s why I ended up forming my current rifle manufacturing company, so I could be at home building and shooting guns competitively. I wanted to turn my hobby into a profession that allowed me to be home more and enjoy the benefits of that industry.”
He’s now the owner of C&H Precision Weapons, a successful and innovative custom rifle shop in Richmond Hill, Ga. C&H Precision was Holly’s solution to having a passion for working with firearms and not being able to spend time with his family. The majority of the company’s business is building guns for the shooting enthusiast. The minority of the company’s business was designed after realizing a need for keeping the machinery in the shop running; upgrading pistols and other firearms became a way to not only evolve the company and strengthen their portfolio, but also help clients find interesting and innovative ways to tailor their firearms to their personal specifications.
Holly is no stranger to finding innovative ways to firearm deficiencies. Six years after leaving the marines, he began working for the Department of Defense as a contractor. When members of the military found issues with their weaponry, they would send a memo of the issue to Holly and his team, and he would develop a solution to the issue, whether that be a gadget for the weapon or an entirely new weapon altogether.
But the long and winding, firearm-fueled route (which included hog extermination and brand ambassadorship for Advance Armament Corporation) to the creation of Holly’s rifle manufacturing company has led him to one of the most successful ventures of his career.
“If you’re going to buy a racecar,” Holly proposes, “You can either buy it from a nationally ranked racecar driver or from some little shop that has no pedigree. People say they’ve built guns, but my team is trained.”
His team is made up of nine individuals from across the country, all nationally ranked and trained. Why do they do it, some may wonder.
“We do it not only because it’s fun,” Holly would answer, “But because we’re good at it. It shows the quality of our workmanship. We must be doing something right.”