Monday, February 28, 2011

Grandson is the “Inspiration” Behind Grandma’s Business

Small business financing options can often be challenging to evaluate – much less to find. For some those decisions are easier to make, especially if you are in the rare position to understand business financing from both sides of the table. Debbie Caterson exemplifies a rare breed with lending experience, entrepreneurial vision, and small business experience.

But not at first; after earning a Bachelor’s in Business Management and Accounting, Debbie started her banking career at what she describes as the lowest rung. “People think the teller position is entry-level,” she says, “but believe me there are positions below that – I started as a courier.” She worked her way into more responsible positions and in 1984 started work in the foreclosure department, focusing on small businesses defaulting on Small Business Administration loans.”

“In effect I learned what not to do as a lender and as a small business owner,” she says.

She later became a branch manager and commercial lender, making small business loans throughout the 1990s. In 1998 she left banking to work for non-bank lenders who provide small business financing to entrepreneurs, start-ups, and established small businesses.

Then she decided to take her own advice. “I realized the economy was struggling,” she says, “and I probably needed to do what I recommend to my customers – start my own business. But of course I needed financing for any business I decided to start.”

She also needed an idea for a great small business – and she found one close to home. “Our grandson was diagnosed with autism,” Debbie says. “We went to a specialist for autistic children, hoping for a recovery, and the first thing we had to do was take him off all gluten and casein.” Research shows 90% of autistic children cannot digest gluten – which is found in wheat, rye, barley, and oats – and casein – which is found in dairy products.

“We were inspired by the difference the diet made to our grandson’s world,” Debbie continues. “Within two weeks of changing his diet he stopped banging his head against the wall, he stopped spinning and slapping his hand in front of his face. From that point forward we worked hard to continue to clean his system out because there are so many things that contain gluten and casein: Shampoos, hand soap... even things like paints for school. We have to provide non-toxic paint because everything has gluten in it.”

Earlier this year Debbie and her husband planned to take their grandson to Hawaii on a family trip, so they went on a scouting trip, checking out health food stores to see what products were available. “We found the same stuff that is available here – which is not edible in our opinion,” Debbie says. “So I was sitting on the beach complaining about the situation to my husband... and I realized it was the perfect business: We’ll make gluten and casein-free products that also taste great!”

Idea in place, she returned to the issue of funding. Because she thoroughly understands small business financing, she knew precisely how to evaluate the options available. Debbie made a bold choice, deciding to invest her retirement funds into her new business. Working in the industry as a lender, Debbie knew who to turn to. She contacted the recognized leader in small business financing Guidant Financial Group for help.

And the concept of Inspiration Mixes was born. To move from concept to reality, the first thing Debbie did was investigate pre-made ingredients, but the cost seemed prohibitive. Then she bought ready-made mixes and was less than impressed. “I started playing with recipes that were terrible,” Debbie says, “but that people still have to eat because of their strict biomedical diet. We started experimenting with recipes and came up with products that taste just like foods that contain gluten and casein – except ours don’t. We’ve done a lot of research and development and have several customers who haven’t eaten bread in ten years who are excited because they love our bread.”

Inspiration Mixes launches later this month and its prospects are excellent. “We plan to place products in health food stores by the end of September,” Debbie says. “And we’ve had over 100 people contact us just based on word of mouth. That’s exciting, but we are hesitant to go too far too fast since we’re a small manufacturing facility and the Internet may take us to a level we can’t service. We’ll start out by placing ten or so of our mixes in health food stores and ramp up from there.”

Even though the entrepreneur plans to start small, she has a clear long-term vision. “We’ve seen statistics showing one 1 out of 133 people are diagnosed with celiac disease in the U.S.,” she says. “From what I’m reading, since grains are now genetically engineered our bowels can no longer process it in our system, and that’s why there has been such an increase in this disease.”

“So there are two things we would like to do,” Debbie continues. “Ten percent of children with autism overcome their diagnosis and are never autistic again – that tells me therapy and a biomedical diet are critical. Therapy is expensive, though, and is usually not covered by what we would like to do is become a successful business, make money, and use a portion of those funds to create a trust fund and help families who can’t afford biomedical treatment and therapy. They just want an opportunity to help their children’s lives improve – and we would love to help provide that opportunity.”

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