Small Business Month Cyber Forums: Michelle Sparck (KTVA.com Exclusive)
On Monday, May 7, Bethel businesswoman Michelle Sparck was the guest in the first in a series of KTVA.com Facebook forums on entrepreneurship and the state of small businesses in Alaska.
Sparck, who founded skincare company ArXotica in 2006 along with sisters Cika and Amy Sparck, transforms hand-harvested wild Arctic herbs, berries and flowers into high-end facial serums, soaps and other products. The business sells its products worldwide, but remains based in Bethel.
Sparck joined us on May 7 for our first-ever Facebook Town Hall on entrepreneurship. Here's how the conversation went:
Welcome to the first-ever KTVA.com entrepreneurship cyber forum! Michelle Spark of Bethel is here to answer your questions on everything from rural economic development to startups: Six years ago, she co-founded ArXotica, which sells high-end skin care products made from Arctic botanicals. Post your questions here, connect with other entrepreneurs and join the conversation! We'll kick things off: Michelle, where did you find the inspiration for ArXotica, and what's your advice for transforming an idea into an actual business plan?
KTVA Channel 11 News Sparck - excuse us, Michelle...
Michelle Sparck Waqaa, hello! Thanks for having us (I tend to speak in third person plural, being a triplet)
Michelle Sparck The inspiration was in our backyard. Literally. The tundra. Gathering as children and throughout our formative years, the practice, the zen of it, the sustenance it provided was always inspirational.
Michelle Sparck A business plan is what makes your real and serious to outsiders, those that aren't just cheerleading your thoughts and wishes. A business plan, well, it means business and people (by people, we mean banks, investors, etc) tend to respond more to that kind of structure than just dreaming.
Michelle Sparck The Alaska Marketplace is a good resource for those of you wanting to get more structure to gel your idea. They have a good model online and that helps you shape and organize your ideas. But then again, you can get these kinds of resources from the SBA and a lot of Native organizations are offering these kinds of services or incentives.
KTVA Channel 11 News Read more about the Alaska Marketplace at http://www.ktva.com/news/small-business/Competition-Sparks-Growth-for-Alaskan-Small-Businesses-150522965.html
KTVA Channel 11 News Tell us a little about your products, and your research and development process...
Michelle Sparck Now realize, the Alaska Marketplace isn't only for Native businesses, it's designed to spur Rural Development. As long as you are intended to develop jobs and products in rural areas - you can make a go of it.
Michelle Sparck Our products. Well, we informed the world that we wanted to come out with a high end brand name company. We aimed for high quality ingredients, packaging and efficacy. Our mother helped us find a suitable name for that, Quyung-lii, which means, the potent one in Cup'ik. We picked a plant, berry and flower to represent our signature ingredients, then used glacier water from Eklutna and extra virgin salmon oil (for the Omega factor) from a company in Juneau that refines the oil for nutraceutical use. We came out with our debut product, Anti-Aging Skin Serum last March - but have formulated a 4-SKU line for this, a cleanser, toner and moisturizer.
KTVA Channel 11 News ...and speaking of rural development, how have you seen your business affect your home community since inception?
Michelle Sparck Well, it's pretty demanding that jobs are created on a $20,000 win. I know they don't literally expect jobs to happen outside principle sweat equity, but we really feel that economic botany is a growth industry (I guess that's like a pun) and that it can change the face of economy in Western Alaska.
KTVA Channel 11 News Outside of your website, arxotica.com, where you have an international marketplace, how else are you distributing your products?
Michelle Sparck Our efforts to date have been modest village-wise, we have rented boats, paid for gas, outfitted people's regular subsistence activities while hitching our operation with them. But we have donated a lot of product in the last few years for charitable causes, statewide.
KTVA Channel 11 News What type of growth have you seen over the past several years?
Michelle Sparck We don't own any brick and mortar, so we don't have a shop. We are working with Solstice Alaska to relaunch our site and look forward to that functionality. Our trade shows, in conjunction with the Indian Agricultural Council, brings us a lot of traffic, sales and follow-ups/leads. That has helped immensely with our maneuverability and networking. We've done AFN, the RES, NIGA and a lot of other high profile Alaska Native / American Indian venues as they mature in their infrastructure in entertainment and destination sites.
Bob Petersen What has been the most difficult obstacle you've faced to date with the launch of your company - and how do you view your business experience as a blueprint for future rural entrepreneurs?
Michelle Sparck We are slowly getting more business from tribally owned entities across the country, but the Morongo Casino Resort and Spa in Cabazon, CA, near Palm Springs, has become our biggest client.
Michelle Sparck That is not to say we should be considered a tribal product or for that demographic, but it is the most natural entry into that kind of marketplace as they work to support tribally owned or produced products, and let's face it, they've got some top shelf facilities these days.
Kristine Adams Hello Michelle, congratulations on your product line. Can you tell me of the value of the assistance provided by The Alaska Marketplace? Could you have gotten to point you are without them?
Michelle Sparck GCI has been our biggest client in-State too, they've believed in us before we came out with Quyung-lii, they loved our soaps and other merchandise. We were their corporate gifting selection for a year or so.
Michelle Sparck A real coup was to get the attention of Alaska Airlines management, where the brass really felt they should showcase a homegrown idea. We made the May 2012 magazine.
Michelle Sparck Bob Petersen, there's quiet a list of obstacles. Being off the road system for one. But funnily enough, even with our challenging supply chain, the harvesting and then the final manufacturing, was the easiest part of the whole six-year process. It is the little stuff in the middle that can jam you up. There are obvious set-backs in working with outside companies, contract manufacturers and such, we lost almost a ton of water and it set us back six weeks to recoup that effort. If we could make some things easier for rural folks that want to start a business, we'd be happy to give advice. Advice, a valuable thing, is free.
Michelle Sparck Kristine Adams, thank you. Alaska Marketplace had to grow in much the same way their offspring did. Mentorship wasn't necessarily in place at the time we needed it, but the human resources are still bar none. They have very little oversight and depend a lot on your word and your committment, and in that I think it is very supportive, but a little bit more rigidity, cracking the whip, would probably help future recipients.
KTVA Channel 11 News Thirty minutes goes by quickly when you're having fun! Michelle, thank you so much for joining us. We'll have tonight's discussion posted at KTVA.com, make sure to join us next week to chat with Tyler Arnold of SimplySocial.
Bob Petersen Quyana for your answer, one more question: Having mentioned what your obstacle was - what do you envision to be the greatest accomplishment for Arxotica to achieve?
Michelle Sparck Bob Petersen, sustainability would be our greatest accomplishment. We want to be around for a long long time. We want to also leave a mark on Alaska's economy, but not on our resources.
Michelle Sparck Quyana, thank you KTVA for providing this forum and giving a little known company a voice today. : )
Kristine Adams Thank you Michelle, very much enjoyed your answers.