PERSISTENCE OF BELIEF

PERSISTENCE OF BELIEF

From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

Persistence of Belief

Starting a company taught me, if nothing else, that the less money you have, the more patience you need. My family and I learned with practically no advertising or marketing funds that it takes a long time to establish a brand and gain popularity. It was undoubtedly the persistence of my own belief in Dippin’ Dots® ice cream that allowed me to direct my entrepreneurial endeavor from the start to where it is today.

I grew up on a farm near the small town of Grand Chain, which rests along the Ohio River at the southern tip of Illinois. Being a farm boy taught me that farming is actually an entrepreneurial activity, because it involves tremendous patience, a strong work ethic and personal risk.

I can remember my dad teaching me how to drive our “H” Farmall tractor when I was only seven years old. My job was to haul corn from the old barn to the new barn where we fed the livestock. A few years later, I made and sold brooms with a friend, crafted from my family’s broom corn and broom-making equipment. We also raised chickens, and I sold eggs at my school for fifty cents a dozen. During the summer months my friends and I baled and hauled hay and straw for extra money.

In school, my interests centered around science. Based on the advice of my college chemistry teacher, I pursued a career in pre-med. After moving from Shawnee Community College to Southern Illinois University in 1979, I thought I was ready to pursue medicine. Right as school started, a friend talked me into another agribusiness. We combined our efforts to raise pigs, but timing was everything, and ours wasn’t good. Pork prices fell dramatically, and so did my grades. I clearly remember missing eight classes in one week just to manage our farm.

My life was due a major turning point. As my pig farm business crumbled, I sat depressed in my home (a mobile home on rented property, where my rent was two fat hogs every six months), searching for a career direction. I picked up the Yellow Pages and under the heading of Physicians I saw a list of hundreds of names. I asked myself, Was becoming a doctor really for me? Was it what I really wanted to do? Because it was nearly impossible to catch up with the rigor of my pre-med classes, my answer was “no.” From that point on I devoted my studies to microbiology and its agricultural implementations.

After graduation, I taught at a local prison. The subject was ethanol production, which appeared to be a booming business for agricultural communities in the early 1980s. By this time I was a family man and was, of course, looking for opportunities for advancement. I accepted a job at Alltech, Inc., a Lexington, Kentucky-based biotechnology lab specializing in the enhancement of cattle feed. The focus of my lab work in college had centered around a building block of protein called lysine. Lysine is made from bacterial cultures and subsequently converted into a dried powder. This powder is then mixed into feed to satisfy an animal’s requirement for protein.

At Alltech we were growing bacterial cultures for another reason. The “good” bacteria were grown in large cultures, frozen, freeze-dried into a powder, then given to farm animals to ward off “bad” bacteria in a natural way as opposed to using antibiotics. Because it is very important to preserve the freshness and structural integrity of the bacteria, the cultures had to be frozen rapidly. Through a cryogenic freezing process, I eventually was able to freeze the bacterial cultures almost instantly, in pelletized form. Little did I know how those pellets would change my life.

One afternoon, my family and I were making homemade ice cream when it occurred to me that using my same freezing system from the lab might also preserve ice cream’s freshness and flavor. So I experimented. Initially I was interested in maintaining a better flavor, but remarkably, the process turned the ice cream into tiny spheres that held their shape. After my friends and family took the first taste tests with good results, I became enthusiastic about once again starting my own business.

Eventually, my family and I started what we would later name Dippin’ Dots®. In March 1988, we proudly opened our very first store in Lexington. During our first year in business, we learned how to run the operation the right way by doing everything the wrong way. For example, our store was on the wrong side of town, so we broke even at best, but could not draw a salary to live on. We basically survived on credit cards. Customers were few and far between, and our only advertising was through word-of-mouth and random feature stories in the local media.

The next year, doors began to open. The now-defunct Opryland Theme Park in Nashville, Tennessee, agreed to let us set up a store in the park. Our location was next to a roller coaster! Needless to say, people didn’t particularly want to fill their stomachs before or after being twirled through the air!

For the first two years we struggled. Then one day I received a letter from Opryland saying essentially, “We like you and your product, but come remove your equipment.” There it was, printed in black and white. Our endeavor had failed.

Yet we persisted. After renegotiating with Opryland, they gave us a second chance, away from the roller coasters and near the petting zoo. Business remained slow but we made the best of being in the park. We were also allowed to sell outside the booth, so away I would go on my specially built bicycle cart, pushing a freezer, ringing a bell and convincing visitors they just had to try this new ice cream!

Our biggest break came in 1992 when we opened up a shop at the Kennedy Space Center. There we became known as the “Ice Cream of the Future®” and gained much more exposure. Following this success, locations sprang up in other amusement parks, malls and stadiums, and we slowly developed a loyal following.

Fast forward to today. Dippin’ Dots has locations nationwide and around the globe. Our product line has expanded and, through franchising, people actually pay us for the rights to sell our ice cream! Now, sometimes, when we’re faced with the pressure of a big decision, someone will jokingly say, “Relax, it’s just ice cream.” Maybe so, but to us, it’s a whole lot more.

We persisted. We believed.

Curt Jones
with John Paul Penrod

EPILOGUE: Curt Jones, founder and chairman of Dippin’ Dots, has continued to invest his creative energy into his newest entrepreneurial enterprise—Amylase Entertainment.

Amylase (pronounced “Am-i-lace”) is a music publishing and artist management company based in Nashville, Tennessee, that has just recently broken into the film business. Quite unconventionally, Amylase publishes and pitches feature-film screenplays written by staff writers. While this creative process is reminiscent of old Hollywood, it more closely mimics the Nashville music industry model of pitching songs created by songwriters.

The name Amylase was derived from Jones’s keen knowledge of microbiology. According to Jones, amylase is a biological enzyme that functions as a catalyst. A catalyst helps change other substances without changing itself in the process. Curt has managed to stay grounded and true to his roots during the successful growth years at Dippin’ Dots and hopes for the same with his new company.

To learn more about Curt Jones and Dippin’ Dots, please visit www.dippindots.com, or contact Amylase Entertainment on Music Row in Nashville or at www.amylase.com .

Dahlynn McKowen

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