I recently had an opportunity to interview Ninotchka Johnson (of Brown Mills, New Jersey), who took first place, winning $10,000 for her handbag and accessories company, Top Notch by Design. Her fashion-savvy business idea led from selling her handbags at work to a storefront inside of a mobile bus.
As a wife, mother of two and a full-time instructor at a special needs preschool, she is driven with passion, creativity and persistence.
Take an inside look at Ninotchka’s winning experience, business insight and advice for entrepreneurs:
1. How did you hear about the Start Something Challenge? “I vended at an event in North Jersey. And, one of the vendors was Nicole Silva, who won second place last year. I just bought her oils and loved them. I went on her Facebook and liked her on Facebook. At that time, she was in the process of going through the challenge herself, so I also went on the (SSC) page and liked them on Facebook. The following year, when Rising Tide Capital opened registration for the competion, I signed myself up. I saw another small business that did vending events and crafts shows who did very well in the competition, so it made it very feasible that I could also enter and maybe do well.”
2. How did you develop the concept for the 6-minute video pitch? “Um, it was hard. I basically pointed out the things that were most important to me or what I thought were important to my brand. So I made sure that they knew who I was. I was the face behind the handmade bags and I wanted them to see a couple of my products. I thought seeing the bus and the interior of the bus was really important.”
3. What strategy or technique did you use to market your business pitch? “I used a lot of social networks. Social networks is huge. I ran my business entirely off of Facebook for the first (3) years. So, I really put myself out there on my social networks. They know what inspires me. They see my ridiculous sense of humor. They know I’m up at 3:00 in the morning selling because I’m posting what I’m making at that time, so I really try to let them get to know me through my social networks. And in turn, they started sending me their pictures on vacation with their Top Notch bags or at work with their Top Notch bags or the park with their kids. So they also became a really huge part of the brand.”
4. What was the most challenging part of the competition? “Asking for help. [Laugh] I tend to do everything myself. I’m very stubborn. I don’t mind putting in 20 hour day if it means that I’m getting it done myself. It was very hard to me during the voting process, viewing of the video in every stage of every competition and for me to reach out to everybody to actually ask for help. I couldn’t do it myself. I couldn’t watch the video myself. I couldn’t go on and on by myself. So, I was probably dependent on my support system including the people around me and the people who followed me online. To help get me through the first two stages of the competition, I actually literally had to ask for help. Which was very hard. Um, [pause] but [pause] yeah, it showed me that asking for help isn’t always so bad. And, it helps you move forward. I was actually surprised by the people that went to bat for me and came out and was willing to help. So, it was just really me being stubborn and determined. Working so hard for the business myself, I never really thought to ask for help. So, that was the most challenging part of the entire thing.”
5. Describe the feeling when you won. “Um.” [Pause] “Shocked!” [Laugh] “I was totally shocked. Because when you’re in the middle of your verbal pitch. I sort of had an outer body experience. There’s part of it that I don’t really remember. I thought I missed a lot of things that I wanted to say. So, I wasn’t really sure how I did because it was really hard to gauge because everybody else did so well. So, yeah I was shocked. [laugh] It went from shock to fighting back tears.”
6. How do you plan to use the $10,000 cash prize? “I’m spending it on upgrades for the bus. I also want to upgrade the heating and air conditioning inside. The rest is going to upgrade the workspace because I’ve been a one woman show for so long. My work area doesn’t support that. It’s really just built for one person to be working and one person to be selling. If the business continues to grow at the rate that it’s growing, I’m going to need to hire help. And, that’s where I will need to get some more work done. So, the money will be spent for upgrades.”
7. What advice would you give entrepreneurs who have a desire to register for the competition next year? “Do your research. Know the ins and outs of your business. Know exactly what it is that you’re going to spend the money on. Really start building your social networks now. So, when it’s time to start looking for help with votes, you will already have a fan base in place and you will have a network of people set up that will be willing to help you.”
Literally, five minutes prior to this interview, she launched her new website online. Her road to success is definitely a bright one. You can expect to see more exciting creations from Ninotchka.
To find out more, visit her website at: www. TopNotchbyDesign.com
Connect and like her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/TopNotchbyDesign