LI sports drink maker Lamar Letts knows a thing or two about the challenges young entrepreneurs face when starting out.
Letts, a former student-athlete at Hewlett High, whose track and field career was cut short in 2012 when he was diagnosed with a heart condition, said his "adventure in entrepreneurship" has been marked by plenty of "learn as you go" moments.
He started beverage company Hylux — maker of "a nutritionally enhanced water" he bills as a healthier alternative to better-known sports drinks — in 2017, while studying business at Northeastern University in Boston.
He said his doctor had instructed him to cut back on sugar and he had grown tired of diluting more sugary beverages with water.
"And I knew other students and other athletes were doing the same thing [diluting beverages with water]. I knew there were a lot of people craving a healthier sports drink," he said.
"That's why I decided to go for it and create it, and I'm glad I did, because it's been a very rewarding journey — but also a journey with lots of challenges."
Some of the obstacles? "Being brushed off [by potential investors], accessing capital, and navigating some of the overall logistics of starting a business, just to name a few," Letts said.
Now, the 27-year-old from Woodmere, whose product is available on his company website and on Amazon, with revenues "in the high six figures," is paying it forward by sharing business tips with others wanting to follow his footsteps.
1. Do your homework
"Even doing a quick Google search about the specific type of business or industry you're interested in can be quite helpful," Letts said. "It's an easy way to get a sense of whether there's a market for your product or service and a place where you can discover resources and eventually connect with people who have done or are currently doing the same business you want to start." Video sites like YouTube are also a great starting point because they feature "a world of content you can consume, watch, re-watch and learn from," he said. In the early days of Hylux, "that's what I did, and it worked for me. It's real people saying 'this is what it's like' and sharing their knowledge on everything from forming an LLC to filing a trademark."
2. Think step, not staircase
"Baby steps are key," he said. Starting a business can easily become overwhelming, "which could tempt many entrepreneurs into wanting to give up," said Letts. "One way to circumvent those emotions is to narrow your focus to the next task." It'll get the ball rolling and with each completed task you'll be that much closer to achieving your goals. "You don't have to create the whole business, the website or the app, all in one day. ... Pinpoint those first logistical steps, like registering the business or maybe drawing out the logo, and get it done." Turning his attention to "one step" versus "the entire staircase" is what's helped him push forward whenever he's hit a rough patch, Letts said.
3. Find a mentor
"I can't stress it enough," he said. "Find a mentor. Find a mentor. Find a mentor." Letts said the help and guidance he received from his mentors during the creation of Hylux has been "an essential part of my journey" as a business owner. "It can be someone who has a similar business or is in a similar industry or someone who's maybe older but has walked a path professionally that allows them to share some kind of 'been there, done that' wisdom with you," he said. Talking about your business goals with a mentor will also help "keep you accountable," said Letts. "It's also really nice and encouraging to be able to bounce ideas back and forth with this person."
4. Connect with your community
For most entrepreneurs, access to capital is a barrier that separates them from their business-ownership dreams. For entrepreneurs of color, getting funding is even more challenging: less than 1% of venture capital-backed founders are Black, according to a study by the Center for Global Policy Solutions, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
"That's why finding your people and connecting with those in your community is so important and can make all the difference," Letts said. "When I was starting Hylux, it was an uphill battle," he said. As a person of color, "I had a hard time with people taking me and the company seriously. I was not given the time of day, let alone funding."
That's when Letts said he "pivoted and redirected my efforts," reaching out to investors of color, organizations that represent entrepreneurs of color and professional associations for Black businesspeople. At Northeastern, he joined the college's Black Student Association and participated in the school's venture accelerator program. "There are people who want to help you," he said. "They are out there. You just need to find them."
In 2017, Letts created a campaign on crowdfunding site Kickstarter that raised about $15,000 to start Hylux. "Many of the donors were people who I met through these programs and organizations, people who look like me and were in my community," he said.