The accidental entrepreneurs
You might call Keeley Tillotson and Erika Welsh accidental entrepreneurs.
The University of Oregon sophomores are the founders of Flying Squirrel Peanut Butter, a fledgling food business that’s quickly taking off, both on and off campus.
One cold, rainy afternoon in January, in the apartment they share off campus, they took a bag of peanuts and ground them up in a food processor. It was a case of hunger being the mother of invention.
“We ran out of peanut butter,” Welsh said.
But they weren’t content with plain old peanut butter, so they started adding stuff they had in the pantry: cinnamon, raisins, chocolate. Then they went back to the store for more peanuts, more flavors, and some jars. They came up with the name, designed labels and started sharing their concoctions with friends.
“Other people said, you have something here,” Welsh said.
One night in February, Tillotson bought a domain name (www.flyingsquirrelpeanutbutter.com), designed a Web site and opened a Pay Pal account. Then she created a Facebook page for Flying Squirrel Peanut Butter and started spreading the word among friends.
“It blew up,” she said.
The next morning, the Facebook page had 600 views, and they got their first three orders.
They sell five different flavors of peanut butter, each featuring a different combination of flavors. Spazzy Squirrel, for instance, has nutmeg, cinnamon, coconut, raisins and chocolate chunks.
“We’re filling a niche we didn’t know existed,” Tillotson said. “We never intended it to be a business.”
Just before spring break, they sent some samples to a food blogger with 10,000 followers. Kath Eats Real Food raved about Flying Squirrel on her blog, and soon the orders started pouring in. They set up a booth at the spring ASUO Street Faire on campus, handing out samples and selling jars to a steady stream of customers.
Neither Welsh nor Tillotson are studying business at the UO. Welsh is majoring in environmental studies and Spanish; Tillotson is studying journalism. When they run into problems, they’ll seek out a business professor for advice, or consult Google.
And they said they have big ambitions for Flying Squirrel.
“We have so much faith in our product,” Welsh said. “Everyone who has tried has loved it.”
They’ve gone from making their peanut butter in their apartment to renting out a commercial kitchen. Eugene-based Market of Choice has expressed interest in stocking their peanut butter, and they’re looking into getting booth space at Saturday Market.
“In 10 years, I see myself as CEO of a peanut butter company,” Tillotson said. “I see this as my future job.”
“This will somehow be in our lives,” Welsh said. “Maybe a café. Maybe Flying Squirrel ice cream.”
They’re also experiencing the pressures that go along with operating a growing concern. Operating a growing business while also being full-time students and competing in athletics — Welsh rows crew and Tillotson is on triathlon club team —can be “overwhelming,” Welsh said.
“It goes in waves,” said Tillotson said. “Our friends will say, ‘We’re going out; what are you guys doing?’ Making peanut butter.”