A Small Part of a Small Business Can Be a Big Idea
Entrepreneur|Startups Fall - Winter 2021
Lisa Tran’s parents (right) escaped a Communist regime and built a small restaurant in America. Now she wants to reinvent it by building a business based solely on their sauces. Her mom thinks she’s crazy—and maybe she is. But some of the greatest brands were built in much the same way.
By Frances Dodds

I still remember the first time somebody tasted one of our sauces and said, ‘Ugh, not for me,’ ” Lisa Tran says. It was 2017, and Tran had just made one of the biggest, most emotionally wrought decisions of her life. She’d created a line of Vietnamese sauces based on beloved family recipes, despite her parents’ disapproval, and set out to become an entrepreneur. That meant handing out a lot of samples in a lot of supermarkets, where she felt raw and vulnerable. So when this one customer just wrinkled her nose and walked away—leaving a half-eaten cup on the counter—it was a breakdown moment for Tran.

“I went to the bathroom and cried,” she says. “People can be so blunt, and I couldn’t help taking it personally, because our family—well, the sauces we make are so personal.”

The business will always feel personal for entrepreneurs, but for Tran’s family, it is the culmination of many life-or-death choices and a tension over what exactly their American dream looks like. Tran is 40 and was born in a refugee camp. Her parents, Mai Nguyen and Vinh Tran escaped Vietnam in the 1970s and have operated out of necessity ever since. They opened a Vietnamese restaurant when Tran was in high school but never wanted their daughter to join that business; they wanted her to be a doctor and have financial security.

Tran tried to follow her parents’ wishes. She applied to medical school but wasn’t accepted. “My brain is not wired for science,” she says. Eventually, with her parents’ help, she opened a second location of their restaurant, which at least provided for a steady income. But then she became pregnant with twins. The restaurant’s 14-hour days were draining. That’s when she started thinking about sauces. Her family’s restaurant made its own sauces, and customers raved about them—her mom’s hot chili sauce was the most popular, but people also loved their peanut, hoisin, and fish sauces. Maybe, just maybe, the sauces weren’t a feature of their business. What if they were the business?

Tran’s parents were not happy about that idea.

“My mom couldn’t stand the financial uncertainty of it,” Tran says. “She was like, ‘You have kids, you are running this restaurant, this is a pipe dream. I don’t see any money coming in. At least at the restaurant, you have a paycheck every day.’”

But Tran was starting to think like an entrepreneur, and that’s a hard thing to turn off. A small part of their small business, she realized, might actually be the seed of a very big thing.

In fact, that’s how some of the world’s biggest brands were built.

“A classic example of this is Mailchimp,” says Erdin Beshimov, senior director of MIT Open Learning and a cocreator of MIT’s first massive open online course on entrepreneurship. That company began as a full-service web- design shop. The founders built an email automation tool for one customer and eventually realized they’d built something infinitely easier to scale— and worth going all-in on.

Burt’s Bees did it, too. The company began as a beekeeping business to make honey, but then one of the partners started selling candles made from the leftover beeswax, and its entire model shifted. Patagonia’s story is the same: It began as a small climbing equipment company until it discovered a huge opportunity in a single product line— shirts for climbing.

So, yes, Tran’s thinking echoes many of the great entrepreneurs before her. But identifying the “small” part of a small business is one thing. Actually turning it into a big business is quite another.

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