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Senior Correspondent

Amy Wilkinson is an entrepreneurship scholar with endless credentials. She studies the leadership skills of entrepreneurs to understand what makes them tick … and what makes them succeed. In a keynote speech given to the Federal Reserve Board earlier this year, Amy Wilkinson (who is also a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School) said we need to “foster entrepreneurship in America” to help jump-start the economy.

She talked about the whiz-kid innovators who have come out of her alma mater, Stanford University, and who have peopled Silicon Valley for the past twenty years: Google’s Sergei Brin, Pierre Omidyar at eBay, Jerry Yang at Yahoo and so many others. In her talk, Amy identified the six characteristics these “high-impact” entrepreneurs all share which allowed them to build their businesses to mega millions in sales, hiring vast numbers of employees in the process.

America’s Real Concern

Yet during the Q&A session after her address, the topic shifted to how manufacturing, when it came back, would not look quite as it did before 2008. And the main question was what to do with all the people who lost their jobs and who still had many productive years left before them.

Retraining with new skills is one option.

But, especially with the sluggish return of the economy and jobs, it’s more likely that a large percentage of those people would find themselves starting up some kind of business. And in that case, as I see it, what would be most valuable would be to provide accessible and affordable training in the fundamentals of business, which none of us got in school.

The evidence that people are turning more and more to business start-ups already exists. So while the first thing you think when you think “entrepreneur” is a techno-20-year-old starting a business in his or her dorm room, Amy Wilkinson cited the statistic that the average age of someone starting a business today is 40.

And, to me that sounds about right. What I see all around me, in small offline and online start-ups, on forums, and at conferences and meet-ups, is a deluge of people scurrying to get something started. Whether to supplement an existing job, as a hedge against losing a job, as a replacement for a spouse’s lost job or just as a way to feel at least a little bit of control over their lives, people are starting businesses. Whether they are natural entrepreneurs or not.

But Do They Have the Skills?

Many are jumping in feet first and could greatly benefit from some simple courses in basic strategy, accounting, marketing, hiring and government reporting. But with that sheer perseverance Americans are famous for, even those who are short on skills are figuring things out the best they can, inhaling every bit of information available on the internet.

I see all skill levels. I see everything from pie-in-the-sky to hardened realists. I see some that will likely never get anywhere … usually because the product or service they chose to offer does not truly fulfill a need their potential customers would be willing to pay them for.

And every so often, I see an ember that’s been nurtured and fanned for a while now … and that suddenly starts to burn. And that’s the case of Mari Ann Lisenbe and her MariGold Bars.

The New Entrepreneur

Mari Ann and I are part of a foursome that met for two years as an every-Friday-morning “Breakfast Mastermind Call.” I knew Mari Ann had taken her IT background at Hewlett Packard and combined it with her passion for nutrition and healthy bodies. The result was a terrific fitness program that included a series of yoga-based exercises she had developed, an eating plan she had designed and motivational brain-training videos she had produced. All of it original.  Unique. And effective.

In her mid-50s, Mari Ann was the poster child for how well all the pieces worked together, and she enthusiastically taught courses locally as she built out a beautiful website. Once launched online, she tested pricing. She tested different packages of services. Membership or one-time payment? More brain-trainings. Contacting local radio shows to get PR. Tapping into the Christian market. More and better videos. Online advertising, PPC and FaceBook ads. And, no matter what she did, she couldn’t get enough traction that would indicate she had a solid success on her hands.

Every stumble led to a new approach. Every failure lasted just long enough to get past the frustration and try something else.

And as she continued with her local classes and her steady base of customers, she kept hearing one thing: “Can you recommend a good gluten-free protein bar?” And she couldn’t.

The Golden Opportunity

I remember the day Mari Ann first said she was going to find the right ingredients, which none of the larger bar manufacturers were using. She was going to try to make her own bars. I heard about what kind of cows the whey had to come from. She researched and sourced ingredient by ingredient. She made sure her bars tasted sinfully delicious, while being perfectly healthy for you. And she started sharing with friends and customers.

As demand grew, her husband Steve joined in the effort and together they started teaching themselves about manufacturing and distribution. Contract kitchens were out because of potential gluten contamination. So they built their own facility, boned up on FDA product and packaging requirements and studied to get certified as food manufacturers.

Mari Ann and Steve are bootstrapping this business because they want to keep control over their own destiny. And in the absence of easy bank loans, they’re using cloud funding through Kickstarter to purchase the next critical piece of production equipment. (Go ahead and check out their fun Kickstarter video.)

They are now in full marketing mode and are contacting all of the influencers in the healthy foods category. The response they are getting … plus all the people who are suddenly contacting them about investing against a piece of the action … tells me this is going to be one successful start-up!

Why? Because they found something that people were actually seeking … without success. They went above and beyond in fulfilling people’s expectations. They became experts in every aspect of the industry. They didn’t cut corners. They never took no for an answer as they hit obstacle after obstacle. They had a clear strategy. They kept their costs to a minimum and used creativity in place of dollars wherever they could. Today they’re in the catbird seat.

Mari Ann and Steve Lisenbe are doing their part to jump-start the economy.

Let us know in the comments section below what service you’re offering your potential clients and what makes it unique. And, if you’d like to be part of another successful start-up (in exchange for some yummy gluten-free protein bars with names like Chocolate Praline and Healthy Addiction), click over to their MariGold Bar Kickstarter page and make a pledge!

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