Founder Stories: Blair Leano- Helvey
Founder Stories are a series of conversations with entrepreneurs and founders in our portfolio where we explore the motivation, inspiration, and innovation that drives the spirit of entrepreneurship in the workplace, as well as provide insight to balance our regular workdays.
In the first installment of our founder stories, we interviewed Gabe Cooper the founder of Virtuous, a portfolio company in our Technology for Social Good area of focus. For this second founder story we reached out to Blair Leano-Helvey, the founder and owner of Entomology Solutions and Idlewild Butterfly Farm. Blair was one of our first Growth Loan recipients and since then has opened a butterfly farm and created a growing biocontrol business.
How would you define entrepreneurship?
Leaving a steady forty hour work week to work eighty hour weeks for less money.
What are some simple mistakes that entrepreneurs make when trying to grow businesses?
Doing everything yourself. Hire an accountant, hire extra help if needed. Also not taking care of yourself. It is easy to go 10-12 hours and not stop for a break or to eat. I force myself to eat before I leave in the morning and I have a schedule where I can leave late morning and spend time with my children then go back and close.
What were you doing before you started Entomology Solutions?
Previously I worked as a surgical assistant in oral and maxillofacial surgery and served tables at night. Then I worked from home when I started Entomology Solutions and also opened a farmer’s market and ran it for four seasons.
What propelled you to create Entomology Solutions?
I always wanted to be in charge of something. My time has always been more valuable to me than money. I like being able to make my own schedule. In terms of biocontrol and raising butterflies, no one was doing it in Kentucky.
What obstacles and barriers did you have to overcome in order to get Entomology Solutions off the ground?
Staying with it. Actually having the debt kept me going too because there was no other way of paying it off. Biocontrol is still an unknown to many commercial growers and homeowners in our state. Educating on the investment of switching to biocontrol and how it positively impacts our environment is key.
What makes Entomology Solutions unique? Is there anything like you in this area?
You have to have a thick skin to be able to deal with growers and their cash crops. Converting can be very difficult in the first year. No one else is here educating on biocontrol. I do have some other businesses that wholesale some of the easier biocontrols in their garden centers.
How did Idlewild Butterfly Farm come about?
I was looking for something else insects related that could be a source of revenue. I raised moths while in school working in insect physiology. I would take monarch butterflies to the farmer’s market to see if there was an interest and I would sell out! There wasn’t any room at our house and I needed a lab that could be easily sanitized to raise healthy insects. Once I was working on the business plan I figured we might as well build out the containment room and lab and become a USDA permitted insectarium.
What’s your favorite bug?
All of them. It’s hard to say. The mantids make great pets and have such personalities.
What kind of satisfaction do you get from working? What part of your job do you enjoy the most?
Again, my time is more valuable than money. It is great to be able to leave to see my child’s school performance and not have to go ask for permission. I enjoy knowing that what I do brings awareness to the importance of insects and isn’t hurting the environment or harming humans. Many people have never witnessed the metamorphosis of caterpillar to butterfly. It is pretty spectacular.
Describe for us the startup culture in Louisville. What are some of the benefits and challenges to being a startup in your area?
Finding capital is always challenging. Being extremely niche is a blessing and a curse. No one really understood what it was that I wanted to do, therefore it was hard to get loans, especially from banks.
What personal rules do you abide by?
I have learned in two years to take care of myself physically. Eat, rest, exercise. Stress in this game can be overwhelming. If there was time, I would have had a nervous breakdown or two. Sometimes you just have to believe that it is a mission and you have to learn to walk before you can run.
Considering everything you’ve learned as an entrepreneur over the years, what advice can you offer to someone who is starting out?
Be smart with your capital. Don’t spend it on frills and fancy displays. Many of our displays were free or came out of a junk heap. Customers want to know that their money is appreciated. Give them bang for their buck. Sometimes just giving a person five minutes and listening can create big results.
Have you thought about your own legacy or what you hope to leave behind?
I hope to leave this world in better shape than it is now for my children and others. That is my wish. It isn’t so much about me as it is about the world we live in.
What’s next for Entomology Solutions? What excites you about the future?
Not sure. My mom said I am like a tumbleweed, just go whichever way the wind blows.
Written by Tim Harris @timharrisphoto