Melinda Williamson started brewing kombucha, the fermented beverage made from green or black tea, for her health. Now she operates Morning Light Kombucha from a 1,700-square-feet brewery in Hoyt, Kansas, and has built business partnerships to sell her effervescent drink on tap at 11 fill stations. She also recently pivoted to offer curbside pickup, as well as doorstep delivery across Topeka, Kansas.
Williamson produces some 100 varieties of kombucha each year, and 90 percent of the ingredients — choke cherries, gooseberries, raspberries, wild blackberries, paw paws — are sourced from around the Prairie Band Potawatomi Reservation in Hoyt, and often foraged by Williamson herself.
Williamson, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, dropped some less conventional yet value-rich business advice for entrepreneurs across Indian Country. Here are her 6 tips:
1) Values First
Williamson reverse-engineered her business focus, starting with her values.
Before she even identified her “what,” she honed in on her “why.”
She developed a foundation for a future business rooted in promoting health, embracing sustainability, and supporting community.
She continuously returns and sources her inspiration and motivation from those core values to persevere in challenging times.
A couple of ways that’s reflected in her business model: When she doesn’t forage her own ingredients, she works with farms to support local agriculture. She also invests in Indian Country through a direct give-back model: a portion of every Morning Light Kombucha sale goes back to Native communities.
2) Invest in Yourself
Launching a business doesn’t always require a massive investment. If you’re committed, you’ll find ways.
Williamson started Morning Light Kombucha with $5,000 in seed money from her personal savings. (Read about her background in reptile and amphibian behavior, medicinal plants and soil microbial labs in this Native Business article.)
Because she has been reinvesting all Morning Light’s profits back into the business, she has maintained a job at her Tribe’s language department to pull a steady income. Sometimes it takes balancing a job with entrepreneurship before you’re ready to go all-in with your business.
3) Start Small, Scale Up
Wiliamson started brewing just 14-gallons at a time. “I had two small, seven-gallon fermenters, and I had a SCOBY that I had been using that was given to me by a friend,” she said.
Pretty quickly after launching, Wiliamson acquired two 20-gallon fermenters. Then she purchased a couple of 55-gallon fermenters at $1,000 a pop, and a 200-gallon fermenter that typically has a $2,000 price tag.
Williamson, though, is known to hustle to find a good deal. “The most I’ve ever paid for a fermenter is around $1,700,” she said. “They’re expensive for a small business like mine.”
Now Morning Light Kombucha operates in a 1,700-square-feet brewery. “We have the capacity to brew about 820 gallons at a time,” she said.
Multiplying keg by keg, she quickly grew her stock.
4) Own Your Distinction as a Native American Business
Morning Light Kombucha boasts the trademark “Made/Produced by American Indians” through the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC).
The trademark serves as a means to successfully and clearly identify actual American Indian products, and it verifies Morning Light Kombucha’s authenticity and credibility.
The IAC currently counts over 500 licensed trademark users and growing.
5) Network to Expand
As part of the Intertribal Agricultural Council’s American Indian Foods Program, she went to the National Restaurant Association’s trade show in Chicago last year.
At the trade show, she received enormous interest from people interested in helping her grow Morning Light Kombucha.
She’s revving up to expand her team and geographical distribution, and will leverage those contacts to scale.
6) Think Outside the Box (or Bottle)
Williamson doesn’t see a future in bottling because her reservations and others lack glass recycling. This all goes back to her core value of sustainability.
But she’s not letting that stop her business expansion. She sees tremendous potential in canning, and cans are recyclable.
“Once we start canning, I’d like to see us work with other Tribes who want our products,” Williamson said. “I’d like to work with them to identify and harvest something traditional from their Tribe. Whether it’s chamomile or sage or roasted corn, I want to find something we’re able to bring back and use to create something for their community.”