Hello, and welcome to our “Meet the Innovation Client” blog!
Our SOAR Innovation Team has been working hard to get to know and help small, local businesses and startups throughout the Eastern Kentucky region and although our team knows all the fun facts about their clients, we want to share their unique stories with YOU!
Each month, our SOAR Innovation team will be selecting one innovation client whom they have been working closely with so that readers, like you, can get to know these client’s story and give them the chance to share their advice with you or others who might feel the entrepreneurship bug.
Did we say bug?…
We know an entrepreneur who knows all about that!
We sat down with a bold entrepreneur and the latest winner of the 2023 Startup Appalachia Pitch Competition, T.J. Rayhill who created Bluegrass Crickets, an organic cricket farm to help create food for … wait for it … human consumption!
That’s right, you can eat crickets all bred and made here right in Eastern Kentucky!
But enough BUGGING around – let’s get to meet this month’s Meet the Innovation Client.
Q&A Session with T.J. Rayhill – The Cricket Whisperer
Q: Provide an overview of your background and what inspired you to become an entrepreneur and start your own company.
A: Growing up my grandpa would buy preloved treasures from auctions/yard sales and resell them at flea markets. I spent plenty of my Saturdays and Sundays at a flea market booth helping him. I always think about that as one of my first entrepreneurial experiences.
As I grew up I can also recall going to summer camp one year and taking a ton of sodas, candy, etc, and selling them in the dorm after hours.
In eighth grade I had my dad video all our football games- at the end of the season, I sold the DVDs to my teammates.
In college, our small town did not have a bookstore so my sophomore year I decided I would change that. At one point I had over 10,000 books in my small traditional dorm room.
All these stories would make you think I decided to major in business, but alas I felt called to teach.
In 2018 I graduated from Campbellsville U. with a Bachelor of Science in Middle Grades Science Education and a Bachelor of Science in Biology with a minor in High School Education. I wanted to make a difference in my community and I felt at that time traditional teaching was the way to do that.
Q: What was the initial idea or concept behind your business, and how did it come about?
In 2019, I went to Goshen College to obtain my master’s in environmental education.
During one of my classes, we were asked to select an environmental issue and come up with a solution. Among others, food insecurity was featured.
Growing up in a single-parent household I understood food insecurity but never understood it as an environmental issue. Because of that, I thought it would be fascinating to research that and come up with a solution.
During the research, I came across the idea of eating insects.
Now, we always hear people joke about accidentally eating a bug being a good source of protein. The research I did points to this being an actual plausible solution to food insecurity, especially from an environmentally sustainable perspective.
After doing this research I knew I wanted a business raising crickets eventually.
After the struggle with running the bookstore, I knew how tough it was to build and run a niche business in rural Kentucky.
I began looking for ways I could be “part of the solution” without having to be the face of the solution.
I found a company called Cowboy Crickets out of Montana. They were looking for partner farmers, essentially small-scale cricket farmers interested in raising crickets for human consumption. Cowboy crickets would take those crickets and process them into human-grade food. They would handle all the marketing and sales.
In my head, this would be a perfect fit. I moved forward working with them but knew it would take some time.
I started teaching to provide cash flow while I built the cricket farm in a commercial building we had purchased.
Flash forward 3 months and the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The COVID pandemic and family issues caused Cowboy Crickets to close down, and it left me in a weird position.
Around this time, I met my mentor, Kevin Bucher, who recommended crickets for the bait/pet industry and raised crickets for human consumption as a sideline item.
For a few months, we tossed this idea around and started to look at building out space in our building.
In 2020 Jeff Collins reached out to me through Kevin and proposed selling his business to me. We kicked around multiple options, sought funding, and negotiated for multiple months, and finally, in Fall 2022 he reached back out to me and accepted my offer.
I officially took over Jan 2023. Bluegrass Feeders, based in the heart of Kentucky, carries forward the distinguished legacy of the Henderson Cricket Farm, the state’s first commercial cricket farm.
Today, we channel our passion and dedication into providing high-quality, organic crickets, offering optimal nutrition for your beloved pets. As reptile enthusiasts ourselves, we’re intimately acquainted with the unique dietary needs of these creatures, and we ensure our crickets are clean, active, and nutrient-rich.
While crickets are our specialty, our vision encompasses much more. We are expanding our offerings to include a variety of feeder insects and are venturing into a line of crickets for human consumption.
Through our commitment to growth, innovation, and competitive pricing, we aim to redefine standards in the pet feed industry. At Bluegrass Feeders, we offer nothing but the best – because your pet deserves it.
Q: Can you describe the early days of your startup? What were the biggest challenges you faced during the launch phase?
A: Per our acquisition agreement, Jeff was hands-on with me 7 days a week for the first 3 months. During that time I was just trying to act like a sponge as much as possible.
Jeff carried 10 years of direct experience in the industry and I wanted to gather as much info as possible. I had ideas of things to change but I wanted to know how and why Jeff did it the way he did.
After the first 3 months, Jeff still works on a contract basis for taking care of certain chores around the farm since the farm is still on his property.
The biggest struggle we have faced is getting lenders to buy into our vision. Even though the live cricket business has a strong 10+ years of tax returns, and a strong demand we struggle with getting lenders to see that there is money to be made.
Q: Were there any key moments or experiences that motivated you to take the leap and start your own business?
A: I hated teaching and having a boss. I needed to do my own thing and I needed to do something that would be unique.
Q: What were the first steps you took to turn your idea into a reality, and how did you secure funding (if applicable)?
A: I worked with Jeff to self-finance his business. We could not find a traditional lender to lend the money to buy the business so Jeff finally accepted the idea to self-finance the business.
We are now looking for financing for the expansion of our building.
Q: Entrepreneurship often involves taking risks, can you share a significant risk you took early in your journey and how it turned out?
A: Owning a bookstore at 19 and opening a used bookstore in a college town was a huge risk. I often had to work a second job to make ends meet. Three years after I exited at a price that essentially caused me to break even.
In November 2019, we purchased our commercial building, which was a gift shop and tanning salon. We renovated it and eventually opened it as a restaurant and gift shop.
Our restaurant is vibing now and making more money than the gift shop. In the spur of the month, June 2023 we acquired a donut shop (business + rental location).
After three months we ended our lease and moved everything to our main restaurant due to lack of sales. Everything we do, every day is a risk. We make good decisions and we make bad decisions. Money is tight at times.
Being able to ride this wave with my life/business partner, Andrew, is so rewarding.
Q: What has been your most rewarding accomplishment as a founder so far?
A: During the COVID-19 pandemic, we never closed our doors. We provided masks, mask clips, and sanitizer to customers all over the country.
Although more rewarding than that I think is growing our business enough that it can support Andrew and me without needing to get a second job.
Q: On the flip side, can you talk about a specific setback or failure you encountered and how you overcame it?
A: I have been turned down four times for loans. Often the rejection letters provide generic reasons.
However, we recently received a rejection that just took all the work we did for that lender, threw it in our faces, and made us feel worthless.
We bounce back by realizing they are not evaluating the merit of our business holistically but rather against their arbitrary guidelines and lending culture.
Keep plugging away and eventually, we will land on something that works.
Q: Building a business can be mentally and emotionally taxing, how do you manage stress and maintain your motivation during the tough times?
A: Within the first six months of 2023, I took over the cricket farm, got 2 new dogs (a total of 6), became a foster dad, acquired the donut shop, and subsequently closed the donut shop’s location, all while running the gift shop and restaurant.
There are plenty of moments where stress can get to you.
Knowing when and how to relax is critical.
For me, I like to read and spend time with friends.
While teaching I had to take anxiety medication to help manage my stress and I think now even with the extra stressors I can manage it without medication, but don’t take that as a put-down.
Mental health matters and if you need meds then do it!
Q: How did you go about assembling your initial team, and what qualities do you look for in the people you work with?
A: We are a one-person team at the moment however we are looking for a farm manager and several staff members when we are expanding. We are still trying to formulate our descriptions
Q: What role has mentorship played in your entrepreneurial l journey, and do you have any advice for aspiring founders on seeking mentorship?
A: I have several mentors and they provide feedback on different parts of my business. Entrepreneurial life can be lonely- having people who understand key aspects of what you are going through and can provide feedback is critical.
Find someone you click with. If your mentor is worth their salt they will tell you things that you won’t like- if you don’t jive with the person you probably won’t constructively receive that feedback.
Q: How do you prioritize work-life balance as a founder and what strategies do you use to maintain it?
A: I have always struggled with this.
I have a lot of ADHD tendencies and sometimes ‘doom-scrolling’/ ‘doom-working’ takes over the majority of my night.
I have a hard time turning my to-do list off.
When my anxiety got bad and I had to begin taking the medication my partner (who does a wonderful job at leaving work at work) told me I needed to turn it off when I got home.
In the years since that conversation I can say I am not perfect (I am working on this on my couch in my off-brand snuggie) but I am so much better at leaving work at work.
Q: What do you believe sets your business apart from competitors, and what is your long-term vision for the company?
A: The institutional knowledge my company has is unparalleled to insect farms in the state of Kentucky.
We have 25+ years of experience wrapped into my business- not a single other business in Kentucky and few in the U.S. can make that same claim. There are also aspects like we check on our crickets daily, and we feed high-quality organic food that we feel sets us apart.
Moving forward I want my business to be the sole provider of feeder insects to every bait/pet store and zoo’s in our state and eventually region.
I also hope to employ a team of 20+ people and work to make insect protein a stable protein source.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs who are just starting their journey?
Never give up. Things get tough, business has its ups and downs but never, ever give up. If you believe in your vision Fight and find a way.
Q: As a business built in Appalachia, what is your favorite part of being a business in EKY? What barriers have you faced and how did you overcome them?
I love being in Eastern Kentucky for the same reason it has been hard. Being an LGBT business owner who wants you to eat crickets has created quite the controversy in some circles but on the flip side the amount of people who have linked arms with me to propel me forward has been amazing.
I would not have the support of Invest 606, SOAR, or numerous other organizations anywhere in the world.
Maybe you don’t have your business idea plan set in stone or maybe you’ve been wondering if your business is ready for the next step.
You can reach out to our SOAR Innovation Team to help you find out your next steps.
Our Innovation team members, appropriately called Champions, begin to identify challenges small business owners or entrepreneurs might be facing. Just as important, they help identify and seize opportunities WITH small businesses and entrepreneurs.
This is done through a variety of direct services.
- Business Ideation
- Financial Forecasting
- Google Verification
- Website Fundamentals
- Digital Media and Marketing
Reach out to our SOAR Innovation Team members today!
Ready for the next step?
Apply for the 2024 Startup Appalachia Pitch Competition!
Do you have Appalachia Kentucky’s next big idea?
We want to hear it… and we want to fund it.
Thanks to the generosity of Community Trust Bancorp, we will award nearly $20,000 in cash prizes with first-place taking home $10,000!
Finalists also get to take home $500.
Who is eligible for the competition?
The business must be a startup based in one of the 54 ARC KY Counties.
- A Startup is defined as a concept or existing business financed by its founders that is attempting to attract outside investment.
- An existing business cannot be more than 5 years old.
- Must have a product or service that has an e-commerce or exporting focus.
The competition is planned for April 11, 2023, and the location is yet to be determined (TBD).
But don’t let that date fool you, the deadline to APPLY is coming up soon!
The deadline to apply is December 31, 2023. We know that applying for a pitch competition can be a little intimidating. It doesn’t have to be and we are here to help.
You can apply HERE.
A quick note from Director of Business and Innovation, Sabrina McWhorter.
“Entrepreneurship in Eastern Kentucky is thriving! Each week, our team meets with innovative individuals who are pushing the limits, and not afraid to try new things. We encourage you to think outside the box and take the first step. Our team is ready and excited to hear about that idea that’s been keeping you up late at night. There are so many wonderful resources in Kentucky to help you along the way, and we would be honored to help you navigate those waters.”
For more information
Got questions? Contact Sabrina McWhorter, Director of Business and Innovation, at firstname.lastname@example.org.