E-Commerce Down on the Farm: Michelle Frain

The Face of Farming’s Future: Mike Azzara

ETI Deadlines Approach

New Tele-Classes for Entrepreneurs

Corrections or additions?

These articles by Kathleen McGinn Spring were prepared for the January 28, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Multimedia Family Set to Make Hamster a Star: Pat Corbitt

Hampton Hampster is joy in a little fur suit. He is also a cross-over phenomenon. Born on the Internet as the lead character on the Hampster Dance website (www.hampsterdance.com), he is set to star in two DVDs, a television series, and a full-length feature film.

The cartoon hamster, who spells his name with a “p,” sings, or really hums, an infectious little tune while twirling, little paws reaching to the sky, as his buddies gyrate and execute springy jumps in kick-lines around him. The unlikely performance has lifted the spirits of tens of millions of Internet surfers in 125 countries around the globe.

Hampton’s latest CD, Happy Times Ten, is a hit. Pat Corbitt, who is deep into a number of Hampton projects, says the little fellow’s tune is among the top 10 favorites on XM radio, the new satellite system, and is among the top 20 favorites on Disney radio. While the famous hamster appears in only two dimensions on his website, which gets 20 million hits a month, Corbitt is bringing a fully animated, three dimensional Hampton to the next meeting of the Princeton Media Communications Association. [As we were going to press, the meeting, originally scheduled for Wednesday, January 28, at 7 p.m. at Sarnoff, was rescheduled for Wednesday, February 25, due to slippery weather condition.]. Save the date. The evening is being billed as “To Infinity! And Beyond!!! With New Jersey’s Hottest Digital Animation House.” Cost: $15, which includes submarine sandwiches. For more information, call Andy Kienzle at 609-818-0025, ext. 146, or E-mail him at akienzle@newtongravity.com.

Corbitt does a good deal of work for UnReal, a Keyport-based multimedia shop that happens to be owned by two of his daughters, Chris Bocchiaro and Cathy Dipierro. Their company owns half of Hampton, and they are also featured speakers at the PMCA event. “It’s a good arrangement,” Corbitt quips of his relationship with his daughters’ company. “They even pay me.”

With 35 years of producing, directing, writing, and creating visual effects behind him, it is not talking about his work that makes Corbitt glow. It’s talking about his family. The father of four, Corbitt’s other children are Jonathan, who is in Chicago working for Motorola and “doing the corporate thing,” and Megan, a 16-year-old he describes as “an amazing talent, a terrific dancer, a great art director.”

Working for two of his kids, and singing the praises of the other two, Corbitt is a man who came close to not having a family.

“I was a seminarian for five years,” he says, “a Franciscian.” It was the ‘60s, and he got into strumming a guitar and singing folk songs, “like Peter, Paul, and Mary.” He ended up on television as a singing friar. Not as famous as the singing nun, he nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed the gig. Then, while on a visit to the campus of the University of Massachusetts, he recounts, “I met Carol.”

Reporting the encounter, and the ensuing sparks, to his superior, he was told to be sensible. “Don’t be a knucklehead,” is how he characterizes the advice. “Take time to get to know her,” he was told. It was a big decision. About to take final vows, he liked everything about being a Franciscan except for one thing. “You can’t get married,” is how he sums up the sole drawback.

In the end, he chose Carol over the Franciscans. She worked as a teacher before devoting herself full-time to raising their family.

The taste of television he enjoyed as the singing friar stayed with him after he had chosen a different life path. He decided to work in the field, and says that getting a toehold was far different than it is today. “There was no degree in television from Syracuse,” he says. “In those days there were no schools. I just fell into it. I went in and said ‘I can pull cable with the best of them.’” That was all it took to get a start in what he calls “a very difficult profession.”

After leaving the seminary in New England, he traveled down to Maryland and started working on medical films. There he met a doctor from New York City. He went up to the doctor after his presentation and said “you have the best content and the worst looking TV I have ever seen.” The doctor was affronted at first, but within hours called Corbitt and persuaded him to come and work with him. He reluctantly agreed to leave Maryland, and began to commute to Manhattan from New Jersey, which has been his base ever since, although he does spend a fair amount of time in California.

From medical programming, he moved into sports. “I did some of the first TV ESPN did,” he says. He has done some 1,500 sports and documentary programs, first as a cameraman and director, and now generally as producer and director. His special effects work includes a new movie, Raptor Island, which was shot in Bulgaria and includes more than 200 digital visual effects shots. He now spends about 50 percent of his time writing, and has just finished a script for a fully animated movie. It is going to be produced by a major studio, he says of the project, which is still under wraps.

Then, of course, there is the work on Hampton Hampster projects. The charismatic rodent came into his life through his daughters. Abatis International, a north New Jersey company that holds rights to the talented performing hamster, heard of their company, and decided it would be the perfect shop to make the most of Hampton’s potential. “These guys called out of the clear blue sky,” says Corbitt. UnReal, which does everything from print to websites to multi-media projects for the Secret Service, hired Corbitt to work on vehicles for the star.

“We have two DVDs going into production next week,” he says. All of the episodes for the television show are fleshed out and UnReal is “talking to kids’ networks” about getting it into production. The feature film is moving along too.

The Hampsters project is one of the three or four largest UnReal, a start-up, has taken on. The company, founded just a couple of years ago, “does the work of 50 people with just five or six employees,” says Corbitt, the proud father of its principals. The range of work demonstrates the opportunities in the fast-evolving world of multi-media.

“Chris was always the most interested as a kid,” says Corbitt. “I had an immense computer graphics machine in the basement. At 12, she came down and played on it. In high school she worked for me full time. She went to Skidmore (Class of 1994) and studied business and computer graphics.” One summer, she worked on a computer graphics project that paid her $15,000. The dye was cast. She went straight into a career in media after graduation. Her sister took a more circuitous route. “She went to Duke (Class of 1992) and then to Harvard,” says her father. “She studied government and politics at the Kennedy School.”

Dipierro hesitated to get into multimedia. “She said ‘I can’t draw a fly,’” Corbitt recounts. He convinced her that she didn’t have to. The field is big enough for all kinds of talent. What Dipierro wanted to do was to produce CD ROMs, and she is doing just that. Much of her work is done with Stonehouse Media, of 989 Lenox Drive, on its projects for the government.

Her subjects, a far cry from giddy hamsters, run to arson and electronic fraud. Corbitt often directs the interactive projects. They are, he says, “just like movies.”

The barrier to entry for hard working self starters who would like multimedia careers is so low that a hamster might scrape his ears walking under them. “Jeez,” says Corbitt, “things have changed a lot — for the better. I paid $85,000 for my first computer animation software, and $125,000 for the hardware.” Now, he says, a first rate software and hardware set-up goes for well under $5,000. “And,” he adds, “it’s 50 times more powerful.”

Talent, commitment, and the gumption to keep going after the occasional failure are prerequisites. Luck doesn’t hurt either. Just look at Hampton. It took a hole in the news, a tiny vacuum in the flood of popular culture, for word of mouth to send the first dozen, then the first hundred, and the first thousand idle Internet surfers to his site. Lightening could have stuck somewhere else — maybe on the site of a cute kitty or a precocious pony, but it hit Hampton.

Where Hampton will go next is in the hands of UnReal, and of its hired hand/dad, Pat Corbitt.

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E-Commerce Down on the Farm: Michelle Frain

Family farms are small businesses. This is logical, and yet somehow counterintuitive. Perhaps because our agrarian roots carry romantic connotations, we tend to think of farming as an enterprise apart. Working with the soil conjures up pictures of flannel, hearty meals, and clouds of dust blotting out a hot sun.

While their neighbors, whizzing by in hermetically sealed automobiles on their way to office towers, may not think of farms as businesses, the greater problem is that farmers themselves tend not to think of them as businesses either.

Michelle Frain, marketing coordinator at the Rodale Institute, is working to make farmers realize that they are, in fact, businesses, and that they need to adopt many of the tactics and strategies used by successful companies of all kinds. The survival of the family farm depends on it.

Frain speaks on “E-Commerce for Farmers” at the day-long NOFA-NJ Annual Winter Conference, “Greener Fields: Opportunity and Challenge of Organic Agriculture,” which begins at 9 a.m. on Saturday, January 31 at the Cook College campus center. Mike Azzara, who is organizing the event, says it features talks and workshops for both the professional farmer and the home gardener — and also for anyone who is curious about food and where it comes from. Topics include selling at farmers’ markets, organic viticulture, lawn care, cultivation tools, farming techniques, and “living the small farm dream.”

Frain, who grew up in Bucks County and graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (Class of 1994), learned about farming on the west coast of Africa. She went there with the Peace Corps as a small business advisor. “Farmers would come in and ask ‘what’s this marketing stuff?’” she says. While she knew nothing about farming, she set out to learn. “If you teach me what you do,” she told the farmers, “I’ll teach you what I do.”

The immediate result of the collaboration for the African farmers was the creation of the Togo Business Skills Training Center for Farmers. The long-term result for Frain was a strong attraction to agriculture, and particularly to helping small farmers make a go of it.

Small-scale farming, of course is a vanishing occupation. “I have some statistics for New Jersey,” says Frain. “The state has 9,600 farms, 58 of them organic.” This sounds like a lot, but she goes on to read from her stat sheet, which reveals that the state has lost 61,821 acres of farmland since 1987. The decade before that probably saw the loss of even more, at least in the greater Princeton area.

But while small-scale farming in general is declining, organic farming is on the rise. The number of acres used for organic farming in New Jersey is up 70 percent in the past six years.

Success for farms, organic and otherwise, depends on the same factors that made an ad agency or a toy store profitable. “An entrepreneur has to look at everything,” says Frain, “but for the farmer, it’s to the 10th power.” This is so because the farmer does not import his wares, nor does he sell a service. He has to perform the myriad tasks that every other business owner does, but, Frain points out, “he also has to produce everything he sells — from seed to fruit.”

Making full use of E-commerce makes the task far easier, and ups the chances for success, but Frain, who worked in corporate IT between her three-year Peace Corps tour and her current job, says farmers underutilize the Internet. First of all, they are connected at a rate below that of the general population. And, what’s perhaps worse, farmers who do own computers and maintain Internet connections tend not to use the technology in their work.

Frain recently led a meeting at which two-thirds of the farmers raised their hands in response to a question as to whether they had purchased holiday gifts online. When the question was whether they used the Internet in their businesses, however, the hands stayed down. The two big reasons for the response, says Frain, are “time and money.” But in her view neither factor needs to be a barrier.

E-commerce is not just selling online. “E-commerce can be a fax,” says Frain. It is also E-mail, a simple informational website, and a research tool. Many people — on and off the farm — think only of selling online when they hear the term, but E-commerce is so much more. Selling online, in fact, may be the one E-commerce activity most farmers might do well to avoid, says Frain.

Evaluate issues before deciding on an E-commerce strategy. “What are your problems?” Frain wants farmers to ask themselves:

Are you wasting oceans of time answering the same questions over and over again? Are you sick of telling potential customers to turn left at the big oak, and then quickly jog to the right just past the fire hydrant to get to your farm? Do you need to expand your customer base? Do you want to add new products? Would you like to find a wider market for your dried flowers arrangements? The answers dictate the farmer’s E-strategy, just as they dictate the E-strategy of every other business owner.

Make better use of E-mail. Probably the most widely-adopted Internet tool, E-mail can be a terrific boon for the farmer. Chefs, important customers for many farmers, are notorious night owls, Frain points out, while those who raise free-range chickens are up with the roosters. (The same is true for those who raise sprouts, boutique mushrooms, and over-size blackberries.) E-mail allows the chef to get in touch with the farmer at midnight. Upon rising, the farmer can scan his in-box, and arrange for a delivery to the chef’s kitchen door before the chef is even out of bed.

E-mail is also an excellent way to build a customer base. Collect E-mail addresses from anyone who stops at the farm or at the farm’s roadside stand or green market table. Turn the addresses into an online mailing list, suggests Frain, and send out newsletters to potential customers.

“City people love to hear about life on the farm,” she says. The newsletters create a connection and can provide the nutrition and food safety information that a growing number of consumers crave.

Put up a simple website. A one-page informational website can let customers know about the farm’s hours, phone number, location, and products. This step can save untold hours spent returning calls and giving out the same information over and over again.

Farmers tend to have zero marketing dollars, says Frain, but, veteran of three years in an African village that she is, she does not see this as an obstacle. “Look at your customer base,” she urges. She knows of a number of farmers who have bartered turnips and the like for a website. Given the fascination that so many corporate workers have with farming, it generally does not take a lot to persuade someone to pitch in and help by creating a website.

Milk every ounce out the Internet. The electronic medium is chock-a-block with free information. Farmers in search of new crops to grow or new animals to raise can find out all about costs, pitfalls, advantages, and market potential online.

Sell value added products. Selling raspberries, ducks, or any other perishable farm product online is a complicated enterprise. But there is a half-way step. Frain says that some farmers post descriptions and prices online, and then have customers make the purchase and pick up their products at the farm.

Another strategy — one she heartily recommends — is to add value to a farm product, and then sell it online. She uses the tomato as an example. Selling it over the Internet and shipping it would be so difficult that it probably wouldn’t be worth the effort. Selling sun-dried tomatoes, however, is much easier, and could result in a hefty profit.

Don’t forget Ebay. Few farmers with whom Frain speaks have considered selling on Ebay. She thinks it’s worth a shot. Listing herbs or dried fruit or pickled onions on the online bazaar could be easier than creating a website, and could be a fine way to test demand.

In addition to farmers who come from families that have been working the land for generations, New Jersey is home to brand new farmers, many of them fleeing from corporate jobs. They are doing everything from raising llamas and Angora rabbits for their fur to starting wineries to growing specialty vegetables for a variety of ethnic markets.

Learning sound business practices, including taking full advantage of the Internet, is important to the success of both groups. But, even as the need to mix modems and monitors with hoes and tractors increases, the romance remains.

Frain is speaking of her own career when she says “It’s so important to live from the heart.” But she could be speaking for anyone who makes a living from the soil.

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The Face of Farming’s Future: Mike Azzara

Mike Azzara, who is organizing the upcoming NOFA-NJ conference, may be the prototype 21st century small farmer. The Lawrenceville native graduated from Middlebury College just one year ago, and has been outreach coordinator for NOFA for a month. Yet even a brief conversation with him leaves the impression that he has found his passion, and intends to run with it.

“I’m in favor of organically grown food,” says Azzara. “I want to bring it into the mainstream.” He studied psychology and environmental studies in college, and became interested in how food is grown as a student. He has already worked on farms in Italy, Vermont, and Lawrenceville.

Although he thoroughly enjoyed his farm experiences, he is out to do more than till and harvest. “I want to bring the big issues to the public,” he says. “I’m an idealist. I’m not willing to compromise.” Down the line, he wants to teach, and might like to have a farm, and possibly also a food business. His short-term goal is to start gardens at schools and get the fresh food into cafeterias.

While Azzara is a self-confessed idealist, he is practical as well. He showed the acumen of a sales and marketing major in his work at Cherry Grove farm last summer. He started a farmer’s market for the Lawrenceville farm not only to sell produce, but also to build a customer base. In doing so, he demonstrated the qualities of a sharp-eyed businessman:

Get along with government. “We had to work with the township on zoning issues,” he says. “There were zoning restrictions, but in our case they were lenient.”

Get out the word. “We identified different populations of people we wanted to reach,” he says, ticking off “schools, the artistic community, publications, universities.”

Pick a prime location. “A lot of car traffic is ideal,” he says, “and pedestrian traffic increases the chances of impulse buying.” He set up Cherry Grove’s farmers’ market in the parking lot behind Chambers Walk Cafe in Lawrenceville to capitalize on both.

Cultivate partnerships. Azzara recruited Chambers Walk’s chef, a Cherry Grove customer, to cook up produce during the farmers’ market, attracting attention, and building business for both his restaurant and for the farm.

Cross-sell. While the farmers’ market sold the farm’s produce, it also created new customers for its co-op program, through which families buy shares that entitle them to enough of the farm’s products to keep a family of four in fresh produce throughout the entire growing season.

Build a mailing list. Customers buying or browsing at the farmers market were encouraged to sign up for an a mailing list, an incredibly useful marketing tool.

Use education to create interest. Teaching consumers about the value of organically grown food is central to Cherry Grove’s mission, and the farmers’ market provided an ideal venue to do so. And, of course, those who became convinced also became potential customers.

Niche organic farming is in its infancy. But articles like the one on “Your Body as a Toxic Waste Dump” that ran in the Wall Street Journal recently are creating a demand for pesticide-free, locally grown produce. At the same time, sophisticated immigrants are hankering for the vegetables they ate in their native countries. All the while, foodies are eager to try new varieties of vegetables and fruit. It appears that opportunities to make a go of it with a small, specialized farm are ripe for the picking. Adding marketing smarts, a-la-Azzara, could be a winning recipe for business success.

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ETI Deadlines Approach

Specialized part-time courses to prepare technology entrepreneurs and non-profit professionals to prosper are set to begin soon. The instruction is offered by the Entrepreneurial Training Institute (ETI) and is sponsored by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA) and the New Jersey Development Authority for Small Businesses, Minorities’ and Women’s Enterprises (NJDA), whose programs and lending activities are managed by the EDA.

The eight-week training course to help entrepreneurs in high-technology industries learn the basics of operating their own business begins on Monday, March 8, at DeVry University. The high-tech program is part of Governor McGreevey’s initiative to foster the growth of small businesses, particularly woman-owned and minority-owned enterprises. It provides practical information that helps students develop a strategic, organized, step-by-step plan for their own business.

Each three-hour class session is divided into a one-hour presentation by the instructor, followed by two hours of more individualized attention with program facilitators. The instructor and facilitators are all experienced in assisting start-up and early-stage companies, and provide substantive advice and knowledge as well as access to a broad network of contacts.

Seven students completed the high-tech program last year. Students who took the course last year worked in fields covering a broad spectrum of technology disciplines, including Internet-based education and advertising services, broadband network monitoring and control, chemical technologies for oil exploration and cosmetics industries, medical devices, pharmaceutical industry services and software development. Students were scientists striking out on their own from large companies as well as founders of newly formed businesses from some of the state’s existing business incubators.

To ensure that the instructor and facilitators can provide sufficient individual attention to each entrepreneur, space in the program is limited and prospective students are required to submit a summary of their proposed business to the ETI for review before a determination is made to accept them into the program. The deadline is Tuesday, February 10. Submissions can be made online by connecting to www.njeda.com.

The eight-week training course to help non-profits become more self-sufficient and to reduce their reliance on grant funding begins on Thursday, March 4. Classes are held at the Mercer County Technical School Assunpink Campus on Old Trenton Road.

Non-profit organizations seeking admission are required to secure an IRS 501(c)(3) designation to confirm their non-profit status and to undergo an assessment by the Seton Hall Institute on Work to evaluate their readiness to register for the ETI program. The needs assessment can be arranged by calling Seton Hall at 973-313-6103. There is a $200 assessment fee and a $200 special facilitation fee payable to the Institute in addition to the $295 nonrefundable ETI course fee payable to the NJDA.

The fee for the high tech entrepreneurs’ course is also $295. For more information on either program, call 609-292-9279, visit www.njeda.com, or send an e-mail to eti@njeda.com.

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New Tele-Classes for Entrepreneurs

Beginning in early February, the Small Business Development Center at Raritan Valley Community College is offering a series of business development tele-classes designed for business owners and entrepreneurs striving for long-term growth and profitability.

Designed with the time constraints of the entrepreneur in mind, the tele-classes allow attendees to save time and money when they “attend” via telephone.

The five-part series begins on Tuesday, February 10, at 7 p.m. Each class is two-hours long, and includes half-an-hour for follow-up classes.

Topics covered include identifying target markets, low cost guerilla marketing tactics, branding, effective advertising, strategic selling systems, and after-the-sale customer relations skills. The curriculum is designed for businesses in all industries.

Cost is $45 per class, but participants who sign up for all five classes do not have to pay for the first. For more information, call Allison O’Neil at 908-526-1200, ext. 8516 or register online at www.sbdcrvcc.com.

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