Growing a small business

by Michelle Orian-Lau | Aug. 1, 2022

Starting a small business isn’t easy. Especially if you’re already working full-time and have two young children. So I was surprised and impressed when I learned my co-worker Senior Community Affairs Consultant Christy Tomas and her husband Sean, an agriculture specialist with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, were competing in this year’s Mahiai Match-Up, an agricultural business plan competition, organized by Kamehameha Schools (KS) and the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement (CNHA).

My mouth started watering as Christy told me about how she and Sean had been making lilikoi butter from an old family recipe for years. “The flavor just makes me think of my grandma. She used to make fresh juice from the lilikoi in her backyard. It’s like a full circle. Now me and my girls are making juice and lilikoi butter,” said Christy, who now lives with Sean and their daughters in the Manoa home that was once her grandmother’s.

They’d been gifting the butter to family and friends but considered starting a side business. “Everyone would tell us, ‘You should sell this.’ But we had no clue how to start a business,” she said.

When Christy learned about the Mahiai Match-Up, the couple decided to mull it over a bit before applying. Then one day, Sean, a KS graduate, surprised her with the news that they had been accepted into the Mahiai Match-up. He had made the impromptu decision to apply when he was awake one morning at 3 a.m.

The initial round of applicants participated in CNHA’s KuHana cohort program, a series of online business plan development classes. “It was like a Hawaii ‘Shark Tank.’ It was really intense,” said Christy. “From January through March, you took a 3-hour class twice a week. Then you make your business plan. And you go pitch your idea. We had sore brains. It was like we were back in school.”

The KuHana classes were at night after Christy and Sean finished work. “We had to get the whole family involved. All the grandmas were watching the kids,” Christy said.

At the start of the pandemic, their family started growing vegetables in their backyard in Manoa. But as their business plan developed, lilikoi vines replaced their eggplants, green beans and lettuce. They even asked their family, friends and neighbors to start growing lilikoi. Soon Kiowao Farms, started to take root.

“Kiowao is the name of one of the rains that nourishes our backyard garden — and the name of one of our daughters. Luckily, because of how much it rains here, we rarely have to water it,” said Christy.

Sean hunted down different varieties of the plant so that they could diversify their harvest. His degree from the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources came in handy as they tried to increase their fruit yield. By May 2022, they had more than 400 seedlings in their backyard.

“We had to be prepared and get ready to go,” said Christy. If they won the competition, their plan would be set in motion — jumpstarting their fledgling business from a backyard hobby to a 1-acre full-scale farm. They had just enough juice frozen to produce butter for tastings and their pitches. But this summer’s fruiting season would be needed to put their lilikoi butter on the market.

After the initial pitch, five finalists moved onto the Mahiai Match-Up, where they had the opportunity to revamp their business plan before pitching their idea to another set of judges on April 3, 2022. Christy and Sean’s competition included MetroGrow Hawaii, Waiahole Poi Factory; Kanekoa Farm; and Awa Bird.

Waiahole Poi Factory earned the top $25,000 award and a KS commercial property opportunity in Kapalama Kai on Oahu. Kanekoa Farm received $15,000 and an agricultural land agreement on KS land on Oahu’s North Shore. And Awa Bird won $10,000 and an agricultural land agreement on KS lands on Hawaii island.

Christy and Sean were not discouraged by the outcome. They never planned to leave their jobs, which would have made it difficult to manage a farm in North Shore. The real win for them was the knowledge they gained and comprehensive business plan they developed through the process.

With summer now in full swing, I’ve been looking forward to getting my own taste of Kiowao Farms Lickin’ Lilikoi Butter. Christy and Sean should have been preparing their lilikoi butter to sell at local farmers markets and online. Unfortunately, their plants died a few weeks ago after their neighbor’s yardmen weed whacked their vines.

“So we’re currently back at Stage 1. We just put a bunch of plants in the ground so that we’ll have fruit next year. And we’re working on finding more places to grow lilikoi. It takes 12–18 months from seed to fruit, so just patiently waiting!”

Alas, I must also patiently wait to get my hands on some lilikoi butter. But knowing Christy, it’s going to be worth it.

Michelle Orian-Lau is a senior communications consultant at Hawaiian Electric Company.

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