Entrepreneur Series: Selling Happiness in a Bottle
By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, InMilitary. Veteran, U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force
What is that magical quality that veterans, almost exclusively, possess to see a problem from odd angles and devise an ingenious solution?
Whatever that quality is, I’ve seen it time and time again in every service branch. Perhaps the very nature of military service requires what I have begun calling “fourth-dimensional thinking.” That’s the ability to see the world from a slightly higher plane than the rest of society.
It’s actually astonishing to take a step back and see all the veterans who have entered every possible niche in the business world during the past decade.
Take the curious case of Freedom Hot Sauce, founded by Marine veteran Mark Corwin. Freedom Hot Sauce is an example of a veteran who was dissatisfied with current condiment offerings and said “You know what? I’m just going to make my own…and sell it.”
Testing Freedom Hot Sauce’s Products
For me, who used the same old hot sauce for decades (Hint: it starts with a T and ends in ABASCO), Freedom Hot Sauce was a flavor revelation. Knowing that I had an upcoming interview with its founder Mark Corwin, I ordered three bottles from its website.
When they arrived, I quickly put the sauce to the test. Born and raised in the great country of Texas, I have high standards for my hot sauce.
According to the site, the main ingredients are freedom, patriotism and liberty with a base of jalapeno/cayenne flavor and a mesquite, smoke, lime and garlic aftertaste. What’s more, the sauce is gluten-free, sugar-free and MSG free.
These are the results of my very subjective and non-scientific test:
- On burgers: Amazing
- On steak: Amazing
- On Tuna Helper: Amazing
- In my favorite Zupa Toscana: Amazing
- On scrambled eggs: Amazing
- On ice cream: Not so great
- As eye drops: Also, not great
5 out of 7; that’s a solid A-minus!
Freedom Hot Sauce Founder Mark Corwin’s Transition from Marine to Business Owner
Completely sold on the product, I was excited to sit down with Mark Corwin to talk about how he went from the Marines to make a name for himself in the crowded condiment space. We also discussed how other veterans can get into business.
Wes O’Donnell: Mark, thanks for taking the time today to chat. I don’t always try the products of the veteran-owned businesses that I cover, but this is a special case. Great sauce! Can you tell me a little about your military background?
Mark Corwin: Thanks, Wes, glad to be here. I joined the United States Marine Corps right after high school and eventually made my way into Marine Force Recon. I was deeply tied to the special operations community throughout my entire military career. I went to the University of Houston and also had some discs replaced in my back, due to some injuries sustained while active duty.
Wes: I know a lot of active-duty men and women serving right now are going to be reading this article, but I don’t think a lot of them are well prepared for that transition. Tell me about that transition for you. How hard was it?
Mark: It wasn’t a bad transition for me. I had a great support system. My dad was also a Marine veteran so I had someone who always had my back if I had any issues or questions.
I know a lot of our brothers and sisters have a feeling of being lost and not knowing what to do. They just need to ask themselves one very simple question: What do I want to do? Go ask a veteran who is successful and ask them for advice. Once you have that answer, put all your energy into it.
When I became a civilian, I got a job as a personal trainer at a gym. I’m very health-aware; actually, you can see that reflected in the sauce. I even ran a health food company for a while, but then I started toying around with the idea of making a better hot sauce.
Wes: There are a lot of veterans who are hesitant to make that jump into entrepreneurship, because some may have a full-time job that pays well and a family to support. I’ve had some successful entrepreneurs tell me to make the jump headfirst into your new business and give it everything you’ve got. Others have said, “Do your startup as a side hustle until you are making enough money to jump ship.” What’s your advice?
Mark: Look, I get the “jump all in” mindset, but if you have a family to support, it seems a little irresponsible. This is my guide: Do it as a side-hustle until you can at least match, or better yet double your income from your “day job.” I think that’s smart advice.
Wes: I have noticed an interesting debate recently across various veteran social media groups, and that is: How important is “veteran-owned” branding? Does it help or hurt? Of course, it’s industry-specific, but what are your thoughts?
Mark: Here’s the thing…I take pride in my military service, as we all should. I’m not going to apologize for that. Having said that, if you are going to brand your product as “veteran-owned”, you better ensure that you have the highest quality, kick-ass product out there. I remind myself every day that just because you are a veteran, no one owes you anything.
Wes: It’s interesting to hear you say that because a lot of civilians might disagree. I wrote an article about why some veterans feel uncomfortable when someone says “Thank you for your service.” I received so much hate mail from civilians who were appalled that some vets just don’t feel like we did anything special. But I’m right there with you. No one owes us anything.
Mark: Exactly, we have to earn it. Especially Marines, we aren’t given anything. It’s earned. All of it.
Wes: What about culture? How do you find people out there to bring into your organization that have the same passion as you?
Mark: That’s easy. Surround yourself with fellow employees, partners and subordinates who have the same passion that you do.
At Freedom Hot Sauce, it’s all about making people happy. I like to say that we’re not selling a condiment; we’re selling happiness, one bottle at a time. As for actual employees, of course I would like them to be veterans. I think it would be great to have a company where every single role is a military veteran.
Wes: Loaded question because hindsight is 20/20: If you had to start all over from scratch, is there anything that you would do differently? Or did you nail everything the first time?
Mark: You know, when we first started Freedom Hot Sauce, it wasn’t called Freedom Hot Sauce. It was “Fire in the Hole” Hot Sauce. Those in the military will easily understand that “fire in the hole” is a verbal warning before an explosive device is used, but we were alienating a whole bunch of folks who weren’t familiar with military lingo.
Sales were abysmal. After we changed the name and the branding to Freedom, we realized that the new branding made people happy.
Think about it: Freedom Hot Sauce. When people hold the bottle and say “TASTE THE FREEDOM”, it just makes them smile. I wish we had that branding from the beginning.
Wes: I have to ask…What book are you reading right now? Veterans want to know!
Mark: HA, I’m actually reading three. They are Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins, Burn The Business Plan: What Great Entrepreneurs Really Do by Carl J. Schramm and Hug Your Customers: The Proven Way to Personalize Sales and Achieve Astounding Results by Jack Mitchell.
Wes: Mark, it was awesome chatting today. I live in Michigan now and expect to see Freedom Hot Sauce on my store shelves up here in the near future.
Mark: My pleasure, Wes. I’ll get working on that right away!