Making chickens smile. That’s the goal of Tina and David Hickman, the proprietors of Luv Nest, a Milford, NH-based company that makes mixtures of organic nesting herbs for chickens. Yep, it’s like aromatherapy, and treats, for chickens.
In just two years in business, Luv Nest has gone from strictly an e-commerce website to national distribution in retail outlets.
David will tell you that it’s Tina’s herbal mixtures that are drawing the crowds, but Tina will claim it’s David’s business acumen that’s driving sales. Whatever the case, the Hickmans are in a growth phase, moving from bootstrapping to seeking business financing. In this new phase they’ve been helped greatly by NH SBDC advisor Andrea O’Brien.
David explains, “We contacted (NH SBDC) to get educated on what we didn’t know and to learn what to anticipate as things were moving along so quickly. Andrea has helped us understand the financials behind everything all along the way.”
After the Hickmans started meeting with Andrea, it soon became clear that they could expand from e-commerce to retail stores. “And soon we had 20 stores, then 40, then 60,” David explained, including stores like BlueSeal and Agway. “We went national last July, which was a big jump for us.”
National distribution means the Hickmans now have a manufacturer’s rep, and this has cut down on the number of trade shows David must attend. At this point, 20 salesmen are representing the product in markets in California and the West Coast. California and the Northeast are the largest markets to date, David said.
“At this point, we’re too big to be small. We need to find funding for cash flow management,” David said.
All that means Luv Nest has changed constantly and with each change, David rewrites the company’s business plan. The result is a lot of meetings with Andrea. “Every time we meet something new has happened, so we have to keep meeting.”
So how does one decide to start a business that sells herbal mixtures for backyard chicken nests? David was once a lobsterman—pulling lobsters from the sea—and not that long ago had the business idea of selling lobster ravioli. That didn’t work out, but meanwhile, his wife Tina was getting a certificate in herbalism and tending a large herb garden of her own.
The Hickmans first used Tina’s herbs with their own backyard chickens. Herbalists, veterinarians, farmers and other professionals have touted the benefits of herbs for animals, Tina explains. Also, the chickens’ bodies warm up the herbs in the nest resulting in a pleasant aroma being released. It’s relaxing for the chickens, who will also eat the herbs. Chamomile, for example, is calming, and can be an excellent natural helper in digestion and growth.
David claims the product has sold so well because he tells the story of how their own chickens have responded. “I just talk about what Tina has done with the herbal mixes and it works to make the sale,” he said. David also credits others selling in the ag industry who have given them some great advice.
In addition to continued growth with the chicken products, the Hickmans will soon release an herbal supplement for horses, expanding their product line with an expected June 2016 launch.
SBDC’s Andrea O’Brien has been a big help in preparing the Hickmans for seeking funding, and for helping them to understand the various development stages they have yet to go through. David said he’s really learned the importance of cash flow in a business like his, and the Hickmans have overcome their fear of getting a business loan because of that. “At our stage, if we get three orders coming in on top of each other, we’ve got a glitch,” David said. The funding should smooth over any potential problems, he said.
“At this point, we’re just really poised to develop the brand and the company into a viable, living entity that is as good as it can be,” Tina said. “We’re having a blast. We’re having so much fun. We’ll get this so its legs are walking and it’s moving forward and involving as many local people and companies as possible.”