Kyle Clayton studied Spanish and business at Arizona State University, but he hasn’t had to work for anyone since. The 27-year-old Phoenix native and serial entrepreneur co-founded Jackrabbit Janitorial, a local janitorial service using green products, before he graduated. Since, he’s co-founded Awesome Cookie Company, whose cookies can be found in Valley cafes and ordered online, as well as Simple Home Automation and Interiors, providing window coverings and home audio for businesses. Plus, the busy guy does business consulting on the side and is a member of the invite-only Young Entrepreneur Council. His interest in green practices inspired him to found Thrive Phoenix, an event this Saturday, May 4 at Co+Hoots featuring green businesses from around the Valley with workshops on how to live more environmentally-consciously. Read on for what drives his entrepreneurial spirit as well as why he believes in local businesses, as well as to hear him talk about five of his favorite things about the Valley. Learn more about Thrive here.
What brought you to Arizona?
My parents. I’m a native, and I decided to stay, because it’s hard to leave the place you grew up, and it’s become so much cooler than when I was younger. I went to Ironwood High School and ASU and did a brief stint at NAU. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and a minor in international business. I lived for a year in Spain.
What has your professional life been like up until Jackrabbit Janitorial?
I started my first business 2 years before I graduated in 2010. The recession hit the job I was working at and had to shut down. Being in school, I didn’t really have a flexible schedule, and my experience was in banking, which made it hard to finish the last 2 years. I thought I may as well start a business myself. My business partner had just fired a cleaning company, and they said, “Oh, it’s fine, we’re busy.” We thought, if they were so busy, why not try a janitorial business? Post-college, I had one employee. I haven’t worked for anyone else since.
Why did you get a Spanish degree and not a business degree?
The plan I had in mind was to be a translator or a Spanish-speaking teacher, living abroad. It was something I was passionate about, so I did business as a minor. It ended up being beneficial to the job I’m in, to be able to communicate with potential employees and clients. I’ve received a couple referrals because I know Spanish.
Where did you get your entrepreneurial spirit from?
It started with my grandfather. He owned a painting company back in Chicago before my family moved to Arizona. When he moved to Arizona, he started an RV park in Casa Grande. That trickled down to my parents, who own a real estate company, so I’ve seen these entrepreneurs in my life. I thought I don’t have anything to lose and have seen all they’ve gained.
What makes a great entrepreneur?
Confidence to be able to go out on a limb, because it’s definitely a risk. Also, it’s someone who isn’t discouraged by “no,” because you do hear a lot of “no.” You have to believe in your idea and yourself and your company to go out there and get rejected, because success definitely doesn’t come quickly or easily.
What makes you a great entrepreneur?
I don’t take “no” for an answer, because I know there’s always another solution. I’m also great at working under a deadline.
What is Awesome Cookie Company’s business like?
Right now, we’re working on getting into regional grocery stores and more retail locations. We’re currently in Bodega Market in Scottsdale and Co+Hoots at GreaterThanCoffee. We’re also one of the on-board snacks at a private airline at the Scottsdale Airport.
Who makes the cookies?
We do. We hired someone to help us bake and rent a kitchen out in downtown Phoenix. We’re in the process of outsourcing that task. My business partner Shane developed all the recipes. Our goal is to create unique flavors. We’re developing a key lime pie cookie for the summer. His job is to keep experimenting and finding an awesome cookie in every type of flavor we want.
What’s his cooking background?
He doesn’t have one. He grew up cooking with his mom and has a passion for baking. The cookies are thin and crispy and have a salty and sweet taste. All our ingredients and packaging are produced in the United States.
Where did the inspiration for Awesome Cookie Company come from?
Jackrabbit Janitorial would give these cookies to our clients and families, who would ask us, “Do we have to wait until next Christmas to get these cookies, or can we get them now?” Local First Arizona, which Jackrabbit is a member of, had a buyer event for Bashas’ and AJ’s last August. We decided right away to go for the opportunity and form the company and had 30 days to finalize the cookie.
What do you look for in a business partner?
Someone who I trust and someone who can bring something different to the table, as well as complement my skills. The team we have, we’ve known for years, so it just came together naturally.
Your name Awesome Cookie Company seems very search engine-friendly for having come up with it so quickly.
We spent a day just brainstorming a name because we couldn’t come up with one, and we thought, “What are these cookies? They’re awesome.” The name was available, so from that moment, we just ran with it.
Why is using green products with Jackrabbit Janitorial so important to you?
When I started, I knew the biggest health hazard for janitorial workers is chemicals, whether it’s spilling them on your skin or breathing them in. Using green products has become something I’m passionate about because it just makes sense. It cleans better. There’s no after-scent. It’s all-natural. It’s not that much more expensive, and some products are DIY, using vinegar, lemons and hydrogen peroxide. Sometimes, it can be cheaper if you make your own. You feel good because you know you’re not breathing in all those chemicals. I wanted to offer something a normal cleaning service doesn’t. We want to create healthy indoor environments for people to live and work in. It’s one step into helping change people’s mentalities about being green and eco-friendly.
What are the biggest challenges and benefits to owning your businesses?
The biggest challenge is that it doesn’t always end at 5 or on Friday. There’s always something going on, and that’s a little hard. One of the biggest advantages is I can make my own schedule and have more flexibility.
How did Thrive Phoenix come out?
It grew out of Jackrabbit Janitorial. We offer recycling programs for our clients, and I noticed people weren’t recycling things that were recyclable, like aluminum and plastics. I wanted to help change how people recycle and get them to recycle more and be green and want to use green products. The event is learning how to be green and more eco-friendly. We’ll have workshops and feature local green businesses in Phoenix to help create this green eco-community in Phoenix. Living in the desert, we all should be doing something eco-friendly.
What are the easiest green things people can do that make the biggest impact?
Start using green cleaning products, which is often cheaper anyway. Everything goes into our water system, so if you’re using chemicals, we’re ruining our water system. Also, if your’e not recycling 60% of your trash, you’re throwing away your recyclables. Know what’s recyclable — you should be filling your recycling bin more than your trash can. It’s important to find those ways to be more conscious, and it becomes a lifestyle.
Your businesses are part of Local First Arizona. Why is going local important to you?
It keeps more money here in Arizona in our city government, and the money a business owner gets is put right back into the local economy. Local businesses are also unique and different, which makes life so much cooler.
What are your goals as a business owner?
My main goal is to provide a good job. We pay above minimum wage, and my second goal is to provide sustainable jobs and companies that help the environment, so we can continue to do business and not have ecological effects hinder that.
What advice do you have for aspirational entrepreneurs?
I think, no matter what your age, go for it. If you’re working a normal job, spend an hour at night developing your idea or your business, and don’t let the day go by without doing something. Down the road, you’ll have this idea that’s developed, or you can jump right in and do it. Developing your idea and spending time on it is my first piece of advice. You also have to be willing to take a risk. My motto is, “The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.” It’s going to be a risk and be scary, but chances are, it will work out or inspire something else. I think fear holds a lot of people back, and it’s scary, for sure, but it’s worth the risk and worth the work.
What are your hopes for local businesses?
I hope they continue to grow and start to take over some of those bigger businesses. There’s a local product for everything you need. My hope is that big box stores begin to fade, and those local businesses become big business.
What’s your best tip for getting new business?
My best tip would have to be use social media. I don’t pay for any advertising. Go and meet people. We’re so technologically-based, that you want to send out an e-mail and get new business, but sometimes, you have to do the old-fashioned thing and go meet face-to-face and tell them you want their business. Use technology, but forget about it sometimes. Go out and meet people, and let them know what you’re doing. They’ll be able to see your passion and drive, and people love to support that.
Your business partner is also your boyfriend. What are the biggest benefits and challenges to working with your boyfriend?
We’ve been together for 6 years, so we had worked apart in separate fields. We had a stable relationship where we could gauge whether we could work together, and the biggest advantage is we could hang out all the time. It’s not someone I see at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and until we fall asleep, that’s the time we have together. It’s enhanced the relationship in that way. But, it presents challenges when you have to separate business and personal. You have to have your own clear roles in the business and trust each other.
Why should people come to Thrive?
They should come to Thrive to meet the community and the business owners that feature green products or services. Chances are, you’re going to meet someone cool or learn something new. The classes are great. We have a lot of different talks, and it gives you an interesting view of Phoenix you don’t get to see if you go out and about on a normal day.