Ask a Genius: How this teen CEO balances business & homework

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Hanna Horvath, CFP®

Hanna Horvath, CFP®

Managing Editor & Certified Financial Planner™

Hanna Horvath, CFP®, is a certified financial planner and former managing editor at Policygenius. Her work has also been featured in NBC News, Business Insider, Inc. Magazine, CNBC, Best Company, and HerMoney.

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Alina Morse poses with her product, Zolli Candy, at a trade show in Chicago.

Alina Morse is not your typical 13-year-old. She’s the CEO and founder of Zollipops, a company that makes sugar-free candy. She came up with the idea when she was 7, and has since grown the company into a multi-million dollar business.

Coming in lollipop and taffy form, Zolli candy "reduces acidity and neutralizes your mouth’s PH levels after you eat," which prevents cavities, thanks to an ingredient called xylitol.

We sat down with Morse to learn more about being a teenage CEO and running her own company.

Our conversation with Alina Morse is the latest edition of Ask a Genius, our regular series of talks with brilliant people. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Where did the idea for Zollipops come from?

When I was 7 years old, I went to the bank with my dad and the bank teller offered me a lollipop. My dad told me that I couldn't eat the lollipop because it has sugar, and sugar is terrible for your teeth. So I asked, “Why can’t I make a candy that would be good for my teeth, so that I could eat candy and it wouldn’t be bad for me?” From that we created Zollipops.

What drove your idea?

While I was doing my research, I found that tooth decay is one of the greatest epidemics facing kids in America today. And when I found that out, it kind of took me by surprise. I knew tooth decay was preventable, and cavities are preventable. So, from there I found my niche.

It’s candy. We want it to be fun. It can be hard because it’s sugar-free. When you think of sugar-free, you think of your grandma’s caramel hard candies in her purse that are just not good. We wanted to make sugar-free candy exciting.

How did Zollipops get off the ground?

So the initial investment was $7,500, a combination of my savings from holidays, birthdays, things like that. And then my dad matched it.

We launched in 2014. Our sales have grown rapidly. Basically our first year of sales, we did about $70,000 and then since then the past two years we doubled in sales and in 2018 we nearly tripled. We made a little over $2 million. Our projection for 2019 is to do $3.3 million in sales. We are going to start selling in Target in February, but currently sell in Walmart, Amazon, Whole Foods and Kroger.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve faced?

In our first year of sales, we found out through reviews and emails that the pops were melting into these blobs in people’s backpacks, purses. It was safe to eat, just wasn’t very appetizing. It was not good. So all the product we sent out, we had to replace all of it. But we fixed the problem, and still keep working to perfect the recipe.

What surprised you the most about running your own business?

When I was younger I guess I didn’t realize how much money it takes to actually run a company. It’s crazy. I just didn’t realize it takes a lot of work, and some help. I realized that quickly that I couldn’t just sell this stuff out of my kitchen, that I needed a manufacturer to do it.

All the money we are making right now we are reinvesting. Just because we made $2 million in sales doesn’t mean that I am just going to the bank and withdrawing that money. We are putting that right back into the bank. We are looking to expand across the country, and internationally.

How has your life changed since founding Zollipops?

The hardest part is the time management. I do have to be good about how I’m spending my time, especially on busy weeks when I travel, making sure I’m getting my homework done. I’m pretty normal for the most part.

A lot of people ask me, “How do you keep up with it all?” It’s really just getting used to doing a lot of the same thing. I have basically the same schedule — one third for working on the company, one third for doing homework and one third for any extracurriculars I have.

Do you ever splurge?

Not really. I am currently saving for a car. Not sure what kind yet, just anything with four wheels. That’s my criteria. I don’t know much about cars, but when I turn 16 it would be nice to have one. Oh, and I splurge on Broadway shows every time I’m here in New York. We’re going to Aladdin tonight.

What is your favorite flavor?

That’s a hard one. I like the orange, but honestly I love them all so much. I couldn’t pick. It’s like asking a parent to pick their favorite child. These are my children!

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Image: Zolli Candy