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Mixing it Up

Steve Walker, CLA alumnus and entrepreneur
December 12, 2014

Steve Walker

Steve Walker
Steve Walker
The company:
21st Services, Joia

The mission:
Language and
communication strategy

It was a job offer that many people would have accepted eagerly. It came with an ocean view from a Fort Lauderdale office and a salary to be named by the person occupying it. But Steve Walker did not take that job. Instead, he says, “The fact that they wanted me so much told me that I could do this on my own, rather than for somebody else.” And so he did.

This was vintage Steve Walker, who admits he has “never believed there’s only one way to solve a problem. I seem compelled to go a different way when everyone else is swimming in the same direction.” So refusing this lucrative job offer turned out to be the beginning of an entrepreneurial career that has spanned industries as varied as life insurance and gourmet beverages. 

“I have never believed there’s only one
way to solve a problem,” says
Walker. “I seem compelled to go a
different way when everyone else is
swimming in the same direction.”

The Fort Lauderdale company was in the business of buying existing life insurance policies from terminally ill insureds; a subjective, cash intense, emerging industry.. It’s easy to see why the company wanted Walker. It wasn’t just because of his relevant job at ViatiCare, a Minneapolis company that worked with terminally ill AIDS patients who wanted to sell their life insurance policies to help meet expenses in the waning days of their lives. It was also because of the interpersonal skills he had honed earning a communication studies degree at the University of Minnesota, experiences like his early sales job at Dayton-Hudson, and an apparently innate determination, as he says, “to make things better.”

Clearly ready to go his own way, in 1998 Walker and two colleagues formed 21st Services, a company that would provide objective longevity estimates for a group of people that, remarkably, hadn’t yet been studied with any rigor: senior citizens. With a proprietary software program, customized evaluations, and a team that would include underwriters, doctors, and actuaries, 21st Services set out to remove the subjectively in predicting the life spans of seniors who wanted to cash in early on their life-insurance policies. The mass data could then be used by brokers, purchasers, and investors to make policy purchasing decisions.

It was a remarkably successful venture, although, says Walker, also a stress-filled one in an industry that he says could be “ruthless.” In 2007, the company was bought by two private equity firms and Walker was ready to try something else. He took time out then, and tried a few things that didn’t work, including a novel wine bar and a fitness center.

“I wanted to prove this first venture wasn’t a fluke,” he says. “I was second-guessing myself.” The second-guessing could be discarded a few years later as the result of a conversation Walker had with a bartender and two seasoned marketing executives. The four of them agreed on this idea: What if they could concoct a really exciting new beverage that would give consumers a health-conscious—but elegant—choice and would taste like current cocktail trends without the alcohol?

Each offering would be a blend of juices, spices, and florals, the group decided, with an emphasis on distinct taste and exciting combinations. Partner and mixologist Dan Oskey blended hundreds of these variations, which were then tested on random groups. Eventually, the group settled on four: pineapple coconut and nutmeg; lime hibiscus and clove; grapefruit chamomile and cardamom; and blackberry pomegranate and ginger. They called their gourmet drink Joia.

Today you can find Joia in 1,000 retail outlets mostly Midwest and west coast, and you can read five-star reviews about it. It’s not yet profitable, says Walker, but it’s growing and its future looks promising, with more flavors in the development stage.

“The really exciting thing,” says Walker, “is that it took only 13 months from that initial conversation to putting Joia on the shelf. “This can happen when you have a team where everybody believes the same thing. That is key: If you want to start a company but don’t know at least some of the people on your team well, don’t do it.”

And, he might add, if you really want to be an entrepreneur, don’t let a cushy job offer get in your way.

What he says:
“Listen to your client. Don’t let your ego get in the way. Learn to manage expectations, anticipate questions, evaluate, motivate, anticipate and always be transparent.”

“Take a variety of subjects in college; try to figure out what intellectual tools you’ll need. Don’t limit yourself. Seek out mentors, advisors, and professors.”

“The liberal arts gives you skills in reading, literature, non-verbal communication and persuasion. In short, it gives you valuable insight into why people do what they do.”

“Always be positive about yourself, because everyone is going try to knock you down."