3 lessons a 12-year-old CEO learned building a business that got her to 'Shark Tank'


Mikaila Ulmer is a 7th grader from Austin, TX, and the CEO of her own business.

When Ulmer was four years old, she was stung by two bees within a week. Naturally, she was upset, but she also decided to learn more about what had hurt her. She came to realize that bees are a critical part of how flowers get pollinated and plants grow, and she learned that the bee population is in danger.

Around the same time, her great-grandmother Helen, who lived in Cameron, South Carolina, sent her family a cookbook from the 1940s. In it, Ulmer discovered a recipe for Flaxseed Lemonade. She decided that if she could make lemonade with honey bought from local beekeepers, she could help the bee population.

That fall, her mom and dad encouraged her to make a product the lemonade for a local children's business competition, the Acton Children's Business Fair, and Austin Lemonade Day.

Ulmer's lemonade was a hit. "The first time I sold it, I thought, 'This is only going to be a one-time thing. I am going to do it once, get the money, donate some and then save some and then use the rest to buy this awesome toy that I wanted.' I do not remember what it was!" Ulmer tells CNBC.

But though she was exhausted, Ulmer adds, "I realized I am really enjoying doing this."

Mikaila Ulmer, the founder and CEO of Me & the Bees Lemonade, in the very early days of running the business.
Photo courtesy Me & the Bees Lemonade
Dream big, and not only dream big, but also dream like a kid.
Mikaila Ulmer
founder and CEO, Me & Bees Lemonade

Six months later, she and her family made more lemonade and sold it. Then, when Ulmer was seven, a local pizza shop asked to carry her lemonade.

"It seemed like no many how many lemons I squeezed, we would always sell out," says Ulmer. 

Bit by bit, distribution expanded. Soon, Whole Foods started carrying Me & the Bees Lemonade.

Shortly after Ulmer's product hit the shelves of Whole Foods, Ulmer appeared on ABC's hit reality show "Shark Tank." The People's Shark, Daymond John, offered a $60,000 investment for a 25 percent stake in her company. 

The visibility helped the business. In the year after the show aired, sales grew by 231 percent, says Ulmer.

Being a middle-school CEO has benefits and drawbacks. Ulmer gets help from her parents: Her mom assists with marketing and her dad with the finance operations. But Ulmer also has to do her homework first before working for her company. (Her favorite subjects in school are science and Spanish, she says.) 

Ulmer's business responsibilities include doing trade show demos, media interviews, business presentations, workshops about bees and about entrepreneurship, depositing her money in the bank, putting in money orders, depositing checks, checking the business email and posting on social media.

Ulmer's entrepreneurial ambitions have taken her far. She has introduced the President of the United States at The United State of Women Summit and this weekend, she is traveling to New York City because she was selected as an honoree by the National Retail Federation Foundation. She will be recognized alongside the likes of Boxed Wholesale CEO Chieh Huang as one of the People Shaping Retail's Future 2017.

Here are Ulmer's top three tips for dreamers, doers and aspiring entrepreneurs. 

Build a business you are passionate about

"The more passionate you are about what you do, the more fun you will have while doing it and then also, the better you will do it, the easier it will be and the more successful your company will be," she says. 

"That's why it's important to not only chose a business that will make a lot of money, will be a big hit, but a business that hopefully will make a lot of money and will be a big hit, but you are also interested in, that you have fun with and that you see a problem in the world that needs to be solved."

You don't have to go it alone

"A lot of entrepreneurs think they have to do it all by themselves and when they are in times of trouble, they won't ask for help. It is important to ask for help when you need it because there are people who support your mission and support what you do and so it is definitely important for you to go and ask them for help if you need it," Ulmer says. 

"There is always help back at the hive."

Think like a kid

"Dream big, and not only dream big, but also dream like a kid. When a kid has a dream and they want it to come true, they will do whatever it takes to do so. They don't see the obstacles in the way, they will just fight hard to make it come true.

"Sometimes you have to get into that mindset and dream like a kid," she says. It will "put you into a better goal setting stage for your business."

Currently, Me & the Bees Lemonade is sold in 20 states. In 2016, it sold more than 300,000 bottles of lemonade. Ten percent of profits go to charities including Heifer International, the National Park Services and the Sustainable Food Center of Austin.

Ulmer has ambitious plans: She wants to expand geographically as well as into other products. And she wants to lead the nonprofit arm of the operation, though she wants to be sure to finish college, too. First, of course, she has to graduate from middle school.

This 29-year-old turned an obsession with cheap flights into a million-dollar business
This 29-year-old turned an obsession with cheap flights into a million-dollar business