Every year, Ernst and Young recognizes innovative business leaders through their Entrepreneur of the Year program. Of the 24 Utah region finalists, almost half of them are based in Utah County. This series highlights the nominated CEOs and company founders. The winner of the Utah regional Entrepreneur of the Year contest will be announced in June.
Ali Hynek, founder and CEO, Nena and Co.
Over six years ago, before Ali Hynek started her company Nena and Co., she said all she wanted to do was work at Lululemon. She was really into Crossfit and actually interviewed for the company several times without ever being hired. Now, Hynek jokes she likes to thank Lululemon for not hiring her, because otherwise her company never would have been born.
Hynek has always loved to travel, visiting around 50 countries while she was in her 20s. She said she would always buy textiles and other things she found beautiful, then bring them home and not know what to do with them. When she finally visited her mother’s native country, Guatemala, she fell in love with the beautiful woven fabrics and materials, and began to wonder what she could do with it.
Her love for Guatemala, combined with a natural desire and love for being fashion-forward, inspired Hynek to begin testing the waters to see if there was an American market for bags featuring Guatemalan weaving.
“I kind of just bought stuff from (Guatemala) to see if people were even attracted to it in the U.S.,” Hynek said. “Meanwhile, I was building my own website, I designed my logo, I photographed and tried to model my own stuff.”
Hynek began to build her business and community on Instagram, and then later launched her website and a business Instagram account. When she realized there was a market for the bags she was interested in selling, she became more serious about sourcing them. The first two years of the company, she mostly worked to find traditional Mayan weavers, as well as tanneries. The company also puts together the bags themselves, stamps the logo on, and even does fulfillment from its American Fork location.
The result of working directly with weavers and not mass producing means there is a limited amount of bags available. Hynek explained the company will “drop” new products a few times a month, typically on Fridays. They stopped doing wholesale products because they couldn’t meet the consumer demand, but Hynek is glad they made the choice to grow sustainably. It also is important to her to make sure the people creating the materials for the product are being paid a fair wage.
“It’s hard when you are trying to keep the integrity of what you’re doing, and grow,” she said. “In my mind, the best way you can help people is to create jobs for them.”
According to Hynek, that’s one of the biggest things she learned working with Mayan weavers in Guatemala. The company wanted to provide incentives for employees to hit certain benchmarks, and Hynek thought an incentive the weavers might enjoy was something like a weekend away, or an item for employee’s homes.
“The one thing that they said they wanted was, just make sure that we kept giving them (production) orders,” Hynek recalled. “And then the next thing was actually to purchase more tools so that they could grow their business.”
The company continues to grow and add more products. Just recently, the company has also expanded to handmade products from Morocco and Ghana, and soon they plan to open up in Mexico as well.
Hynek holds the distinction as an EY Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist who also was a finalist for the 2019 Sego Awards. She said it feels good to be nominated as a finalist, not only to be recognized for what the company has achieved, but also because she wants other women, and mothers, to know what they’re capable of.
“I want (women) to know that they don’t need to be somebody’s assistant,” Hynek said. “They can be in the spotlight, by doing the things that they love.”
Jesse Mecham, founder and CEO, YNAB (You Need a Budget)
In 2004, while Jesse Mecham was getting his master’s degree in accounting from Brigham Young University, he created a spreadsheet that utilized his budgeting method and was selling it on the side to people to make some extra money.
“Everything about it was pretty bad. But it was good enough with the method and what I was teaching that people still got value out of it,” Mecham said. “That was before apps and (smart) phones and things. So as the technology’s improved, we’ve improved right along with it.”
Now, You Need a Budget or YNAB for short is a sleek app and website that people can use to, as Mecham puts it and as the website boldly declares, “gain total control of their money.” Beyond serving as an app where people can keep track of their money spending, YNAB teaches a four-rule method for getting control of money: 1. Give every dollar a job, 2. Embrace your true expenses, 3. Roll with the punches, and 4. Age your money.
“They’re not anything particularly unique,” Mecham said. “But we teach it really well. And I think that helps people realize they have a shot.”
YNAB offers free online workshops that teach about the four rules, as well as address other budgeting questions. There are also videos, podcasts, and Mecham has even written a book that shares the name of the company and app, “You Need a Budget.” All of these things have been created with the goal of easing people’s minds when it comes to money.
“Our product helps people get control of their money so they can eliminate stress,” Mecham said. “80% of people are totally stressed with their money ... that’s way too high. We don’t need to live like that.”
One of the really unique things about YNAB, besides its extensive free educational tools, is how the company is run. YNAB has just 87 employees — and only four of them live and work in Utah. The rest work remotely.
“The remoteness allows us to hire tremendously successful, talented people, without worrying about where they live,” Mecham said. “Technology is allowing us to be more collaborative without having to be geographically so close.”
Working remotely, Mecham said, often leads to a better work-life balance. And, he added, they don’t have to spend thousands of dollars renting office space. To promote connectivity, all the employees get together for a retreat once a year, and different teams also meet up once a year.
“People (think) you got to see people in an office to know they’re working. But I’ve been in lots of offices where you have no idea if people are working or not, or it’s pretty obvious they’re not.”
It really just requires hiring the right people, Mecham said. One of the company’s core values is being a “self manager.”
Employees seem to enjoy it as well — YNAB was named No. 2 of the 50 best small and medium companies to work for by Fortune.com in 2018. In fact, it’s become known as such a great company to work for they’ve had difficulty processing applications. The most recent full-time position YNAB advertised received 1,200 applicants, according to YNAB COO Chance Gurr.
Gurr has worked with Mecham for several years after first meeting him in college. One of his favorite parts about working for YNAB is the feedback they get from customers, which often includes stories about how YNAB and learning how to budget changed their lives.
“You read stuff like, ‘it helped save my marriage,’ ‘YNAB helped me pay off my house,’ ‘I just got out of a crushing amount of credit card debt,” Gurr said. “I saw one the other day that was like, ‘There’s a 2-year old baby in the world, because YNAB helped us realize that we could afford it.’”
Gurr said that’s always been the motivator for Mecham, beyond building a company that people love to work for.
“People love working at YNAB because (of) our culture and our culture is what it is because of who Jesse (Mecham) is as a person,” Gurr said.
Currently the company is looking to offer YNAB as a wellness benefit to employers to decrease employee financial stress. For now, the app is available to download on iOS and Android, and is available to use on desktops. There is a free trial offered, and then it costs $84 a year, or $7 a month.