What does it actually take to start a food business — large or small? We're intensely curious about the actual life that happens behind the scenes of the companies that make our food. Sarah Marx Feldner, a small business owner in Wisconsin, recently shared what she has learned so far from starting her small food business.
I thought her insights were thoughtful and helpful — read on if you too dream of someday starting your own career in making (and selling) something delicious.
From Sarah Marx Feldner of Treat Bake Shop
Three years ago this fall Treat Bake Shop was born. I started with just one product (spiced pecans in our signature glass jar) and have since expanded to three products with more than five different packaging options.
Delicious spiced and candied pecans and almonds in great packaging!
On the surface, it could appear to be a super simple business model: Make pecans – sell pecans. But in reality, there are a million things that can go wrong – or come up unexpectedly – and, it turns out, they will. Fortunately, I’m never one for being bored, and have reveled (albeit sometimes while crying) in the challenges.
With so many people interested in starting their own food business these days, I thought I might share with you some of the most powerful learnings from my first three years on the job.
1. Have another way of making money.
Have another income stream while getting started. For two reasons:
- Starting a business from scratch takes a lot of time and energy – with very limited return on investment. Unless you have outside investors, you will not have extra money to pay yourself.
- You are able to make smarter decisions about how you grow your business if you’re not completely cash-strapped. Not saying "yes" to every opportunity isn’t always a bad thing.
2. Be very frugal with overhead costs.
To quote another food entrepreneur, "overhead can kill your dream." Until you can prove people want your product, are willing to buy it more than once, and that your business can turn a profit, you should not spend any money unless it is an absolute necessity for the business to function. (And even as your business grows, there’s no reason not to continue this frugality.)
3. Sell your product yourself.
In the beginning, no one can sell your product as well as you can – they won’t have the passion or enthusiasm. Plus, doing all the sales calls and in-store demos gives you the opportunity to receive customer feedback firsthand. This helps define your core customer. As you get a better handle on who that person is, you get a better handle on where/how your product sells best.
4. Social media can be a distraction.
Don’t live and die by social media. It’s a great way to connect and communicate with your community, and it’s a great way to get ideas and see what other artisans are doing. But it can also make you feel lonely, depressed and inadequate (no one ever shares the bad stuff). As long as you truly believe in what you’re doing, just keep your head down and focus on your business’s big picture, working hard to get there, one day at a time.
5. Find (and listen to) a mentor.
If you’re lucky enough to find a mentor, ideally one with manufacturing and one with retail experience, listen to every piece of advice they’re willing to share with you. You don’t have to follow it all, but you should be open to every bit of insight others are willing to share with you.
6. Live in the present with focus.
Owning your own business is all-consuming. You will work seven days a week. Even if you’re not at work physically, it’s really hard to separate yourself mentally. The best advice I’ve heard is to be completely present in whatever it is you’re doing at that time: When you’re at work, focus on work. And when you’re with your friends and family, give 'em all the love you got. Acknowledging, and admitting to, life's never-ending demands actually helps you compartmentalize the guilt you'll feel about never giving either enough attention.
Thank you so much for sharing, Sarah!