Tips for Female Entrepreneurs
In the business world, the pandemic has been the great equalizer. Many businesses have been levelled entirely, reduced to nothing but a vacant storefront, while a few “lucky” ones have had their foundations shaken but are fortunately still standing. Then there are the outliers – the shiny new startups whose founders have taken advantage of this suddenly level playing field to fill a gap left by the wake of the pandemic.
Curious to know more about the brave new entrepreneurs entering the market, we dug into the numbers and were both surprised and yet not surprised to learn that a high number of these new startups are female owned; being disproportionately affected by the job loss that’s occurred as a result of Covid-19, many women, whether motivated by passion or a sudden necessity, seized the opportunity to launch a new business.
For these new female business owners, it’s an exciting time but just as equally a tumultuous one. To help them navigate through the ups and downs, we’ve turned to our own female founder and Chief Cookie Officer, Kim Gans, to get her advice on what it takes to launch, sustain and build a business that you love.
What inspired you to develop your idea?
I knew from a young age that I always wanted to run my own business. After graduating from University of Michigan with an MBA combined with over 10 years working in strategic consulting and later brand management at General MIlls, I gained the confidence and skills I needed to make that dream happen. At the same time, I developed a real passion for cookies & fresh baked treats because they were always a part of my fond family memories and I loved that something so simple could make people so happy. Founding Sweet Flour was a way for me to combine all my passions - running a business, developing a brand, and making people smile.
What challenges did you overcome at the beginning of your journey?
Staying true to my passion and vision while also being willing to pivot. I opened Sweet Flour in 2009 as a retail concept featuring the ability to create your own cookie and have it baked in 2 minutes. It was the first of its kind in North America and we knew people would love the novelty, but even from very early on, we never rested on that idea. I knew we had to keep expanding and growing, so we evolved into an online baked goods gift business and also sold cookies through other premium retailers; eventually I sold the store altogether to focus on online gifting.
As our concept and focus shifted, I made it my goal to stay true to our mission to “surprise and delight” customers, to provide a way for them to take time out of their day to connect with family and friends, whether through an in-store experience or through a surprise gift delivered to a friend’s door. Additionally, our shift to the e-commerce retail space meant I could continue to develop my passion for marketing and branding in totally new and challenging ways.
What advice would you give to someone who is trying to become an entrepreneur?
You need to have a plan with goals and financial targets that you assess quarterly; if you are missing the mark on your targets, you need to be open to making changes.
Raise more money than you think you need and then raise even more - always have a buffer! A great mentor once told me you want to ensure you have enough money to see a good idea out rather than have to shut down a company prematurely because you ran out of money.
Have a great team and support system (i.e. family, friends, mentors) that can help you along the journey and challenge your ideas - being an entrepreneur of a start-up can sometimes feel isolating and overwhelming vs working in a large company where you can bounce ideas off one another. I feel so fortunate to have the strong support system that I do; their support has been invaluable to me and the growth of Sweet Flour.
Lastly, I would say you absolutely need to have a true passion for your idea and purpose; it is not enough to simply have a good idea. You will work more hours than you thought possible and your business will become intertwined with every part of your life, so you need to be 100% passionate about what you do. As an entrepreneur, you don’t have the luxury to be partially committed - you have to jump in with both feet.
How did you first select your employees?
It’s a process we’ve honed over time, but the core attributes we look for when building our team have never changed, and it doesn’t have anything to do with a fancy resume or years of experience. First and foremost, we look for passion - passion for delivering an exceptional customer experience, passion for their work, and passion for what they’re selling. The first critical hires need to share the enthusiasm of the entrepreneur about what they do.
Second, they need to have a great work ethic, a willingness to step outside what’s comfortable to overcome a challenge and get the job done.
Finally, they need to be willing to flex. With a new business, there are few standard processes or procedures in place so new employees need to be comfortable operating without them and / or engaging in the process of creating them. It sounds simple but we’ve learned that not everyone is comfortable stretching themselves beyond the job description.
To sum it up, I’ve learned that you can teach skills, but you can’t teach passion or work ethic. If I have the most talented individual but they are not accountable, lack integrity or can’t be trusted, then their talent is meaningless.
How did you raise funding?
Sweet Flour was partially self funded and the rest was funded through a bank loan. In 2015, I was chosen to appear on Dragons’ Den where I received an offer for additional financial backing from one of the Dragons. Ultimately I turned it down as I was looking for the right strategic partner willing to offer the financial investment that put skin into the game as a partner, not just an investor.
What are the qualities of a good entrepreneur?
Resilience -- there will be ups and downs in every business, so remind yourself it's not a race but how you weather the storm and dance in the rain.
Recognizing the power of a team -- to be successful you need to know what your strengths and opportunities are and surround yourself with team members, mentors and advisors that can complement your skills.
What are you working on now? What is your vision for the coming years?
We want to keep growing our online presence; we’ve had great growth trends, but we know that there are still so many customers we have yet to reach and we love setting that challenge for ourselves. We’re going to continue to remain focused on fresh baked gifts for occasions (i.e. birthdays) and corporate appreciation but are looking to find ways to expand into the personal consumption category with hot, fun and super indulgent cookie combinations - we’re currently focusing on a “nostalgia with a twist” line where we’re experimenting with ice-cream and mocktail inspired cookies.