Team Synaptic (aka Team Virtual Whiteboard) got the opportunity to have a conversation with Robyn Sue Fisher, the founder of an exciting new ice cream company Smitten Ice Cream. In this interview we learn about how Robyn grew Smitten from an idea to a thriving business, as well as some general advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Team Synaptic (TS): We’re excited to be joined by Robyn Sue Fisher who is the founder Smitten Ice Cream, an exciting new venture in the San Francisco Bay Area. Hi Robyn and thank you for joining us.
Robyn Sue Fisher (RSF): My pleasure!
TS: Before we talk about Smitten, we’re interested in hearing about your background. Can you tell us about your experience leading up to Smitten?
RSF: I worked in the corporate world for over 4 years as a management consultant, specializing in marketing strategy — working in Boston, New York, and Paris. I then went to Stanford Graduate School of Business and focused on entrepreneurship.
TS: So you’re at Stanford and you decide you want to start making ice cream for a living! In business school there is a lot of emphasis being placed on being differentiated and having a unique value proposition, how was the idea for Smitten different from all of the other ice cream businesses out there?
RSF: I wanted to take a product I loved — ice cream — and make it even better. Smitten’s unique value proposition was to make the freshest, purest, creamiest ice cream in the world – from scratch, to order!
TS: Ok, now you have an idea. How did you go about validating the concept with potential customers? Was it a challenge to explain to them what you were trying to do?
RSF: Initially, I rigged up a janky system with duct tape, funnels and mixer parts and started making ice cream in my backyard. I made ice cream as often as I could for anyone who would eat it to learn as much as I could. With that learning, I spent the next 2 years after business school in a basement shop testing and prototyping different ideas and then building a full-fledged prototype. I then sold ice cream on the streets of San Francisco for a year to get real feedback from real people, and that is how I learned the most! I built a batter pack that could power my Brrr(TM) machine for 4 hours, and bungee corded Brrr(TM) to a milkcrate on top of the Radio Flyer, plopped in a 10 liter tank of liquid nitrogen, and used Twitter to tell people the flavor of the day and where I would be, and then I would leave when I sold out or when cops came (because I didn’t have a permit… but cops like ice cream :). I didn’t want to be operating illegally but permitting wasn’t possible for me, as the regulations required a setup that would have cost me at least $50,000, and I was broke at the time. It was a bit of a challenge to try to explain what I was doing, but my philosophy was to just let the product speak for itself. Once people tasted the ice cream, they would realize that Smitten was something darn special.
TS: How did you pay for everything up to this point? Did you have any external funding?
RSF: I spent my life’s savings developing the prototype machine. In the years thereafter, I raised a small amount of convertible debt from friends and family for patents and then raised a seed round of funding for our first shop from angel investors, many of whom were customers.
TS: The idea of going around town with ice cream on wheels sounds amazing! At this point you have a product, how do you get the word out to your first set of customers?
RSF: Initially, I just used social media: Facebook and Twitter! I would post my location and flavor of the day, and then post again when I was sold out. I also did fun contest on social media for various rewards.
TS: Then how did you scale this out to the next set of customers?
RSF: I started being a little bit more strategic about where I would go with the wagon. For instance, I would sell ice cream outside of angel investor forum meetings and things like that. I tried to get in front of people who could help me to propel the business further. I also started doing more catering events for companies, which evolved into a decent little business!
TS: What are the plans to grow the business? You have mentioned you are not interested in franchising, is there a particular reason for that?
RSF: Our goal with Smitten is to make the best ice cream in the world and to never, ever lose sight of quality. We have so much blood, sweat and tears in this company; it is not a “get rich fast” mentality, but rather a “make people smitten” mentality. As such, we are going to grow, but we are going to do it carefully and thoughtfully, doing a sanity check every step of the way to make sure that we aren’t making any compromises on quality through growth. Franchising is much more of the “get rich quick” approach — it is easy to lose quality quickly when you are not running your own shops!
TS: Now that the business is growing larger, have you changed the way you reach out to customers? Do you contract with anyone to provide PR or any other marketing material?
RSF: We still utilize a breadth of social media, but we have also added an interactive website and a newsletter. Additionally, we recently brought on a very small PR agency to help us get the word out about new shops and to help us be more targeted in our approach to media.
TS: How do you think business school helped with getting your business started?
RSF: I think b-school really helped to give me the credibility I needed to raise money from sophisticated investors in the later-beginning stages of the company. At first, honestly, it was all perseverance and learning from all of the food entrepreneurs around me, not my b-school education. BUT, the b-school education certainly gave me an advantage when I had to present a business plan to potential investors AND it helped me connect with an AMAZING network of advisers.
TS: Where can people go to learn more about Smitten and when can we expect a Seattle location?
RSF: Please, please check out our website: www.smittenicecream.com. We have tons of fun stuff on there — check out the video links on the “LOVE” page – here’s one of my fave’s: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/01/smitten-ice-cream_n_3157062.html?utm_hp_ref=small-business
TS: Thank you for your time, any parting advice for the aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
RSF: Hmmm. Few short thoughts:
- Go after something you love because it will almost definitely take twice as long (if not more) to get where you want to go.
- Be okay with failure. You have to fail to ultimately succeed. There were SO MANY small failures along the way for me!
- Build a network of advisors who you can go to for different things. Try not to always go to the same person, but rather seek out different people for different parts of the business. Build this network before you think you need it because it takes a while to develop the relationship and the people who you will most likely want to talk to are probably super busy.
To learn more about Smitten and Robyn:
Smitten: http://smittenicecream.com/ (includes links to social channels)
Foundation Interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Z_-dV9C78k
Stanford Business School Interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3D6tYerfNA