Entrepreneur Interviews: Cleaver and Company
1. What do you think all entrepreneurs should know before start their endeavors?
Starting a business is not a trivial task, especially if you are creating something new to the market. Preparation and planning are essential and clearly conveying your ideas to potential investors, lenders, customers, and vendors is crucial. It will be a lot of hard work and long weeks, but they will be rewarding. You will also quickly realize how important it is to choose your partners carefully during this process. You need to choose someone you can work with, but who also complements your skills and has the same vision as you.
2. How did you get started?
I had the initial sparks for the shop about six years ago and I was kicking it around for a while when I was living in Chicago. I had shelved the plans before I moved back to New Orleans, but it kept nagging at me that something like this didn’t exist here, so I pulled the plan off the shelf and started reshaping it to reflect New Orleans and Southern Louisiana’s unique food culture. About that time, my current business partner, Simone Reggie, approached me about working together. I’m the numbers and strategy, she’s the marketing and sales. Our strengths really fit together well, we work and communicate well, and we’ve been on the same page throughout the development process. After we decided to partner up, we took advantage of Elstrott’s New Venture Planning capstone course to polish our ideas and gather as much input from Dr. Elstrott as possible.
3. How did you finance your business at the beginning?
We were lucky that we were able to finance our business entirely through friends and family. Part of the design of our business was starting as small and nimble as possible and bootstrapping the business as much as we could. We fell into an interesting gray area in financing where we needed too much capital to float ourselves, but we were for too little to attract larger investors. We explored a couple economic development programs though the city and state, but the process timeline was longer than we could afford.
4. How your day does look like?
Every day has been unique as we prepare to open the shop. A system to track what has been done and what needs to be done has been very important. Every Monday I sit down first thing and organize everything that needs to happen that week and if I can what day. Then every morning I look at the meetings we have scheduled on the calendar and organize what tasks need to be done that day. Monday tends to be my most productive day as I knock out as much as possible anticipating the chaos the rest of the week tends to bring. Part of your day ends up being proactive and the rest is reactive.
5. What three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
Take the leap and pursue your idea full time. I have known too many people who try to work out an idea on the side while they also have a full time job. Not many of their ideas became anything past an idea you talk about at a bar. Your idea either withers on the vine or you never leave that job because the money is too attractive. I know because I was there for a while. If your idea is really worth something, you need to invest yourself into it and dedicate time to it. You may struggle for a bit, and it will be scary, but once you are all in you will fight more to win.
Know your strengths, fill your weaknesses. One of best things I did this time around was realize how little I wanted to be a salesman and how bad I knew I would be at it. I also realized that maintaining relationships with our network of local farmers would be a full time job in itself. Thankfully, all of these are skills my partner has in spades. I can concentrate on the things I think I do well and let her excel at her things. Of course you also have to be brutally honest with yourself about what your strengths really are, and that may require a long period of self reflection and trial and error.
Be nimble, things will happen and you have to react. Try to keep your plan as flexible as possible as things will happen that are unexpected or out of your control which may cause your plans to change. Be sure you have room in your plan to react. Schedules change, contractors take longer, markets shift, people get fired. Make sure you don’t paint yourself in a corner.
6. What is the worst advice you have received?
I think this notion of business plans being irrelevant is the worst thing for fledgling entrepreneurs to listen to. I do believe that there are certain fast moving industries where time may be more fruitfully spent developing services and prototypes to get to market quickly, but for most industries the time spent developing a sound business plan will be the best investment into the business. Sitting down and developing a full business plan will force you to think about all aspects of the business and answer some tough questions. You’ll probably be the only person who ever actually reads the plan, but its true worth is the thought that goes into it.
7. What outsiders have been most important to your business success?
We have been fortunate to have a strong support system around us to help us though the long development process while we were opening the business. We really could not have made it though it without them, at least not with our sanity. As far as the actual business development itself goes, a very important aspect of our planning process was visiting all of the farms we planned to use as vendors and similar businesses in other markets. From the farmers, we got to know our product much better and can speak to the hard work they put into producing superior products. From the other markets, we were able to see what aspects of each business worked for us and recombine them into our ideal business. More importantly, we could ask them, “What haven’t we thought of?” or “What didn’t you expect?”