Once upon a time, my best friend and I co-produced Chicago’s first food truck fest. Although we’re no longer doing the fest my interest in the food truck entrepreneur community carried on. I wanted to serve the ones who really were building their truck biz like an empire and true creatives at heart – looking to do some major innovating within their industry. Be still my heart, when researching for a not-so-secret-project of mine (I started creating it last fall), I came across food truck empire Coolhaus. Although Coolhaus‘ initial roots were in the food truck industry their story has tons of lessons baked in for creative entrepreneurs, innovators and change agents across all industries. I interviewed co-founder Natasha Case and got a lot of great intel from her about their start, mindset, challenges and strategic decisions made along the way. I will be sharing that interview as a part of my not-so-secret project but, I wanted to share a bit about their story and six huge lessons for you. The full, audio interview will only be available to my Food Truck Mastery clients (coming soon)…
Credit: coolhaus.com/CC-BY-SA license
Natasha Case co-founded Coolhaus with Freya Estreller in 2008 while working in architecture for Disney. The company had humble beginnings but a hugely creative concept – bringing ice cream and cookies together in uniquely designed and yumtastic “cool houses.” They officially launched the truck in 2009 at Coachella, generating massive buzz. The company kicked off with one beat up postal van but now they have ten trucks in Southern California, New York and Dallas, a cookbook, outstanding brand partnerships, brick and mortar, and at the time of my interview with Natasha, retail distribution was her big focus. This year, Coolhaus was expected to launch in Kroger, Safeway, Whole Foods and other household retailers, with distribution in about 4,000-5000 stores.
As you can see, this story is pretty incredible.
I asked Natasha if she could share any intel on her transition from a Disney employee to a lady empire and she shared some gems.
1. Prioritize the work that can fill an immediate need and test it with your audience.
First, Natasha believes that the transition from employee to entrepreneur doesn’t have to be immediate. You should take time to map out the business and pay even closer attention if you’re going into a business where there’s a lot of risk involved. She and her partner did immense planning, but actually executed the part of the business that would be immediately in demand and profitable. They started off with the food truck, although the food truck was not the entire vision. They booked the truck for festivals and events where they knew they could get bang for buck and worked heavily on the weekends in order to pull it off. Once the business began to build in buzz, and the demand was clear, then Natasha left her job.
Also, Nicole shared that having a food truck on the street allowed them to collect data. They took the truck to different ‘hoods, and obviously sold the goods, but most importantly they were able to find out what people loved (or didn’t love across various communities).
What is a simple way that you can begin to test and collect data for your business? Keep it simple.
2. Start small and focused.
Even though Natasha and Freya had a larger vision, they executed the part of their business that would create immediate consumer demand, and give the quickest return on investment while planning out the rest. This is genius. So many new entrepreneurs try to do so much at once that they set themselves up for failure. I made this mistake as well, and literally had to be reeled in by my close peeps. It’s an honest mistake – we’re passionate, driven and excited to bring our ideas to the world, but we have to scale it back in exchange for sustaining, and going big later.
What small part of your business can you focus on and get off of the ground while you continue to plan, strategize the rest?
3. Even if you’re in an unrelated industry, figure out how to creatively transfer your skills to your business and do it.
Nicole went from architectural engineer to food truck entrepreneur. On the surface, it doesn’t seem related at all. But, she brought her love and experience for architecture into the Coolhaus concept – creating architecturally inspired desserts. Also, she was able to design much of the Coolhaus branding by using skills from her former career. Nicole shared that even the Chairman of her board was a former fashion industry vet – this speaks to the importance of not only creatively applying your skills to the business, but bringing in peeps from other industries and spaces.
True innovation happens when we draw influence from other worlds.
What are the key skills you’ve developed throughout your career? Make a list, and then map out how you can put them to use in your own business.
4. Make every decision with the larger vision in mind.
Nicole talked to me about how, from the start, Coolhaus was always about more than a truck. She and Freya set out to create a premium, lifestyle brand. When they began licensing and adding trucks to the fleet, it wasn’t just to have another truck. It was because they saw the truck as a way to generate awareness about the entire brand – trucks, retail, brick and mortar, cookbook and the whole shebang. I was thrilled to hear this because I believe in brand building – to me, a solid brand can level the playing field between smallbiz and bigbiz. If you properly build your brand, and protect it with trademarks, you’re brand truly becomes a business asset that has value. Brand equity is everything for small businesses because people connect with brands first. Also, it gives you opportunities for expansion through licensing strategies like Coolhaus implemented with their trucks.
Are you crystal (or nearly) clear on your big vision? Are you building a strong brand that you can leverage as an asset in your business?
5. Show up.
I’ve written previously about the importance of actually doing the work, and showing up. I asked Nicole to share a few specific steps she took that contributed to the company’s success. She said, “You won’t know anything until you put it out there”. When she was ready for retail distribution she showed up at Whole Foods. Told the employee she encountered that she wanted to get her product on the shelves, and asked who she needed to speak with. She got the contact information, and later returned with samples…
Note: She didn’t rely on social media or email. She got up and showed up. It works peeps.
Are you showing up in your business or are you just talking about it? When is the last time you got offline and connected live-in-person to make something happen for your business?
6. Strategy, strategy, strategy.
I want to point out, again, that these ladies launched the Coolhaus truck at Coachella. Major. That is not something you can do without extensive planning, strategy and foresight. It was a genius move because it gave them a ready made audience in their demographic. Without a plan to make the investment, and handle the volume, they couldn’t have pulled that off. Coachella was a boss move that set the company up for success out of the gate.
Have you strategized on that boss move for your business?
I was completely inspired by Nicole’s story from reading it online, but even moreso after we talked. This level of game-changing, next level, epic ish is what I want for my clients. Unfortunately, I see people playing it small either because they’re scared, don’t realize what’s possible, or don’t have a solid team in place. There’s an old saying that goes work your strengths and delegate your weaknesses (okay maybe I improvised a lot but you get the point).
None of us are born with the skills to do EVERYTHING. You should be able to create and do the part you love. You deserve that. So, connect with a team that can fill in the gaps. Together, you create a strategy that can take your from a to z. Start with a solid business plan and legal strategy to intentionally move towards your takeover. There are things like trademark clearances and registrations, licensing agreements, and non-disclosure agreements that need to be in place for the takeover.
I have my takeover plan in place do you? Winks. Let’s chat takeover in the inner circle.