There comes a point in every entrepreneur's journey where the strategies that propelled their company's initial success are no longer working. Those situations demand fresh thinking and often bold action. Below, three women entrepreneurs explain how they took their companies to the next level.
Connecting With the Customer
When Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin decided to start a food business together nine years ago after meeting at a food-focused book club, they were adamant it would not be a bakery. Instead, their company, Ovenly, focused on selling baked goods (such as pistachio cardamom cake and Brooklyn blackout cupcakes) to the growing number of gourmet coffee shops and cafes popping up in Brooklyn. They also worked their way into bigger chains. “People were looking for pastries to match the quality of the coffee they were selling," recalls Kulaga.
That strategy helped them gain attention. But wholesaling had drawbacks. When those small shops and cafes struggled, closed, or were acquired—as often happened—Ovenly would lose orders. In addition, says Kulaga, “We were losing an opportunity to connect with the customer."
A few years into the business, they hit a rough financial patch and considered throwing in the towel. The crisis forced them to re-evaluate the business, and they decided that operating their own bakeries was not such a bad idea after all. “We realized we were relying too much on a B2B strategy, and that there is power and meaning in driving the business ourselves," says Kulaga. Retail, they decided, was the path to success for Ovenly.
I've learned that one of the most demanding tests as a founder and CEO is to balance strategy and tactics.
—Daniela Perdomo, CEO, goTenna
Today, the pair operate four bakeshops in Brooklyn, New York, with a fifth on the way, as well as a community space where they offer baking classes. “We know that we can only pay a certain amount for rent to be able to be profitable, so we've been opening up modest size retail locations," says Kulaga. They still have 150 wholesale accounts, but retail sales makes up almost half of Ovenly's revenue, cushioning it from the whims of the wholesale trade.
Looking back on the crisis that led to the shift in strategy, Kulaga says “It was a painful moment, but one that really redefined us. It helped elevate us to the next level."
Making Time for the Big Picture
After Hurricane Sandy lashed the east coast in 2012, power was knocked out in many areas. Compounding matters, a third of cellular towers went down, making it difficult to communicate. That experience led Daniela Perdomo and her brother Jorge to create goTenna, a Bluetooth-enabled gadget that allows any cell phone to send and receive text messages without cellular service, Wi-Fi or satellites.
Using low-power, low-cost, mobile networking protocols and devices, goTenna aims to create a decentralized, off-grid, peer-to-peer communication system.
It's a heady vision. Since shipping their first devices in 2015, more than 100,000 individuals in 49 different countries have purchased the product. goTenna has also signed up government and professional customers, including firefighters, city governments and the U.S. military.
Keeping focused on the big picture amid all that activity and growth has been a challenge for Daniela Perdomo, goTenna's CEO. “I've learned that one of the most demanding tests as a founder and CEO is to balance strategy and tactics," she says. “For too long, I've found myself working on tactical day-to-day tasks, making it hard to create space to think over the horizon."
With her company at a critical growth stage, Perdomo late last year hired an experienced chief of staff. She has helped Perdomo create space every week for unscheduled, individual work and strategizing. She also helped Perdomo realize that much of her frustration around productivity stemmed from “context-switching" multiple times a day. “Now," says Perdomo, “every day has an overall theme, which allows me to focus." That might mean concentrating on product and engineering on Tuesday, and recruiting on Thursday.
The strategy is paying off. As Perdomo has dedicated time to high priority issues like organization development and recruiting, goTenna has made five new hires in the past month. The company is also implementing a formal process for defining and tracking strategic objectives.
That should go a long way in achieving Perdomo's mission of “building the world's most scalable, resilient, and accessible communications architecture."
Capital to Grow
'Yemisi Awosan grew up steeped in the food and traditions of West Africa. Her father moved the family from Nigeria to the U.S. when she was 15 to teach at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In college and throughout her early career as a retail buyer, Awosan enjoyed cooking the foods of her native land for family and friends. “I love my culture, I love talking about it and I love cooking," she says.
So when she was ready for a career change, sharing that passion with a wider audience was a natural. First, she needed to test the market. Awosan, who had moved to New York by then, started by offering her services as a personal chef and catering hot meals for hedge funds and tech startups. When her food proved to be a hit, she decided to scale the business by creating a line of fresh, packaged soups and stews that could be sold in the refrigerated section of retail stores.
She called her company Egunsi Foods (pronounced a-goo-see) after a seed used for making the traditional West African egusi stew.
She tweaked her recipes for a broad consumer market, and landed an account with the local branch of a national supermarket. But to create the packaging and comply with heath laws, she needed capital. The Small Business Services (SBS) agency in Harlem connected her to a microlending website and a small-business lender, and Awosan was able to borrow a combined $18,000.
That funding allowed Awosan to buy containers and a labeling machine to package her soups, and to complete a shelf-life study. “It was super helpful," she says.
Today, she has a line of four soups, including West African tomato soup and peanut butter groundnut soup. In a little over a year, Egunsi Foods has grown from one store to 26 retail outlets. She's working on a new product to add to Egunsi's lineup, and hopes to be selling nationwide in five years.
Photo: Getty Images