A few weeks ago, I was speaking at the United States Personal Chef’s Association conference here in Orlando. Among the interesting entrepreneurs that I met there was a truly extraordinary woman who is following her dream of business ownership despite having an excellent career as a radiologist. I was dumbfounded that someone who already has a stable salary and an enviable career would work on her off hours to establish her own business. Her name is Laurie Gutstein, M.D. and CEO of Calamondin Café. I asked her to share her tale with us. I’m sure you’ll find her as fascinating as I do!
Q: You already have a great career. What made you decide to start your own business?
A: I wanted to come up with an enterprise I could enjoy doing in retirement. One friend of mine makes fun of my phrase, “retirement career.” I guess some people flunk retirement and I knew I’d be one of them. I’ve always known the only person who would be funding my retirement would be me. I wasn’t going to get any pensions, so I wanted a backup plan, and I knew I had to love it.
Then there were the three elements of a perfect storm:
1) I serendipitously signed up with a start-up Teleradiology company in 2003. Teleradiology is the remote interpretation of X-rays via the internet. This company had a reading center in Sydney, Australia, so doctors worked days while reading X-rays on patients from the U.S. at night. I got a front row seat watching a tiny little company that thought outside the box as it became a publicly traded national brand. Most physicians in private practice don’t get that entrepreneurial exposure.
2) My brother and I had some palm tree farms we thought would contribute to retirement 10 or 20 years down the road. When the construction industry in Florida collapsed in 2008, I began to ponder what other agricultural models would work for that land. I particularly liked a food-based model as always being in a certain amount of demand. Oh. And I love food.
3) My dad introduced Calamondin jam to family and friends through another friend who had a tree. My parents had retired to Florida in the late 80’s. Dad planted his own tree, and all through the 90’s, I would receive jars of Calamondin jam while living up north. It has been my hands-down favorite ever since. After my dad burned sugar on the stove about 5 years ago, my mom decided it was time for him to retire from jam making, and I panicked. The baton was passed to me, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to duplicate Dad’s beloved jam. Okay, no one told me jam was easy.
Q: How long have you been doing it?
A: The perfect storm gelled as an idea to start a Calamondin company nearly 5 years ago. I gave friends jars of jam and they asked where they could get more. I offered to make it, but they were looking for a long-term fix and wanted to know where they could buy it. I realized they couldn’t buy it. You had to know someone with a tree. Four years ago, I planted the first grove of 22 Calamondin trees around the corner from my house to see if I could grow them and so I would have fruit for recipes to experiment with. Our commercial kitchen opened in November of 2011.
Q: What was the biggest challenge?
A: The biggest challenge was learning that I needed to wake up every morning knowing that no obstacle would be enough to stop me. All life and business and start-up ventures present one obstacle after another. If you stopped in your tracks for any of them, you would never move forward. So you have to internalize. Failure really is not an option. Some obstacles are huge and could shut you down. Some are small and could delay your progress. Entrepreneurs have to make friends with obstacles and get comfortable methodically figuring out a way around them. When you are comfortable with that mindset and it becomes a way of life, you have overcome your biggest obstacle. This process has reminded me that a long time ago, that’s what got me through medical school as well.
Q: Has anything ever happened that made you want to give up? If yes, what was it?
A: I would really like to meet the entrepreneur who can truthfully answer this question as a “no.” I certainly can’t. Was it when 1,200 Calamondin seedlings with a $3,000 value got confiscated by the citrus police because while Calamondins are not regulated, their propagation is? No. It wasn’t that. Was it spending $7,500 on architectural plans I may never use because the original kitchen construction quote went from $60,000 to $130,000 and I had 2 months to figure out a replacement option? No. Not that. Was it when I learned that all fresh citrus shipped out of state from Florida is dipped in one of three toxic fungicides and I could not in clear conscience do that with a fruit that uses the peel in processing? No. That didn’t do it.
What was it? Money. Our kitchen was open, but we did not yet have enough sales for me to say to myself, Okay, this is a crazy but working business plan. So, a little over a year ago, I was left with a crazy and unproven business plan and a cash flow problem. I have wonderful friends on my advisory board, and I consulted with them at length. I mulled and promptly dismissed venture capital. The Small Business Administration doesn’t loan money and doesn’t recommend start-ups. I decided to follow the good advice I was given and set up business benchmarks and follow them. I borrowed from my life insurance policy, paid that back, and ended up taking money out of my pension.
Q: What made you decide to keep moving forward during that challenge?
A: I came up with a DEFCON 1 backup plan. It would involve downsizing and changing our business model, but being able to continue making product profitably on a smaller scale. Once I had benchmarks to meet and a worst-case scenario plan to keep the business going, I was able to sleep well.
Q: What advice would you give would-be-entrepreneurs about moving forward with an idea and starting a business?
A: 1) Do you wake up in the morning and not feel right unless you know you are moving forward with your plan? This is a polite way of asking, are you demonically possessed by your idea? If not, ask yourself what would carry you through the disappointments and tough times?
2) Take 6 months and try and talk yourself out of it. That’s what I did. Try hard. Ask your friends and family to help. They’ll be happy to. That is when you do your soul searching, what if’s, and still see if you wake up in the morning as in #1 above.
3) Ask yourself if you have 10 years. I know you have a fabulous, unique, exciting idea for something that will make all our lives better. Sorry. It will still take 10 years.
4) Don’t quit your night job. I haven’t. It is hard work doing two things at once, but ultimately, I love the security. All business is risk. This keeps the statistics on my side.
5) I am single, but with the right partner, I could see doing this. If I were a parent, I’d feel neglectful.
Q: What does having your own business allow you to do that working for someone else wouldn’t allow?
A: Autonomy is my magic word. I love believing I have control over my destiny. (It may not be true, but I believe it is). And I love working on a project that I believe in down to my bones. I am sure there are opportunities and ways of working that out as an employee, but I’ve had that only once before.
Q: Do you have anything else that you’d like to share?
A: Oprah is right. Check your ego at the door. Read. Ask. Listen. Absorb. Ask again. Read more. Take your ego out of the equation. Your idea is bigger and more important than you are.