The Hardest Part To Starting A Business

It doesn’t take an MBA degree to understand that starting a business is difficult, but starting a food business is especially difficult. I would know—I founded a cookie dough company in San Francisco called DOUGH & CO almost five years ago. With super slim margins and a relatively small sell price, I have to literally make a ton of dough every month in order to earn a living in the increasingly expensive City by the Bay. Someone recently asked me what the most challenging part has been on my cookie journey, and as I reflect on the past few years I realize it wasn’t raising capital (I self-funded with my own savings) or finding real-estate (I don’t have a brick-and-mortar). The most difficult part in starting my business was overcoming the mental barriers preventing me from actually getting started in the first place.

But let’s start from the beginning: I moved to San Francisco ten years ago after graduating college. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so like many other directionless young people in The Bay, I took a job at a tech company. After about a year in, I learned I hated having a desk job—but I didn’t know what else to do with my life.

Luckily, my apartment was located directly across the street from a non-profit called La Cocina. The organization assists primarily low-income immigrant women of color to start food businesses. I always had a passion for food (specifically eating copious amounts of it), and my mom immigrated to the states from Burma in 1979, so the organization really spoke to me. I started volunteering, and seeing people go through the program was super inspiring. I quit my job after five long years and would soon start DOUGH & CO, renting commercial kitchen space from La Cocina on Sundays where I’d make big batches of cookie dough by myself. But getting to this place where I was ready required leaping over a few large mental hurdles.

The first hurdle to overcome was the idea of needing to make a lot of money. From a young age, capitalist culture paves a neat linear path to follow: get good grades in high school, go to a good college, get a well-paying job, climb the corporate ladder and get raises and promotions to make more and more money. I played by the rules and followed the formula, but at the end of it, I simply was not happy; the corporate ladder and the pursuit of the dollar proved meaningless to me.

It can be difficult to break away from the “normal” path for many, especially if there are other financial obligations like student debt or mortgages or children—I thankfully didn’t have those; nonetheless, it was still very difficult for me to rewire my brain and realize there were other paths in life beyond the corporate nine-to-five desk job.

The second and bigger mental hurdle for me to overcome was the expectations of my immigrant parents ingrained in my brain. My folks wanted me to have a safe steady job because, like many other immigrants, my parents took big risks to leave their homeland and worked hard crappy jobs in order for my siblings and I to get good educations and well-paying jobs, to live risk-free lives. So when I told my parents I was going to quit my stable desk job to start a cookie dough business, you could only imagine how well that went over.

The third and last mental hurdle to overcome was to stop the constant comparison of myself to other Bay Area technology businesses (which was especially difficult since I lived in the heart of it all—I was surrounded by startups). So often I’d hear about apps that will “change the world” and Series C funding and inconceivable bajillion dollar valuations and rainbows and unicorns and it was all so damn intimidating and unreal.

I didn’t know how to raise money—I didn’t know how to forecast first-year sales and determine market capitalizations and find a product market fit (I still don’t completely understand what that means). I didn’t know how to write a business plan—but that’s what you’re told you’re supposed to do (note: I did write one and I have never looked at it since). The more I thought about the business side and compared myself to the seemingly successful tech startups around me, the more I was put into a state of analysis paralysis. Getting over the idea of needing to have the next big idea in Silicon Valley and actually just starting with what I had and knew required a considerable shift in thinking.

The hardest part of starting my business was just that—getting started. To get to the mental place of readiness, however, required overcoming the societal and familial expectations that shaped my brain as well as ceasing to compare myself to other Bay Area tech businesses. I’m not trying to understate the amount of blood, sweat, and dough it has taken me to get to the sustainable and thriving place that I am in today. I burned through savings and took on credit card debt—I for a long time had no idea what I was doing (I still don’t completely know if I’m being honest). But getting to the point when I could tell myself “You’re doing this” and then actually truly doing it—that was the hard part. From there, I let a careful balance of logic and intuition guide my way.

I knew I had to a) make delicious cookie dough and b) sell said delicious dough for more than it cost. If I did these two things enough times and at enough volume, I’d eventually make a living off of it—it was that simple. I just needed patience, persistence, and time.

And although I started my business almost five years ago, I’m just getting started.

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