Last Friday I had the opportunity to speak at a TEDxEast event, where I was invited to speak about whatever I wanted for five minutes. If you’re not familiar with TED, definitely check out the site and its “riveting talks by real people, free to the world.” The talks are so varied and so interesting that you can spend a whole afternoon on there, and you probably won’t regret it as much as you’d regret an afternoon spent on, say, facebook.
It took me a while to figure out exactly what I wanted to talk about, but I knew it would have something to do with entrepreneurship. Lately, I’ve felt a certain tension with the word “entrepreneur.” It bothers me when I’m in a conversation with someone who describes him or herself as an “entrepreneur” first and then says what he/she actually does second. I like things to be concrete. I want to know that you’re a designer or that you run an online dating site or that you’re opening a bar. These job descriptions are interesting to me. Entrepreneur, on its own, is just so vague.
Anyway, long story short: below is the text of the talk that I gave, or you can watch the video above. I hope you’ll find it interesting, and I welcome your thoughts!
Entrepreneurship & Rockets – TEDxEast Talk – November 19, 2011
When I entered college, I was unfamiliar with the word “entrepreneur.” I remember visiting a friend at Stanford, and he told me how funny it was that all of his friends’ parents were “entrepreneurs.” It was such a vague term to us. Where we grew up, in a small town north of Boston, everyone’s parents had… jobs. They were doctors or lawyers or teachers or salespeople. The idea of everyone’s parents being entrepreneurs was funny to me, like they were all pioneers or explorers.
Lately, I feel like I can’t escape the word “entrepreneur.” It’s no longer isolated out in California – it now permeates this city. Everyone I meet has aspirations of developing the next game-changing app or website. This word “entrepreneur” is a label that is applied to so many young upstarts of my generation. With it comes visions of flip-flops in the office and promises of millions of dollars of venture capital money.
It’s also a label that gets applied to me, and while I do wear flip-flops in the office, I’m not the kind of entrepreneur my generation instantly admires or aspires to be. I started my company two years ago with $40,000 of savings and have been growing it quickly – but on a strict budget – ever since.
My company is Baking for Good. It’s an online bakery inspired by the idea of a bake sale. We bake cookies and brownies that can be delivered anywhere in the country, and we donate 15% of the proceeds from each purchase to a charity that the customer chooses. From outside appearances, we’re a big success, with 200+ charity partners, features on the TODAY Show and in InStyle, and corporate clients like Google and Bank of America.
But on the inside, I’d call us a little success. We’re currently a team of three. I wake up at 5am, navigate three subway lines to get to my bakery in Queens, package hundreds of cookies before the sun comes up, and still make it back to the office (in my living room) by 9am. I might be called an “entrepreneur,” but it’s pretty hard to recognize myself when I watch The Social Network or read about Groupon’s IPO.
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke on a panel to a group of business school students here in New York. As I was describing my experience bootstrapping my company, it became clear that I was very different from the other panelists, each of whom introduced themselves by stating their names and how many millions they had just closed in venture capital funding. One of my fellow panelists, who had just raised $4M, piped in to provide a distinction between me as a small business owner, casually going about my day, and himself as “a real entrepreneur,” with a rocket strapped to his back.
At the time, I wasn’t sure how to respond to this, the idea that he was somehow more legitimate because he had a $4M rocket strapped to his back. Was he right? Was he that much more of an entrepreneur than me?
What I didn’t recognize in the moment, and what I’m afraid we’re all too accustomed to overlook, is that I too have a rocket strapped to my back. In my case, however, it’s my own rocket. It’s fueled by my passion for my product and my company and my customers. It’s powered by the joy I feel running a business that allows individuals to send gifts they feel great about, to friends and family in good times and bad. At Baking for Good, we’ve been part of people’s weddings and baby showers, we’ve baked for 5-year-olds’ birthdays and 90-year-olds’ birthdays, we’ve baked to say “I’m sorry” and we’ve baked to say “thank you, Enterprise, for finding my lost wedding ring in your rental car.”
These days, when we talk about entrepreneurship and encourage people to turn their ideas and passions into businesses, I wish we focused more on the idea that they can build something out of nothing, not that they need heaps of cash to start something of value. Outside investment does not an entrepreneur make. The most intrepid entrepreneurs I know are the ones who forge ahead with their own guts and drive and willingness to eat peanut butter and jelly every day til they make it, rather than those who rely on safety nets and simply move on to the next adventure if this one doesn’t work out.
Entrepreneurship has the power to transform our lives and to make the world better. We should be thrilled that so many people want to pursue this path. But in order to truly encourage attainable, sustainable entrepreneurship, we need to shift the focus away from the $4M rockets and billion dollar valuations, and back to the heart of what entrepreneurship is all about. It’s about creating something new, building something awesome, moving our lives forward. Day by day, customer by customer, and in my case, brownie by brownie.