Interview on Entrepreneurialism with Ellis Hunsaker

by Tami M Steggell on

The following student questions were submitted to me and the following are my answers:

Date of Interview: 5/16/2018

Start-up phase:

Question One:You have done a fantastic job with branding, what was your process to create your brand story?

There is a good book called START WITH WHY which explains my feelings regarding how brand and story, the vision of the company go hand in hand. I knew what the product meant to me and why it was created in the first place.  I love sweets!  But they are a luxury for me and for the privilege of eating them, they must be worth my time, money, calories, and all my hard earned work outs because I epitomize the chubby athlete.  The product was developed for me to eat on my free days, the requirement was that it must have clean ingredients, pack a ton of amazing flavor, and make me say “Wow! That was good!  And that was worth it!”.  The brand and the story are the same and they have meaning.  Loyal customer purchase meaning and good feelings.  Anything beyond that is simply salesmanship used car style.  Find your meaning and your brand will manifest itself.

Question Two: Did you start with a brand or a product? Would you do it the same way again if you were to start over?

I am very graphic minded and visually sensitive so beginning with a brand to tell the story was an important element for me.  The product pre-existed many years before the branding was created but both were launched together.  Yes!  I would always launch simultaneously.  If there is enough pre-planning I would most definitely secure trademarking before any public announcements.  This at minimum about an 18 month process. 

Question Three: What is one thing that lead to your success in the startup phase? What about something you wish you would have had?

Sometimes startups defy logic and don’t make sense on paper but make sense by vision.  If the vision is present and strong I believe anything can be accomplished successfully.  As for myself, I had no money, no culinary degree, but a well tested, well researched, well practiced concept that I was willing to fail at.  Yes fail!  Even failing is much farther than most people have a chance to arrive at, most quit before they start.  Giving myself permission to fail was easy, I had a career to fall back on. Here is what I did do right, I determined the depth of my willingness for risk.  My personal risk willingness was $10,000 of an IRA I cashed out.  I was willing to lose $10K and only $10k because I knew I could earn that money back.  Getting an SBA loan for $200K was not in my comfort zone.  I used my talents as an architectural designer to draw all my own plans, submit all my own permits, and the sweat equity from my hands to refurbish our building.  From that day forward we have operated loan free, debt free for the first 9 years.  Now in our 10th year we are willing to begin accepting strategic debt to grow with pre-determined accounts and locations.

Question Four: What was your biggest risk when starting the company and how did you decide the risk was worth taking?  (see above) Biggest risk is the consideration to the family, my most important goal was to not have any negative impacts on the family.  If I could grow a business without lowering a standard of living for my family and/or putting them in harms way, then my plan could proceed.

Growing the Business:

Question Five: Process for launching a new cookie (product)? How do you know when to retire a cookie?

Great questions!  I accumulate ideas at the speed of light, but I am never in a hurry to create or launch them.  I create when the creative process seems fruitful, I never concede on high quality ingredients or flavors, or succumb to trends.  I have blinders on as to my competitors.  I consider myself my best customer profile, ideas and products that make it to market pass the “Tami Test”.  Our typical cultural fit are working professional who are willing to make destination purchases for quality over quantity.  They are not coupon shoppers and value a higher standard. In my case, I am a total food snob, yes I am a foodie, I think about food, I discuss food, I can converse endlessly about how I might have approached a dish, etc., and I would rather go hungry than settle for something that is not well thought out or worth the calories.  As a vertically challenged female with few corners to stuff calories into, I want my food to have meaning.  So!  Each new cookie is very carefully deliberated.  Inspiration comes in many forms, vacations, dreams in my sleep, spontaneity.  It’s hard to say, but I have journals of hand and electronic entries that will last for years to come on ideas for the future. 

Retiring cookies:  Sometimes cookies are retired against the publics will or before their time, simply because I need to make room to create.  Plus, genuine change creates excitement and value.  When we first started we had 8 recipes.  We now have over 80 recipes, but we only feature 20 per month.  Eighteen of those are fixed standard that are offered all day, every day.  Two per month are rotated in each month as monthly special, and they go away at the end of that month to make way for the next two cookies.  This pains the public greatly, but!, next year their favorite will come back again.  This turned out to be an accidental marketing wonder!  It makes foodies rush in at the beginning and end of each month to enjoy the special that are only in season for that month.  My original intent was to simply have an outlet to create.

Question Six: What is next for Ruby? Beyond Harmons? More brick and mortar or more as a distributor to other retailers?

Next Steps: Oooooooh!  Actually quite a bit!  We have suspended many growth opportunities over the years in favor of growing at a pace that allowed for a safe home life and to grow without pains and newbie mistakes.  Taking over the world and making millions was not my original goal, it was to give something to the community that created value, even if that was only a “JOY” proposition of a making every customer walk out of our bakery feeling better than when they walked in.  To prove that food could be meaningful and worth.  What is interesting when you follow a vision is that you create a loyal tribe.  That tribe markets your brand for you, the money follows organically, you create longevity, and the public values your name as a trust center for good business. This alone has allowed us to grow at a rate of 40% per year without a stitch of begging, pleading, marketing, or gimmicks.

Now, the children are grown, we’re a position of strength to continue to grow purposefully.  Next steps are:  grow within high-end grocers in new markets outside of Utah an simultaneously grow walk-in retail locations. We have a lot of plans and prospect up our sleeve that we’re not ready to share, but the future feels bright.

Question Seven: As you have grown what was more important having the right people or having the right product?

That’s like asking which is more important in creating children, the man or the wife?  They are married.  The wrong people can ruin your brand faster than you sacrificed to create it.  The right people will exponentially create job security for the whole company.  The people you hire should match your DNA and be a walking version of your brand.  The brand goes on vacation with them, to school, the grocery store, to weddings, and every place where they create conversation.  Protecting your employees with a well centered place to work, that is full of trust, training, and empowerment supersedes any pay one can imagine.  When a company takes the time to slow down and hire correctly, less money is expended in errors and retraining. In our case, the product is created fresh daily by the very same employees, so proper hiring and training creates understanding of our purpose.

Question Eight: How has your strong commitment to customer service helped/ hurt along the way?

Our commitment contributes to loyalty because we offer reliability in our desire to provide our best product and service.  Those loyalist help spread the message and remain loyal.  We constantly practice our dependability with behind the scenes training.  One can never discount good service, look at Nordstrom and Apple, both have held strong ground through amazing service and products. 

We have had several knock-off companies that are “skyrocketing” right past us in social popularity, however, some of the tactics to get there may be considered gimmicky for the long term prospects of longevity.  We have seen this with trendy food in the past, like cupcakes, only the quality companies have survived.

Unstructured thoughts/ ideas:

Question Nine: I noticed that social sites (except tumbler on the news page) are not linked on the website? You have VERY high reviews much higher than most companies on sites like yelp, and grub hub, and you have a fantastic social media following yet there is no easy way to connect with you on social while on the website.

That will be changing soon, a redesign of our website is in progress and the social icons will appear on our website for quick connect as well as a deep dive blog that will connect the reader more personally to my cooking life at home as well.

Question Ten: Do the cookie personas have stories about how they created the cookie? From their own perspectives? I think that that content would be well received by your social following to hear for example how “Margo just got back from a service trip to Mexico where she fell in love with all the tasty cinnamon treats and knew that when she got home she just had to add cinnamon to her favorite cookie recipe, mint chocolate, and ever since she has been sharing her new favorite cookie with everyone” I don’t think these stories have to be true necessarily but the story telling piece continues to build on the brand awareness and brand value of fresh natural ingredients combined in a unique and tasty way.

No the cookies and their names do not have any fictional stories behind them, but they do have real stories and those are posted from time to time on social media.  Once I have a full collection of those stories they will be posted in a book in our store for guests to read.

Question Eleven: How do you handle intellectual property like the recipes and the distribution of those amongst employees? How do you handle when a customer’s asks? Is there value to do it differently? To keep it a bigger secret and promote exclusivity? Or to disperse the recipe (or maybe just retired cookie recipes) to promote the brand and encourage others to try the real deal in the store? Cookbook?

Recipes!  We have 80 recipes to date.  Every employee sign a NDA that has clear statements about our intellectual property.  Another trick is to separate out portions of a recipe, where only one employee see’s one part, and another see’s another part. When assembling, the two parts come together to create the final fresh assembly. Recipes are not retired forever, only for a time.  Perhaps there will be a cookbook someday, that would please me.  

Question Twelve: What about your story of owning and operating a business do you love? What do you dislike?

I love being master of my domain and having a real sense of giving back to the community.  It was hard to learn how to become a boss and coach employees with expectations and standards for brand quality.  I have since learned much over the past 10 years and am much better at selectively hiring and training those who share the same desire to be our personal best as a company.  Employees who show up for a career, not a paycheck. In this small company, we have the pleasure of a second “family” where work can feel like a safe haven.  We have displayed exceptional support and a true sense of welfare for one another.

I’m Tami Steggell, this is my story and I’m sticking to it. 

Submit a blog post request or questions on our About Page or email questions to: HeyRuby@RubySnap.com 

RubySnap Fresh Cookies

770 S. 300 W.

Salt Lake City, UT  84101

Bakery Tele: (801) 834-6111

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