I spent the last 21 months following my passion — Why it was the easiest and hardest thing to do!

I quit my job two years back. Started up on my own. Wanted to pursue my passion. Set up a dessert kitchen…. Shut down last month.

Sounds familiar? Haven’t we heard/read enough of such personal stories already? So why am I writing this post and why should you read it?

I am writing it because

  • I am stuck at home trying to sell large equipment from my cloud kitchen to buyers who would haggle even if the world was ending
  • The Coronavirus (read: world-is-ending) situation has made me mull over all of life’s decisions

You should probably read it because

  • We may all be in need of a little motivation right now and what better way than a personal story of could’ves and should’ves that taught me some of life’s biggest lessons :)

I have been labeled a ‘foodie’ by close ones for as long as I remember. While I don’t necessarily agree, I always craved to explore the food industry more. I started baking from home some years back and it gave me immense joy! Even after long office hours and limited equipment early on, I would end up recipe testing and baking for family and friends. It became something that would instantly relieve stress and give me the much-needed validation I would seek.

After having worked for 7+ years in the sales & marketing functions across multiple organizations, I asked myself the question we all ask ourselves every day — “Am I really happy doing this? Do I wake up in the morning and feel like going to work?” Of course, the answer was a resounding NO. It wasn’t an employer problem — I was thriving in any work environment at any point in time. The disconnect and lack of contentment was very very internal and deep-rooted because I believed I should be pursuing my passion. Let’s conveniently blame Robert Frost for making me believe in these magical words:

“My goal in life is to unite my avocation with my vocation,
As my two eyes make one in sight.”

So, after multiple discussions with family and friends and several sleepless nights, I decided to take the plunge and quit my job in May 2018. I did not want to step into the “business of baking” without refining my skills and ended up doing a Diploma in Patisserie Arts. This is where I met my future business partners and the idea was implanted. After graduating, we decided to open up a cloud-based bakery and Oneiro Boulangerie was born.

The happy announcement on Instagram :)

We realized that a cloud-based model was the way to go since it would require way less overheads compared to setting up retail. We had some great products tried and tested in our apartment groups, office groups, etc. We knew it was going to be a hard road ahead as the food industry is notorious for producing massive churn. But we wanted to operate in a space that, in our minds, would be a “retail haven” — where selling our bakes to only retail customers would ensure both scale and sustainability for business and creative satisfaction for us.

It was quite the task to set up this little dream space of ours — multiple recces to find the best equipment at the best rates, incessant haggling with landlords and brokers who refused to rent out their space to a kitchen, figuring out vendors to buy good quality food indent from, multiple trips to old parts of town to carry heavy packaging material — it was, well, fun! Hectic, but fun!

So, it was extremely heartbreaking to give away each small piece of equipment and furniture to random strangers as we wound down our operation. It was like giving away a part of me to someone else, a feeling I’m sure everyone knows and dreads. Each time someone came to pick up something, it would be a struggle to not think of what went wrong and how it could have been avoided. I know that in hindsight, everything makes sense! It’s what you do when the ball drops is what matters.

Here are some key learnings that we got out of the experience, things that we all knew about, but did not implement too well. I’m certain that the general idea behind these points would resonate with a lot of entrepreneurs, because industries may vary, businesses don’t.

  1. Positioning

One of the biggest learnings was how important it is to position yourself rightly in the market. The food industry is increasingly becoming a supersaturated space and we just failed to find a strong footing. We were always somewhere in the middle — neither a home baker (with nominal overheads and limited resources) nor a full-fledged production kitchen that was churning out massive order volumes to compensate for high overheads. The market was a Shark Tank of epic proportions!

We got stuck trying to figure out the right positioning in the market

We aimed to strike a balance but never worked on it with all our heart because secretly, the bulk production model never excited us. We had conversations with experienced industry players and customers who wanted to push us into using sub-par ingredients, only to bring down their price (You would be amazed at the crap we all are putting into our bodies daily!). We refused to compromise on this and hence never actually gave this side of the business a real go.

2. Intent vs. Execution

Like I said earlier, we all dream about making our passion our career, because that would naturally give us happiness, right? Well, I learned the hard way that it might not. The moment my passion turned into work, I started moving away from what actually gave me joy. I was warned about this by many, but experience was the true teacher!

I loved baking, but when it became my means of earning a livelihood, it brought with it a whole new set of issues that needed to be taken care of. I couldn’t just stay in the kitchen and bake — Who would I sell my bakes to? How would I pay my overheads? How would I ensure seamless deliveries of frosted cakes? How would I expand my customer base?

The key to a successful business is how well you execute your dream. Everyone has the honest intent to pursue their dreams, but how many of us are willing to execute it and execute it well. I’m not saying we just jumped into the business without planning, infact, there was not a single month where we made losses. We just could not execute our plans well enough to see the growth that was needed. Why was that? That’s my next point…

3. Temperament

I have seen and worked with a few startups and small organizations in the past and the one thing that differentiates the successful ones from the others is the attitude and temperament of the founders. It needs a certain level of tenacity to come in and face the zillion adversities that the day would throw at you, and then come back the next day to do it all over again. Many of us believe we have it in us too. That we can take rejection day in and day out and still be at it. I would urge you to think really hard.

When faced with the harsh realities of running a business and facing the ruthless market, would you be able to survive each day and more importantly, give your 200%? Because that’s what is needed — your 200% each day, no matter how the world around you is crumbling.

We may be excellent at our work — diligent, responsible, hard-working, creative, smart, etc. But running a business needs you to be all this and much much more. You need to be thick-skinned, and embrace the fact that one good day will come after many many hard ones!

4. “Calculated” risk-taking ability

Risk-taking as a topic has been discussed and beaten to death a hundred times and more, but I CAN NOT stress more on the importance of calculated risk-taking. Your ability to take smart risks determines how well you can tame the market. Don’t be afraid to try out new designs or seemingly bizarre marketing avenues. Take up challenging projects that you might think would be impossible to execute.

“We’re living at a time when attention is the new currency”, wise words by Pete Cashmore, CEO, and founder of Mashable! If you can’t retain your customers’ attention every single day, you will become redundant. Taking enough risks to constantly innovate keeps you relevant in the market at all times.

I think we did fairly well at this front but could have done way better. We did try and evolve our products based on market needs, but were very risk-averse in trying out things outside our comfort zone.

What I learned was that even if you need to evolve and change, you need to do it very smartly. Pick up the trends and work towards them efficiently, don’t have the urge to keep changing your product with every new development/demand. Also, learn how to tweak your products to stay relevant without compromising on quality.

5. Customer acquisition is as important as customer retention

This one’s self-explanatory one would think. But you realize the impact of customer acquisition only once you start a new business.

Track your data from day 1. How many new customers did you acquire that week, that month? How much business did you get from new customers vs. older ones? Pareto’s 80–20 rule holds only when you reach enough customers.

We really faltered at this. Our existing customers were giving us excellent business MoM, which kept the numbers rolling, but in reality, it did very little to help the business. The moment existing orders dried up, we realized we had done abysmally in acquiring new customers. No one knew about us beyond our friends and their friends and that hurt us badly. We should have gone all guns blazing at getting new customers and spreading the word from the get-go.

6. Assumption is the mother of all f-ups

Image courtesy Khairil’s Blog

Wiser words have never been spoken! Never assume what will or will not work. You’d be surprised at what the customer is ready to pay for. This was one of the biggest mistakes we made. We would always assume certain products would definitely sell or certain marketing avenues were a waste of time and money. We thought we would steer away from classic flavors and introduce new flavor combinations. Well, that didn’t really work out. Customers always looked at the new flavors, but very few were brave enough to try them, seeking comfort in the tried and tested ones.

We miscalculated potential on several fronts because we relied on assumptions rather than evaluating our numbers.

Always base your decisions on data and numbers. Leave the assumptions only to prove mathematical theorems in school, not in the real world!

7. Market yourself shamelessly

YOU are your biggest asset!

There has never been a better time to make the world aware of what you’re selling. Sure! Everyone knows this already, but my biggest learning was that you really need to go all out in marketing yourself.

Remember that YOU are your brand.

How many times have you bought a product because you know the person behind it? You’d much rather trust a person than a product. I think this was one of our biggest issues. We marketed our products well, but never realized how important it was to market ourselves.

Networking with the right people, being active on relevant forums, attending events, setting up pop-ups to generate awareness — we really didn’t do a good enough job at this and it cost us heavily. So, remember to market yourself first — your reputation precedes you.

8. Realize when to stop

You would think that this one’s more of a realization than learning. I’d like to tell you that this is one of the most important things I learned. While having the never-give-up attitude is an excellent trait to inculcate, it’s also important to be rational in decision making.

Every entrepreneur thinks about the feasibility and longevity of their business. I personally think it is very brave to step back, evaluate your journey, and be okay with saying something didn’t work out — especially if you don’t see yourself giving it your 200% every day. Don’t mistake this for defeat or complete failure.

It is OKAY to stop when you think it is right. You can still wake up the next morning, shrug off any doubts and walk proudly to face the new day, knowing you gave it all that you could, when you could.

Ask yourself every single day — “Am I really happy doing this? Do I wake up in the morning and feel like going to work?”

If you have not succeeded in one venture, it’s because something else awaits you. At least you tried, and that is all that really matters.

I can go on and on. ‘Building a niche’, ‘Understanding the market’, ‘‘Working towards your numbers’, ‘Creating value’ — these jargons have had their fair share of limelight in several blog posts. The above learnings were things that I genuinely thought of in retrospect.

Do I regret any of this? Of course not! It was a crazy and fulfilling experience and I learned things that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Would I do it again? Yes! Probably better!

It is heartbreaking to wind down a business that you set up with your own hands. That feeling will probably linger on for a long time. But you can always pick up the pieces and make something new. Life will give you enough opportunities to succeed :)

I hope someone finds this helpful. I know it would resonate with many :) If you find yourself nodding in agreement with some of my learnings, do tell me about your journey! If you think someone would love reading this, share it with them! Nothing would give me more peace than sharing bits of wisdom :)