Founder and CEO, Tastefully Simple
Sometimes life’s biggest challenges result in its greatest rewards. When Jill Blashack Strahan’s brother Mike was killed in a fire, she swore she would live her own life to the fullest. This vow gave her the courage to launch Minnesota-based direct sales company Tastefully Simple, which offers easy-to-prepare gourmet foods, sold primarily at home parties. As she writes in her memoir, Simply Shine: Stories That Stirred the Fire, the loss helped her overcome her fears, and she’s since grown her company from its start in her shed into an Inc. 500 Hall of Fame inductee.
Strahan is a natural entrepreneur. Before launching Tastefully Simple, she ran her own restaurant and started the Care With Flair gift basket company, which led to a retail location and her idea of wooing customers with samples. But these ventures hardly prepared her for the success of Tastefully Simple, which exceeded the projections in her original business plan that it would be an $11 million company in five years.
What we learned from Jill: Dream it, believe in it, and do the hard work. If any of these pieces are missing, your business won’t work.
“At Tastefully Simple, we offer ‘the food you love, the time you deserve.’ Our catalog includes more than 50 easy-to-prepare gourmet foods and gifts, sold primarily at home taste-testing parties nationwide. It really comes down to three things—simplicity, a great experience, and life improvement. Our products are ‘open and enjoy,’ or are prepared by adding only one or two ingredients. Our taste-testing parties give friends and family the chance to have fun together, and our business opportunities help people get what they want most, whether it be more income, more time at home, or more friends.”
The Reluctant Gourmet
“I was a farm girl, so I was raised on meat and potatoes. We weren’t gourmet cooks by any stretch of the imagination. I’m risk-averse, and I didn’t want to step into even carrying products in my retail shop if I felt like I wasn’t sure if they would sell. So I just dabbled in it a little bit and tested it. It was just watching for real people’s reactions, and it worked, and they did prove me wrong. It was the catalyst for the concept of bringing great food they can taste-test into a party environment.”
She Who Questions First, Succeeds
“I’m not a heavy market researcher, but in starting Tastefully Simple, I just asked a lot of questions. It’s important when launching to be open to hearing other perspectives and having people punch holes [in your business plan].”
Business Plans Are Your Friend
“People shy away from a business plan. I say it’s really just goal-setting in writing.”
Lovestruck Is Dumbstruck
“Sometimes people get lovestruck: We get an idea, we go, ‘Oh my God, this is so awesome,’ and our gut says to go with it, go with it, go with it. We’re totally blinded by love, and we can’t see or hear anything different. And that’s dangerous. I think there’s a sweet spot in there, where we’re committed and really excited about an idea, but where we’re willing to hear what could be challenging.”
“When we’re executing and initiating a new idea, I believe there’s often a fear of losing the tangible things, like our home or our savings. But I think the bigger fear for most of us is losing our pride, that we’re going to start something and it’s not going to succeed.”
Be Careful What You Build … It Will Come!
“The five-year plan showed that we’d be an $11 million company. I went into the kitchen and grabbed the butter and some graham crackers, and I started buttering one graham cracker after another, shoving them in my face, because I eat from stress. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t run an $11 million company, what am I doing here?’ I picked up the phone and called Joani [Nielson, founding partner and COO] and I said, ‘Joani, I can’t run an $11 million company.’ And there was this pause, and she said, ‘Jill, if you can grow an $11 million company, you can run an $11 million company.’”
Hire the Experience You Don’t Have
“You don’t know what you don’t know until you get into it. And thank God I didn’t, because I probably wouldn’t have done it had I known everything that was involved. But it’s just going out and looking for the people who can help you solve your issues, and you take it one day at a time, and one minute at a time, and look for the solutions.”
There’s No Such Thing as Nothing to Lose
“It would have been tough to go broke because I never had any money to begin with. [My first husband] Steve and I lived hand to mouth, but even hand to mouth, what little bit we had I didn’t want to risk. So I was afraid, two or three years into it, that they were going to foreclose on our home.”
The Artful Hire
“In the beginning, I was hiring generalists. Dolly was packing orders and doing accounting and answering the phone. It’s different in the beginning, and you do have to hire people who have a great passion and will do whatever they have to do to get the job done. Then, as you grow, your needs change and get more focused.”
Bye Bye Smooth Sailing
“We hit a stall point in 1997, and as I look back on that, I realize that I had stopped believing. And I started to think that women—that’s all I had for salespeople at the time—weren’t making money in the business. It’s like Stephen Covey saying, ‘Ah, too busy driving to stop and get gas.’ I wasn’t stopping to get gas. I went to a Creative Memories conference. I always say, ‘I do not know, specifically, what shifted for me.’ All I can tell you is I came back after that conference, and I was believing again. I believe that in any business, when we stop believing, things will come to a halt.”
Fill Your Bucket
“It took me a long time to get to the point where I thought, ‘Knock it off, Jill. Come on. You have to work to put things back in your bucket. Because if your bucket’s empty, you have nothing else to give to anybody else.’ And that’s when I started doing my personal retreat, where I go away for a couple of days.”
Reject Your Inner Martyr
“I’m just now to the point where I can pretty safely work 60 hours. But for years, it was 80-hour work weeks, for maybe 10 solid years. So you do hit it hard, and it’s just the way it is. Then I realized, I think especially as a farm girl, all we know a lot of times is how to work, and it’s how we grew up and what was modeled for us. But I also know that we can be real martyrs, and for those of us who are hard workers, it’s a sign around our neck: ‘Look at how hard I work.’ It defines us, and that isn’t healthy.”
Vacations Are Investments
“Today I see that investment, because when I come back from a vacation, or I come back from my personal retreat, I am so much more productive and focused, and I really do produce better results. I used to not want to see that or hear that.”
A Work in Progress
“I don’t do things on a day-to-day basis to renew myself and take care of myself like I should, even today, like working out. I never, ever, go to lunch with friends. I don’t even take a lunch break. We always have working lunches here. I’m here, meeting my top-level leaders in marketing and sales. We’re just going 100 miles an hour. So I still have work to do in that area.”
Parting Thoughts …
-”Success to me means … feeling like I’ve made a difference, making the right choices, and not having regrets about how I’ve treated people or what I’ve done.”
-”I will always think of myself as … a catalyst.”
-”I will retire when … I die. That’s my exit strategy.”
This Featured Lady was profiled by Sarah Tomlinson, a Los Angeles-based writer.