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“Come on in…” I walked tentatively into the doorway, past the tarp and froze as I watched the half-dozen contractors, busily hammering and moving large pieces of equipment across the floor. I was motioned inside by a man wearing a toolbelt, “It’s okay, Jenn’s downstairs…just be very careful.” He smiled. Noted. As I made my way down the narrow staircase, I had a chance to (finally) meet Jenn Mason, Entrepreneur, cheese expert, supermom and today, hands-on construction project manager.
She welcomed me warmly, we have a mutual friend and learned during our conversation we have many common connections. As I found a spot on the crowded table to start note taking, one of the contractors came back downstairs. I didn’t mind the interruption, as they discussed track versus LED lighting, I studied a massive cheese flowchart on the wall. She seamlessly moved back to our conversation, as the energetic vibrations from the build out of her new retail space continued all around us.
Grab A Passion & Go For It!
You may have day dreamed about elevating something you love as a hobby into a career. In the years before I detoured from marketing to attend culinary school (a story for another time), I would often dream about this alternate path – opening a pastry shop or applying my marketing background to something super-fun, like a winery. Yet I spent years dismissing those happy fantasies in lieu of what appeared ‘practical’ — growing my corporate career where I was already a credentialed expert, validated by the faith my employers placed in my skills.
Fast forward to now, the traditional career path many of us were taught to trust has dissolved into something much less linear. I am inspired by how Jenn charted her path from ‘idea’ to ‘execution’. Especially when the execution involved stepping away from what’s comfortable (or what we’ve been taught to believe is comfortable) and going all in for a new experience.
Women are especially reticent to break the rules and channel the self-confidence required to ascend into leadership. In 2017 although women represent only 6% of Fortune 500 CEO’s, 40% of new entrepreneurs in the US are now women, an all-time high according to the 2016 Kauffman Index of Start-Up Activity.
Finding The Right Idea
“I hosted a wine and cheese birthday party…” She showed me a picture from the event, one long table with candles and beautiful linens running down the center. Each setting was kitted out with a variety of special wine glasses, plates and cutlery designed to optimize the cheese tasting experience. “Each couple received a numbered envelope and had to present their cheese course. We had a prize for the best presentation. Someone presented in Yiddish, there was Irish Brogue… it’s the most fun I ever had at a party.”
She knew she wanted to start a business that she would never get bored with. “…We were cheese people, foodies. Every vacation we took started off with a culinary event.” After realizing that she wasn’t headed in a meaningful direction in her consulting job, she decided it was the right time to start her new business and quickly began planning in her off-hours.
Why Cheese? As someone who loves cheese and has spent more time in cheese shops than I care to admit, I was intrigued. “Most cheese shops are family businesses, started from a passion….they’re generally all run the same way. Like wine shops they view the products through the lens of an expert…” I smiled, excited by her vision to educate and demystify such a traditional corner of the retail world. “The goal is to be approachable and remove the intimidation that typically comes with buying specialty cheese.” An unfussy and educational approach to cheese, brilliant!
How To ‘Stop Stopping’ & Move Forward
“I know how to run a business….I feel confident doing this even though I’ve never done it before.” She used nights, weekends and vacation while working full time to think things out, “…does this really excite me? What about this idea freaks me out?” She bolstered her vision, to build the first 21st Century cheese shop, by seeking out everything she could to learn about selling cheese and running a startup. After attending the StartUp Institute, to hone her business planning skills among like-minded entrepreneurs and later, an intensive course at the San Francisco Cheese School, she began her journey in earnest. Writing a business plan and securing financing where the final steps before giving notice and shifting to part-time hours at her job during the transition.
This is not your grandmother’s Mom and Pop. She’s built the plan, from day 1, to incorporate expansion and the flexibility to pivot. The term, adopted by tech startups, means just putting an idea out there and changing course quickly, based on what you learn. Do cheese shops pivot? “I loved the idea of pivoting, just try something and then move. She recalled a discussion that changed the game for her ‘Just Draw the F*%king Owl’ was all about getting from step 1 to step 2. Stop stopping because you don’t know the answer! If no one knows the answer, go ahead and figure it out.” She felt empowered and has embraced this as an ongoing approach in her business and life. I learned as one of the contractors swooped back down to discuss tiles, she and her teen girls tiled the floors together. “This (tiling) gave them a new skill. More importantly, it’s another lesson to show them, that they can do anything.” Amen!
Self-Care & Making Time
As always, I’m interested in how she put this plan into practice. Not just at the strategy level but where everything can fall apart for beyond busy Moms, the execution and management of a massive project while juggling a full-time job in the planning stages plus the rest of her life.
She admits, balance is hard right now. “12 hours pass and I’m so excited about what I’m doing I don’t want to leave. I can’t help thinking about this all of the time! I have to remind myself (to) get up and do something different…you can’t eat peanut butter and jelly (sandwiches) for every meal.”
As soon as I sat down, I noticed her giant sketch of the ‘cheese flowchart’ and a calendar with themes for each month, mapped out on a small whiteboard. A long time artist, she still thinks visually. “I have a sheet of paper, 8 ½ by 11, setup for each major project at home.” Old-school, but effective. She uses the paper to organize her thinking and keep her priorities in view.
“I hired a friend to help ‘scale me’. She works anywhere from 3 to 10 hours per week, as an Executive Assistant, creating Google docs and keeping things organized.” She’s also learned to delegate when she’s outside of her expertise. “…When you’re learning and the task is very different, delegate! Through a local co-working space, that supports food businesses, she found community and connection. “I networked my way to an accountant and graphic designer.”
She’s also enlisted her family to fully participate. When I stopped by again just a couple of days ago, to see how the setup was progressing, she was putting (lovely) cheese knives and cutting boards onto display tables and one of her daughters and husband were reviewing the inventory in the cheese case.
The magnitude of the launch she’s planning was visible on the day we met, but especially in the past two weeks as I’ve walked past her shop to witness the transformation. From cement floors, wires and drills to wooden floors, tasteful furniture and a gleaming case inhabited by dreamy looking cheeses.
Follow the adventures of Jenn Mason and her new business from her website, Curds & Co or enjoy fun pictures of cheese on Instagram. If you’re in the Boston area, visit the shop, 288 Washington Street, Brookline MA.
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