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Talking Small Biz with WannaHavaCookie

Posted on 21 February 2012

Marisa Angebranndt from WannaHavaCookieCompany: WannaHavaCookie

Entrepreneur: Marisa Angebranndt

Location: Chicago, IL

Website: WannaHavaCookie

Facebook: WannaHavaCookie Facebook

Twitter: WannaHavaCookie Twitter

With no intentions of being an entrepreneur, Marisa Angebranndt was laid off from her executive administration job with a hedge fund and took a gamble that she could turn her baking hobby into a business. WannaHavaCookie is the outcome – a small batch bakery that specializes in creating delicious whoopie pies, as well as cookies and bars.

Marisa shares her experiences with us in this Talking Small Biz interview, and finishes with six great questions anyone considering becoming an entrepreneur should answer.

Let’s get the most burning question out of the way first – how did you come up with the name WannaHavaCookie? As a matter of fact, I do! Thank you for asking! But seriously, a company’s name is really a key piece of its marketing and, if done properly, a name will convey what a company is all about. You have nailed it with your name! How did you come up with it?

WannaHavaCookie: My husband, Mark, actually deserves the credit! In the movie Finding Nemo, there’s a scene where Nemo is initiated into the fish tank by swimming through bubbles coming out of a fake volcano. The other fish called the volcano Mount WannaHockaLoogie. Gross, right? Well, the line made both of us laugh and became a private joke of sorts. Years later, Mark remembered the joke as we were searching for a company name and came up with a few (cleaner) versions of combining words. WannaHavaCookie was also available as a website name, so it became our brand! All the letters can be confusing, so people still get caught up trying to sound it out. It’s definitely fun to see a puzzled look turn into one of recognition when they finally get it.

You never set out to be an entrepreneur. You were happily employed as an executive administrator for a hedge fund in New York City, when you suddenly found yourself out of a job as the company closed its doors. In theory, you could have found another job, but decided, instead, to open a business. What was the tipping point that pushed you in the direction of self-employment?

WannaHavaCookie: When I got laid off, I had been working for about ten years. I knew my next step would define my career, whatever it was. I really enjoyed my work as an executive administrator, but there was also a big question of “what if…?” always hanging in the air. My baking hobby was also very well established by this point, culminating in homemade gift baskets of goodies to friends who would always encourage me to start my own baking business. I agreed in theory, but Mark became my catalyst. With his encouragement (and paycheck – let’s be honest!), I was able to venture into entrepreneurship as a calculated risk. My “what if” question could be answered and, regardless of the outcome, we would at least know that we tried something extraordinary.

Below video is from 2009, when WannaHavaCookie was stil in New York. Video courtesy Lisa Waananen and Nathan Ehrlich.

You started the company by selling online and through word of mouth. After being in business for almost two years, you decided to open up a brick and mortar store, only to close it after one year. Why are you no longer selling through a retail location? Tell us a bit about that experience.

WannaHavaCookie: The Limelight Marketplace was a great concept. The management company who designed it proposed a high-end shopping experience for destination shoppers looking to buy everything from unique clothing and jewelry, to gourmet meats, cheeses, and coffees, to handmade artwork, and even hats. Each vendor had its own brand and space, but everything was under one roof and managed as a whole.

I came on board pretty late, so my “store” was more of a kiosk, seven feet long by three feet wide. We had to get very creative with our display in such a limited space, so we opted for super-clean, white gloss shelves and minimal signage to draw people into conversation. I made some connections and was learning how to manage, from hiring employees, handling scheduling, and stocking the shelves with fresh product daily.

The grand opening was great fun, but buzz around town was mixed. Some people saw the potential, but others were already complaining about the lack of cohesion with so many brands on display. I personally thought the Limelight’s marketing was confusing (ads didn’t show the address, postcards were devoid of store names, and the website was a single page for the first six months), and it didn’t help that I didn’t know how to market myself, or my own brand, very well.

This haphazard approach wasn’t helped by a revolving door of marketing managers and very little communication between store owners and Limelight management. It took just a few months for sales to decline, and by the following January, I was pulling money out of personal savings to cover losses at the shop.

I learned last summer that the original management company filed for bankruptcy, and I think the venue has been reworked into a restaurant and clothing boutique. Needless to say, much of what was happening during my lease was bigger than my little shop, but getting caught in the middle was a costly mistake. We closed in April 2011, and refocused our efforts on web sales.

Shortly after you closed up your retail location, you moved the company to Chicago. That must have been some experience! A recent blog post talks a bit about the move. Can you talk a bit more about why you decided to move your company to Chicago?

plate of WannaHavaCookie cookiesWannaHavaCookie: Bottom line? More for your money! Mark and I started thinking about a move well over two years ago, when we looked into finding a storefront location for WannaHavaCookie. The Limelight seemed to be a great answer, but you know how that ended! We were back to square one, and storefront properties were no more a bargain than two years prior. Then, two months before our apartment lease in New York expired, Mark came to Chicago for business. He sent me listings for amazing apartments, houses, even commercial space – all of which were half the cost of similar spaces in Manhattan. We had two months to move, so we took the chance. Thank God I didn’t know what I was in for, or I never would have left New York!

Moving apartments is one thing, but moving a business? Ugh, what a nightmare. Letting my old staff go was really difficult; I truly enjoyed working with every one of my employees, and saying goodbye was tough. Announcing the move to my customers and clients is still an ongoing message – I continue to receive phone calls from people who think I’m baking in New York. Physically moving all the accumulated STUFF that comes with owning a small business was probably the messiest part: boxes, paper, shipping and baking supplies, equipment, labels, printers, posters, photos, and frames.

Setting up shop in Chicago was another adventure, altogether. I researched the requirements before arriving, but it still took a while to get the basics completed. I took food safety courses, got licensed in Illinois and Chicago (two separate certificates), found a shared rental kitchen (thank you, Kitchen Chicago!), and jumped in head first with holiday orders just around the corner. I used Craig’s List to find staff, and worked overnight shifts most of December and January to get it all done. I’m still paying taxes in NY and IL because I’m waiting on yet another set of approvals, but at least our shopping cart is up and working, and my staff is quickly turning into a group of seasoned pros.

At the moment, I’m reaching out to local markets to see if we can gain more local exposure in Chicagoland. I’ve also signed up for the first ever Spring Fabulous Food Show in Cleveland, Ohio, this April, to increase brand recognition within the larger Midwest. The goal is to open a Chicago-based bakery in the near future; we’ll see if we can pull it off!

With the move to Chicago, did you find WannaHavaCookie having to start over and build a new client base, or were you able to keep many of your customers via your website?

WannaHavaCookie: Thankfully, the internet is not geography-based. Our online clients come from the entire US, and we’ve actually shipped to every state – including Alaska and Hawaii! If anything, moving our headquarters to Chicago has helped our turnaround time. In New York, shipping product to the west coast took up to 5 days. Now, we can use ground shipping and most of the country is just a 2-3 day turnaround.

There is an incredible amount of competition in the baked goods industry. It seems like a new baked goods company is springing up all the time where we live. How do you make the WannaHavaCookie brand stand out from the competition, so that it isn’t lost in the sea of baked goodness?

WannaHavaCookie: There are plenty of amazing bakeries already out there, but everyone has their specialty. Mine is cookies, bars, and whoopie pies. I don’t do cakes. I don’t do cupcakes. I like the idea of doing one thing well, as opposed to doing many things adequately.

Baked goods aren’t hard to make, but they are hard to get right. I think small batches, and handmade products, lend themselves more easily to quality control, and that’s how I’ve built my brand. Yes, it would be easier (and cheaper) to hire a co-packer and just hand off the recipes, but a mass-produced cookie just doesn’t have the same flavor, texture, or attention to detail that you get with a handmade product. And frankly, I’m not in the business to bake; I’m turning my baking into a business.

Getting national TV attention can really do wonders for a small business. Many entrepreneurs would do just about anything to get this kind of exposure. WannaHavaCookie was featured on an October 2008 airing of the Racheal Ray Show. How did this come about?

whoopie pies from WannaHavaCookieWannaHavaCookie: This placement was a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time. We were a part of an outdoor market in Brooklyn for two summers, called the Brooklyn Flea. The very first day we opened, one of my customers sampled a few bites of our ToffeeMills cookie (an original recipe for a chewy cookie spiked with Bushmills whiskey and studded with toffee chips – still my husband’s favorite). He happened to work for the Food Network, and liked the samples so much that he put me in touch with a colleague of his who was the segment producer for the Rachael Ray show. I sent her an assorted box of samples (note to others: NEVER skimp on samples to qualified decision-makers! The more they taste, the better feel they get for your product), and we got word about 2 months later that they wanted to use a special assortment of our cookies for their Snack of the Day.

What did it do for your business?

WannaHavaCookie: The exposure didn’t result in immediate sales. I had this image in my mind of how people would be watching Rachael Ray and just drop everything to run to their computer and order cookies immediately – but, of course, that didn’t happen.

I was disappointed by the lack of sales, but the marketing spin turned out to be more important. I used that five-second spot on The Rachael Ray Show for months afterward as part of my intro pitch to approach national publications about inclusion in their holiday issues. They were more open to my brand because I was already “vetted” as a reputable company.

Social media has to be used as a key way to connect with your customers. WannaHavaCookie has an active Facebook and Twitter account, which you use to announce new products and tease your following with delicious pictures. How important of a role is social media for your company?

WannaHavaCookie: Social media is the most cost-effective means of marketing for any small business, period.

I run the daily business alone, and my time is constantly split between 4-5 tasks. It’s vital to get the most out of each moment – and each dollar – I spend getting my name in front of the consumer. Traditional advertising costs a fortune, and it’s very hard to track results, unless you already have a team of people working for you.

Facebook accounts are free. Twitter logins cost nothing. Following companies I like takes just the click of a button. Using and leveraging those avenues available is what takes a local business to the national level. Engaging with people who already show an interest in your product will always develop into a better result than a random billboard posted along the highway. And if it doesn’t? That’s ok, too. At least I didn’t drop $5,000 on an outdated sign.

What, if any, Internet or cloud-based products and services do you use to help you run WannaHavaCookie?

WannaHavaCookie: Our website is powered by a Magento-based shopping cart, without which I would literally still be faxing order forms to potential clients! I still use basic logins on my laptop for 99% of my work. Despite my conviction that social media is king, I’m woefully bad at keeping up with technology! Mark is also co-owner in WannaHavaCookie, so I leave the tech stuff to his brilliant brain. Luckily, he enjoys the intricacies of connecting everything into a cohesive unit.

It might be safe to say that you could be called a reluctant entrepreneur because, until circumstances pushed you in that direction, you never had intentions of being one. The entire process must have taught you a great deal, both about yourself and about how to run a small business. What advice can you impart upon others who are considering becoming self-employed, but not sure if it is the right road to take?

tin of WannaHavaCookie cookiesWannaHavaCookie: I love that title! Yes, I am indeed a reluctant entrepreneur. This experience was an eye-opener for me in more ways than one. I’m still learning, and I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’m all the way there – but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. If you can answer “yes” to the following questions, you may be leaning in the right direction:

  1. Can you throw yourself into your passion wholeheartedly? If you’re going to do it, DO IT! Put your entire self into the venture. I’m not good at “selling” myself, but I had to find a way to get my product noticed. I started out by offering samples and let my cookies do the talking. That got me off the hook, but also opened up the opportunities for others to start the conversation. If people find your product interesting, they’ll ask you questions – you won’t have to ask them.
  2. Do you have someone who knows you well and still thinks it’s a good idea for you to venture out on your own? Find a supporter, or three! If it’s your partner, best friend, significant other, mom, aunt, or your college roommate, you will need someone in your corner who knows what you’re trying to do and also believes you can accomplish it. Whether it’s listening when you have a bad day, or cheering because you just got the biggest order ever, that someone is vital to your state of mind. My mom is my listener; my husband is my partner in every sense of the word. I wouldn’t have been able to see beyond my nose were it not for their encouragement and belief in me over the past several years. They also know me well enough to rein in my perfectionism, and remind me when I’m getting in over my head.
  3. Will you be able to accept yourself, even when you make mistakes? Accept it now, because starting something new will have its share of failures. I am a perfectionist, so this one is still very hard for me. It took a long time (four months) to own up to the fact that our Limelight store was dying. I didn’t want to admit that it just wasn’t working, and that cost me dearly – both emotionally and financially.
  4. Can you ask for help, and be shameless about it? Don’t be too afraid or too proud to ask for help. You have to be shameless. People who offer never think you’ll ask and when you do ask, you’ll be surprised how many rise to the challenge. My biggest holiday ever was in 2009, when my whoopie pies were featured in Real Simple’s Holiday Gift Guide. My production jumped 200% overnight, and I was pulling 3 hours of sleep on average for the six weeks leading up to Christmas. I called my sister who was on break from her master’s program, and she flew in to help. Any friend who ever asked me about WannaHavaCookie received an email begging for some time – and many were so willing and gracious to lend an evening or a day to package boxes, tie ribbon, or even help in the kitchen. I couldn’t have done it without them. Heck, I almost didn’t make it WITH them!
  5. Can you get your head out from under the piles enough to celebrate once in a while? Celebrate the wins – even the little ones. There will always be something you didn’t do right, or perfect, or that still needs to get done. But when you stop to see what’s going well, you’ll realize progress is indeed happening. My first “stranger-order” (I didn’t know the person) got a special place on my bulletin board and stayed there for a year. I was getting outside my familiar circle, which meant people noticed! My mom sent me the Real Simple article in a frame and it’s still in my office. Even though I still call that winter the Christmas From Hell, it was a testament to how far I’d come. I routinely print “thank you” emails from happy clients. Not only does it make me feel good, I can leverage those into referrals for new marketing materials (with their permission of course).
  6. Do you want to start a business because it makes you happy? Ask yourself why you think this is a good idea. Is it because you’re bored? Do you have a passion or hobby that you love to do every day? Do you want to get rich? I started WannaHavaCookie because I wanted to bake, to make people smile, and to try something new. I didn’t start it because I wanted to be a millionaire. Maybe I’ll get lucky and that will happen someday. But until then, I’m doing what I love and am grateful for the opportunities it provides.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

Read more Talking Small Biz interviews with other entrepreneurs to learn what they are doing.

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