Starting a Business

Our company Bantam Bagels has been operating at the velocity of a rocket launcher. In two short years, my husband and I began with homemade bagels from our Brooklyn apartment, opened a shop on Bleecker Street, secured new business with QVC and Starbucks–all within two years (and as I was having a baby, not to mention).

As I reflect on this time, the ups and downs, the elation and the panic, the hustle and the reward, three key themes stand out among my adventure as a mom, wife and business owner.

1. Do what you can, when you can and make it work

Anyone who is a working mother knows that the idea of “balance” is more of an aspirational — almost mythical — notion for fiction enthusiasts who have never had a child of their own. As a new mother, I’ve come to terms with my own interpretation of creating a work-life balance by following this mantra: Do what you can, when you can and just make it work.

Working from the delivery room was only the beginning of my balancing act. Nursing around the clock, I began to find ways to merge my baby’s needs with my own: I found that catching up on emails during middle of the night feedings was actually a very efficient way to catch up on my inbox. My baby loves to nap in his stroller, so I took to scheduling conference calls during his walk in the park. It was a beautiful, quiet environment where both my baby and I could do what we needed to do. My “balance” became giving the baby a nap, getting in some exercise and tackling business meetings all at the same time.

I learned how to turn not having enough time into an overlapping web of accomplishments so that everyone could win. I will never be the person who boasts having a true balance (whatever that means), but I will say that sticking by the mantra of doing what you can when you can has helped me to ease the pressure of being the perfect mother, while managing to build and grow a small business

 2. You can’t plan for everything anymore

I always tell people that being an entrepreneur is kind of like riding a continuous roller coaster. The highs are thrilling and the lows knock the wind out of you. Opportunities whirl and transform so quickly that your heart is constantly in your stomach as you grasp on to each and every possibility for growth and success. The only constant? Uncertainty. No matter how much you prep, think and strategize, nothing ever, ever goes as planned. All entrepreneurs share a lifestyle of chaos and unpredictability. We all get knocked down from time to time. The survivors stand back up, work harder, fight harder to keep their business and dream.

Our pinnacle Murphy’s Law moment came during the most important night of our entrepreneurial careers: our debut as featured entrepreneurs on ABC’s Shark Tank. After months of round-the-clock hustle and rebuilding our business infrastructure from scratch to manage the famous “Shark Tank Effect,” we braced ourselves for our episode.

It was our big break. We were shaking with butterflies, anxiety and adrenaline. Nine million viewers across America were tuning in. Everyone we knew was crammed into a West Village bar, cheering our TV-selves on as we faced the Sharks in front of America. Things were looking great — it was incredible! We stood at the front of the crowd, squeezing each other’s hands, with one eye on the TV another eye on the laptops we brought to monitor our web traffic. The pitch began. Three minutes into our segment we froze. The analytics screens on both laptops suddenly stood still. We frantically scanned left and right, grabbing and refreshing every phone within arm’s reach, tapping desperately on the computer keyboards in disbelief.

Our website had crashed.

It was every entrepreneur’s worst nightmare. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in inventory and nobody could access it! Without speaking a word, we snatched up our laptops and ran into the freezing New York City streets, dove around corners, stampeded through the aisles of a 24-hour CVS and made our way to the back pharmacy where empty chairs and outlets were calling our names. We sat down and dug in.

How was this even happening?! We had prepped our website, done our research, considered every last detail, hired the right team, but our site was still down. Our phones were blowing up with tens of thousands of emails, Facebook messages, tweets and texts all telling us what we already knew. While we began to furiously type away, responding to each message personally, we dialed our web team on one line and Lori Greiner, our newest business partner, on the other. A true entrepreneur, Lori jumped into troubleshooting mode. She never once paused to blame or ask what went wrong, her only words were “What can I do? What should I tweet? How can I help?”

We continued to furiously work, not losing one precious second of customer communication for the hope of salvaging every last sale. We stayed typing away in that CVS until 2 AM, fielding a second wave of emails and calls when the episode hit the West Coast live three hours later (thank goodness my Mom was in town to watch the baby!). Exhausted, we finally headed home. We heavily hit our pillows, phones still vibrating with new emails every second that passed, and set our alarms for 4 AM to keep it going. At 7 AM, two hours before our Bleecker Street bakery opened, our head baker called, “Hurry! There’s a line around the block!” We looked at each other and smiled ear to ear. “We got this!” After 10 hours of greeting and serving hundreds of enthusiastic, eager customers we knew it was going to be OK.

Life as an entrepreneur is nothing but a wild unpredictable ride…

Web sales poured in at a steady rate, social media continued to blow up, and within hours, “Bantam Bagels” was a national Twitter trend. Due to our persistence and follow up, hundreds of customers who were originally unable to access our site actually came back the next day and placed their orders. Several of them even showed up live to the shop, and became some of our most loyal repeat customers.

Things most certainly did not go our way on the night of our big airing, but we made the best of it and ended up forging ahead. It was an evening that is forever etched into our hearts and minds as a reminder to never get ahead of ourselves, and that ultimately, life as an entrepreneur is nothing but a wild unpredictable ride…

3. Fake it until you make it

If there is one piece advice I could give to someone thinking of taking the leap into the madness that is entrepreneurship, it is this: Say yes to every single request and then figure out how to make it happen. The old “Fake it ‘till you make it” adage is the core of our approach to business. It is this blind, pure belief in yourself, your product and your business that makes successful entrepreneurs stand out and soar.

When Bantam Bagels was about 4-months-old we got a phone call from QVC, the largest home shopping network in the world. Ecstatic, beaming from ear to ear, we listened to the main food buyer as she asked if we could fill a purchase order for 100,000 bagel balls for an airing that month. (Keep in mind we had only ever baked 2,000 bagels in one day and now the biggest of the big guys was asking us to get them 100,000 balls in two weeks… ). Without blinking, we said “yes” immediately, hung up the phone, looked around at our 300-square-foot bakery and sat silent. Both of us were thinking the same thing: “What did we just get ourselves into?” Neither of us was willing to admit it out loud.

So there we were with a huge opportunity slapping us in the face and we had to figure out a plan to bake these balls and we had to bake them fast. We called former staff members, we called my father-in-law, we called everyone we could think of to help us. We needed an army and we had to put that army to work immediately. That next day we had 40 bags of flour delivered to the bakery and the madness began. We were running the oven 24 hours straight. There was no stopping, there we no shifts, there was just when someone left and when someone else showed up to take their place. Our staff stepped up like nothing I’d ever seen. It was amazing; we were on fire. The crew was feeling the buzz of entrepreneurship — the feeling that they were doing something that seemed impossible — and succeeding at it. I was in my second trimester of pregnancy and working on my feet 12 hours a day alongside the crew. No one stopped. It was an amazing feat of determination.

The crew was feeling the buzz of entrepreneurship — the feeling that they were doing something that seemed impossible — and succeeding at it.

We baked for 13 days straight and it was absolutely insane. I’ll never forget my husband Nick high-fiving one of our staff members at 3 AM as he was leaving and our baker was just about to start his day: “See you in a few hours!”

We tackled each hurdle — the packaging, the delivery, the warehousing, the compliance requirements —one at a time, learning along the way and solving each puzzle as it surfaced. We squeezed five new freezers into that tiny basement, found compliance experts through our distributors, rented frozen trucks and delivered bagel balls to QVC in daily, middle-of-the-night drop offs. No hurdle was too high.

Listen, the idea of saying that you will be able to do something when you have no idea how you are going to achieve it is scary, but that is just it, you have to take that risk, you have to believe in the unbelievable. The key to being a successful entrepreneur is to bite off more than you can chew and then just go out and do it — we went on QVC seven days later and sold out in 3 minutes.

 

Elyse Oleksak

About the Author


Elyse Oleksak


Elyse worked in the Management & Administration group in Morgan Stanley’s Investment Management Division before becoming a full-time owner and business operator of Bantam Bagels. Focusing on business strategy and internal communications, Elyse has experience developing, communicating and driving business strategy on a global scale. Prior to her role in Investment Management, Elyse worked as an Account Executive at JWT advertising agency where she covered a variety of Johnson & Johnson’s global consumer products. In this role, Elyse worked to develop brand communication architecture and marketing strategies. Elyse also holds a Professional Certification in Career and Life Coaching from New York University.