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Mitzi Toro | Hawaii | Be Flexible!!!

I began baking cookies to raise funds to thank the nurses who took care of my terminally ill father. I did this for a few months at a Maui farmers market, and then was encouraged to turn it into a regular business by customers who didn’t want me to stop. I started the company, designed my own commercial kitchen, and the cookies garnered fans from as far away as UK, Japan, and Dubai. I resigned from my job in June of 2016 as a middle school counselor and I am now developing my company full time. My cookies are now featured at Hawaii’s top hotels, Saks Fifth Avenue and Maui artisan quality markets. Flavors include Kona Coffee Espresso, White Chocolate Macadamia Nut with Bavarian Cream Mango, Lilikoi (Passion Fruit) , Pineapple Lychee with Hibiscus Flowers, Grown-Up Samoa’s with Maui Brewed Coconut Hiwa Porter, Butterscotch Kisses with Sammy Hagar’s Maui Distilled Macadamia Nut Rum, and the Original Triple Chunker. MCL aspires to be the first cookie company from Maui to achieve international distinction, and is building distribution channels to achieve that dream.

What were the biggest initial hurdles to building your business and how did you overcome them?

The failure rate for starting a business is high, then add failure rate of a food business those stats go higher. We also have the challenges of being in a remote location so the cost of shipping ingrediants to us is an added barrier, a cost passed along to the customer. The higher the price of an item the smaller the customer base. We survived the odds because of the high quality ingrediants we put into our product and how unique it is. We could not compete with large factories and their prices so we decided not to. We are a small artisan brand. The problem our business solves is the gift giving challenge. What to give someone that is unique, edible and shares the aloha of Hawaii. I interviewed many potential customers from many socio economic backgrounds to ask what they look for in gifting an item. A valid point was brought up that if our product is too low price than they would shy away from buying it as the gift receiver would know it is a low price item and that is what their worth is. This consumer thinking made sense to me. We do associate a product that is higher price as higher quality. I knew then my direction and nitch. Since I was limited how many I could produce a day in a small kitchen I would limit the product to markets that did not mind paying a higher price for an item not readily available.

What books are you currently reading? And your recommendation for entrepreneurs to read?

Tools for Titans by Tim Firres: The book is based on interviews from the worlds most successful people, their habits, trials, what has worked and what has not worked. They are short reads for busy people and I have gained quite a bit of insight .

Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur: The book redesigns a traditional business plan into nine essential boxes on one page. These boxes are constantly changing but each box crucial to understand the steps from idea to getting the product to shelf. What does that look like, how am I different, what key steps do I need to do and what next? I will be honest, it was not a fun read for me at first and required by both accelerators that I participated in. Once I started to dive in and try to understand each concept then it became clear how much I don't know. I was determined to get outside the room I was in and conduct as many interviews as possible "belly to belly." Meaning not over the phone, in an email but securing a face to face meeting with key crucial potential buyers to learn the market I was trying to get into and what the barriers are. Those key people are also the hardest to sometimes get an interview time with so persistence does help. I would ask for only 15 minutes of their time and make sure I am mindful and respectful of that however ,most of the interviews, as we got started turned into much longer. Body language and non verbal ques are essential in doing your interviews. They will help you with second level questions and help you understand what is being said that is not being said. Non verbal communication can only be done "belly to belly." What entrepreneur has time to work on their business when working in their business? Most of us do not so I set the goals obtainable and averaged one interview a week.

Did you ever deal with contention from your family and friends concerning your entrepreneurial pursuits? How did you handle it? What would you do differently in hindsight?

Yes, I sure did. Entrepreneurs are wired differently. We have a relentless passion and determination to let the whole world know about what we have and how we are going to change the world with it. It is my passion but not the passion of those around me. The build phase of a business and launch takes its toll on everyone around you. It is a family sacrifice and friends do not understand why you cant hang out at the beach anymore. I cant wait to wake up in the morning and I don't want to go to sleep at night. All I want to do is grow my business to see where it will take me. I had to learn to scale back that passion and not share every little accomplishment. It became taxing on the ones around me. I went from oversharing to not sharing and both were not helpful to strengthen my relationships. Balance is the key and finding others like you was fulfilling. When you meet someone in the same field, doing what you are doing there is an instant bond. We are so far and few between and I find comfort in helping other startups and connecting with those before me.

What would you say was the single most influential factor in your business success?

What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started as an entrepreneur?

The journey all happened organically. I do not have any regrets as every challenge and set back I encountered made me stronger and I learned what I could endure. Had I known then what I know now I might not have started a business. It's not easy and I don't work an eight hour day. I work from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep at night. It's a hustle, a grind and not "work" it's a "lifesytle." You are truly never off from work. When you love what you do and believe in your dream and have passion it wont seem like work. I just only wish there were more hours in the day to further develop my dream. Since I cant make the day longer I have hired people to do the tasks that can be done. Delegate as much as possible to effectively utilize your time on tasks only you can do as the founder. You don't need a lot of great people in your business. You just need a few really good people to free up your time to focus and stay laser focused. I interviewed a successful entrepreneur when I started by the name of Virendra Nath. Originally from New Delhi, India but now living in American and had grown his business to phonimal success. Virendra shared with me that we all think we have 16 hours a day when we really only have 8 that we are at our optimum performance. I am paraphrasing as his delivery was quite more elegant then my delivery but the message has stuck. I think of this phrase all the time and a significant quote that hangs on my wall. It is not always easy for me to listen and hear what is being shared when I do the interviews. I need time to process and reflect. After each interview I think about the take-aways and identify is there anything to pivot on. I also get into the habit of writing the gems of advice on posits that hand on my wall to further reflect on. Another concept that makes us different is the idea of "risk." I need to be okay with risk. However, I only took risks I could recover from if I failed. I kept another source of income while starting my business so the pressure was not there while I was on my learning curve. I was in the classroom full time five years ago and then went to part time for two years before I took the plunge into the world of no medical insurance, paid vacations and secure paychecks. I would not change my life and go back even if I could. Once you get a taste of developing a brand, being your own boss and the exciting world of entrepreneurship there is no way you can go back. I believe this is why we have serial entrepreneurs. We just don't give up. You will hear a 1000 "no's" but it's that one key "yes" and then look out. You will grow, scale and it's a whirlwind of exciting adventure, possibilities and a drive to conquer the world with your product.

What advice would you give to an upcoming entrepreneur locally and internationally?

My biggest advice is to have passion about your idea. The motivation should not be money but something that goes deeper. If you are fulfilled by your passion the money will come later. Be okay with less that positive feedback. I use this as an opportunity to grow and learn the needs and/behaviors of our customers. Make sure there is a market for your product. Do your research and interview as many people as possible from as many types of people as possible and be flexible enough to pivot if needed. Identify the "time bandits" tasks that I am not strong in and delegate it. I spent hours on the HR paperwork that was tedious and put my company at risk as I grew. I outsourced my HR to Simplicity HR here in Hawaii. I was approached by national companies but using a local company was important to me as they understood unique labor challenges we encountered. I outsourced my bookkeeping until I hired my first full time manager. Once you grow your team then you can eventually bring back those tasks in house if you choose but for me they were barriers to growth. I will most likely never bring in house my HR as outsourcing also outsources risks. Final advice is to learn your numbers. Know them inside and out. I consider myself an artist of food. Artist use a different side of the brain and that is why most restaurants have a chef and a business manager to make the establishment successful. I needed to retrain myself to learn and love numbers. I could not change my bottom line if I did not know my expenses. Last piece of advice is know when to walk away. I have seen so many start-up businesses that are not profitable and drag out to be "expensive hobbies" because the owner can not see sometimes the writing on the wall. There comes a time you need to accept that you gave it your best shot and there is not a product market fit. A business advisor told me once that it does not matter how great your product is or what your revenues are. If you are not profitable then you need to walk away. This was after he looked at our budget. I walked out of his office and told myself I have two choices. If I am going to still be standing next year then I need to cut expenses and increase profits or I will not survive. I now have an exit plan in mind in my business. My profitability will determine when that exit will happen. My hopes is in ten years when we sell. There have been times when I want to throw in the towel and I think that is normal for entrepreneurs. Know your vision, have confidence, passion, identify your bad habits and change them, pivot, be flexible and have fun along the way.

Photo Credit: "Rolland and Jessica Photography" Maui, Hawaii Mahalo


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