My entrepreneurial journey began pretty much like any other: with a dream. It was the late 80s and we were living in Florida, surrounded by acres of citrus groves (my husband is a fourth-generation citrus farmer). I was a new mom, pulling my young daughter Natalie through the orange groves, just thinking about the fact that there wasn't any fresh, authentic juices available that I could comfortably serve my baby daughter.
At the time, there were only mass produced, preservative-laden and over-processed juices, all coming from a stable of large, established brands.
My dream was to change that.
I've always been careful about what I eat, truly believing our bodies treat us the way we treat them, and I knew other mothers and families who felt the same way. That morning in the orange groves, I realized that I needed to fill this void in the market, for me and others, and so the dream of Natalie's Orchid Island Juice Company was born.
At first, it was a small operation. I installed two 1,000-gallon stainless steel tanks and a juicer I had picked up from a local producer, founding the company in the back half of a fresh fruit retail store. I had to borrow a nearby butcher's refrigerated truck to deliver our first order, but I made it happen.
Soon I was calling in my brothers to help. All of us were passionate about working our business plan to its fullest and soon demand for our juice was sufficient to expand our operations. We went from two tanks to eight tanks, four employees to almost fifty. We moved into a new location, expanding our sales presence to other states and eventually going global. All the while, we held true to my original vision of supplying our customers with authentic, minimally processed juice made exclusively from fruits grown in Florida.
My dream quickly turned into our family's reality. Natalie's Juice Company was a complete success; we were a hit with customers looking for an authentic alternative to the processed juices offered by mass-marketed brands. I always say, we began producing clean label juice before it was chic.
Now getting to this level hasn't been easy. I faced many challenges in those early days, especially as a female CEO trying to build a unique brand in an industry dominated by men with a corporate culture that hadn't changed for decades.
For many entrepreneurs, the ultimate business goal is getting to an exit strategy: a profitable sale to a larger conglomeration that's been attracted to your financial success. At the time, Natalie's was truly a family-run business. We had done it all—taking no outside funding or even any debts. By this time, the juice industry became interesting to private equity investors, and we were approached by one who saw great value in our business. The private equity firm explained to us that, with their help, Natalie's could reach the next level.
So, in the year 2000, we sold our juice business to a large firm that promised to help us achieve even greater heights.
However, I quickly began to question our decision to sell the company we had worked so hard to build up, especially to people outside of our family. There was an immediate departure from the company's original core values, and we wanted more for the customers who had grown to know and love our brand. These people counted on our brand for their families' nutrition, and all of a sudden that brand wasn't delivering like it used to.
By 2003, we did something most companies don't do—we bought our company back! Once we did, we immediately returned to our original core values and mission: producing the best-tasting, authentic juice on the market.
So, what did I learn from this experience?
Don't Stray Away From Your Roots
When I decided to sell, I still thought I had the company's best interest at heart. The new owners promised to take the enterprise to a new level, a success beyond our wildest dreams. But I should have had confidence in the fact that we ourselves could drive that level of success—and eventually we did! We should never have questioned our abilities or strayed away from the core values that had served us so well.
When You're Passionate, No One Knows Your Business Better Than You
Since growing this business from the ground up, I've been an engaged participant in all aspects of the enterprise, from financing and marketing to R&D and taste-testing. If you truly love what you're doing, don't let anyone try to convince you they know better. Have faith in your choices, especially when they have been working!
Faith, Family and Friends are Your Best Business Partners
None of this journey could have been accomplished without the talent, care and passion of my family and friends. Their support has been a great pillar of strength for me, but without faith in myself I never could have taken the first step towards starting this business. You cannot undervalue any of these factors when making choices in your life.
I had the rare opportunity to correct a misstep in life and take back the company I built and loved. Today, Natalie's is once again a thriving family-owned company. We were recently named to Inc. 5000, which lists the "most inspiring" companies of 2018, and last month we launched a new line of cold-pressed, functional, holistic juices that represent the next generation of the Natalie's brand. The future remains bright, and my experience as an entrepreneur has taught me that an exit strategy is no-good if it takes you away from doing what you love.
"Bare down and push like you're taking the biggest dump of your life," were the wise words of my midwife during the last leg of labor.
My husband and I had sat in traffic on the George W. bridge for close to three hours on a Sunday night while I bellowed God-knows-what during erratic contractions. Deepak Chopra whispered sweet nothings into my ear by way of our car's speakers. Side note: if you don't listen to Deepak's meditations, you should. Between bursts of stab-like contractions, I'd say adorable things such as, “honey, the stars look beautiful tonight, don't you think?" and “wow, the new flowers in front of our townhouse are incredible."
Now it was 3 a.m. on Monday morning, and wisps of euphoria had transformed into savage rage.
I'd spent most of the pregnancy crippled by headaches and nausea. By the last trimester, my pelvis had cratered, I could barely walk, and the baby slept upright over my bladder in a permanent ninja kick. This was not an optimal position for my daughter's debut exit from my uterus. Eventually, she turned head-down, but I knew long before her delivery that it would be an arduous back labor. Despite this, I had timidly and thoughtfully committed myself to an all-natural birth. I had determined that our existing medical care system was a little too trigger-happy with its knives. The epiphany to experience boatloads of undesirable pain came with a lot of firsthand research, coupled with the belief that excruciating temporary pain was better than risking preventable permanent damage. This was, of course, out of the ordinary in my geographical location, even amongst mothers whose pregnancies were highly healthy and, for lack of a better word, easy. Many young mothers I spoke with prior to my own newborn's delivery had one horrific labor story after the next, and their opinions echoed the pervasive research indicating that the medical system was failing healthy pregnant mothers as a method to prevent less likely outliers. So, I made a choice. No IV. No epidural. I found a wonderful midwife who studied on the farm with Ina May Gaskin, and had successfully delivered thousands of babies, and I committed to an all-natural birth.
“What? Who sh*ts like this?" I blurted, and clenched my abdominal muscles as though I were about to push out a Ford pickup–a sturdy American car.
“Just touch her head!" my husband instructed, elated. “Feel it. She's almost out."
I clamped my body back against the handicap rails above the toilet. “I can't."
“Honey, come on, feel her head," he said again.
“I can't," I repeated, unprepared for the realness of a child to congeal in my mind. “I want drugs," I pleaded for the umpteenth time to no avail.
My midwife took hold of the reigns. “Honey, open your eyes and look at me now."
“The baby's head is half way through your birth canal. She has twenty minutes or she's going to suffocate."
Suddenly I was confused. “Who sh*ts like this?" I retorted. “Do you sh*t like this? I don't sh*t like this."
We all snickered a little “no," and transferred to the bed. Several more pushes and something warm and smooth slid out of my body.
“Did I do it; is she out?" I asked.
My midwife scrunched her forehead and peeped under the blanket. “No honey, you just sh*t yourself. Let's get you cleaned up."
I cringed, and continued pushing as hard and as frequently as I knew how. With each push, the baby inched out a little further, but I felt as though it would never happen. “I can't!"
My husband and midwife encouraged, “Yes you can! You already are!"
I zoned back in. It was true. I was. “Help me with my legs," I told them. My husband held my legs behind me, and in several more pushes, a creature emerged from my body. Her name is Sydney.
I cried instantly, as did my husband, who recited, “You did it!" in pure bliss.
A few moments later, my midwife pulled out the placenta, which my husband later ate (kidding, kidding).
It was baller. Confetti fell from the ceiling. My makeup artist zoomed over to prepare us for our family photo shoot, and the Paparazzi eagerly stood in line outside waiting for a coveted chance to meet my newborn. I am being sarcastic, of course, but childbirth is no small feat–I was a hero on top of the world.
Yes, there I was holding my little one, thanking the heavens she was all right, but at that same time, I was also looking down at my deflated belly sack, trembling while my midwife stitched together what remained of my lady parts. My breasts filled with milk, a sensation akin to filling an over-stuffed water balloon with a hose, and before I could blink, people were pinching my nipples and trying to explain to me how Sydney was supposed to latch. The room then filled with residents and strangers who watched me in the nude as if I were their third-grade biology experiment. When I rose to pee, so much blood exploded from my nether bits that the cleanup crew had to throw away the mattress. I imagine this isn't unusual. I imagine many women have their own versions of the same story. Why? Because this is real life.
And business, my friends, is real life too. It's messy. It doesn't SWAAY too far one way or another, regardless of how you are wired or, in my case, MISSWIRED (a little homage to the terrific book I wrote in vignettes while cradling my newborn through her early years of life).
Why? Because in business and in creation, there are several truths that overlap. Here they are below. I hope you find them empowering.
1. Like pregnancy, the development of a new product or service is a long and arduous process with bursts of euphoria in between.
There's a saying, “nine women can't make a baby in one month." It's true, so find productive ways to expand the joy, such as meditating.
2. Pain can be temporary, or it can be long-lasting.
Do your research, factor yourself into the equation, and make a choice. Each decision you make in business follows the same formula. “How much temporary pain am I willing to endure today in order to prevent systematic pain later? Is it worth it?" Sometimes you'll get it right; sometimes you won't. But you're better off educating yourself.
3. Yes, you are powerful. But you are not self-sufficient.
You may be able to develop a significant portion of a product or business on your own, but not without quality help. Determine whom you want to have by your side–ideally someone compassionate and credible–particularly when you're in heat and nearing the finish line. They need to be able to help you pick up the slack when you think you just don't have a single iota of strength left.
4. If you can't get sh*t done one way, do it another way; adjust.
And by the way, pushing out crap is good; it allows your ultimate product the space it needs to find its way into reality.
5. Miracles are born in blood and tears. So are new services and products.
6. Once you deliver, the infrastructure you have to support your creation will, at first, be stitched together and deflated.
This is absolutely normal. You might have an idea of what you need, but until the real thing is available to you, you can't have it all figured out. That's when everyone and their mother will try to tell you what to do. They mean well, but you're the CEO. Listen to them, but trust your instincts. After all, it's your baby, and these are your nipples.
May all you mothers out there prosper in business; you're already doing the hardest of life's work.