"Mita needs to be more strategic. She needs to showcase more of her strategic thinking capabilities. She has yet to develop strategy. Mita needs to be strategic."
Please. Not again. Please don't tell me to be more strategic.
In those early years out of business school. In review after review, this word strategic kept coming up. It was like a SAT word that I had never mastered. It was a word I couldn't use correctly in a sentence. It was a word that I also misspelled on one occasion.
What the heck did strategic mean anyway?
I asked some of my managers. The ones who had given me the feedback. I needed to understand what this feedback around being strategic meant.
"Can you help me understand how I could be more strategic?"
They said. Be more strategic. Think big picture (apparently when you say this phrase, you should also extend your arms up into the air.) Take a step back. Think about the overall goal. Showcase your strategic thinking skills. Make sure everything you do ties back to the overall strategy.
Not very helpful.
I then asked the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Relating to the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests and the means of achieving them. Carefully designed or planned to serve a particular purpose or advantage. Necessary or important in the initiation, conduct or completion of a strategic plan.
Also, lots of reference to war planning. Strategy was used to provide military forces with an advantage. Relating to a general plan that is created to achieve a goal in war, politics. Required for the conduct of war and not available in adequate quantities domestically strategic materials.
What the heck did military forces have to do with selling body wash?
And finally. I asked my husband. He shrugged his shoulders, downing a Chobani yogurt in one bite.
"Did you ask your boss?"
Again. Not very helpful.
So I tried to observe others in their strategic mastery. In their strategic prowess. Basking in their strategy and strategic ways. Who was strategic and how could I be more like them?
"Before we think about the next step, we need to take a step back and think about the overall strategy."
"The long-term strategy should be the focus of this discussion."
"I like this idea. Ties back to our strategy."
"Yes, we should think strategically about this."
"I believe our strategy should be focused."
These individuals had mastered strategic thinking. They always seemed to have a lot to contribute in meetings. They peppered in the word strategy, strategic and strategic thinking into their monologues.
"Here's the deal," my assigned buddy sat me down one day. In the middle of the afternoon in the dark corner of a cafeteria. "Let me tell you what my buddy once told me."
"Being more strategic. It's about what you choose to work on when and how much time you devote to initiatives."
I was writing everything down. Word for word. Scribbling as fast as I could.
"Being more strategic is about how you work. Send less emails and go talk to people. Go find them in person.
"Being more strategic is about how you show up in meetings. You don't need to sit there writing everything down word for word. Be present, absorb what's being said, and engage. And when you do engage make sure you sound strategic."
How do I sound strategic? Do I start just using the word strategic and I would magically become more strategic? If only it were that easy.
The truth was, that conversation with my buddy that afternoon was another turning point in my career. I wasn't being strategic at all.
I wasn't strategic about the use of my email. I sent way too many emails all the time- checking them off as items on my to do list. I sent emails as a way of getting stuff done, moving it off my to do list. I didn't think about how my colleagues felt about me bombarding their inboxes.
Instead of setting up 30 minutes with individuals to review a list of actions we needed to do together.
I wasn't strategic in my thought process. I would show up to meetings with my boss and cross functionals. Outlining an understanding of problems at hand, and early on never really providing any concrete solutions. I was ready to do whatever they wanted me to do. And not what I thought we should do.
Instead of coming up with three clear options. And putting my name behind one of the options as the recommended solution.
I wasn't strategic about my project list. I worked on whatever people gave me. Sometimes work from those who were not even my boss. Because I was building a brand around getting shit done.
Instead of asking. Should I be working on this and is this driving the overall business? Or raising my hand to work on projects aligned with the business priority and my passions. Or offering to work on an idea I had.
I wasn't strategic on how I approached the work. I just dove right in, doing what I was assigned and not asking too many questions. And doing it as fast as possible- showcasing that bias for action. And kept my head down. And just worked.
Instead of taking a moment. To understand what I was being asked to do and why. To ask clarifying questions instead of spinning my wheels. And creating work that was not value add.
I wasn't using the word strategic when I was indeed being strategic. To reinforce with others that I was being strategic. Because it finally occurred to me what strategic could mean.
That I was being thoughtful about how I use my time and what I asked of others. That I was thinking of, anticipating problems before they occurred. And could then recommend on how we course correct. That I was working on projects and activities that aligned with what we said our business priorities were.
Please. Not again. Please don't tell me to be more strategic.
Feedback is a gift. You can keep it, toss it, maybe even re-gift it. When you repeatedly here the same feedback, from different sources, it's time to sit up listen. Accept the feedback and do the work to course correct.
The work has paid off. Because it has been awhile since anyone has told me I wasn't strategic.
And that's the beginning of the story. Of how I became more strategic. I showed up strategic. I engaged strategically. I spoke strategic. I became strategic. And yes, I even started spelling the word correctly.
Organic growth has made all the difference for my company. Since its start in 2010, Fresh n' Lean has delivered more than 7.2 million organic meals that are free of pesticides, hormones, GMOs, and other additives. The business itself has grown organically, too, without the help of any outside capital. Over the past decade, Fresh n' Lean's bootstrapped operation has grown into a 220-employee company with nine-figure revenue.
Here's how I've been able to successfully build my business without taking on a penny of outside funding.
1. A Hard Decision
The decision of whether or not to take on outside capital is a difficult one.
I was lucky— I relied on personal savings to fund Fresh n' Lean at the company's onset. I thought Fresh n' Lean was a meaningful endeavor, and I believed in myself and my vision.
Not every business owner would be financially able to make the same decision I did. Either way, it's important that your company's growth happens gradually and naturally.
2. Start Small
I was an 18-year-old college student when I launched Fresh n' Lean.
I would regularly work upwards of 20 hours a day— cooking dishes, arranging the meals in tupperware containers, handwriting the labels, and personally delivering them to some of our earliest customers.
Pretty soon we were shipping meals nationally, and I began renting a commercial kitchen space.
We generated a ton of enthusiasm from our customers, and that support prooved that we were on to something. But the early days featured lots of trial and error. We made mistakes and learned from them before scaling the business.
3. Rely On Your Network
Fresh n' Lean started with a team of five people. My friends and relatives chipped in, and my brother Thomas joined Fresh n' Lean as co-CEO.
Relying on those close colleagues was so meaningful in helping me get the company off the ground. I often look at Fresh n' Lean's employees as a family, and that mentality was especially true in those early days.
As I ramped up the hiring, my experiences with every aspect of our operation made me sharp at understanding the company's needs— and helped me to hire employees with the right skill set and mentality to drive the company forward.
4. Hold Firm
Fresh n' Lean embodies a lifestyle choice, a chance for everyone in the United States to have access to nourishing meals amid their busy lives.
We probably could have driven more sales by offering non-organic meal options, but I wanted the company to remain true to my mission.
A decade later, I'm so proud to see the impact Fresh n' Lean has made in redefining fast food.
5. Capitalize On Industry Trends
We live in a society of instant gratification— we want everything now, and our world is completely focused on convenience.
When Fresh n' Lean was launched, the idea of receiving ready-to-eat meals on your doorstep was a strange concept. But a decade later, we're used to having everything delivered to our homes. Recognizing and capitalizing on those changing consumer habits was a big part of our growth.
6. Don't Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
For years, I wanted to open our own kitchen facility— it was a top priority.
But building the space was a difficult and extensive process that could have financially devastated us if we attempted it too soon. In those early years, the project would have left the company too vulnerable.
Instead of moving forward with the project, we waited. In the meantime, we continued renting commercial kitchen space. One day a week turned into two, and then three and four, and eventually we were renting the space five days a week.
In time, we had no other options but to build our own kitchen facility— and our restraint before moving forward with that project was crucial, even if it was frustrating for the short-term.
7. Focus On You
As you build your company, it's easy to try to compare it to the growth other companies experience.
But headlines and press releases don't reveal the full story, and outside funding can mask structural and foundational problems. One example is the online ordering and meal delivery service Munchery, which secured more than $125 million from lenders before closing in early 2019.
Every company's story is unique! You can't judge your company's success based on the ups and downs of others. Focus on making your company the best you can.
8. One Thing At A Time
Our meal offerings have expanded through deliberate, strategic planning and extensive customer feedback.
Building the recipes takes time— we want to be sure to get it right. And our customer feedback ensures that there's built-in interest before rolling out new meal options.
9. Be Resourceful
Building the company without outside capital forced me to be more resourceful. I couldn't throw money at everything I wanted to change— I had to be patient and find alternative solutions.
It's similar, in a way, to cooking a dish without having every ingredient listed in the recipe. You must have the key ingredients! Our executive chef was one of our earliest hires.
But you can adjust and improvise on some of the secondary ingredients, using whatever alternatives you have available and relying on tried-and-true methods to fill in the gaps.
Who knows? Through experimentation, you just might find a better way to cook your dish or guide your company forward.