Working women know the dilemma well: How can you start a family without torpedoing your career? America’s stingy parental-leave policies, platinum-expensive daycare, and a business culture that pays lip service to work-life balance but not much more, are enough to make any frustrated parent ask: Could you blaze a more accommodating career path on your own?
The answer is yes, but it takes guts, planning, and patience to pursue this path successfully. Consider the Esoteric Food Company, a pickling business founded by two moms, Mara King and Willow King (no relation), in Boulder, Colorado. Their pickle brand, Zuké—the name derives from the Japanese term for pickled vegetables, zukemono—includes delicacies like juniper-scented Napa cabbage and a potent, earthy concoction of beets, dulse seaweed, and kale.
Zuké bubbled up to prominence with surprising speed. A little over two years ago, Mara and Willow walked product samples into a Lucky’s Market in Boulder and landed their first corporate order. Says Willow, "We keep track of how long we’ve been in business by the age of Mara’s son Desmond. Our first product delivery happened right after he was born. It’s a fun parallel—plus, it just makes sense to think of the business like a child." The two now have five children between them, from toddlers to teenagers.
Zuké products are now sold regionally in 29 Whole Foods and many natural and organic groceries in an eight-state region ranging from Montana to Louisiana with Albert's Organics. Moving from home kitchen to shared commissary to their own factory space (and pickling 25 tons of vegetables along the way), the Zuké ladies saw 100% growth in 2012 and expect 500% growth this year.
We talked with Mara and Willow about succeeding as both parents and entrepreneurs—and how you can walk into the adventure with your eyes open.
1. Take opportunity where you find it—even if it arrives dressed as failure.
Like other acts of insane heroism, many startups are born not out of bravery but necessity. "I worked as a chef for many years," says Mara. "Then I lost my job and couldn’t find another."
Willow was in a similar boat: a former English teacher, she’d moved away from Boulder to California, then moved back with two young children, uncertain how to relaunch her career with kids. "Willow and I started getting together once a week and geeking out in the kitchen," Mara recalls. Willow concurs, "We loved experimenting, looking for the next thing careerwise maybe, but only subconsciously. Pickling was one of the many food projects we made together, but they kept coming back." She laughs. "They had a life of their own—literally."
That joke refers to the fact that pickling foods involves live-culture bacteria. Fermentation starts by adding sea salt to vegetables in a sealed jar; bacteria take over, producing a nutritious, zesty, long-lasting product whose taste mellows and alters over time.
2. Connect your product with your personal story.
You know your product has hit a foodie sweet spot when it’s the subject of a Portlandia sketch—in this case, We Can Pickle That! Zuké’s success can be partly attributed to how it intersects with a large community of enthusiasts. "Pickling is part of our cultural history," says Mara. "Handmade things have that juju that comes with tradition—that’s coming back into vogue."
Zuké’s marketing draws on its founders’ personal stories, and much of the product’s appeal is aspirational. The duo has logged countless hours handing out samples at local stores, chatting up customers who express envy and admiration for what they’re doing, revealing other business opportunities. "We’re also interested in teaching pickling classes," Willow notes. "A strong component of getting people intrigued is making them part of the food’s life." Call it social media of an intensely analog sort.
Although it’s labor-intensive, offering in-store samples piques curiosity and remove objections to purchasing it. "We’ve sold anchovy and pear kimchee" that way, recalls Willow. "That catches people off guard, but our ideal consumer gets pleasure from trying something new and unusual and enjoying it."
3. Work your network from multiple angles.
Juggling parenthood and a new business means a broad range of networks. Not only can they work their industry-specific contacts, they can also tap into the local startup scene and in the case of the Kings, the sisterhood of female entrepreneurs.
Willow and Mara worked these multiple networks adroitly. They connected with other startups as members at HUB Boulder, a startup coworking and networking space. To tap Boulder’s thriving natural products community, they joined Naturally Boulder and LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability); the latter is a university-affiliated program spanning health and fitness, the environment, sustainable living—what some call "crunchy-type" businesses. They’re also thick with various Meetup groups in Boulder focused on women entrepreneurs.
4. It takes a village to raise a child or build a business.
The Zuké team worked the community-marketing angle hard. Mara had local cred as a sushi chef, but zero suction in the grocery-store community. Their sales approach was grindingly face-to-face: walk into a store and ask to demo your product with a decision-maker. Amazingly, they usually got a friendly reception and practical advice, which they implemented humbly.
Zuké benefited from word-of-mouth on two levels: face-to-face meetings got Zuké products into local organic stores. Word-of-mouth among friends also connected them with an angel investor who committed seed capital himself and introduced them to the right circles to raise more.
As the business has grown, local contacts helped Zuké solve fresh conundrums like how to source organic Napa cabbage, an Asian staple food perfect for pickling, but rarely raised organically in the U.S.5. Work at what you love, because you could be working for free for a while.
"I had this big fat bank balance at the beginning of the year from selling my house," Mara recalls. "I remember just watching it dwindle, the stress of that ever-decreasing number. The month I wrote my last check against it was the same month I got paid [by Zuké]." Luckily both women had financial ballast in their husbands’ steady jobs—Mara’s husband is a graphic designer, Willow’s is an architect—but neither could luxuriate without income for long. Both women quit part-time jobs in 2012 to commit to Zuké full-time.
6. Forget separating work from family life.
"For the first year, we worked Saturdays starting at 6 a.m., which nobody would be crazy enough to do but two moms," Willow says. "We needed to pick our kids up [from daycare] in the afternoon, so we were willing to work at odd times and around each other."
If pre-dawn pickling sessions and pinch-hitting husbands couldn’t close the gap, they brought their kids to work. Here’s where a mix of ages comes in handy—babies could spend time in carriers while moms worked in the kitchen, and older kids amused themselves nearby or even pitched in with the work.
In many ways, the prodigious juggling skills necessary for parenthood make mothers or fathers tailor-made for entrepreneurship. "It’s all about cramming in work wherever you can," says Mara. "If the stress gets too much, we can always slice up a mountain of cabbage. When you get your hands on a bunch of vegetables, it’s very calming to the system."
[Images: Cary Jobe, Cary Jobe Photography]