How Kat Cole Operates Cinnabon Like A Tech Startup

Hackathons, innovation partners, constant real-time iteration, it's all happening between layers of cinnamon, sugar, and fluffy dough at Cinnabon.

There’s no software embedded in the gooey center of a Classic Roll. No app that dispatches dough from oven to frosting tray, no algorithm to calculate and dispense the precise amount of a toothsome concoction of sugar and cream cheese. Despite the absence of these, Cinnabon’s president Kat Cole runs the company like a tech startup—albeit a very large one.

From hacking product development to partnerships with disruptors in the food and beverage industry, Cole’s infused the business of peddling calorie soaked indulgences with a heady mix of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit.

In her three years at the helm, Cinnabon added over 200 bakeries and launched a host of branded products including an Air Wick air freshener, a cinnamon flavored vodka with Pinnacle, and a cinnamon spiced Keurig coffee blend. This expansion in franchises as well as branded products in grocery, retail, and Taco Bell and Burger King, gives Cinnabon about 50,000 global points of distribution that accounted for approximately $1 billion in retail sales last year.

On the surface, Cole makes it look easy. A quick sally through her Twitter feed, for example, reveals an ebullient woman, decked out in hiking gear, arms and legs spread wide as if to envelope all her over 10,000 followers in the sweet smell of success. Here, as on Facebook, she’s big on saying thanks and sharing photos from devotees of the brand.

Dealing With Impostor Syndrome

But Cole’s had plenty of hills to climb starting with the now-famous fact that she’s a former Hooters girl who dropped out of college to work her way up from waiting tables to vice president of that company. She did go back to school to get an MBA (years of work experience stood in for a bachelor’s degree) before landing the job as president of Cinnabon—all by the time she was 32.

Cole admits she wasn’t immune to feeling like a fraud. “Whenever I’m offered an opportunity, there’s no doubt there is that instant natural reaction (to not think she’s ready)," Cole says. Just as instantly though, Cole says, “I don’t allow it to have any additional space in my mind.”

The way she sees it, if you don’t believe in yourself, who will? “What I learned to ask instead: ‘I’ve got what it takes, but am I going to have access to resources I will need to be successful?” Then, she suggests, answer by way of yourself and talking to the others who are giving you the opportunity.

You're Never Really Ready

She did this when faced with the decision to take the president’s role at Cinnabon. Coming from Hooters which was technically a larger franchise, Cole explains, she knew she could run a brand. The question she posed to her interviewers at Focus Brands, the umbrella company that also owns Carvel ice cream, Schlotzkey’s sandwich shop, Auntie Anne’s pretzel company, and Moe’s Southwest Grill, was would she have access to other leaders to help benchmark her decisions, budget, and resources. “I am never saying here is what I haven’t done,” she points out.

Cole’s also made it a personal rule that by the time she’s contemplating a new opportunity, it’s probably past its expiration date. “You are never fully ready,” she emphasizes. And if you wait until you are, all that experience is not providing you a return on your time investment, she contends. Then, you’ll probably have to unlearn 5% of what you learned, Cole observes.

Listen and Learn

Though she’s made it a point not to listen to negative voices inside her head, Cole is definitely keeping an ear to the ground when coming up with new products. “There’s no way to ensure (hits) every time,” she admits. The “Pizzabon,” for instance, was a miss.

“You do your best to make sure you are listening to people that matter.” That’s why customers, bakery staff, and franchise partners play a big role in what gets developed because they have their hands in the existing product in real time. “You will automatically skew the odds in your favor,” she says, “Instead of basing products on research and focus groups alone.”

Hacking Product Development

Unlike Chipotle, a franchise that is just now delivering the first new menu item in two decades, Cinnabon celebrates disruption.

Cole says she took a page from some of the tech companies she invests in and advises, by supporting hackathons at Cinnabon. There aren’t any beer-soaked brogramming sessions Cole says, but staff is encouraged to “break” existing products to come up with the next big thing.

Anyone can participate, no matter what their role in the company. Cole says there’s an internal forum she’s constantly scouring for new ideas that may not ultimately make the cut, but could seed a concept that will.

Cinnabon does have its own R&D division, a hive that’s buzzing currently as it works to potentially reverse engineer the mochi, a two-bite-sized Japanese frozen confection. “We totally celebrate fast failure,” she underscores. Like an app, Cole says she prefers to get a product 75% ready and push it out into the real world to iterate. “We can move fast as soon as something feels good and people seem to love it,” she says.

The other way to experiment comes through Cinnabon and the other brands in the Focus portfolio’s partnerships. Cole cites Kellogg's and other huge consumer brands as innovation leaders that help her staff fast track their own learning.

“We always ask ourselves if we were starting today what would we do,” she says, especially as the company enters its 28th year.

Just Say No

Cole’s not afraid to nix an idea. “We say no all the time,” she says. It’s often less about the idea than the partner. “One thing we own is brand equity. We are so highly differentiated, which any tech company would love to be,” she observes.

If something starts to feel too much like something else, or the partner has no relevance with the Cinnabon brand, it’s likely to get voted down. Take the case for a Cinnabon-flavored mouthwash. “It’s cold and medicinal,” Cole notes, “not warm and indulgent like a roll. We have to be realists about the environment.”

Taking Smart Risks

If all of this experimentation and innovation seems fraught with risk, Cole remains pretty clear on taking leaps of faith. First, she says, it helps to have a timeline. “If you view yourself in an early chapter of your story personally and professionally, take risks like its going to end tomorrow,” she recommends.

Second, it helps to have a partner, or several. That’s when risk becomes “a people discussion,” and therefore more bearable and fun. “Taking a risk starts to suck faster when you do it alone,” she says.

Bottom Line: “When you think about risk [know that] this isn’t the last decision you’ll ever make, so get off your ass and make a call.” After you’ve done due diligence and evaluated priorities, of course, she says. Among Cole’s biggest regrets are the times she didn’t make a call fast enough. “If you don’t take a risk, your competition will. That keeps a fire under me.”

[Image via Wikipedia]

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