The first thing you need to know about Mary Waldner is that she is most definitely not crazy. Though when she decided to ditch a 26-year career as a psychotherapist to start a snack business, more than one person thought she’d lost her mind.
Waldner just laughs and explains that that’s part of the reason she named the company Mary’s Gone Crackers. The other is that the business was built on crackers–from a recipe which Waldner developed after being diagnosed with celiac disease. The autoimmune disorder makes it hard for people to digest gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. In the U.S., a country (like most) where bread and bread products are staples, this underdiagnosed disease afflicts about one in 133 people, or about 3 million Americans.
Waldner’s crackers were an immediate hit with friends and family, and soon with her local health food market, too. “I couldn’t keep up with the demand,” she says, estimating she’s baked at least 30,000 by hand. In 2003, Waldner along with her husband as CEO, made the leap from home baking to professional manufacturing, and the company’s been off and running ever since. Now, Mary’s Gone Crackers employs 160 people in its Gridley, Calif., facility, the majority are whom are in production. Manufacturing is happening round the clock to keep pace with demand from independent health food stores, Whole Foods, and traditional supermarket chains. Waldner says the business has realized 40% compounded growth year over year for the last eight years. The Original Cracker was awarded the SOFI Gold for the most outstanding cracker at the NASFT in 2008.
Here are some bite-sized thoughts on entrepreneurship, second acts, and leadership from Waldner–guaranteed to be organic and gluten-free.
FAST COMPANY: After 26 years as a psychotherapist, why did you decide to get in the snack food business? Wouldn’t it have been easier to sell the recipe to an established manufacturer?
MARY WALDNER: I had been making a lot of gluten-free food and was encouraged by friends to write a cookbook. I know no one would make crackers even if they had the recipe because they are very labor intensive–it takes about 5 hours to make a batch by hand. Cookbooks are kind of boring, though. [My husband and I] were both very naïve, we didn’t know what it would take, but it was a feeling inside that this had to be done. It has worked for me before. One day it was really clear, I didn’t know how to get from point A to B, but then there are moments when things just come together.
But you stuck with your day job at the beginning, just in case?
I stopped taking new clients but I was not working full-time, anyway. It was about two years before I stopped completely, about the time we were getting our own facility. I had said I would continue [working with clients] until the company was profitable, but that took a lot longer [laughs]. It was hard to let go in terms of my history, my practice, and identity. It took a couple years to feel okay about it.
How is an entrepreneur like a psychotherapist?
Being a therapist in private practice, I was self-employed. That is very similar focus: You have to promote yourself, you are running a business, and it is also risky. Both were compelling choices, and I am not a huge risk taker, only when something is so essential to my being that I have no choice but to pursue it. I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur; this is just what I do.
Did your training in marriage counseling come in handy when going into business with your husband?
In every way! It was a huge challenge for both of us and we had very difficult times as we had separate careers for a long time. We share a lot of values that we didn’t know we had. That part has been fun. The challenging part is he’s the CEO and he runs the company and sometimes I tell him I don’t like him and I don’t want to work for him. We found we have to remove ourselves from the work environment. It has taken a lot of practice, time, and successes. He says he would never do this again. I don’t think that way.
How did you move into product development and brand strategy–is it because you have a background in behavior and know what motivates people?
I’m the one with the vision. I am the foodie, I developed all the recipes, and I set the standards for the company. It made perfect sense to me that this be an organic, vegan company. That is who I am and how I eat.
How would you describe yourself as a leader?
My style is to practice what I preach and I lead by example. This business is an extension of my values. I can be very clear–although I might still be in the kitchen–about what I want, while my husband is much better at making things happen. He really trusts me when I have that kind of clarity. I know when I know something.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve encountered since founding the business?
How cutthroat people in this business are. My joke, and another layer of the name Mary’s Gone Crackers, is that I never dealt with crazier people since I’ve been a therapist. People lie and steal, that was shocking to me. On the positive side, I was surprised at how hungry our culture is for the kind of integrity and transparency our company has offered. Our customers get it from reading the box or the website.
First peanut allergies took over the news and led to special product labeling and even dedicated “peanut free” schools. Did you have any idea that so many people would not just want, but need, your products?
I had been sick for so long that to finally figure out what was wrong was a thrill. We had been exploring the celiac population but we didn’t think it would grow. I did know that people loved our crackers even if they didn’t have celiac disease. It was the crossover of product that we were betting on when we founded the company in 2004. Gluten awareness hit a couple years later.
What is the one piece of advice you’d give to someone contemplating a second act–at any age?
Think big if you are going to do something like this but pay attention to doubt. If you’re not 110% committed you have to address those doubts before you leap. But go for it. The world needs that kind of optimism and creativity to build something new. Just make sure you have support. No one can do anything like this alone.
[Image: Flickr user Ginny]