Interview with Emily Olson

June 29, 2009

Series: Entrepreneurial Heroes

Like many entrepreneurs, Emily Olson saw a niche, got an idea, and ran with it. Foodzie uses technology to share great food from smaller producers with a larger audience.

Emily Olson

Emily is one of the co-founders of Foodzie, an online marketplace for small passionate food producers and growers. She heads up marketing, community management, and overall social media strategy for Foodzie. Part of her role is to bring a robust food community online and has done so through community tasting events and street team sampling promotions. She also keeps content flowing on the Foodzie blog, Twitter account, Flickr account, and Foodzie Facebook Fan Page to help facilitate community growth. She's also an alum of the 2008 class of TechStars, an early stage tech incubator program based out of Boulder, CO.

Previously to Foodzie, Emily worked for The Fresh Market, the third largest specialty food chain as their Private Label Brand Manager. She saw the flaws in the brick and mortar model for small food companies and believed that a marketplace online, gave them the tools they needed to connect directly with customers and share the stories that make them unique.

Emily Olson

Transcript: 

An Interview with Emily Olson Co-founder, Foodzie

Date: June 29, 2009

Emily Olson: Foodzie [music]

Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders. I am the CEO of National Center for Women and Information Technology, or NCWIT, and this is one of an ongoing series of interviews that we're doing with women who have started IT companies. We've got an especially exciting one today for all of you people who like to eat.

Larry Nelson: Yeah. Lucy: And for people who like to create food, and people who like to eat. With me is Lee Kennedy who is the CEO and founder of Boulder Search, herself a serial entrepreneur and also a board member of NCWIT. And also, Larry Nelson, CEO of W3W3. Is that what you call yourself?

Larry: Yeah, well, I call myself all kinds of things, but I'll take that.

Lucy: CEO of W3W3. Hi, Larry. How are you?

Larry: Oh, absolutely magnificent. I'm really excited about this, and as you said before, Brad and David Cohen are very proud of her. In a little conversation that I had with David Cohen about a month ago, I said, "Wow, they're doing so well". He said, "Well, you know, if you really think of it. They've got the natural product, the natural thing, and they're just tapping into the IT". So, they're very proud of you.

Lucy: Today we're talking with Emily Olson. The reason why we're all so proud of Emily is that she's a TechStars alum, and her people who have listened to our Entrepreneurial Toolbox new series, they'll know from the interview with David Cohen all about TechStars. It's a wonderful program here in Boulder to help budding entrepreneurs. Emily is the co-founder of Foodzie. It's an online marketplace here you can discover and buy food directly from all kinds of passionate food producers and growers. Listeners will be very eager to know that Emily just got back from Seattle where - I read in her blog - she looked at all kinds of great food at Pike Street Market and all those other places that you like to go when you are in Seattle. Emily and her co-founders were chosen by "Business Week" as three of the most promising young entrepreneurs in tech for 2009.

Larry: Wow.

Lee Kennedy: That's exciting.

Lucy: So, welcome, Emily.

Emily Olson: Thanks, thanks. I'm glad to be here.

Lucy: First, tell us, before we get into our questions about entrepreneurship, what's going on at Foodzie?

Emily: Well, there's a lot of exciting things going on. We've been growing a bunch, in particular our producer base, and just getting more and more sellers on board who share their products. But more specifically, right now a lot of people want to find what's local to them and we have more filters for them because that's something that we're working on right now as far as things that we're building. And yeah, improving the way both with the tools that help our producers to sell and help people to find specifically what they're looking for so we can improve the site.

Lucy: Well, and I hear you've got great customer service at Foodzie, really.

Emily: We try, yeah.

Lucy: Really taking care of customers, and I think Brad mentioned that you are always bribing people with chocolate over at TechStars.

Lee: I remember that. Emily: I usually joke that that's how we got in. We brought some sea salt caramels and LUCA chocolate out of North Carolina. We brought those with us, and sort of, now it's the expectation that wherever we go we do bring food. So, yeah, they got to know us well and we got to feed everybody there at TechStars.

Lucy: Well, that's wonderful. Let's just get right to our entrepreneurship questions. We could talk about Foodzie all day. It's just kind of making me hungry.

Emily: That would be my world.

Larry: I was going to warn the listeners. When you go to the Foodzie website, you will get hungry.

Lucy: Oh, it's just beautiful. So, Emily, why don't you give a bit of history about how you got into technology, and how you came to start a technology company? What technologies are cool, et cetera?

Emily: OK, so I was actually - I still am - in the food business, and that's where I found something that I was really passionate about. I was working for a specialty food retailer called The Fresh Market based on the East Coast, and I worked directly with the buyers there in helping to source products. And I also manage their e-commerce there. I just saw a disconnect, basically, the small producers who were trying to get into these stores. It was really hard for them because they often had limited distribution. They didn't have the margins built in and they couldn't make their way into these brick-and-mortar stores. What I really liked about technology and what the Internet provides was more of an open platform where you have unlimited shelf space, and you have all these opportunities to have more of these producers without the barriers and limitations you have of a brick-and-mortar store. And you also have the opportunity with video and a lot of the social media that we have going on to actually connect with these producers and get to know them better which we don't have the opportunity to do when there is just packaging sitting on the shelf. That's what got me the most excited about what I was doing, that I was passionate about, was using technology to make it better.

Lucy: So you use technology to tell the stories of the producers in addition to showing what they're selling.

Emily: Absolutely, yeah. So not only are we using technology, we're trying to make it easy for them to get on with a store, sell their products to a wider audience, but also to share their story which -- if you go to a farmer's market and you actually get to meet the person that makes the food, that's kind of what is the object behind a lot of these products, getting that story. I think we have the ability and the technology to replicate that as closely as possible. So, yeah, those are the things that got me really excited.

Lucy: So, Emily, we're always curious why entrepreneurs become entrepreneurs. So, tell us a little bit about why entrepreneurship makes you tick and just what it is that you love about it.

Emily: Well, initially it starts by being a problem that you want to solve and realizing that you are going to need to go and solve it yourself. I actually think that's where it was for me, while I saw I wasn't going to be able to do it, it turns out that it didn't exist and you have to create something. I think someone who is willing to take a risk and who likes creating, who likes building, who likes all of that, I think leads you into entrepreneurship. At least that's how it happened for me.

Lucy: And do you find yourself continuing to take that role at Foodzie as looking for the new challenges that need to be solved?

Emily: I think new challenges are presented every day. I think, yeah, absolutely, and I think what's really exciting when you mentioned customer service. We have a very close relationship with all of the producers that sell on our site, and we try to have a very close relationship with customers that buy. If you listen to them and you discover you what their needs are, then you can iterate and develop the product to their needs. I think that's the most exciting thing as an entrepreneur, that you can guide it and you can make those decisions to change something. With a small team you can make it happen pretty fast. So, I think that's something that gets really - I don't know - exciting to be able to say, "Hey, I want to do this," and just do it. Oftentimes in bigger companies, and when you're not an entrepreneur you can't quickly make those choices. So that's what has been a lot of fun for me.

Larry: Wow, that's fantastic. You know, we've interviewed now dozens of wonderful women in the NCWIT Hero Series, and you certainly are one of the youngest. I can't help but ask this. Who influenced you the most? Who supported you, or did you have mentors or advisors?

Emily: Well, I think early on when I was in high school I had a very strong mentor who was actually a chemistry teacher of mine, but he sort of just instilled in me that I could do anything that I want. And I think I took that with me through and into my career. And so I definitely had that foundation early on. As far as taking a risk, I think it's having the right support around you. My co-founders, Rob and Nik, knowing that you have the right team to start with when you go into business is huge. It allows you to overcome the initial roadblocks and obstacles that often stop people who have a great idea to actually follow through with it. So I think that was a huge thing for me early on, and then when we got to TechStars we had some incredible mentors that took us from the IP stage all the way, to whether it was working on price strategy or how we were going to market it or wanting it on an open platform or a closed platform and all of those questions we went through. We had just mentors who had been through it who built their businesses and could offer us really good advice and that took us, I think, several steps ahead of where we would have been on our own.

Lucy: Well, and you know, your answer really points again to the critical role of the encouragement in young people's lives that teachers have, especially in high school and college, that the can give you that confidence to believe in yourself, no matter what you're working on. It's incredibly important the number of stories we've heard about math teachers or chemistry teachers or anybody else really making sure that you had confidence. So turning now to something that may be a little less positive, we like to ask people the challenges that they've had so far in their career and what the one toughest thing you had to do so far in your career. What might that be?

Emily: One? [laughs]

Larry: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Lucy: Only one.

Larry: We don't have two hours. [laughter]

Emily: The hardest thing, I think, for me actually has been to find people to come on board that are just as passionate as you are as far as the entrepreneur and founder of a company. I think you take that for granted when you are an employee and you are excited. Now, running a business it's totally different, and I think finding those people... We've been really fortunate. We have two employees working now for Foodzie. One of them came to us and said that, "I want to be a Foodzie," and had everything that we needed. And I wasn't even looking for, but came to us. We've been searching for some other people that we want to join the team, but it's been really, really hard. I think we care a lot about the culture we're building and making sure that people believe in it. And so I would say that has such a direct impact on the business that finding the right people has probably been the hardest thing that we had to do.

Lucy: It is hard finding good people that have that same passion that you do about the company you started. So, Emily, you had mentioned earlier in the interview that you got some great coaching from a chemistry teacher. We are always curious, what kind of coaching you would give young people, people in high school, college, early 20s, about entrepreneurship, and what advice you'd give them as far as starting a company or weathering through a company?

Emily: I think that I had mentioned before about having the right team around you. I think that's absolutely critical, and I think oftentimes people get discouraged on an idea that seems really exciting to start. Then it often becomes "I can't do it" because you're missing pieces that can get you through that. And so I definitely think that above all else when you have a great idea, think about how you can round out your team. I think two to three founders to develop is the right number. It was three for us, and I think it was, perhaps, the perfect number because we rounded out the technology and marketing business side. So that's one thing. Surround yourself with the right team. But also find what you're really passionate about and make sure that this idea that you have is something you want to spend every day, all day, every weekend, thinking about for the next couple of years because it is all-consuming. When the days are really hard and long, if you're passionate about it and you really love what you're doing, it's a little bit easier. I know that's something for me. This is the space that I am truly, truly passionate about, and that work/life balance. Sometimes I confuse the two. Is this work? Is this life? I don't know. It's the same. So I think that finding something that you're passionate about is really important. Sometimes, I think that overused when people often say like, "Well, what the heck am I passionate about? I don't know. Am I passionate about this?" For me, I found I was passionate about food in college because I was putting off my homework and everything else to cook and do all these things that were related to food. And so I think if you're trying to look for what you're passionate about or trying to see if this idea you are going after is something you're passionate about. See if it's the kind of thing you would want to do, if you didn't have to work at all and you just had to retire and someone was going to pay your way and you had free time to do whatever. Would you want to be doing that? I think that's an important thing to think about. I think it is just really important when you're starting a business.

Larry: Emily, you mentioned working eight days a week or something like that.

Emily: [laughter]. Somewhere around there. Lee: He must be worried that you're working.

Larry: Right, right. I know. I guess we can associate with that. Isn't that right, Lee?

Lee: I was going to say that as being a serial entrepreneur, you've got to love it because you are doing it all the time, morning, noon and night. And if you don't love it, it's just gets to be a drag. Larry: And now I'm going to ask for a real tough question.

Lucy: Oh, good. We are ready for it [laughter].

Larry: With all these...

Emily: I already got that one [laughter]

Larry: Oh, well, listen to this one. With all that you were talking about, how do you bring balance into your personal and your professional lives?

Emily: If you're doing what you're passionate about, I think that the line is often blurred. I feel like I can go and do something like go to a cooking event and go and learn how to make chocolate truffles and that was just purely enjoyment for me. But I can tie it back to a business in a way, like I can write a blog about it or whatever might be. So for me, that's been it, because the line is kind of blurred. But even though I am passionate about what I do, I do have to disconnect and just not be doing something not related to the business. And I think for me it's going out nature. I've been fortunate the few places we operate Foodzie are in Colorado and San Francisco, California. Both have amazing outdoors and places to go and explore. And so I get to go offline and go do those kind of things like hiking in San Francisco, sailing and things like that. And also, try to plan it into your schedule. I think I've set a couple of goals for myself outside of just getting into nature. I want to learn how to play the guitar. I want to learn more about the American history and I want to join a soccer league. And that's for the entire year, but I try to work a little bit of accomplishing those every couple of weeks, so that I make sure I do those things.

Lucy: Very wise.

Larry: Yes, I'll say. I like that answer.

Lucy: Plus I want some chocolate truffles. [laughs]

Emily: That made you guys hungry, huh?

Lucy: You keep bringing out the subject on chocolate that just really outstanding. Well it's really fascinating to listen to everything that you're saying, especially about the history of Foodzie. I know you have a very bright future. So this next question, which is our final question is kind of hard to ask. But what's next for you? It's hard to know, because you're right in the very beginning you started a wonderful company. But perhaps you can speculate a bit with us about what's next.

Emily: Well, I think what's next is definitely something related to Foodzie. We'll be doing this for a good while. And I think our big vision is to help small food producers across this country succeed and stay in business. And we've really only scratched the surface in doing that. So we really want to just become partners with these producers and help them build their business. I know that's sort of a vague answer, but we want to have a big impact. We want to be a part of a movement that changes the way people eat in this country. And we think we can be, and I think technology has a lot to do with that. That and connecting people, giving these people the tools they need and getting people become aware of what they're doing. So yeah, I think that's it.

Lucy: That's awesome.

Larry: Yeah. Emily that's not vague, that's wonderful.

Lucy: It's an awesome mission, I just wanted to personally know how small a producer because I'm kind of a gardener. [laughter]

Lucy. I have way too much food. I give it to all my neighbors.

Larry: So your website is Foodzie.com.

Emily: Yeah, Foodzie.com.

Larry: Wonderful.

Lucy: And everybody needs to go visit and eat.

Emily: Check out the chocolate section and I'm sure you'll find something that'll get you to start salivating. It's a pretty dangerous category.

Lucy: Well, thank you very much, Emily, for talking with us and I just want to remind listeners where they can find these podcasts. They can find it at our website, NCWIT.org and w3w3.com.

Larry: You bet.

Lucy: Make sure that you pass this along to others. Emily, thank you very much.

Lee: Thank you, Emily.

Larry: Thank you. [music] Transcription by CastingWords