Michele Tsucalas | Crain's Washington D.C.

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Michele Tsucalas

Background:  

Michele Tsucalas founded Michele’s Granola in 2006 after experimenting in her home kitchen. Michele’s Granola, which debuted at farmers markets in Maryland, is now available in more than 550 retail locations and food service facilities in 23 states. The company’s production facility, located in Timonium, Maryland, is powered with 100 percent wind power, and 80 percent of waste is recycled or composted.

The Mistake:

The mistake was taking risks without listening to my gut.

A couple of years ago I had moved my business into a new, larger production facility. After a decade of slow, measured growth in the wholesale grocery business—growth on our terms—we had some strong expansion prospects on the horizon. I wanted to hit the ground running and take some new risks when we moved into a new space. As a result I made two hasty decisions that turned out to be mistakes.

I had been told by some of my retail partners that if I wanted to grow I needed to have a broker representing my business. The problem is the granola market is pretty competitive, and all of the brokers I’d heard of were already representing other granola brands. I really had a hard time finding someone who was willing to consider bringing us on board. I happened to be contacted by a broker I hadn’t heard of. I wanted him to help expand our business into the western part of the country and hired him sight unseen after one phone call. I sent him a check for the processing fee (like an onboarding fee) and never heard from him again—that was one mistake.

I made another one quickly thereafter. In wanting to move toward bold action and grow the business as quickly as possible, I developed a snack-size pack of granola for a chain of convenience stores. I had no experience in the grab-and-go market, no understanding of the customer, the convenience store or its shopper. I had no idea about the retailer’s launch strategy or pricing or marketing strategy. I had to hire a new distributor I’d never worked with before to launch the product into the convenience stores. Basically as soon as the distributor picked up the product the communication stopped. The items were really slow to roll out to the locations, the items never got to all of the locations we thought we were going to be in, and we ended up never selling a second order for the distributor. It was a total bust.

They were both expensive mistakes—both because of finances but they were also resource intensive—and set us back in our timeline and the direction we wanted to move in. Mistakes aren’t necessary stopping points, they can be launch points. I had to recover really quickly from these mistakes and take some time to reflect and understand how I made these mistakes.

You can be bold and cautious.

The Lesson:

As my organization was going through a lot of change, with moving into a new facility and anticipating growth, I began to feel some internal pressure to move away from my guardian tendencies as a leader to be more of a visionary.

As a leader I look up to models of leadership who tend to be visionary leaders who get in front of their communities and really inspire change. My tendency is to be more measured and cautious. In this time when I was feeling this internal pressure to really move myself forward as a leader, I thought to myself, “Be bold, don’t be cautious.” I didn’t listen to my gut or gather as much information as I usually would. I think I really rushed in the wrong direction.

The lesson that I learned from this as a leader is that you can be both—you can be bold and cautious. You can use caution to help inform your decisions, but not prevent you from making them, and rule out the things that you can’t or maybe shouldn’t do so that you can act on the things you should be doing.

It comes down to knowing who you are as a leader and trusting that. Authenticity is key in leadership. I began to doubt myself in my ability to drive this business forward at a relatively new pace. If I had stuck to my guns as a leader and moved forward with my style I would have more swiftly made the right decisions.

Michele’s Granola is on Twitter at @michelesgranola.

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