Emily LaFave Olson w Chef Thomas McNaughton of Flour & Water
I can’t recall how I originally met Emily but I’m going to chalk it up to the “overlapping friend circles” thing. You know, you keep seeing someone often enough at group events that eventually you think you know one another despite actually never having a 1:1 conversation? Thankfully that was remedied several years ago socially and professionally also had the pleasure of hosting Emily and her husband Rob in our office while they noodled on their next company (we have some extra space for friends to co-work, no strings attached). In addition to being a strong founder, Emily is thoughtful and intention, as evidenced in her recent essay about taking back her maiden name.
Hunter Walk: Ok, Din is your latest food startup but you’ve worked in food-related businesses for quite a while. What turned you on to the culinary world and why do you keep coming back?
Em LaFave Olson: I eat good food for a living, do I really need to explain? 😉 In all seriousness though, I was a big chemistry nerd in high school and thought for sure that was my path when I arrived in college. I kept putting off my chemistry homework to cook and the kitchen became my new lab. There are many reasons why I love the space, it’s creative, it’s fun… but I think the one thing that continues to ring true after 13 years is that food connects people. It’s this universal connector of people and the more I understand food the more I come to understand the world through it.
EO: That’s a good question, the world of accelerators has changed so much since we went through Techstars in 2008. We were guinea pigs then as the second class! I think if you’re a first time entrepreneur, an accelerator can be a great fit. For us, it was like a mini MBA, teaching us how to think about the early stage of building a business, but it’s paired with an accelerated schedule (which really teaches you how to create momentum and build things), and most importantly it’s about the network. You get connected to smart mentors, other talented entrepreneurs, and potential investors. Those three things are really fundamental to a business. As for which accelerator, there are so many, I think it’s a business/location/timing and perhaps a specialization thing. I’m of course partial to Techstars because it’s run by damn good people.
HW: Both Din and Foodzie were cofounded with your husband Rob LaFave. So the first time, maybe you were just taking a chance it would work out, but the second time, you definitely knew what you were getting into! Did you go into Din just assuming you’d work together again or was it a decision you had to evaluate?
EO: Ah yes our relationship! On to the juicy topics… 🙂 Ya know, the first time we didn’t even stop and question it honestly. It was such a natural thing for us to work together on something. We worked on school projects together in college and we completely gutted and renovated a kitchen together. It wasn’t until we started researching more “VC blogs” (ever heard of those 😉 ) while applying for Techstars that we started reading things about investors not investing in couples and we sorta freaked out. But we knew they didn’t know us. There’s a funny story around that actually. Since I didn’t want anyone judging us before they met us (this was during our Techstars interview), I came up with the wise idea to remove our relationship status on Facebook (we were engaged at the time). I forgot to change my notification settings and then all of us a sudden there was a broken heart in my feed (remember those days?) My best friend Jenny called me freaking out and I was like “oh no no no, we’re good!” And had to explain.
As for the second time, it was much more considered, and I think in the time between I asked myself woah that did work, why? We’re incredibly complementary. He’s the builder. I’m the storyteller. He’s analytical. I’m relational. On meyers briggs, we test as almost complete opposites (he’s INTJ, I’m ENFP). If the company was a house, he puts up the walls, and I decorate. I communicate the business needs through feelings, he asks me to put it in a spreadsheet. It pretty much works like that. But we have so many years of communication, trust. we have this shared brain of sorts. Like when we walk into a pitch, it’s so fluid, we can pick up where the other person leaves off. Non-local communication is happening all the time. I just think things and he knows, and he’s on the same page. And you can move incredibly fast in a unified way with that sort of communication. The reason it works with all of our differences is because of a common foundation of love for quality food, values around community and sustainability. The magic is when we create products together, that’s when our creative genius together is unlocked.
HW: Having been through multiple fundraising periods, what advice would you give a new founder in raising their seed round? What questions should they ask an investor to help assess whether it’s a good fit for their startup?
EO: I guess I would back all the way up and determine whether a VC path is right for your company at all. It’s so easy because of all the noise around fundraising cycles (which I think is really strange that we celebrate fundraising so much). VC money is made out to be sexy and the only path. Bootstrapping is sexy! You own your entire company. I think VC only works for certain types of companies. There are so many new places to raise funds now like Kickstarter, AngelList, and CircleUp. I think founders should really research all the ways they can raise money. But to answer your question! The most important question to ask an investor is for their referrals. You learn the most about the ethics and values of an investor by talking to entrepreneurs they’ve worked with.
HW: What’s the verdict – is it ok to take pictures of food at restaurants, or just leave the phone in the pocket and enjoy the meal?
EO: I have a ten second rule. You get the chance for one good quick shot when the food comes out and then the phone goes away. Gathering around the table to me is still a sacred space that shouldn’t be interrupted by technology, I love it for that reason. Get off your phone and connect with someone in real life around the dinner table.