8 Lessons Learned from 10 years as Personal Chef

June 01, 2015

Brigitte Theriault, personal chef

I started White Apron 10 years ago with a culinary school education.  I had no business degree, and the ropes?  I had to climb them along the way.

It’s been 10 years filled with some serious roller coasters and major life and business lessons. It’s been amazing and also, difficult.  But nothing good in life is easy.

These are the 8 biggest lessons I’ve learned so far.

It takes time

When I started White Apron in 2005, it was easier to find clients.  You could use Craigslist to post an ad, and chances are you could build a business that way.  Once my website went up, I got 2 clients almost immediately.  I thought this was normal.  I stopped marketing and 2 years later, started marketing again. Bad news: the landscape had changed, and clients didn’t magically appear.

When I decided to move to San Francisco, worse things happened.  It took me 3 months of marketing to get a single call.  I was on my last penny and thinking I’d have to get a job.

Finally I got a call to do a dinner party.  That gave me hope.  It took another several weeks to get another call.  But it started happening, slowly.  And my business grew from there.

There’s a reason people say it takes 3 years to build a business.  You have to persevere even when things feel hopeless.  It’s hard when you have no idea where your next paycheck is coming from.  You have to have thick skin to deal with the uncertainty.

Business is a roller coaster

The first weekly client I had in San Francisco gave me keys.  I was relieved to finally have a weekly gig that would at least cover my basic expenses.  The day before I was supposed to start, they sent an email saying one of them had lost their jobs, and wouldn’t be able to hire me.  Despair.
A few weeks later, I finally got my first weekly gig.  We still cook for these clients 7 years later, and it’s been an amazing relationship.

There are times when weekly clients realize the service doesn’t work with their lifestyle. These cancellation emails are always painful.

Getting a new client feels like winning the lottery.

If that client isn’t happy with your services, then it feels like shit and you have to deal with the fallout.

Getting your ideas validated – creating something of value and knowing people are gaining skills and knowledge from it.  That feels amazing.  But the road to getting there – to the creation process, to putting out your work into the world and not knowing if your actions will pay off?  It’s hard.

When it pays off, it’s amazing.  When it doesn’t, ouch.  But you pick yourself up from the ground and you keep going.  Because that’s how entrepreneurs become successful.

Developing business skills is more important than mastering your craft 

I sometimes regret not going the restaurant route. Being able to work alongside world class chefs to hone my skills would have been tough, but useful.

So I worked on my business skills instead.  I still got to do what I love every day, which is cook.  But the combination of having a skill and being able to sell it: invaluable.

There is value in mastering the craft.  You can charge higher prices for your skills, and your resume looks good.  But just focusing on the product without knowing your sales process is not going to make you money.

Entrepreneurs all go through a similar journey

I’ll admit to watching a lot of business shows: The Profit, Shark Tank, Restaurant Start-up, Bar Rescue.  I am fascinated what happens when brilliant entrepreneurs use their knowledge to help other businesses grow.  When these businesses fail, it’s usually because of the owner or their faulty processes.

Marcus Aurelius’ idea of people, process and profit has taught me so much about how a successful business is formed.

The biggest lessons I’ve learned from these shows?  No one has a perfect formula.  A lot of these business owners are in debt tens or hundreds of thousands.  They have staffs that rely on them to feed their kids.  It’s a lot of pressure.  Some make it, a lot don’t.

But the bottom line is: it’s not easy for any entrepreneur, even the ones that look like they have their business together.  And the right branding and marketing systems are more important than anything.

It’s okay to be picky

You have to have a bottom line.  A minimum price you’re willing to work for, and clients you are unwilling to work with.

Not every client is going to be the right match for your business. It sucks to lose out on the income. But the stress of keeping problem clients zaps your energy. It’s not worth your time or efforts. This is has been one of the biggest lessons in business – and most of us learn this the hard way.

Today, we LOVE all of our clients.  So much.  And that makes a world of difference in stress levels in managing the business.

Success takes consistent efforts

I attribute my success to the fact that I am constantly learning.  I hate the structured school environment, but I love to take in information in ways that feel more natural.  Whether it’s a business book, conversations with business mentors, a TV show, an online class or in person workshop – you HAVE go continually upgrade your knowledge.

You can never stop growing or learning.

You have to spend money to make money

My business isn’t perfect yet.  There are always going to be struggles.

But spending money on getting the branding done right the first time?  Yes, it was rough.  But it was 100% worth it to grow the brand.  Spending money on SEO?  Again, not cheap.  It’s a sacrifice you make for long term success. Eventually the goal is to make more and spend a lot less.  But these systems needed to be established before major success can come. It’s a risk. Business is always a risk.  I have to be careful to not get stuck in cycles that mean spending money on the next shiny marketing program.  And I have certainly wasted my share of money trying to become successful.  But it’s still cheaper than an MBA!

Save money for taxes

As I’ve networked with other business owners, I’ve realized how common it is to have zero savings for taxes come April.  6-40k in money you owe is a hard pill to swallow.  For those of us with money issues, this is common.  It’s painful to part with money you made from your own blood and sweat.  It’s easy to spend it as the money flows into your account.  But resist.  End of year tax bills suck.

Overall, business has been a path to professional and personal development.  It got me out of some rough times.  None of it has been easy, but all of it has been worth it.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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