Inc. 500 Conference: Small Beginnings, Big Dreams

Column by Janine Popick, "Female CEOs"
September 29, 2009

Last week, I heard Jill Blashack Strahan, CEO of Tastefully Simple, speak on the main stage at the Inc. 500 Conference. Today Tastefully Simple is a $140 million company that sells easy to prepare food for busy people.

Jill’s story is interesting and inspirational. It actually started with the death of her brother when she was just 26, which was a major wake up call and ultimately what motivated her to start her business. The saying “Life is Short” became very real to her and she decided that it was time to DO something. She has three major points she lives by: Just Start, Know Where You’re Going, Don’t Stop.

Just Start

Jill claims that often times it’s actually the start that stops us. Many people just stop before they even have a chance to really start. You may or may not have a plan, but you’ve got to give yourself a shot.

Tastefully Simple started with $36K, and Jill’s mom kicked in another $15K just in case she needed it. She started her business in a shed with no running water, and packed packages on a pool table.

She had one employee (herself), and for a long while, she didn’t even take a salary. That was never really problem for her because at the time, she had never earned more than $14K in one year. I know a lot of business owners that have lived the “no pay” story, including myself.

She asked herself, “What’s the worse thing that can happen if I just start?” I think that was one of the best parts of her session.

Know Where You’re Going (not necessarily what you’re doing)

What I loved about Jill’s story of starting out was that she admitted she was clueless. Furthermore, she hated to cook, which actually became her message. She talked about how easy it was to prepare these meals, and that if she could do it, anyone could. In the first six months, she had seven consultants and $100K in sales. Jill’s biggest selling point was she believed that her business concept would work, and that in turn translated to customers.

Once she had faith, she was able to focus and pinpoint where she was going. She told herself and her employees that in five years the company would do $11 million in sales. Five years later, Tastefully Simple did $11.8 million in sales. It was about dreaming, believing, and working hard.

Don’t Stop

Two months after she started Tastefully Simple, her brother David was sentenced to prison for 20 years. Eight short months later her husband died, and she had a five-year-old son to raise on her own. Talk about a strong woman!

Jill told us that during that time, she thought a lot about giving up, and that’s what happens when we allow feelings of fear to take over. In her mind, fear is the gatekeeper to strength. She went on to say that we only get stronger when conquering our fears. Her best advice: get through fear.

In her situation of continual tragedy, she said to herself: "I will not accept this." And she didn’t. Another great motto Jill lives by: "Get through it one minute at a time."

How does she do it? Here are her tips:

  1. Compartmentalize in your mind; you have to put some things aside so you can control your present actions.
  2. Get through fear; get better or get bitter.
  3. Hang on to your supporters, your sunshine people. These are the people that walk into the room and make it light up.

All in all, this was a moving and inspirational story of a successful entrepreneur persevering and conquering the odds. Do you have a story where you persevered and conquered your own odds? Comment!

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