I first learned about Molly Zahner from her Daily Candy article which profiled her Steel Cut Oatmeal called Slow Girl Foods.
I haven’t tried her oatmeal yet but am definitely going to pick some up at Whole Foods because it sounds delicious and both my son and I eat Steel Cut Oatmeal almost every morning but I always have to make it the night before. This sounds much better!
But more importantly, I love Molly’s interview! This is the first interview I’ve had where the person is still in their day job. I have a feeling a lot of you are going to find her story very inspiring and relatable.
I’d love to hear your thoughts after reading!
Here is her story:
Tell me about what you do for work.
Presently, I have two jobs: one is for money and the other is for love, for now, that is.
About nine months ago, I formally launched Slow Girl Foods, which produces and sells to Bay Area markets an organic ready-to-eat steel-cut oatmeal. Because Slow Girl Foods is a self-funded start-up, I have had to keep my fulltime job as a legal secretary at a law firm in SF.
So, presently I do both. I have saved all my vacation time from my “day job” for when I need to make product in the commercial kitchen, deliver to the markets and continue to sell to more stores. I spend my lunch hours either ordering from vendors or rewriting my business plan or creating marketing strategies. All the things that need to happen in a small business, especially a start up.
My plan is to try to go down to part-time (28 hours a week) at the law firm and eventually devote all my time to my business.
What type of work were you doing prior to what you are doing now?
Asked and answered, Counselor! (Ha!)
What kinds of frustrations did you have with your previous job?
I would have to say it is the lack of creative outlet and the lack of like-minded people. I love food but a law firm is not exactly conducive to that pursuit! Also, I have my own ideas about how things should happen and that isn’t always seen as a strength. Sometimes it is perceived as just plain annoying. But in running your own business you can take your own ideas and implement them, choose your own course. That to me has been invaluable, even when my ideas have fallen flat.
It’s sort of fun to fail; you really can learn so much more from failing that succeeding. Not that it’s easy to withstand failure, especially when it involves money, but it truly makes you smarter and more efficient. And in general you can play to your strengths—that’s so important.
How did you come to discover this was what you were meant to do?
When I was 15 I wanted to go to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) but went on to college and felt obliged to get a “real job.” But I kept drifting back toward food.
At my present job, I began to make and sell these great locavore lunches, using Farmers Market ingredients, for the busy attorneys in my office. That eventually segued into an organic cookie business (easier to carry/deliver) and then when I realized I had the business experience and acumen, I decided if I was going to really start a business I wanted it to be an endeavor that I was passionate about.
I noticed that people are always in a hurry in the morning but did not want to sacrifice nutrition and quality for convenience, so I developed my oatmeal recipe using protein-rich quinoa, agave nectar and locally-farmed dried fruit and nuts. I knew it was what I wanted to do because I was excited doing it.
What fears did you have to overcome to take the leap?
I am still facing them! There are times I awake thinking “soon I’ll be able to work for myself fulltime” and other times I think “omg, I am going to be working both jobs forever!” It certainly can be a motivator to work nights and weekends to really get the fires going and make it happen.
Once you start your business you cannot stop it (as The Grateful Dead sing: “The wheel is turning and you can’t slow it down; you can’t go back and you can’t stand still…”). So, I jumped in and then it sort of took on its own energy. So, I really did not have time or room to be fearful; I had to keep doing the next thing, whether it was to find a better label supplier (the bane of my existence) or buy 55 pounds of oatmeal or research commercial kitchens.
That is not to say I was not wracked with fear. Know that fear is going to be there and that it is not real (if you’re doing things with a measure of caution—don’t quit your day job, did I mention that?). Fear does not serve you well if it paralyzes you but you can use it to your advantage. Fear made me be extra careful, overly safe, and that has been hugely helpful.
Women also are taught to be quiet, stay within their space, don’t draw outside the lines, so fear naturally arises when we counter those maxims. Ignore it. You just have to turn away. What’s worse is not following your heart, your intuition (one of our great strengths, btw).
What do you love most about what you do?
Being in charge of my own destiny, meeting and working with other food industry people and providing a solution to people hungry for good food. I love doing food demos because I hear directly from my consumer and that is invaluable. You have to listen to the bad with good—it does not serve you well to fend off criticism. It’s hard to hear but in the end, it’s like fear: make it work for you not against you!
If you were to give advice to people thinking about changing careers, what would it be?
A few key things:
Keep your day job. Unless you have the resources to sustain yourself for 6-12 months, do not quit. You can get so much done on your lunch hour, at night and on weekends. Whether it’s a career change or a self start-up, you’ll need the cushion of stability. There is so much you can do while continuing to work.
Research (using Google, the most invaluable tool for a small business) on your lunch hours, get real data, interview people in your area of interest—people love to talk about themselves. Use free resources, like your local SBA, SBDC (Small Business Development Center) and SCORE. You can get help with your business plan/career plan, the viability of your idea and whether the area you’re interested in is a difficult one to find work in. Talk to friends, brainstorm and be fearless about asking fro help. People actually love to see others move ahead!
“Learn on someone else’s dime,” a friend and mentor once told me. If you’re thinking of opening a bakery, go work in one, even if it’s just weekends (while you keep your day job.) If you want to become a chef, go work prep in a restaurant kitchen. The pay is bad but you’ll discover whether it’s really something you are passionate about, before spending a lot of money on a degree.
Mainly, be sure you are doing it for the right reasons—not merely job frustration.