Our 5th Lou & Grey Girl Talk panel featured Natasha Case and Freya Estreller, Founders of Coolhaus. We spoke about how they went from selling ice-cream in a beat-up postal van they bought on Craigslist, to retailing in over 4,000 locations and operating a fleet of 10 trucks in the US—as well as how they balance being a married couple, parents and business partners. Our favorite OKREAL quote: “You can walk through a wall when you don’t know it’s there.”
Freya: Natasha and I started Coolhaus around the same time we became a couple. We had good yin and yang, which is important in any professional or personal relationship. I was more of the numbers person with a background in real estate development and finance, and Natasha had a masters in architecture. She had the idea of the ice cream sandwiches and naming them after architects, like Frank Berry and Mies Vanilla Rohe.
Natasha: We ran the company together for the first four years, as co-founders. When when you work with someone that closely, I think you pick up a lot of one another’s talents and traits. During that time we started working with an angel investor team, and someone from their team ended up coming on board as our company president. After the four year period, Freya decided it was time for her to move on.
Freya: I think I fell victim to what a lot of entrepreneurs fall victim to. Starting a business is a sprint and a marathon at the same time. I definitely felt that founder burn out, plus we were married to each other and all we talked (and fought!) about was Coolhaus. So I I had to make that tough decision: Do I hire people to replace me, who are better at this than I am? Or do I continue to slog around and not feel as passionate about it as I should? I made the choice to step down and still retain equity. But now, Natasha runs the business and they call me the First Lady of Coolhaus.
Natasha: If you’re going to get into business with someone who you have a romantic relationship or friendship with, you have to set up the business so that it’s bigger than you, and make sure that you are bigger than the business. So if the business is dependent on you being a couple or friends in order to succeed, you’re in trouble. And if the business also takes that away from you, you’re also in trouble. I think Freya being able to step away and the brand still moving forward showed that the business had legs.
Freya: Our first ever event was in April 2009 at Coachella. The food truck movement had just started and I remember Googling, ‘hipster ice cream tuck,’ and nothing came up. There was no artesian, organic, funky, cool ice cream in grocery stores. We had very little money to pull it off, and we figured out that if you joined AAA platinum, you got one free tow. So we tricked AAA into towing the truck to Coachella for us, because it didn’t have an engine.
Freya: We gave all of our friends free tickets to Coachella to work the truck with us. It was a bit of a disaster but it worked. A guy we went to grad school with wrote a (pretty apathetic) article for Curbed LA afterwards which was like: ‘I guess there was architecture ice cream at Coachella, if you have nothing to do, go find them.’ And the article went viral. That day we got 10 thousand twitter followers. And that month we were in LA Magazine, LA Times, New York Times.
Natasha: Everyone was asking, what’s next for the brand? And I wanted to say, we’ll need to get the door fixed on our truck so it actually opens? Maybe a working engine? I think that was a critical moment. That’s when we decided to try harder, since we had very limited risk going to Coachella. After a few months of trying to make it work, we started selling ice cream on the street and did our first private catering events with MySpace. That’s how long ago this was.
Freya: I remember for the first three or four years we did not see our close friends.
Natasha: Any pop song from 2009 to late 2010, I don’t recognize.
Freya: It was a very myopic thing. We were very driven. We had to to run the business while keeping our full time jobs. Or I did, for the first two years, and raise money. We had to figure out how to scale. We got a loan from Opportunity Fund which we used to for three or four more trucks. At that point we were then able to pay Natasha a salary. Then we started looking at grocery stores and quick service restaurants. In 2011, a year and half after we launched, we got into our first Whole Foods. The initial fears were: is the truck going to break down on the freeway again? Which then became, am I going to make payroll and be able to pay my staff? At the time, we didn’t realize that we were going into the hyper-competitive ice cream space, which is run by Unilever and Nestlé. They own everyone: Ben & Jerry’s, Talenti, Häagen-Dazs. One of our angel investors said to us: ‘You can walk through a wall when you don’t know it’s there.’
Freya: If you have an idea, the most important thing is to start. A lot of people have brilliant ideas but remain ideas. You need to figure out your MVP (minimum viable product)—which means, spend the least amount of money possible to get to the best possible version of what you’re going to sell. I think Coolhaus was a great example of that. We started with about ten thousand dollars to get it off the ground which was all on our credit cards. But imagine if we had spent 250 thousand dollars and it did not take off?
Natasha: I’d also say to think big picture. How is this business going to fit into your lifestyle? Where do you fit into that? I think, as women, we don’t take think about that enough. How do you picture yourself running this? Are you the CEO? Are you hiring a team? Can you really make enough? You have to think in that long game. Because once you get started, it’s going to be very day-to-day survival and just getting through it. But there is going to be a point, if it works out, where you’re going to have your head above water. And you have to take a good look at what you see. With investment, I hear women say: ‘I don’t want to take anyone else’s money.’ Well, I would reverse that and say that someone should be so lucky to be involved in this idea with you. But women seem to think they have to earn it. You need to be your own spokesperson.
Natasha: I think both of us would agree that management can be really hard, and that you have to come into your own style as a manager. The number one thing is to figure out what motivates people. Some people are motivated by money, some people just need to be told they’re doing a good job, some people need a kick in the ass to get it together. It’s like a sociology course that never ends. Something that would often be the source of our arguments was that I am more of the philosophy: we give the job and it is up to individual to get it done. You can give them all the tools, but then you need to see that performance. Freya, with her management style, was more: if everyone was given every asset and they are pushed, we can make that happen no matter what. And that’s something we are learning to balance when it comes to parenting, now that we have a three month old baby.
Freya: I think being an entrepreneur (aka working all the time) prepared us a bit, in that we know we’re going to be working 7–9pm when Remy is asleep.
Natasha: As an entrepreneur, I think motherhood is one of the best places to be in. You have flexibility and you can take it day-by-day. I didn’t say: I’m going to take this amount of maternity leave. I also think it was so helpful to have worked together in the past. At Coolhaus we had 200 babies already! So when Remy was born we snapped into that mode of: you’re doing this, I’m doing that. Having Remy has been so empowering. The joy and love that your child brings you is so inspiring, it makes you want to do a better job. It also makes me constantly think about how to be a good person, and if you look at that way, it can only contribute to your career.
Freya: It’s also so much easier with a really good partner. I do not know how people do it on their own. Like single working moms, or women with the typical aloof husband. It really does take a village.
Natasha: I’ve been propelled through this whole thing from meeting Freya. Freya not only empowered me to turn this into a business, but was there to help me do it. All the way through, Freya motivated me. Sometimes she does have to be like, what the hell are you talking about? And I have to hear that. I think it’s really cool, as a business owner, to have a partner who can give you advice with perspective.
Freya: And credit to you for listening to what I have to say!