You aren’t quitting your career, you’re expanding your skillset- to start our own businesses felt a bit like taking our resumes and the thousands of hours of work they represented and lighting them on fire. It felt like a cliff we’d dive off and every skill we’d grown or project we’d worked on in our corporate life would cease to matter or “count.” It felt like we could never return. But of course, that isn’t true. Our previous experience still applies, and we’ve added to our “toolboxes.” We’ve allowed our careers to develop in a new direction, just as someone might move from company to company or role to role.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Venise Cunningham and Belinda Kelly.
Venise Cunningham is co-owner of Simple Goodness Syrups and the owner of Simple Goodness Farm. Venise transformed a 10 acre dairy property into the world’s first cocktail farm, growing fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers exclusively for use in cocktails. A first generation farmer, Venise’s tenacity, ties to the local farm community, and passion for growing better food have grown the sustainably tended farm to support both the Simple Goodness Sisters product line and the menu at the Simple Goodness Soda Shop.
Belinda Kelly is the founder of the Happy Camper Cocktail Company and co-founder of Simple Goodness Sisters’, launched in 2018 with her farmer sister, Venise. A desire to bring hyper seasonal craft drinks to the home consumer led to co-farming America’s first cocktail farm, the Simple Goodness Farm, and the launch of Simple Goodness Sisters, a beverage brand distinguished by complex flavors and pure ingredients. Drawing on her expertise on both ends of the farm to bar movement, Belinda consults brands on integrating the farm to bar movement into their brand story.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
We are ‘real life” sisters (we get asked that question a lot!) who grew up in Black Diamond Washington, not far from where we now have the Simple Goodness Cocktail Farm and Soda Shop. Our mom was a teacher and our dad runs a building supply and construction company with his 2 brothers. We were also very influenced by our grandparents, who lived the classic “golden generation” homestead life on a small farm with 8 kids and knew how to DIY anything, our other grandparents who ran a construction company together.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
In 2016 we were both working at different tech companies in Seattle, in their human resources departments. I worked in recruitment at Microsoft and planned a lot of events for my candidates, and Venise was a project manager at Redfin, then a scrappy real estate start up. We both weren’t super happy with our jobs, mostly because of the 3 hour daily commutes, and once we had our first children, born just 2 weeks apart, we were ready for a change that allowed us to have a more fluid lifestyle between work and family. I founded Happy Camper Cocktail Company, a cocktail catering company in a vintage camper bar in 2016 when I left Microsoft. I launched Happy Camper Cocktails with a goal of distributing the Pacific Northwest event industry and I figured if I was leaving my great, steady job to take a risk I might as well risk it all on exactly what I loved, which was craft cocktails and seasonal eating. I tapped my sister, who was still at Redfin but had recently bought an old farm and started growing garlic and asked her if I could use some of her field to plant the flowers and herbs I wanted for my cocktail catering menu. At the very first public event for Happy Camper Cocktails, Venise was there, helping me haul ice. She heard as customer after customer asked how to make one particular drink, a French 75 variation with a rhubarb vanilla bean syrup I had made. One lady even asked to stock the syrup in her store. Venise recognized an opportunity told me that day, we should make this in larger batches to bottle and sell. I laughed because I was just slightly preoccupied with my first big business risk but she didn’t stop talking about it. Fast forward 2 years, Happy Camper has since won accolades, celebrity clients, and national press. And Venise finally convinced me to start a second business and bottle syrups.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
We had zero previous experience with making or marketing a food product so a ton of research was involved. It basically took 2 years from idea to creation and in that time, in addition to convincing me, Venise was researching what certifications we’d need to have, where we could make the product, how to find packaging, and building a shop website from a blog that we shared just for fun. We placed so many phone calls, did a ton of research in facebook groups, contacted local universities farm extension programs, asked current food entrepreneurs for advice, etc. And we needed to get the guts and cash together to put together a trial batch. We ended up taking a course at the local university that is only offered a couple of times per year and that certified us to produce the product according to FDA standards and keep records properly. We also bought a 100 year old building with the help of our family and spent 6 months sectioning off a corner of it for a commercial kitchen that we had inspected by our local health department and FDA. After all of that, we still opted to use a co-packer for our first round of production, so that we could get a larger quantity made in one batch and learn from their process. We launched with 3 flavors and 1500 bottles and we figured we’d just see what kind of sales response we could get. I think in general, we have a tenacity between us that keeps us motivated to see results. Our corporate experience in project management also definitely comes in handy as we scope and work towards our goals.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
Don’t do it! If you’re reluctant to make a hobby a career then it should probably stay a hobby, and that is ok. I absolutely believe that not everything we love is going to be a good fit for us professionally. We each have examples of this. I, Belinda, taught hatha yoga for 2 years and by all accounts I was good at it. I was praised in my training, I was hired quickly, students loved my classes, and I even loved being in class and helping students grow their practices. What I didn’t love was the industry from the teacher’s perspective, the way that preparing for classes meant I didn’t have time to take classes, and how my own yoga practice felt less pure because I was critiquing it through the eyes of a teacher. I quit teaching yoga and went back to being a student. Venise has always loved horses and started in college as an equine studies major before realizing that her hobby didn’t need to become a vocation and wouldn’t be the profession of her choice.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
I think the way for a passion to become a profession and stay fresh is for you to deeply consider how your skills will actually align with that profession, and whether the environment of the industry or job is going to be one that helps you thrive. You can’t just like the activity, you have to love how that work gets done, where it gets done, and with whom you do it. Any job, after all, is a job and can get a little boring or repetitive. However, if you feel like your skills are being developed and fit the tasks well, and you’re growing, and you’re surrounded with an environment that helps you thrive, you’ll feel fulfilled in your work.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
I love the ability to see a project through from start to finish and create something from nothing. This agency and creative freedom is wonderful, but it’s also a part of the downside of running a business, because from start to finish, idea to product launch and delivery, you’re responsible. It’s an enormous amount of pressure and you’re called on to do a little bit of everything, including things that may not be in your skillset. The payoff of anything enormously challenging is that it is also enormously satisfying, and you’ll grow along the way. As we grow in sales and are healthier financially, we’ve been able to begin to hire out some of those tasks that are less in our wheelhouse and that definitely helps the feelings of disappointment that come with giving less to a task than what it deserved. For instance, we were able to hire an agency to redo our website and manage our social media ads this year and we’re really excited about that. (We continue to do our everyday social media presence because we love the connections we make there) You also have to let go of the idea of perfection early and understand that version 1.0 comes before all others and done is better than perfect.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
There is a whole lot of time spent on logistics and sales in a food brand and that can be really exhausting. We love the creative sides to making and branding a food product but the reality is that you have to knock on a lot of doors. When we can, sales will be a role we’ll be eager to hire.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so, how did you overcome it?
Definitely- mostly because we don’t pay ourselves yet. With no investors and a bootstrapped business, any moment where we pay other people before paying ourselves is an ego punch. We have to remind ourselves that organic growth and a lifestyle business are what we’re looking for. We have to lay out our goals and our measurements of success so that we don’t get caught in the trap of evaluating ourselves based on some else’s idea of success. We set a goal on when we’ll pay ourselves, when that is realistic and healthy for the business,and even a “kill”date if we can’t make that goal happen. Start up entrepreneurship means a lot of sacrifice and not a lot of payout at the beginning but you can’t be a masochist- setting boundaries is really helpful.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We once printed 600 dollars worth of labels with the wrong bottle size listed on them and it took us a long time to figure it out. Once we did, we had to use the labels until the new ones could be printed. We’re rule followers by nature so this made us really squirm. We couldn’t stand the thought that they were wrong and once we saw the error, we couldn’t unsee it, it seemed huge. But no customers reported that they noticed, either. That is the kind of mistake you can get by if you have a direct to consumer brand but could completely kill your cash flow with a wholesale brand, if the shipment to a distributor or large account was rejected. We’ve learned to bring multiple sets of eyes to proofreading before big purchases. And we’ve learned that some mistakes are inevitable, and sometimes you get lucky.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
We’re inspired incredibly by our family, having grown up in our dad’s family business, and having had the privilege to be surrounded by tenacious, warm, intelligent female role models. We’ve seen the way they lead by example, willing to do every dirty or boring job, and how they seek to motivate through teaching. We’re a really hard working family, it’s one of our core value, we love to work and we all talk about work and we’re proud of what we do. In business, more so than look to the big stories of success, we’re inspired by the everyday people who take risks and create things, and are working their tails off daily to put their product out into the world. We’ve been very inspired by PNW farmers, distillers, wine makers, brewers, \restaurateurs, chefs and food makers, who work to bring us delicious, healthy foods and do so without a lot of fanfare.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We think we’re making the world better by drinking! Here at the farm we like to say that we’re growing the world a Happier Hour. Happier Hour is all about imbibing with joy and connection and sharing the WAY we drink is just as important to us as sharing the recipes that we’re drinking.
As a modern society we struggle with connections. We strive to build community through making connections with one another, over delicious drinks. To start with, we create a really delicious physical product that makes it very easy for people to make drinks at home, celebrate together, and take time to connect over a shared, “Cheers!” Similarly, we strive to create digital content that connects people to one another, to their farmers, to craftsmen and their processes, and to heirloom homesteading skills like gardening and preserving.
The modern food system allows us to think very little about food and drinks. And yet, eating and drinking is something we do 3 times or more per day, with enormous health implications. We crack open a cheap bottle of wine and don’t care about who made it, or how, or really anything about what is in it, because it’s cheap and it’s easy. As Americans we love to build fancy outdoor entertaining areas in our backyard but the dinner party is all but dead. So “entertaining” is no longer fashionable, food is plentiful, thoughtless and cheap, and our drinking culture is aimed towards volume consumption instead of enjoyment and quality. We’re not into ANY of that.
Our online community is all about reclaiming connections. Sharing food and drinks together is linked to bonding, creating memories, peacemaking, all of these really important parts of our culture and our interpersonal relationships. A shared toast has been the premier way to celebrate the human next to you since 7,000 BCE. Food and drinks are a very easy, very enjoyable way in which we can reach out.
Connection isn’t limited to the people we are raising our glasses to, it’s also about the garden to glass way in which we make our drinks. When you take the next step and learn to grow some of your drink ingredients, Happier Hour becomes even more satisfying. We teach people how to plant a cocktail garden because a cocktail garden is a fun way to learn new skills. Growing and making the best cocktail you’ve ever drank can be the gateway to growing more food and learning more skills. When you grow something, you invest hours of your time, sweat, passion, and hope into soil, sun, water, and seeds. You care if something survives. What does grow, you nurture. When you grow your own food, you tend to want to do delicious things with it. So you learn to cook. And you learn to preserve. You feel immense satisfaction from these things because you’re supposed to- it’s in our nature. And then you share those skills with others, and Happier Hour spreads. Community is built, one drink at a time.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Done is better than perfect- a good example is our gorgeous linen labels we agonized over and launched with. We have great graphics and we could have just launched with the more affordable option and called it good but we were too focused on the beauty of the packaging on a retail shelf and having this great tactile experience, and getting it perfect. It slowed us down and in the end it wasn’t really affordable anyway, so we changed it to a wipeable label.
- If you don’t have fun, it’s no longer a fun job- I have a tendency to take things pretty seriously. And yet, we’re making cocktail syrups, it’s supposed to be fun! So we have to really intentionally mix it up every once and a while, have some drinks, relax, and “goof off.” Because we don’t work 5 days a week, 9–5pm, it often feels like this isn’t time we can afford to “waste” but in actuality, it’s imperative to keep our spirits up.
- You aren’t quitting your career, you’re expanding your skillset- to start our own businesses felt a bit like taking our resumes and the thousands of hours of work they represented and lighting them on fire. It felt like a cliff we’d dive off and every skill we’d grown or project we’d worked on in our corporate life would cease to matter or “count.” It felt like we could never return. But of course, that isn’t true. Our previous experience still applies, and we’ve added to our “toolboxes.” We’ve allowed our careers to develop in a new direction, just as someone might move from company to company or role to role.
- Your idea will change 100 times-Your first idea was probably a great one but the business you start out dreaming about will not be the one you end up with. It’s likely that as you dive into your research and run the financials, you will realize parts of your plan just weren’t good. For example, we used to be lifestyle bloggers who loved craft cocktails but wanted to write a homesteading style cookbook. In the time that it took to build our business over a four period, our passions changed, opportunities presented themselves, the market changed, and we let the business change accordingly.
- Personal growth is inevitable with business growth, and personal growth is harder. Being an entrepreneur asks everything of you and we’re out of our comfort zones more often than in. We deal with rejection constantly and comparison frequently. We’re trying to build a business culture we want to work in and we’re trying to build a business that allows for flexibility and balance. But all of this is entirely self driven. You have no one setting boundaries for you, and have to learn to set them for yourself. You have to be the one to tell yourself “it’s ok, it wasn’t the right fit, we’ll get it next time.”We are trying to grow not just as a business, but as leaders, as women in our community, as mothers, as people. And that takes a lot of work. It’s obvious now that it would be inevitable but I definitely wasn’t thinking “how is selling my syrup going to push me to grow as a human in the next 5 years” when I first thought about starting my own business.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Ya know in our current climate I am really focused on the idea of building community. I think the way in which we’ve drifted apart socially has a lot to do with the speed in which we can interact virtually and the resulting infrequency of face to face, drink to drink kind of interactions. Communities are where people with different beliefs and backgrounds interact together and talk, inevitably find some common ground, and make connections and there just isn’t enough of that happening in real life these days. I’m not sure I can force people to have a thoughtful discussion but I do know that I want to be a part of bringing them together at a table. We’ve been thinking a lot about how we want to do this as we grow. We have a restaurant and an event space now and we’re growing a platform that allows us to have a voice. How can we use it to bring folks together?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Feed Your Dreams and Starve Your Fears is a favorite mantra of ours, because as farmers we know that what is fed, grows. We also love a saying by our grandpa, a self made guy who built his first house at age 20 with a 10,000 dollars loan from a neighbor, given after he gave a business plan and promised a strong return on the investment. Grandpa Val loves to say that “if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” By that he means that no job is too big or small and they all deserve your attention and respect. After all your business is made up of a 1,000 little jobs each week, and they are all a direct reflection of you.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Dolly Parton is probably not a popular answer, but we stand by it! She is an inspiration as a kind human and a powerhouse business woman. Her ability to brand herself in a way that is so relatable that her fans can be found in every country on earth and every walk of life is inspiring to say the least. We love how unapologetically “Dolly” she is and how she approaches her business and her life with purpose and intention. Her intelligence and humility are evident in how she has continued to evolve her business brand throughout the years. And her songs get us through the slow days!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.