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“From Avocation To Vocation: How I Turned My Hobby Into A Career” With Jake Kalick of Made In

An interview with Phil La Duke


You can’t say yes to everything. As a new brand/business you feel like you have to take every phone call and pursue every partnership that gets presented to you. That said, a lot of these can be a giant distraction (and resource suck) from what’s really important as you’re trying to build your brand. Go with your gut and if you feel like an opportunity doesn’t make sense at the moment, respectfully punt the opportunity.


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 Jake Kalick. Jake grew up in the 90-year old family business of Harbour Food Service Equipment (a full-service hospitality design and supply company.) Here, Jake was armed with firsthand experience and knowledge that eventually inspired him to attend the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. After graduation, he went on to score a job at Avero, a restaurant analytics and consulting firm, where he harnessed dynamic relationships with restaurant and hotel group rock stars such as Stephen Starr (Philadelphia), Lettuce Entertain You Group (Chicago) and Kimpton Hotels. Since then Jake has been managing the family business into the next generation. Life took an unexpected turn the day Jake received a call from his friend of over 20 years, Chip Malt, to be the business mastermind behind his new cookware endeavor, Made In. Jake accepted the challenge, ready to use his culinary engineering, design, and hospitality experience to make Made In a true success.


Thank you for joining us Jake! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

My childhood was entirely rooted in the kitchen. My grandfather started a kitchen design and supply company in 1929. Growing up in Boston, my dad ran the business and he would take me into the office regularly. On school vacations, I would work in the warehouse. We spent my childhood eating out at all of the restaurants he worked with and all of my parents’ closest friends were restaurateurs. I’d say I learned the business-side of the cookware world from him. My love of food and cooking, however, came from my mom. One of the perks of the family business was having a very cool kitchen at home — we had things like a pizza oven and an antique soda fountain in our kitchen. My first restaurant job was at 14 and since then I’ve never not worked in the restaurant/hospitality business. It’s all I’ve ever known.

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?

After college I moved to New York and worked for a firm that consulted for restaurants and hotels. I remember being 22 and following chefs, restaurants, and hotels like a lot of other people would follow professional athletes or sports team. I couldn’t learn enough about them. I studied every high-profile restaurant opening around the country, and knew the teams behind them. I realized it was not only what I nerded out on, but it was also a huge competitive advantage. We took so much of that passion, and relationships, in developing Made In.

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?

Ideas are great, positioning is important, but at the end of the day it’s the quality of the product you are delivering that matters most. We spent over a year and half making sure we could create really fantastic cookware and built the business around that. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters. Without the product it’s all smoke and mirrors.

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?

If you feel that your passion for your hobby puts you at a competitive advantage to succeed in it, or better than those who are out there working in that field — you should go for it. You can surround yourself with all the technical skills you need to build a business but the one thing you can’t hire for or teach is passion for what you’re doing. I think customers and investors alike see it.

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?

Who says that?! I think if you’re doing something that makes the industry or area that you love better it’s pretty enjoyable. Taking it a step further, if you can really make yourself part of the conversation (on any scale) it pretty motivating.

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 think what Chip Malt (my co-founder) and I have really enjoyed is building a business that has inherited a bit of both of our personalities. We thought about this from day 1, Made In wouldn’t feel like a genuine brand if we built a brand that was different from our style and approach. So, running a business that is an extension of yourself is really quite fun.

I think we both feel pretty fortunate to be able to do what we do. I know entrepreneurs will often say “not being able to turn it off” is a downside, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Having a co-founder is great because if I do need a night or a sunday afternoon off I know Chip will pick up the slack — and visa versa.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I never expected so much of every function or our day-to-day to be some sort of “trial and error.” Marketing campaigns, product development, internal practices, nearly everything we do is an A/B test of sorts. If you told us we’d be successfully scaling the business and building an impactful brand but we had this many day-to-day failed experiments, it wouldn’t add up. It’s been almost 2 years and there has not been a day of cruise control. As long as you’re applying what you learned to your next project you’re putting yourself in a good position to make the business better and have less “failed” tests then I guess you’re moving in the right direction.

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?

Nope

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 spelled “omelette” incorrectly on the branding of our first 1,500 nonstick, omelette pans when we launched. We haven’t really gone public with this until now so if you have one of those first 1,500 pans I guess you have a collectors item? Chip (my co-founder’s) girlfriend noticed it one of our first days live and needless to say we were nervous they were all coming back. That said, not a single person noticed which goes to show you that it is a hard word to spell! If you’re wildly offended you can reach out and we’ll make it right for you. I guess I learned the truth to the old saying “measure twice, cut once”?

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

Definitely the early Made In team members. We were very fortunate to have some ridiculously smart and talented individuals take a chance on a new pots and pans business. Our goal is to make sure they grow as the company does and never second guess joining the business.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

A cause very close to us at Made In is youth education when it comes to food, health and cooking. We partner with several organizations that focus on these causes. Getting youth excited about cooking not only promotes a healthier lifestyle but in a lot of cases helps them with a career path (or at least a first job.) FEAST is a great organization that Tom Colicchio (Made In investor) got us involved with. We started by donating proceeds from our first cyber week to FEAST and have stayed involved with the organization since.

This holiday season we’ve got something in the works that gives back a little closer to home (Texas).

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. From a fundraising perspective, get some practice pitches under your belt before you get in front of the ones that matter. We approached some of the biggest and best consumer venture funds and influential angel investors when we didn’t even have a name or brand and a pretty half-baked pitch deck. It probably would have been useful to practice our pitch on some investors we wouldn’t have been as upset to lose. Just to get the experience and refinement.
  2. You can’t say yes to everything. As a new brand/business you feel like you have to take every phone call and pursue every partnership that gets presented to you. That said, a lot of these can be a giant distraction (and resource suck) from what’s really important as you’re trying to build your brand. Go with your gut and if you feel like an opportunity doesn’t make sense at the moment, respectfully punt the opportunity.
  3. Hire six months ahead of where you’re actually at. Especially if you’re scaling rapidly, if you wait until it’s crystal clear you need to hire for a role you’ll probably be too late and will feel some pain. It takes a couple months to find the right person and get them in place so if you wait for that part of the business to “break” before hiring for it, it will be a tough couple months and you probably could have prevented the “break” to begin with. We waited until our production totally got out of hand and we sold out of product over holiday before we started interviewing for a head of supply chain. If we had gotten out in front of that, we could have avoided that situation altogether.
  4. If someone helps you — give them free stuff. This is a no-brainer but something I’ve seen other people starting brands not do it. People love free stuff. As you are getting your business started a lot of people will jump on a call with you or volunteer a valuable introduction. It’s very easy to send them some free stuff, in our case a pan or knife, as a thank you. It goes a long way and definitely keeps the door open if you need to go back and ask for something again, they feel appreciated and like they owe you one. The worst thing you can do is ask someone for their time/expertise and they walk away saying “why did I waste my time on this.” Make a connection with the person and make sure they know it was worthwhile for you.
  5. Direct-to-consumer (DTC) is the new Retail. This is a pretty particular to the world play in — digitally native brands — but I think there’s some truth to it and we would have avoided a lot of downfalls if we had known it. The direct-to-consumer story of “half the price of classic retail” doesn’t hold as much weight anymore now that brands are piling into these categories. While we were the first digital DTC cookware brand, I think we overvalued the DTC-price story and led too often with it. What we’ve learned is most important in our messaging is how high quality and chef-endorsed our products are. In the DTC world quality and authenticity is still paramount to “retail quality, half the price.”

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.

Getting more people to cook for themselves in a good thing. You have a much better understanding of what you’re putting into your body and the impact of how you source your ingredients. It’s not far-fetched to suggest that increased interest in cooking at home translates into a fundamentally healthier society and a more sustainable planet.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The road is success if paved with well handled mistakes.” I took this from Danny Meyer’s book “Setting the Table.” I think if you’re going to to stick your neck out and try to chase something awesome, you’re inevitably exposing yourself to make mistakes. The key is to mitigate those mistakes.

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.

Probably an obvious one, but we’d do just about anything to get Martha Stewart on team Made In. We actually talk about her a lot. She came on the scene, had a different style and built a crazy loyal following. What she did from a personal brand is what we’re trying to create from a consumer product brand.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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