Heather Saffer: Here Are 5 Important Business Lessons I Learned While Being On Shark Tank

Confidence + Humility = Likability. I believe I received praise from all of the sharks because my attitude is a mixture of humble confidence and it made me likable. Likability helps you achieve more of what you want in business and in life. As a part of my series about the ‘5 Important Business Lessons I […]

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Confidence + Humility = Likability. I believe I received praise from all of the sharks because my attitude is a mixture of humble confidence and it made me likable. Likability helps you achieve more of what you want in business and in life.

As a part of my series about the ‘5 Important Business Lessons I Learned While Being On The Shark Tank’ I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Saffer. Heather is the founder of Dollop Gourmet; a better-for-you dessert company that produces vegan and gluten-free lower sugar frostings. Heather graduated from SUNY Brockport with a degree in psychology but got her start as the founder of the nation’s first create-your-own cupcake bakery in NY. Since then, Heather has proven her expertise by winning Food Network’s Cupcake Wars, getting multiple offers on ABC’s Shark Tank, showcasing her products on QVC, and authoring two bestselling cookbooks, The Dollop Book of Frosting (Simon & Schuster/F+W Media) and Crazy Easy Vegan Desserts (Sterling Epicure). As a successful entrepreneur and self-taught baker, Heather has been featured in Forbes, People Magazine, Huffington Post, USA Today, Oprah, and Sirius XM. Heather sold Dollop Gourmet in May 2019 to Mimac Glaze Ltd., an international leader in the gourmet icing industry.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit of the backstory about how you grew up?

My story begins as a depressed and misdirected twenty-something. I’ll save the details for the memoir but just know that I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I grew up in an average middle class family in upstate NY. Nothing was wrong outwardly, yet I always felt different inwardly. The second I crossed that high school graduation stage at age 18, I had my bags packed and an apartment at the ready. Depression, addiction, eating disorder, anxiety… you name it, it plagued me. I didn’t go to college until I was 21, and by 24 I was still without a college degree. The story gets happier, I promise.

Can you share with us the story of the “aha moment” that gave you the idea to start your company?

At age 25, I was working as a cashier at a car dealership. After a long string of dead-end jobs, I realized my rock bottom had come and gone and I needed to find another way to live life. I was sitting at my desk answering phones one day when I had this odd strike of inspiration to start researching cupcake recipes. I had no idea how to bake. I didn’t grow up at my mother’s elbow tossing cookie dough and flour around. Quite the opposite, in fact. The only desserts that made an appearance in our house were Hydrox cookies and Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls.

Yet as I began researching the blossoming cupcake industry, my desire to teach myself how to bake in order to start a cupcake business was strangely and serendipitously born.

Fast forward 3 ½ years (during which I did eventually earn my college degree in Psychology). At the time I started thinking about the Dollop Gourmet frosting line I was running a gourmet cupcake bakery and looking for a way out of the brick-and-mortar business. I had built this great little bakery that was the talk of the town. My concept for the bakery was unique in that it was a create-your-own cupcake bar. Customers walked in the door and picked from an array of cake flavors, fillings, frostings, and toppings, and we decorated their cupcake creations on the spot. It was an exciting new concept and a lot of fun, especially in the beginning.

From teaching myself how to bake, to creating and opening a unique cupcake bar, to winning Food Network’s Cupcake Wars, you could say I was achieving goals I never thought possible, and I was most certainly living out my dreams and desires. After a few years, however, running a brick-and-mortar business as an introvert began to wear me out.

I wanted to continue in the field in which I had worked so hard to make a name for myself and build a brand, but I began feeling desperate to get out from under the retail store and retail store hours.

My plan to exit the retail store began with trying to get a book deal. After months of researching book publishing and reaching out to numerous agents, I finally signed with a literary agent. Not long after, I signed a book deal with an imprint of Simon & Schuster for The Dollop Book of Frosting. Excited couldn’t even begin to describe how that moment felt.

I then began to think about what products I could create to sell online and in retail stores so that I could get out of being “stuck” behind the counter of my own retail store. I spent a lot of time seeking inspiration by wandering around grocery stores looking at products on the shelves.

After spending time in the baking aisles of dozens of stores, I noticed there was no natural frosting on the market. This seemed crazy to me since the conventional packaged frostings were full of crap and bad ingredients; so much so, that packaged frosting has been named one of the worst packaged foods you can buy.

That’s when I knew that I needed to create a better-for-you packaged frosting. The market needed it, and I knew good frosting better than anyone else. If anyone was ripe for the challenge, it was most certainly me.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

After gaining notoriety from winning Food Network’s Cupcake Wars and opening a successful bakery, the college I previously attended invited me to speak to their entrepreneurial class as an Alma Mater. I agreed, knowing that I wasn’t officially an Alma Mater, You see, I stopped going to classes when I was just six credits shy of earning my Bachelor’s degree in psychology. I went to speak to the class anyway. After speaking to the class, I told the professor that I in fact hadn’t graduated because I stopped taking classes when I started my business. However, I said, I would love to finish my degree if there was a way. A short time later, the college called to inform me that I could complete an “internship” for myself, which entailed writing a paper about how I started my business, and that would earn me the final six credits. I never walked across the stage but I was proud to finally earn my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. There is always a way to accomplish what you want; sometimes you just need to get creative.

Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

I trusted a guy to become my general manager and “investor” even after he asked me during our first meeting if I like to be tickled. Rookie mistake! Never trust a person who asks you if you like to be tickled. He wound up being a con artist who scammed me for nine long months and wiped my bank account clean. I pressed charges and he went to state prison while I scraped myself off the pavement and started my business over from scratch. A sordid story with numerous lessons. One major lesson I learned from this whole ordeal is to never feel like I’m desperately in need of someone’s help. There is always another way.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am very excited to share that I sold Dollop Gourmet in June 2019 to an incredible International player in the icing space called Mimac Glaze. Mimac has proudly been perfecting frostings, icings, and glazes for over four decades. Mimac will be taking over production, launching some complementary mixes under the Dollop Gourmet brand, and I’ll remain involved as needed. This frees me up to pursue my next passion which ironically, brings me back to my roots in Psychology. I’ll be utilizing my experience and expertise over the past 10 years in working with all walks of people and building teams to help companies improve communication and collaboration in the workplace using Personality Science. I’ve seen firsthand how a breakdown in communication and misunderstanding of individual personalities can severely derail employee contentment and the successful projection of a company. I know how to help companies avoid these mistakes and I’m eager to help them not only so that the companies achieve the success they are destined for, but also to improve the daily happiness of each individual team member involved.

Ok, thank you for all that. Let’s now move to the main part of our interview. Many of us have no idea about the backend process of how to apply and get accepted to be on the Shark Tank. Can you tell us the story about how you applied and got accepted. What “hoops” did you have to go through to get there? How did it feel to be accepted?

I tell people that even more nerve wracking than standing on that carpet and pitching to the sharks, is the process of auditioning and getting to that carpet. From initial application to airdate, was a little over one year. Between applications, audition videos, skype calls, paperwork, more skype calls, and more paperwork, the process is exhausting. I’ve never been one of those lucky people where opportunities just fall at my feet, so while you’ve probably heard of Shark Tank producers reaching out to companies and begging them to be on the show, that’s not how it happened for me. I’ve had to fight tooth and nail for opportunities I’ve received. Once I survived the first few rounds of the audition process, the producers prepped me for taping in June. The show typically tapes twice a year — June and September. The day before I was expected to receive my airline ticket from the producers, I received a call from them instead. An unfortunate change of plans for me as they decided not to tape with me in June and said I would hear from someone in August if they wanted to tape with me in September instead. It was a crushing blow. Thankfully I did receive that call in August and I did tape in September, but I learned through this that the most stressful piece of the process was the fact that nothing was ever certain. Even if you fly out to Los Angeles to tape, you might not tape. Even if you tape, you might not air. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. The day I received the email that my episode was airing, nearly one year later, was the real day of celebration.

I’m sure the actual presentation was pretty nerve wracking. What did you do to calm and steel yourself to do such a great job on the show?

The most nerve wracking part of the presentation for me was the memorized pitch you need to give at the beginning when you first stand before the sharks. I have a dastardly memory and thus the thought of having to recite a pitch by memory nearly made me wet my pants. I rehearsed while in the car, in the shower, at the gym, walking my dog, in between bites of breakfast… again and again and again. I rehearsed my pitch so much and so often that I didn’t bother practicing anything else in preparation for the show. The fact that I was running every facet of my business at the time worked out to my benefit as I was able to confidently and quickly answer any question thrown to me by the Sharks. Knowing my business inside and out gave me bravery and strength.

So what was the outcome of your Shark Tank pitch. Were you pleased with the outcome?

I always tell people that it could not have gone better than it had gone. All of the sharks were kind and complimentary. They liked the product, they liked me, and they liked the presentation. Two out of five of the sharks made offers, arguing with each other to win my vote. Although the other three did not make offers, they went out with nice and respectful words of encouragement.

What are your “5 Important Business Lessons I Learned While Being On The Shark Tank”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Advocate for yourself and ask questions until you get the answers you need. The day of filming, I had a feeling I was last on the list to pitch. I knew there were likely too many entrepreneurs to squeeze into filming in one day and it was the last day of filming. That meant that at least one entrepreneur would not get an opportunity to film and would be sent home without appearing on Shark Tank. I didn’t come all that way for that to be me. I made it known more than any other entrepreneur there that day that I wanted to be there. That I deserved to be there. That I needed to be there. I repeatedly asked the producers, makeup artist, hairstylist, and anyone I could find, where I was on the list. Come to find out I was last, yet because of my persistence, I bumped my way up the list and didn’t wind up as that one entrepreneur who was sent home without filming. And there was one entrepreneur who was sent home without filming.
  2. Confidence + Humility = Likability. I believe I received praise from all of the sharks because my attitude is a mixture of humble confidence and it made me likable. Likability helps you achieve more of what you want in business and in life.
  3. Know what outcome you want before you go into something. I knew going into Shark Tank what outcome I wanted to achieve. I wanted to share my story, be likable to the sharks and on TV, get a couple offers, negotiate once so I didn’t look like a pushover, and get out of there. I knew exactly what I wanted the episode to look like when people watched it, and I focused on my vision going in.
  4. Pitching on Shark Tank is not like pitching to investors in a boardroom. These are two totally different experiences. Shark Tank is above all, a television show that has a goal of entertaining audiences. Seeking investment from VC’s or angels is generally more time consuming and difficult than what you see on Shark Tank.
  5. Listen more than you talk and understand each person’s motive. When I spoke with the producer prior to filming and we were discussing what my offer would be, we had different ideas. Ultimately I listened to her input because I realized her motive was to help me get on the show and make herself look good as a producer. She was going to guide me how in the ways she needed to in order to achieve her goals. My motive was to get on the show, so it behooved me to listen to her.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive and avoid burnout?

Above all, understand what motivates each person on your team. This will be your saving grace. If you understand the motivations of each personality on your team, and if each person understands the motivations of their coworkers, everyone will communicate and cooperate in ways that lead to extreme efficiency and workplace satisfaction. I swear by the Color Code to achieve these goals. If you haven’t done a Color Code workshop with your team, it’s a must.

You are a person of great influence. 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. 🙂

Respect animals and wildlife. We are sharing this planet with animals and need to do a better job of taking care of our planet. Drop your ego and be authentic in your interactions with others.

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

“Say yes, and then figure out how to do it”. I’ve lived by this adage, almost from the beginning. When I first decided I wanted to start a baking business, I reached out to my local news to get press. When the reporter called me back, she told me she would love to come to my bakery and do a live series of interviews on the morning news one day the following week. I said yes, absolutely! I didn’t actually have a bakery for her to visit but I most certainly didn’t tell her that. I said yes and decided I would figure it out later. Long story short, but a week later I was interviewed on the news from “my” bakery. From then on I learned to always say yes and have faith in myself that I would figure out the “how” later on.

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 🙂

Do you know Oprah? I’d love to have a conversation with Oprah, but don’t worry Oprah, it’s not so you can endorse my product! Oprah has beaten the odds in childhood, overcome hardships, and done good in the world, all without succumbing to societal pressures to get married and have children. We all know who Oprah is because there is no one like Oprah. Can you tag another? Betty White. Who wouldn’t want to meet Betty White? She’s a National treasure. Golden Girls reminds me of my grandma and I miss my grandma. My grandma was and will always be a huge inspiration to me.

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