Making granola isn't glamorous. It's not rocket science. It doesn't change the world. It doesn't right societal wrongs. It isn't sophisticated or impressive. No one's parents say, "I hope my kid grows up to be a yuppified hippie who peddles granola at Farmer's Markets and listens to Bob Marley at work".
Making granola is pretty "un-special". It also apparently makes former journalists use non-words like "un-special". Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Three Little Birds Granola is not special - just the opposite! Three Little Birds Granola is the highest quality, best tasting, most nutritious granola you're going to find ANYWHERE. What I am saying, is that the process of being a granola-making entrepreneur does not rank up there with winning the Nobel Peace Prize or an Emmy or becoming an astronaut.
Some of you, close friends and supporters, know how Three Little Birds came into being. For those of you who don't, Three Little Birds started as a hobby while I was languishing in professional purgatory. I had a job that I loved, I found satisfaction in my work. I had an awesome boss, who I considered a friend, BUT, the corporate culture was toxic with absolutely NO hope for improvement where matters relating to HR were concerned.
Treading water and battling daily for any glimmer of normalcy enjoyed by my colleagues who were employed at companies where people acted like people,rather than animals (caged, starved and overly bred animals - was that mean?....), I was becoming increasingly aware that my time with this company was rapidly drawing to a close. But what....what was I going to do?
While I weighed my options and took a personal inventory, I decided I needed to do SOMETHING to inject a little excitement and creativity into my life. After some encouragement from a friend who left the company I was working for, and started his own business (Matt's Mix - check them out), paired with an impromptu wedding favor gig, I decided to start making granola and focus on something that brought some happiness to me while I waited for the right time to leave my job.
I've said it a million times, and I'll say it again- I loved my job, and I loved my boss. What I hated was working with people who didn't care about their work, who didn't take pride in what they did, and who felt an acute sense of resentment when someone suggested that making an effort isn't an inconvenience - making an effort is kind of your JOB. That's why it's called "work".
I couldn't take the apathy aimed at work ethic, coupled with the naked spirit of hostility which was aimed at people who went the extra mile. I couldn't take the unwillingness of management (my colleagues) to overlook poor performance and dropped balls. I could no longer put on my game face and tell my employees that if they just worked hard and concentrated on our goals, we'd get somewhere. I couldn't allow them to be abused by their coworkers from other departments and upper management (my boss excluded from, of course). I was their leader and they needed me to tell them that everything was going to be ok.
One day, after someone in management (again, NOT my boss) hired stripper to come in during work hours to celebrate an employee's birthday, I knew that the corporate culture, no matter how wonderful my boss, was, for lack of better words, "f*cked".
Get ready - this next part took the cake (pun intended, literally) - no workplace birthday celebration would be complete without an anatomically correct birthday cake, adorned, horrifyingly, with chocolate icing (no racial issues here). Classy. Really classy. Being the MENSA candidates they were, photographs were taken to preserve the celebration for purposes of posterity.
On this day, it became abundantly clear that I could no longer look my employees in the eye and act as if the insanity really wasn't insane, and that dangerously bad judgement wasn't daily on parade. You might be reading this, wondering why or how I could have spent nearly five years of my life, enduring this type of ridiculous, dangerously foolish and thoughtless obstacle course of doom. I would be lying if I didn't admit that I was wondering the same thing.
What kept me there was my belief in the arm of the business I was running, and loyalty to my boss, whom I respected tremendously.
The day came when I couldn't put it off any longer. I gave my notice and cried as I outlined why I was giving up. I wasn't quitting. To me, quitting implies an absence of maturity or persistence. I wasn't quitting, I was giving up. I've said that breaking up with my boss and my job was the hardest break-up of any relationship I've ever had - even the one that stretched over 10 years. More than a break-up, It felt like a divorce. After years of trying to make it work, exhausting every possibility, we were separating because of irreconcilable differences. It was pathetic.
I've been on my own now for several months, and since January, there has only been one day that I've been so frustrated that I wanted to cry. I realized just before I burst into tears that nothing that happened that day was as horrible, painful, scary, or intolerable than what I had felt every day since the day I took the job I had just given away. What a feeling! The tears dried up and a sense of thankfulness swept over me.
I was afraid to give my job back to the person who had given me a remarkable opportunity. I was afraid of what was next (I had no plan). I was afraid of how my "crying 'uncle'" would effect him and his business. I was afraid in every conceivable way, but I was more afraid of who and what I would become if I allowed myself to stay where I was.
Everyone says that life is short. I say, you're going to be dead a lot longer than you'll be alive. Life is difficult and the world is, in some ways, a very screwed up place, riddled with some very, very screwed up people.. In life, you're going to get hurt - it's a given. Some people will hurt you intentionally, and some will hurt you in innocent ways. The worst thing you can do to yourself is pile on.
So, like I said, granola isn't impressive or courageous or important, but, it's important to me because it represents my values. The awesome thing about America is that our country is built on the dreams and values of people who risked failure to improve their lives and the lives of other people, these people were and still remain my inspiration. Small businesses are the foundation of our economy and in some ways, the foundation of personal freedom.
Carving out a little freedom for yourself isn't rocket science either, but it's stupid to stay in a prison when the lock is on your side of the door.
Some of you have heard me sing the praises of the Michigan State Product Center, a grant-funded program that helps small food-related businesses take root in "The Mitten". I was introduced to the Product Center by my good friend, MG, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, as this introduction to Mr. Frank Gublo led to an introduction to Becky DeYoung, my Product Center counselor and now, dear friend.
When I set out to start my all natural granola business, I benefited from more than a decade in the brutal business known as the culinary arts. My experience in the culinary arts proved to be valuable, not just for such practical purposes like food and labor cost calculations, a palate that I've refined over the years to ensure that my product was completely irresistible, or the ability to doggedly pursue any dream without being discouraged. Being a certified chef also came in handy when sourcing ingredients and finding the best quality products at the best prices (not an easy task).
Still, I needed assistance for those other important aspects of my business such as which company would produce the best packaging, at the best price, who would sell the most competitive liability insurance, and how to navigate the labyrinth known as the Michigan Department of Agriculture. If you've ever spent time on the MDA website, you can appreciate how having someone to guide you through the lengthy process of proper licensing, can be a life-changing event. Without Becky's help, I would still be trying to navigate their pre-historic and illogically organized website, 10 months later!
I am approached by many people who, like me, want to start their own food related businesses here in Michigan. If you are toying with the idea of "Making it in Michigan", you simply MUST attend the "Making it in Michigan" event hosted by the MSU Product Center this Wednesday, October 19 at the Lansing Center. From educational sessions to a trade show that highlights the services and products foodie entrepreneurs need, this is an event not to be missed.
To learn more about the Making it in Michigan event at the Lansing Center, visit http://www.makingitinmichigan.msu.edu and see how you can make your dream become a reality.
Stacy Sloan; Chef & Founder of Three Little Birds