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The Life-Changing Book That Helps This Entrepreneur Think Big

The co-founder of Food52 shares with us the book that helps her think big, along with other things that make her tick and keep her motivated.
The Life-Changing Book That Helps This Entrepreneur Think Big
Image credit: Courtesy of Food52

Editor’s Note: Entrepreneur’s “20 Questions” series features both established and up-and-coming entrepreneurs and asks them a number of questions about what makes them tick, their everyday success strategies and advice for aspiring founders.

Cooking can be intimidating, especially if you’re busy and on a budget. But if you had a community and easy to follow advice your fingertips, instead of being a stressful place, the kitchen could become a place fill with fun, creativity and inspiration.

That’s the mission behind Food52, an online hub dedicated to helping even the greenest chefs create high-quality and delicious meals.

Merrill Stubbs is the co-founder and president of Food52. With her co-founder, CEO Amanda Hesser, the duo have created a beloved and award-winning site that boasts countless recipes, tips about home design, a store for your kitchen needs and even a hotline if you get stuck needing a substitution in a recipe.

Related: A One-Stop Cooking and E-Commerce Site Heats Up

Since it’s launch in 2009, Food52 has been named publication of the year by the James Beard Foundation, developed partnerships with Random House and Whole Foods, published the work of big-food industry names like Danny Meyer and Mario Batali. Since 2013, Stubbs told Entrepreneur that revenue has increased eight-fold, the company has tripled the size of its staff and the site’s audience has grown seven-fold.

Stubbs and Hesser’s latest book, A New Way to Dinner: A Playbook of Recipes and Strategies for the Week Ahead was published this week.

We caught up with Stubbs and asked her 20 questions to find out what motivates her and makes her tick.

1. How do you start your day?
Usually I roll over in my bed,  pick up my phone and look at the Quartz morning email. It's a great way to get up to speed on really big stuff that's happened.I like to know what's going on in the world as opposed to just my industry, and it's a good way to brush up on that, especially since they do things that happened while you were asleep.

I'll also check trending topics on Twitter on the way to the subway. Typically, once I get to the office, I'm really steeped in our world, so getting a bird's-eye view of things outside of my world is a good thing to do first thing.

2. How do you end your day?
I try and read a couple of pages of whatever book [is on my nightstand], which has nothing to do with work. I do this to take myself out of the work frame of mind, which I'm in pretty much in every waking moment, and escape a little bit. It's also to do something that's not digital; that's screen free. I find it relaxes me.

3. What’s a book that changed your mind?
The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz literally changed my life. It talks about time not being our most precious commodity, but rather energy. It resonated for me, and reframed the way I approach not just work but life. I like to be in the moment. A general practice that has come out of it for me is to set aside time to think about the big picture, instead of trying to find a spare moment to do it. I was really inspired by reading that book and now I set aside chunks of time and block them out in my calendar.

Related: 9 Rules for Successful Time Management

4. What’s a book you always recommend and why?
Roald Dahl's Danny the Champion of the World. I love children's books in general, and a lot of kid's books are really good reading for adults. This one in particular is not only a great story and narrative, but it's a great study of a relationship between father and his son. I always recommend it to parents to read aloud to kids because it's a great book to share.

The entrepreneurial, can-do attitude of Danny and his father has always been inspiring to me. And while they are meticulous planners, ultimately it's the partnership and camaraderie between them that is more important than their scheme working out exactly as planned. I try to keep this in mind when things don't go the way we've anticipated.

5. What’s a strategy you use to keep focused?
Take breaks. I really step away from something after I've been working on it, take a short walk, talk to someone who has nothing do with what I've been focusing on and stay hydrated. I usually just walk around our office in Manhattan. If I have enough time, and it's market day, I'll walk down to Union Square Green market.

Related: How to Stay Focused: Train Your Brain

6. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
I really wanted to be a performer. I did a lot of acting and singing as a kid and teenager. I think I was pretty convinced for a while that was my destiny. But I don't think I had the backbone for the rejection that comes with that path. Ultimately when I was deciding between a conservatory as opposed to a liberal arts college, that's when I made that decision: to keep singing as something for fun rather than my career.

7. What did you learn from the worst boss you ever had?
Being indirect about what you want or what you expect is a really terrible tactic for managing people. It makes them feel like the ground is shifting beneath them, that's an impediment and distraction from people doing their best work.

8. Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?
My co-founder Amanda. For a lot of the same reasons that the other boss was not a good example, I learn from her every day. One of things she is really good about is communicating directly with people about their performance and their strengths and weaknesses without it feeling like an onslaught of criticism. She's really good at balancing those conversations and people respond well to that.

Related: 10 Steps to Finding the Right Co-Founder

9. What’s a trip that changed you?
The trip that changed me the most was a trip to Southeast Asia 10 years ago. Until that trip, I hadn't been anywhere that was so completely different. It really opened my eyes to the extent of differences in cultures, in norms and mannerisms and the extent of diversity that exists in the world.

I think that trip just reinforced an ongoing goal of mine, which is to be open-minded about where others are coming from. This usually involves lots of listening and observing.

10. What inspires you?
My kids. Watching them develop into real people. They're four and one. They're both growing and changing literally daily and seeing that evolution happen, thinking about how they are different from one another even with the same parents, is really exciting.

11. What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?
I actually started a jacks rental business in 5th grade, because everyone was playing jacks at recess. I thought it would be a good way to make a little cash, so I sold them for 5 cents a set during recess.

Related: 9 Business Ideas Under $1,000 You Can Run From Anywhere

12. What was an early job that taught you something important or useful?
I think being a server in a restaurant. I hated every minute, but it taught me to multitask and keep different pieces of information in my brain at the same time.

13. What’s the best advice you ever took?
When I was in the job with horrible boss, one of my best friends sat me down and said, “You don't want to be doing this, you need to go to cooking school, that's what you want to do, you just need to do it.” Once she said that, I made the decision to do it.

14. What's the worst piece of advice you ever got?
This has come from a couple different people in my life, it's not worth it to bring up [a question about how to do something better] because it's too late to change things now. Different variations on that. It breeds apathy, paralysis, all sorts of bad things. It's very un-empowering. Whenever someone says something like we can’t change or fix that, we kind of cringe. Amanda and I will come in and say this isn't actually the best thing for us, it could be better, let's see what we can do. People are annoyed, but it has led to some good things.

We started building an iOS app that was essentially a mobile version of Food52.com. The developers were already pretty far along when we called a meeting with our team and expressed our feeling that we were going down the wrong path. What we were building wasn't going to expand our audience or bring anything new to the market. So we changed course and built an app that was true to our mission of furthering the conversation around food and cooking, but was narrower in focus. Our current app, called (Not)Recipes, is a place where people can share images and short descriptions of the casual, off-the-cuff cooking they're doing in their homes every day, and get inspiration from what others are making as well. It's fun and engaging, and it's introduced our brand to a new segment of home cooks.

Related: The Most Powerful Advice Entrepreneurs Ignore

15. What’s a productivity tip you swear by?
List making. I have lists everywhere. I use a notepad but I also use apps like Evernote.

16. Is there an app or tool you use in a surprising way to get things done or stay on track?
I use my email drafts folder to store my lists.

17. What does work-life balance mean to you?
I think it's all about having perspective. It doesn't mean erecting a wall between the two; that's unrealistic. I think it means trying to stay in the moment, and it means being engaged in whatever it is I'm doing, trying not to let other things creep in and decrease my productivity or my enjoyment of that moment.

Related: 5 Secrets to Achieving and Maintaining Work-Life Balance

18. How do you prevent burnout?
Working remotely for a change of scenery, either at home or traveling and working remotely for some of the trip. Right now, I'm on the Jersey Shore, and it's great; I get to look out on the water from my desk.

19. When you’re faced with a creativity block, what’s your strategy to get innovating?
Going for a walk or doing some sort of physical exercise. I also like going swimming. It's important to pay attention to my body and slow down my mind a little bit. If I can get moving it frees up my head and makes some space.

20. What are you learning now?
I think I'm learning how to evolve my role as a leader from what was previously a small company to now a small-medium company. I’ve had to put different skills into practice and be open to change. One thing in particular is to find ways to make our entire team feel supported when we aren't able to have personal relationships with everyone. A lot of it involves messaging to the entire team.

We also have breakfast with employees. We've been doing it for a couple of years, we have a sign-up sheet for one-on-one breakfast with us, it's been really fun.

Edition: December 2016

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