You Don't Need Anyone's Approval to Launch, According to These Co-CEOs
Nicole Centeno and Elise Densborn of Splendid Spoon discuss what it takes to start and grow a business.
In this ongoing series, we are sharing advice, tips and insights from real entrepreneurs who are out there doing business battle on a daily basis. (Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Who are you and what's your business?
Nicole Centeno: I am the founder and co-CEO of Splendid Spoon. My co-CEO Elise Densborn is my partner in all things vision and strategy – who started out as a loyal customer (and angel investor!) before joining the company in 2018. Splendid Spoon is a women-owned and operated national meal delivery service specializing in ready-made plant-based bowls, soups and smoothies to help you fall in love with plant-based eating.
What inspired you to create this business?
NC: I was pivoting my career to follow my passion for food when I became pregnant for the first time. It was a major moment because I was excited and terrified to become a working mom. Growing up with two very busy working parents, food (especially healthy food) was often an afterthought because everyone was so short on time. Nourishment became an obsession for me – I studied biochemistry and diet therapies, I went to culinary school, I taught cooking classes – and when I became a mom, I realized my real purpose was to take these skill sets and weave them into a solution to help busy families. We all want a healthier future for ourselves, our families and our planet – Splendid's job is to make it easier.
What has been your biggest challenge during the pandemic and how did you pivot to overcome it?
Elise Densborn: The pandemic carried with it a new weight of leadership. Solving an operational problem is easier in many ways than the profound responsibility required to lead a team remotely through a period that challenged the health and safety of our people and their families. The level of uncertainty and fear was so elevated. We had to be really intentional and consistent in our communication with the team, providing clear direction as well as the space and support to just make it through day-to-day. We got creative with our togetherness (like drawing animals with hot sauce) and we took a pretty personal approach to checking in on each teammate -- whether that meant executing a big project that provided a real sense of purpose, time off to process, or more flexibility to take care of family.
NC: Our biggest challenge was one of endurance and prioritization – how to keep the business going while pausing our Series B capital raise and balancing the needs of a newborn (I welcomed my 3rd baby, Charlotte on March 13, 2020). We focused on profitability and quickly introduced new products like our Stock-up Box that helped us to increase customer value through the unique buying needs of pandemic living. We also really defined our co-CEO dynamic during this time, with both of us managing through personal challenges (Elise got COVID, and I was juggling homeschool and breastfeeding). This dynamic allowed us to say yes to our health and our families while also saying yes to the needs of the team and the business.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs looking for funding?
NC: We just announced our Series B, and there are a few things that helped us get to close. Ask a trusted mentor to sniff out what sucks about your metrics, and be thoughtful with how to address your weaknesses when they are brought up. At the VC stage, at least a few of your early metrics may signal as problematic, but investors are counting on you to give the context and strategy around those signals. If you are aware of what the most pressing problems are, it will build trust.
ED: Always be prioritizing. When identifying your pipeline of investors to pitch, start with your must-haves, then decide where you can be flexible. How many investors do you want to join the round? Are there specific skill sets that you're missing at the board level? Other than the cash, what is most critical for the business to hit its milestones over the next 2-3 years? For example, mission-aligned partners are a must-have for us, which meant that many fast-growth, fast-return funds were not on our target list, and we were more open to multiple funds joining this round.
What does the word "entrepreneur" mean to you?
NC: Entrepreneur means the courage to keep moving, even when you are afraid or there is a strong opposing force. For me, that courage comes from a belief that I am in service to something bigger that will help a larger community.
ED: Entrepreneur means curiosity, creativity and the fortitude to keep showing up to solve or simplify an important problem for others. Simple is hard!
What is something many aspiring business owners think they need that they really don't?
NC: Approval and agreement. It takes courage to follow your imagination and create new solutions – many will doubt you, many will be skeptical, and it may feel lonely hearing 'no,' so often! It's okay being the lone wolf sometimes - when you are true to your mission, your community will find you. I've found my most loyal and meaningful partners in the depths of my lone wolf moments!
ED: All the answers. Be prepared and approach problems thoughtfully, but don't let your ego get in the way of progress. Your team doesn't need perfection from you, they just need you to be consistent, communicative, and accountable to the misses. Share your point of view, invite feedback, consult experts and fail productively so that they can too.
Is there a particular quote or saying that you use as personal motivation?
NC: I have had this quote framed on my desk since the days when we put inspirational quotes on Splendid packaging (4 years ago!) It is Rumi: "If I am irritated by every rub, how will I become polished." I have a super fiery side and am also incredibly sensitive, so this quote has become a very simple, and powerful, mantra.
ED: If you asked me this question to a younger version of myself, I'd probably have some go-get-em quote that inspires taking the leap or making the most of every day. As I've stepped into leadership, though, I more frequently draw inspiration from ancient wisdom that reminds me who I want to be — how I show up every day — not what I want to do. I love this proverb from Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides: "Accept the truth from whatever source it comes." It reminds me to keep my heart, mind, and eyes open, to seek truth and understanding, and keep my ego in check.
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