How Coachella and an Old Postal Truck Helped Launch Ice Cream Brand Coolhaus The founders of the beloved sweet treat started small and scrappy -- and now they're ready to take over the ice cream aisle.
In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about the pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality -- and the first steps they took to make that happen.
Natasha Case has long been fascinated by the intersection of food and design. While studying architecture and design, Case was always pulled in the direction of food, and saw it as a medium to talk about design and create additional access around the discipline. But after graduation, a promising job at Disney took up her professional attention, and the meeting point between food and design became little more than a hobby.
Then, a shift: A chance meeting with Freya Estreller, who would become her co-founder (and later her wife), as well as the 2008 recession, helped Case take the leap into entrepreneurship, and she launched the hand-crafted ice cream brand, Coolhaus, in 2009.
Ten years later, the Los Angeles-based company is a fan favorite brand, with a national retail presence, a seemingly endless collection of flavors and big plans for the future. Here how Case turned a hobby into a budding empire.
1. Find your missing piece.
After finishing her education, Case was working at Walt Disney Imagineering in hotel and master-planning design. To boost office morale as the 2008 recession took hold, Case would make homemade ice cream sandwiches with flavors named for famous architects -- Norman Bananas Foster, as an example -- and distribute them to her colleagues.
"I didn't think of it as a business so much as an art project," she told Entrepreneur. But that changed when a friend introduced her to Estreller, who saw a bigger opportunity in those yummy ice cream sandwiches. The two hit it off in both the professional and personal spheres -- they are now married, with a child -- and Estreller helped Case lay the groundwork for an actual business.
"When I look back, I had all these entrepreneurial qualities, but Freya was the keystone," Case said. "For my generation -- especially women -- 'entrepreneurship' didn't exist in this big way at the time. I came to it by process of elimination."
2. Do market research.
Early on, the pair hit their local grocery store to price out ingredients and case out the ice cream aisle. "All the brands had been there for decades," Case said. "Nothing spoke to us as millennials, and definitely not as women. We really saw a white space."
With no formal training, Case experimented with flavor creation at home, and when a friend suggested naming a flavor after the architect Rem Koolhaas, Case knew she'd found her brand. "Coolhaus," she said: "It sounds frozen, and it has a design element. It was just too good!"
3. Build what you can afford.
Bootstrapping their nascent business, Case and Estreller knew they couldn't even begin to think about getting a product distributed through grocery stores. But the food-truck trend was taking hold at the time, and that felt like a project they could handle (and afford).
"We went on Craigslist and found an old postal truck masquerading as an ice cream truck," Case said. "There was barely a working chest freezer. It was a total piece of junk, for $2,500." They thought about where they could debut their product, and focused in on one single, culturally "cool" event: the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
"We made the pitch before we were even in existence," Case said. "But signing on for such a big event forced us to get our act together." With the help of LegalZoom, they incorporated and learned how to acquire sellers' permits and health permits.
4. Find partners.
Preparing for an event with hundreds of thousands of attendees required more product than Case could make in her mom's kitchen. "We discovered co-packing and cold-called people until we found someone who'd do this first order for us," Case said. "They had to take a huge gamble, but this is where having people skills and a big vision is necessary. Plus, a lot of people have had other people help them when they were starting out -- there's a lot of 'paying it forward' going on."
5. Make your first sale.
Once they arrived at Coachella (driving a truck emblazoned with signage produced at Kinko's), Case and Estreller knew it was time to get the word out. "We had given tickets to friends in exchange for them helping sell the product and representing the brand -- with questionable skill sets," Case said. "Our friends were going tent to tent trying to sell the sandwiches. But it worked!"
In hindsight, Case said she sees how lucky they were to test the product in that setting. "It was a captive audience," she said. "I totally recommend that to other entrepreneurs, especially in food: Don't quit your day job, but find somewhere to test your product in a controlled capacity, like a farmers market."
6. Follow the momentum
On their ride home to L.A. following the music festival, the pair watched their Coolhaus Twitter account score nearly 5,000 followers. "We got home and just started responding to demand," Case said. "Myspace reached out about a catering job, and we didn't even know what to charge!"
The two women bootstrapped for two years before making a salaried hire, and around the same time raised a small angel round of funding, bringing in $1 million. "It wasn't until that two-year mark when we didn't feel like we were in a black hole," Case said. "But now, 10 years later, we're ready to be a household brand."