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Opinion: 10 minutes with the founder, CEO of Tastefully Simple

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By Jeff Prouty, Chairman and Founder, Prouty Project

In 1995, Jill Blashack Strahan started Tastefully Simple, a direct sales company based in Alexandria, Minnesota. Tastefully Simple specializes in convenient, easy-to-prepare foods made available through independent Tastefully Simple consultants primarily at home taste-testing parties. Tastefully Simple has become an award-winning company with more than 300 team members and tens of thousands of independent consultants nationwide. Over the years, Jill has received many honors for her leadership including: Minneapolis/St Paul Women in Business Industry Leader Honoree (2008), Minnesota Entrepreneurs, Inc. Entrepreneur of the Year (2007), and Twin Cities Business Hall of Fame (2006). In this interview, Jill shares her insight on starting a business, maintaining a unique company culture, and leading in a tough economy.

What is some advice you remember from your mom?

Mom was all about striving for excellence and quality. She had a passion for details and beauty, from using placemats at every meal to arranging a stunning floral arrangement with zinnias and greens cut from the flower borders around the house. She always said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” She said it and she lived it, and I still strive to follow that example.

What were your biggest worries when you first started your company?

Tastefully Simple was started 17 years ago and there was a singular, laser focus: offer excellent food to busy people. They had to be EASY open-and-enjoy products or require no more than two ingredients to prepare. Ironically, my biggest worry was, “If our clients are busy people, will they have time to attend a tasting party?” My fear was unfounded. People did come and they loved the party!

The other fear I had was the fear of incompetence. When I created the business plan, projections showed Tastefully Simple would achieve $11 million in sales within five years. I was stunned. I picked up the phone and called founding partner Joani Nielson and said, “Joani, I can’t run an $11 million company.” There was a poetic pause at the other end of the line, and then she said, “Jill, if you can grow an $11 million company, you can run an $11 million company.” Her words were such a blessing. With that paradigm I was able to move through my fear and learn day by day, lesson by lesson. Was it scary to start a business? Absolutely. But it’s not faith if you’re not scared.

What was a defining moment for you?

I have had many experiences that have deeply impacted me but the most life changing moment was when my brother, Mike, died in a fire at the age of 28. I was 26 years old and I became painfully aware of my mortality. Because of that awareness, I have lived life with more intention, including the decision to start Tastefully Simple. When I had the idea to have tasting parties in the home, I did not frame it as a ‘risk.’ I asked myself bigger questions: Would I regret it if I didn’t try? What is the worst thing that will happen if I do it?

Tastefully Simple is known as a wonderful place to work. What is the "magic" and how do you keep it "magical" day-in-day-out?

Tastefully Simple has an award winning culture which is attributable to our three principles: the Law of Abundancy, the Law of Magic and the Law of Realness. The descriptor for the Law of Magic is, “We create positive energy through celebration and excellence.”

We celebrate in many ways: monthly All Team meetings to share updates and celebrate victories, walking through the building every day as we ring a bell to announce how many new salespeople have joined us the previous day, and quarterly socials that create a sense of unity and fellowship—All Team Retreat, birthday bash, Beetles baseball game, fall social. The team especially loves Hooky Day when we close the office on the Friday closest to our birthday. We have a lot of fun, but everyone also knows what’s expected of them. Having clear boundaries and feeling pride in what we do is essential. Our team constantly strives to achieve excellence, which attracts other people who take pride in doing their best.

Any big learnings as you think about the challenges of leading in a tough economy?

I have learned three key things:

1. Reacting vs. responding. It has been interesting to witness how people react to fear. Negative people see a situation as permanent. Positive people view circumstances as temporary. When fear bubbles up it is human nature to react. There is a desire to do something, anything, to make the pain go away instead of taking time to stop, ask questions, discuss possible solutions and then make clear, strategic choices. “My arm is broken and it hurts like hell. I better cut it off.” It is very easy to make poor short-term decisions at the expense of the long-term health and well-being of the company.

2. Cutting costs vs. investing. There is an inclination to become hyper focused on budgets in an effort to cut costs. While this is absolutely critical, what is most important is staying true to the strategies and responding to those with an attitude of ‘investment’ rather than ‘expense.’

3. Leading through fear requires a greater time investment. Dealing with morale issues requires more time to communicate. As I once heard at a Vistage meeting, “In the absence of a story people make up their own.”

What is your favorite Tastefully Simple product?

That’s a really tough question. If I’m having a dinner party, I have to make the Bountiful Beer Bread. You just add a can of beer, stir it 20 times and in 45 minutes you have the best, most amazing bread in the whole wide world. When my husband, Gary, grills, he’s over-the-top passionate about using the Seasoned Salt, Garlic Garlic, and Onion Onion. My favorite condiment is the Pomegranate Chipotle Sauce, a quick “open and enjoy” product. If I’m having friends over for a drink, a must-have would be the Spinach & Herb dip with veggies and Blue Aztec Chips. Shall I go on?

Jeff Prouty is chairman and founder of the Prouty Project: Jeff founded the Prouty Project in 1987 after 7 years with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Minneapolis and New York City. He specializes in working with senior management teams and boards of directors on strategic planning and team issues.

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