Ice Cream, Spice, and Everything Nice: Ori Zohar, Q12
There is a certain comfort in planning, in mapping out your future in exquisite detail. However, it is impossible for such a plan to account for the surprises of reality, to incorporate the arbitrary procession of events and unexpected opportunities that lead to success in the most unique of places. Ori Zohar of Cohort 12 can attest to this. He graduated from UMD in 2007 with a degree in marketing and moved to New York to work at big advertising agencies. Zohar worked in account management, business development, and strategy to get a well-rounded experience in the industry. After several experiences with startup operations, he co-founded Burlap and Barrel, a company which sources and sells international spices, in early 2018. I had the opportunity to talk with him about Burlap and Barrel, as well as his other endeavors.
What inspired you to start Burlap & Barrel? How did you navigate this very specific industry to build up the company?
Ethan and I have been friends for over 10 years, and Burlap & Barrel is our second business together. We always wanted to find an opportunity to work together again, and the timing was just right. Our skills complement each other’s: Ethan’s specialty is creating something from nothing – aka the subject matter expert. My specialty is building the structures and systems that enable that “something” to grow – aka the operator.
Ethan had previously been an international aid worker in Afghanistan and Jordan, and while he was living abroad, he would bring back a few pounds of spices from a few local spice farmers. I had been helping to get the business off the ground, but my previous startup was in the process of going through a rocky acquisition, so I wasn’t free to join quite yet. After taking a few months to wrap things up and a few months to recover, I joined full time.
It’s been really interesting to navigate this industry. As outsiders, we have a fresh perspective, but there’s so much that we’re still learning. Through lots of conversations with people in the industry, we got a handle on things like which certifications are important, how much margin grocery stores expect, and how to convince chefs, food makers, and home cooks to upgrade their spices.
Our partnership is the most important part of the company. We try to be thoughtful in how to grow in an intentional, bootstrapped way – and constantly check in with each other to see if we’re on the right path.
What other startup endeavors have you been involved in? Which is/has been your favorite?
As an undergraduate, I had a cap and gown business. Since you weren’t allowed to rent your regalia, graduating students were forced to buy expensive caps and gowns that they would only wear once. I offered graduates $20, then sent the robes to the dry cleaners, and stored them until the next year, when I would sell it back to the next class for $50. It was a good first lesson in entrepreneurship.
Later, in 2010, Ethan and I started our activist ice cart business, Guerilla Ice Cream, where we sold ice cream flavors inspired by political movements and revolutions. We ran it for a summer and learned a lot about what it takes to run a food business.
A couple of years later, I connected with a few investors and started Sindeo, a mortgage startup that provided a transparent, unbiased, high-tech way to get a home loan. We raised $32 million and grew to over 100 employees before our Series C fundraise fell apart and we had to sell the company quickly. You can read more about that here.
Entrepreneurship is a muscle – the more you exercise it, the stronger you get. Each business helped me develop skills and gain knowledge critical to running Burlap & Barrel. Burlap & Barrel is a profitable, bootstrapped business – which makes it my favorite so far.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Ethan and I work remotely – he’s in New York and I’m in San Francisco, so we try to check in at least once a day by phone and are constantly chatting on WhatsApp. Most days, I have 1-2 sales meetings with chefs, grocery stores, or food makers. In between those meetings, I’m updating our site, responding to customer emails and chats, drafting our next newsletter, reaching out to new suppliers like packaging providers, and reviewing our sales performance to see what’s moving and forecasting the next few months.
If you could give two pieces of advice to current QUEST students, what would you say?
On any given day, there are may be 20 things that need to be done, but I only have time for three. As a QUEST student, you get to practice this type of prioritization on a regular basis (or maybe you’re one of those “I just do everything and sleep two hours a night” people – in which case, you especially need to practice prioritization. Get those eight hours.) Pay attention to how well you prioritize, when you get it wrong, and how you can improve. It’s one of the most critical skills for an entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurship is all about decision making with limited information. There are some data to support quantitative decision making, but understanding the qualitative, like putting yourself through the customer experience, getting feedback from early adopters, and quickly iterating on your business model, is a virtuous path. QUEST introduced me to the concept of fast decision making with limited information and that experience directly translated to the real world. Hone it, and it’ll support you throughout your career.
Thanks Ori for all of your insight, and best of luck with Burlap & Barrel!