Talk to your target market first to decide what to sell based on what they say they will buy, don’t invent it in a vacuum.
Alison Mountford is the Founder and CEO of Ends+Stems, a meal planning service designed to reduce household food waste and stop the effects of climate change. Alison turned 15 years of professional chef and entrepreneurial experience into a solution to help eliminate both weeknight dinner stress and food waste in one clever step.
Alison is a passionate problem solver and approachable leader with a dual vision; to get households cooking again and to save the planet. Before building Ends+Stems, Alison founded Square Meals in 2005, one of San Francisco’s first prepared meal delivery companies. Square Meals was first to market and helped define the trend of chef-prepared meals delivered to your door.
For 10 years, Alison grew Square Meals into a successful cafe and catering company and had the opportunity to cook for celebrities, politicians, and many influential companies. After selling Square meals, Alison had a short stint as Procurement Director for a food tech company, solidifying her passion for reducing food waste.
Alison has been named a Rubicon Waste Fit Champion, was a finalist for the Roddenberry Foundation fellowship, and has appeared on many podcasts and radio shows, and works as a food waste consultant.
Where did the idea for Ends+Stems come from?
I have a been a personal chef and caterer for 15 years but selling completely prepared foods to individuals is expensive for the customer. I heard from friends and strangers all the time that they needed help getting weeknight meals on the table, but for a reasonable cost. When I sold my first business in 2015, I was looking for a new idea and right around that time the NRDC released its ground breaking report on the environmental impacts of wasted food. I knew I wanted to keep working in food and to help ease this common “What’s for dinner?” struggle, and factoring in teaching people to save money and be kinder to the planet by reducing food waste just clicked. I then ran a large survey of 1000 parents and their responses helped me figure out exactly how to set up the business model.
The business model is to remove the biggest obstacle people face in making dinner. 83% of respondents said “Deciding what to cook” is the stress point, they don’t even mind going grocery shopping if they know what to buy. By doing the meal planning for them, I free them up to enjoy the process more. I use my knowledge as a professional chef and recipe developer to plan meals (that can be adjusted for any diet type), that work together to use up all of the perishables you must buy. The user saves time, saves money, reduces food waste.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I start the night before by jotting down a to-do list for the following day. In the morning, my husband and I work together to get our young kids ready for preschool and out the door. I’m back to my home office by about 8:10am and I get started right away…right after making a pot of coffee. I usually scan my emails for any fires to put out or opportunities that have popped up. My most productive and creative time of the day is about 9-12 so I like to tackle a big project in this window. I try to get up and walk around if I’m working on my computer all day so I feel healthy and don’t sit for too long. I also like to separate types of tasks by days of the week because I find switching gears too be time consuming and unproductive. For example, if I’m cooking and recipe testing, I do it all in one day. The following day I might do invoicing and billing. And if I’m working on a marketing project, I keep all of the details of that to one day.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I wholeheartedly believe that “done is better than perfect” and “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” So, I just get to work! I often start with a list – I like to use a google spreadsheet and brainstorm. Then, divide the work up into categories and I use the space to link key milestones or people I might need to call on for help, questions, or support. I like to try things quickly and see if there’s any traction. If something works then there’s always time to improve on it but if it’s a flop, at least you tried and you don’t have to sit around wondering “What if?”
What’s one trend that excites you?
Eliminating straws and single use plastics from use. A general shift towards thinking about and embracing a ways to be less wasteful overall.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Follow through. I’m naturally good at giving honest expectations. If I can’t or won’t do something for whatever the reason, I’m able to be upfront and realistic about it. If I say I’ll be there, I will show up on time and I think that has led others to trust and want to work with me. This helps me in general as an entrepreneur because its very much connected to time management. When I make my to do list the night before, I have an accurate sense of what needs to be done first, what can wait, and when its time to call something done and move on to then next item.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Be nicer to yourself. I’m still working on my inner dialogue, so even my yesterday-self needs to hear this. I am very hard on myself and while having high expectations can lead to doing good things, it can also be excessive. I’ve always worked hard and there’s no reason for the self-bashing.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Eating in the car, on the couch*, or in bed is gross. Sit at the table and put your food on a plate. You’ll eat better, digest better, and whether you’re having a conversation or are alone with your thoughts you should take a moment to be present at meal time.
(*eating on the couch at a party, room full of people is the only exception)
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Show up! Be accountable and consistent. Turn down jobs politely if they aren’t a good fit and make the connection for next time. I have booked some incredible opportunities because of the strangest connections that didn’t mean much at the time. You never know when someone will need your service or have a friend who does, so you’re always selling, always connecting, and always looking to tee up the next thing.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
I’ve been active in facebook groups, not the general news feed – just groups. Its a smaller, “safer” section of facebook where you can connect with community. I’ve used these to find press, clients, beta testers, support systems, learn about business, meet contractors, interns, and to get booked as a speaker and a consultant. I’ve also supported numerous other business startup that I’ve met in groups.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
For a long time, I thought “giving up” on my first business was a failure. I sold it for parts after founding and growing it 10 years, but I once thought I would run it forever. It took me over a year to see that it was an impressive run. I’m proud of the work I did under that name, and selling a business is actually a mark of success AND an interesting part of the business lifecycle.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I’ve wanted an app that is the Shazaam for plants – point your camera at a tree or a plant and it would tell you the name of it instantly.
Also – Why don’t black boxes in airplanes record to the cloud? I do not understand why in 2019, we’re still chasing these things along the floor of the ocean or through a dessert because they only record to a physical device. Can’t someone fix this?
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I bought my daughter a ridiculous pink princess bike for her 4th birthday and she loves it. I work hard to give her a good life and to enjoy each other’s company.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I use mailchimp to grow my customer list and provide resources for both paying customers and prospects who want to be part of the community. Its integrated to my sign up pages and website so I can easily segment the list and stay in touch with the appropriate group of them at the right time.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I love novels and read a few each month. I recently finished The Overstory and if you are up for a huge and beautiful novel, please check it out. The way the author describes trees and the natural world is achingly beautiful and we could all use a reminder that we need the trees. Our lives depend on them. This book weaves stories of people through the stories of trees and describes how we’re all connected. Its very well done and not likely to be forgotten.
What is your favorite quote?
I mentioned one above (Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good – Voltaire), but another one is from Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
- Talk to your target market first to decide what to sell based on what they say they will buy, don’t invent it in a vacuum.
- Selling one business and starting another is a success, not a failure. The business lifecycle is interesting.
- Write your to-do list the day before and stay organized and prioritized