Guy Furman has combined his extensive background in agriculture and engineering and launched Windy City Mushroom, home to Chicago’s premium gourmet mushrooms. Located in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, they deliver their customers the freshest and most excellent gourmet mushrooms. Sustainable, local, organic, and delicious. Mushrooms are one of the healthiest and tastiest foods on the planet, but at Windy City Mushroom, Guy’s goal has been to elevate them to the next level.
Where did the idea for Windy City Mushroom come from?
We had originally rented our building in Humboldt Park, Chicago to create a seafood business. We spent over a year getting approval for by the health department and making improvements on the space and while we were doing that, we were looking for a use for the second floor. It couldn’t be used for the primary operation of the business because it lacked floor drains so we looked at alternative products to grow there and ultimately focused on mushrooms. We lined up an existing partner as a grower and researched the market but once we got the health department approval for the seafood we resumed the focus on making the core business work and shelved the mushroom project.
The seafood business didn’t make it but when we decided to close the doors on that, we still had all the research we had done on the mushroom industry, which we thought was a great product that we could grow and felt there was a low market saturation for the specialty mushroom industry. We had already gotten a huge hurdle out of the way approving the space and renovating so we figured we’d give the mushrooms a shot while we still had the lease. There were a lot of varieties that hobby farmers were growing but you weren’t seeing them in Chicago or produced on a larger commercial scale. We were looking for a high value product that also is not widespread in commercial production.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
There is no typical day, without a doubt. Your job as head of the organization is putting out the fires or filling in whatever hole needs to be filled that day. You have to keep track of to-do lists so you’re always prioritizing what you’re working on and that you use your minutes and don’t ever waste them. I feel like we’re constantly in a cycle of increasing capacity, finding new customers and refining the existing processes over time.
How do you bring ideas to life?
You have to do a ton of research on what’s available out there. You have to see what people have done, what people have tried, what resources are available academically, and the biggest thing is it’s not just a business plan, you have to really be familiar with the equipment and the capital requirements. That includes where to buy them, how to install them and how to operate them. You have to find ways to cut costs and cut corners. What works for a massive business isn’t always going to work for a startup and vice versa, so you have to tailor your approach beyond just knowing how this works at one scale or the other. You have to be inventive and find resources out there that fit the size of business you’re going to do and find solutions that nobody is using. You have to be able to adapt to what’s available in the marketplace to what your needs are.
What’s one trend that excites you?
People are finding more and more ways to produce products sustainably. I’ve always been involved in sustainable agriculture, but I think that in the last 20 years we have seen a lot of industries that focused on sustainability. Not just environmentally friendly but really sustainable methods to produce food.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
When the creative portion of the beginning of the business dies down and you’re not trying to figure things out for the first time, and throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks. You need to settle into much more rigorous standards of operation and that is something that develops when you get to the more stable portion of the business. You just have to create a self-operating mechanism, the goal of which is to maintain this level of consistency automatically. To do that we focus a lot on checklists, training, written standard operating procedures and data management. Ultimately, those structures provide the platform for process improvement and delegating decisions based on data. This helps to eliminate the trap a lot of entrepreneurs fall into where as the organization grows they simply scale up time commitment and responsibility to compensate. That’s a death sentence to long term growth and being able to replicate the model.
What advice would you give your younger self?
The focus on process, as opposed to innovation. You have to have a process of continuing innovation, but that has to come secondary to responsibilities of maintaining quality for the organization. As an engineer I think I felt like I had to invent something or I wasn’t really doing anything, but there are plenty of ways to create simply by evaluating the market. Everything isn’t a tech play.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I would say the financial markets, and I am talking about from an investment standpoint and small businesses, are not nearly as sophisticated as believed to be. Also, I think that there’s way too much of an emphasis on people that have had prior successes, as being evaluated by the investment world. Just because you got lucky once doesn’t mean that success automatically follows you to the next gig. The result is you see a lot of bad investments that “check all the boxes” but really it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. Industry insiders see it but the investment community is blind to it.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Keep reading. You have to stay knowledgeable about what’s going on in tangential industries, in science and technology. These things don’t always affect your place in the market immediately, but they might affect it down the road. You need to know things from a variety of fields, which allows you to know what the solution is. Most of that is from experience, not formal education, and a passion for increasing knowledge.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
We realized that experts might know about the way a system is supposed to function but they’re not good at implementation. So basically, my focus on the process of implementation is a result due to the fact that we had mismanagement by people who might have been experts, but not expert managers. One of the biggest mistakes you could make is relying too heavily on people and expecting too much from them. Most people do not adapt well when asked to step outside their comfort zone and learn new skills and responsibilities. For a lot of people that becomes a founder’s problem or key employee problem because you’re inherently as small as a company and can’t afford a person in every role so your team is doing a wider variety of tasks. This often creates issues when people fall short in areas they never really expected to be doing in their career. Not everyone approaches life with a “whatever it takes” attitude and you really need that in entrepreneurship. This is why sometimes its better to outsource your need for experience and knowledge with partnerships and consultants instead of full time employees or business partners that can often disappoint compared to their compensation.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Coming from my experience in the AG space, the one thing that I think is not going away is that consumers have a higher and higher demand for variety. There are products out there that are generally under the radar by the traditional industries that they are in. The beverage industry has hundreds of new entrants every year and a handful get bought by the powerhouses once they show marketability. I think you’ll see the same over time with AG products. Look for good products that are under the radar and fill a consumer niche.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Online subscriptions to my favorite magazines.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Dropbox, without a doubt, because everything from internal record keeping, to photographs and external stuff we do, it’s so much easier to share everything we do through Dropbox and allows me access remotely from anywhere to be able to check up on things.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
The e-Myth Revisited, because I think it has a very realistic guideline for what entrepreneurs should be thinking about and focusing on, because it sorts of kills a lot of preconceived myths about what an entrepreneur looks like.
What is your favorite quote?
“’There’s more honor in defeat, than unused potential.” -River Barkley
- When deciding where to put your energy and resources, focus on the process, as much as innovation. An idea is nothing without thoughtful, organized and well-researched implementation.
- Focus your most important resources and on the core purpose of your business. Progress is often shedding the unnecessary aspects of the startup phase so you can streamline the core, not grow from the core outward taking on more and more aspects of the business under your control. It might seem more profitable at the time but it’s really just a resource suck from how your business ultimately creates value.
- Never stop learning and read anything you can get your hands on. Even if you think it’s not relevant, it could be someday and if it’s something relevant, then remember that you probably have competitors out there who don’t read or value continued learning – and that can pull you ahead. Market complacency is everywhere.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.