"What sets our ice cream apart from other super-premium ice creams is our focus on non-traditional flavors"
1. Give us a little background about yourself and your business.
I have an A.A. degree from Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, IA (which mostly consisted of me skipping all my classes to hang out in the photography and art classrooms) and a Graphic Design degree from Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, CA. The bulk of my professional background has been working in marketing as a copywriter and editor, although I’ve held a wide variety of office and sales positions over the years. I’ve been working at Ian’s Pizza Madison as Office Manager/Account Manager since August of 2006.
Calliope was founded by Jason Borgmann in August 2011 while he was working at the Weary Traveler in Madison. My business partner Marty & I joined in February of 2012. We (along with my sister) bought Jason out in January of 2015, so now it is 51% owned by me and my sister, and 49% owned by Marty.
We make a super-premium ice cream in pint and 3-gallon sizes. It has a base of Wisconsin dairy, is sweetened with cane sugar, and has a 35% overrun (air) so it’s very dense and creamy. What sets our ice cream apart from other super-premium ice creams is our focus on non-traditional flavors. We don’t have a vanilla or a chocolate, and that’s probably not going to change. There are so many great and interesting flavors out there, why keep doing the same 20 over and over? Our current lineup is seven flavors sold by the pint at Madison-area grocery stores: Brandy Old Fashioned, Chocolate Crispy Rice Treat, Graham Cracker, Hearty Breakfast, Hot Peanut Butter, Lemon Lavender, Mexican Hot Chocolate.
2. Is this your first business venture?
3. Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur? If not, what was the event that changed your mind about becoming an entrepreneur?
No, not at all. I started working as an Office Manager at Ian’s Pizza Madison when my family and I moved to Madison in 2006. They did not have anyone doing any in-house marketing or what I saw as basic PR, so I began to take on that role since I was coming from that background. Ian’s is a very entrepreneurial place, and I saw young coworkers starting up their own businesses and thought, “They don’t have any superpowers that I don’t have, I could totally start my own business.” Really, I felt like I was more qualified in many ways because I had 20+ years of varied work experience, whereas they were mostly new college grads who’d only ever worked a couple jobs. When we met with Jason about getting his ice cream to sell at Ian’s Pizza and he mentioned he was looking for business partners I knew it could be a great opportunity.
4. What has been your biggest challenge?
Definitely the biggest challenge has been feeling like I’m doing this on my own with no roadmap and no experience at starting a business. Marty is a co-owner but he’s very busy running the two Ian’s Pizzas in Madison as well as the Ian’s Pizza Commissary Kitchen, so he has no time to dedicate to a startup ice cream company. I have someone that helps out a few hours a week, whether that’s demos or checking stock, but I still need to manage him and tell him what I need him to be doing, so there’s management work involved even if there’s not physical work.
5. What has been a success?
Just that we are still around and are still growing! We’ve continued to increase sales each year, reaching around $30,000 in sales for the past two years. At times when I feel overwhelmed I just need to stop and think that I made all this happen. And even if it goes away, that is still an amazing accomplishment. We are opening our first scoop shop in summer of 2019 at the Garver Feed Mill site, so we’re pretty excited for what this year will bring.
6. Did you have a business mentor or was there a woman/women in your life that you could rely on for guidance while navigating entrepreneurship?
No, although I really could’ve used one (...heck, I could still use one!). We briefly met with Leanne Cordisco of Chocolaterian very early on, and I remember one thing she told us was that you would learn a lot about yourself as you were navigating starting a business. That has been very true! I’ve learned that I have a strong, strong need for time away from everyone in order to recharge. Without that I will burn out in a spectacular fashion. I don’t think I truly understood that about myself until I started doing this work and had to be out interacting with the public for many hours at a time on weekends while working a 9-5 job on weekdays, then taking care of kids at night. I’ve had to take that into account as I plan my time. I have finite energy for other people, and that’s okay, but I need to respect my limits.
7. Who has been your biggest inspiration?
Our customers for sure keep me going. It’s not unusual to have someone say, “This is the best ice cream I’ve ever had!” while I’m out at a grocery store demo. If I ever have to run an ad, it will just be video of people who have never tried Calliope trying it for the first time. I have a lot of great interaction with people, and that’s good energy. Those times when I feel like, “Why am I doing this again?!” I can think back to moments where people have been so excited and been so genuinely supportive and it helps.
8. How do you stay focused and motivated during those times when being a business owner can feel overwhelming.
Good question! This is something I struggle with as a single parent of two teenagers, homeowner, with a day job that is not ice cream, and I’ve really been thinking about it lately as it looks like 2019 could be even busier than past years. I mainly break tasks down into small steps and don’t stress about strict time limits. In the beginning we needed to build awareness, so anytime anyone asked me to do anything I said “YES!” and showed up whether it was for five people or 5,000. I don’t do that anymore. I now pick and choose what makes the most sense for us, given my time and energy constraints. We still are building awareness but I’ve needed to balance that with what I can physically do. I respond to emails as quickly as I can, but sometimes that means a few days instead of an immediate turnaround. I also limit what I do on the weekend. I have to do grocery store demos on the weekends, but I try to not be on the computer all weekend as well. These are the times when it’s good to step back and see what you’ve already accomplished by just doing one small step at a time.
9. How do you choose the people you surround yourself with, within your business?
I’m so lucky in that I work at a job where they understand what it takes to be an entrepreneur so if I need to do ice cream work during a weekday they are flexible as long as I keep up with my job, whether that’s later that night or on weekends. I also have access to a bookkeeper and a marketing guy who works for four hours a week (through Ian’s) and I just pay them a monthly fee for that help.
Along the way I’ve met a lot of people who are very enthusiastic members of my “street team” (as I call them) and because they love the ice cream and believe in the product they will send business my way. It also helps that local ice cream is a very collaborative community -- I really could not do what I do without Chocolate Shoppe, who makes my ice cream. They have been fantastic to work with. I’ve seen other small food businesses who did both the production and the sales/marketing to start and it turned out to be too much work to get a fledgling business off the ground. By letting someone else do the production that made it so I could do the part I’m better at anyway -- the sales & marketing -- and not completely burn myself out. I suppose if I had enough money or wanted to take out a loan I could’ve gone that route and done everything ourselves but I didn’t want to grow the business that way. I’m willing to bet my time, I wasn’t willing to bet my house.
10. What is your biggest piece of advice for women starting a business?
Take classes at WWBIC, do some research, reach out and talk with other women who are doing the kinds of things you’d like to do, start small and don’t worry about doing everything perfectly. For sure feel free to fail! Find something you can do and do it. What do you see in your community that’s missing? Can you provide it? I think women with children especially worry about “not being there for their kids” but the flip side is, your kids get to see you start something new and they will learn what it takes to start something themselves. You’re really giving them an excellent lesson on how to take a chance and how to learn as you go. I started this when my kids were 7 and 10, and I’ve always asked them what they think as we all go along. Kids are smart, they’ll tell you if they think you’re doing something dumb and they have so much more insight than people give them credit for! My kids are also very proud of me.
11. As women business owners, we are often tasked with “doing it all” in regards to work life and our personal lives; do you think this is a realistic expectation?
No, of course not. Something has to give. Right now my house looks like a crime scene. I’ve been sick for almost three weeks but still trying to keep up with everything work-related, so I’ve had to let cleanliness go. And believe me, it’s never in the forefront of my worries to begin with! Maybe I’ll get the holiday decorations down this weekend...maybe not. Ah, who am I kidding. Probably not. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a cheese sandwich and a few pieces of fruit or baby carrots for dinner. Make your kids do their own laundry and clean up after themselves. If you have a partner make sure that they are on board for your venture, because it will take your time and energy away from them.
12. Favorite quote, song or poem.
I have a couple. The first one is not safe for work (I’m probably not safe for work!). Our quote from the very beginning has been from Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” in 8 Mile where he’s talking about getting that one shot and not missing your opportunity. The line is, “Success is my only m*********ing option, failure’s not.” I’ve got that on a little homemade screenprint poster in my office right in front of where I sit.
For more polite company, I love this part of Antonio Machado’s, “Last Night As I Was Sleeping”
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt —marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.
I really like the idea of your past “mistakes” leading you to a beautiful future.