I heard Bob McClure of McClure’s Pickles speak on a panel at the Alt Summit Conference in New York City back in June (2013). He was on a panel about being an American maker, which highlighted the movement to discover, connect and share stories about American makers. So – of course I ate it all up. I was very impressed with Bob when he spoke about the importance of balancing a small family business with other life responsibilities and joys. He spoke with clarity and pointedness about the need to know when to step away from your work and engage in the rest of your life. He mentioned that he had been an actor before starting his pickle business, so I wanted to hear more about his process of moving from being a working NYC actor to having a successful homegrown business. And…why pickles? I’m grateful for the time that he gave me, because his honesty on the panel was replicated in our conversation as he openly spoke to the realities of starting a business and the success and struggles along the way.
I’m interested in hearing more about your journey from being an actor to making pickles for a living. What were some of the steps that you took from being an actor to officially saying you own a pickle business?
Perhaps it’s best to start with how it came to be in the first place. We grew up making our pickles – it was my great-grandmother’s recipe – and we spent our summers making pickle products, specifically spicy pickles. It was just a hobby growing up and we did it every summer. We’d go down to the produce stand and get fresh cucumbers and hot peppers and put them in jars – about 100 jars each summer. So – it was just a hobby for a very long time. My parents did it with my grandparents and we did it with our parents until about the time we were teenagers when my brother, Joe, and I got involved in other things. I moved to New York to pursue acting and theatre, and before New York I was doing that very thing all over the country – regional and traveling theatre and TV. My brother was pursing his own career and was teaching music; he stayed in Michigan. I had a career in acting – which when it’s good, it’s good but when it’s not, it’s not. It’s hard to really have a lucrative career. So, I wanted to have something that was a little more stable –and I thought that working for myself would be a little more stable.
I then read a New York Times article about another pickle maker who couldn’t make a spicy pickle. I emailed that article over to my parents and brother and said, ‘You know we have this recipe?! We could do this! We’ve been doing it for years and we know that people like it. What if we made it into a recipe and a business?!’ So, we decided to give it a shot. The next step was thinking about how we get the ingredients, the glass and containers, the labels, etc. I was making it in Brooklyn and Joe was making them in Detroit.
In 2006 when we were making small batches of our pickles, I went to a party where I met up with a good friend of mine who owned a kitchen store with his wife in Williamsburg, BK. I told him that I was starting a pickle company, and asked if he would like to sell pickles in your store? So, we were the only food item in the store that was selling kitchen items. The New York Times came in to do a review of their store as it was kind of the first of its kind in Williamsburg and they happened to notice our pickles and tried them. After the review of the store came out about a week later a review on our pickles came out in the New York Times. That was around December of 2006 – so only three months after we officially launched the company. So it was a very quick leap into the real world of being a business and a sink-or-swim kind of moment for us. We didn’t even have an official business card! We really only knew how to make them on a very small scale, so your learning curve becomes very sharp at that point. We really didn’t have any money. I had been let go from my job and took the severance package to start the company. My brother was still in school, so he had very little money to begin with – but here is what we had and we hoped that it would work. So we just kept putting everything back into the company and that is how it grew.
We decided to put Brooklyn on the label, because that is how we wanted to brand ourselves, and we kept the brand that way. We did that for about three years and then we moved into our own space in Brooklyn, which was about 3,000 square feet. It was our first leased space, and we were there until about two years ago when we moved our entire production back to Detroit. It was pretty expensive to expand in New York, as you can imagine, and my whole family is in Michigan and Michigan is also the largest grower of cucumber crop (it’s also the largest asparagus grower, largest hybrid blueberry grower, and its also a leader in peach and apple growing). So [Michigan] has this huge agriculture component that everybody kind of overlooks because they only ever think of Detroit or Ann Arbor when they hear Michigan. But everything outside of the cities is farmland and we have really good relationships with farmers and our supply chain and rental space is very inexpensive there, so we have focused our growth there and kept Brooklyn as our central hub for innovation, ideas, marketing, media as it’s an amazing market to get to a lot people quickly so you can find out if it is a product that people want and are willing to try.
So it seems like in those first 3 years, you hit the ground running pretty quickly!
Yes – and honestly I haven’t stopped yet! Every time there is a growth tier it is met with new hurdles that you have to solve. We just opened a 20,000 square foot factory, so 5x the size of our last factory. So, there are now that many more pluses and that many more minuses that you have to contend with in a factory that size. We are in a place where production issues are always coming up. We have equipment that is helping us out, but it is still not enough to take care of the orders that we have coming in. So it’s an interesting but good problem to have! You are always trying to figure something out and learn from it at the same time.
So – it was a matter of 3 months from when your pickles were placed in your friends store to it being a full-fledged business. When did you decide to leave your temping job to pursue the pickle business full time?
I was actually working for Conde Nast – I was working as an art assistant/production assistant – and I actually didn’t quit. They were getting rid of all of their temp work, so they let me go. So, I didn’t really have a choice. I was like, “Well, what do I do?” I booked a commercial, which was great when you could do that, but it only happened about 3-4 times a year, which is not enough to sustain yourself let alone save anything to have a family. I was 27 at that point and was like, ‘This is not how I want to live – rent check to rent check.’
So, while you were starting up the business, did you continue to act or did you put that to the side?
I had to [keep acting] because there was no income [in the business]. We didn’t pay ourselves for five years. Perhaps other companies could do that depending on their finances, but I had to continue doing whatever it was that I could do to make money! We really started out at farmers’ markets, so Joe and I took whatever it was we needed to survive on, which was a couple hundred dollars a week, and I would then supplement that with acting or residual income that would come in from commercial work. I always hoped that that would be more often then less but some years were good and some years were not. Joe was still in school so his housing was covered and living near my parents he had some family support, which was a help, as well.
So it took a good 5 years to feel as though you had a livable income from the business?
Yeah, I guess for a personal, livable income, but even now I am not sure how livable it is with a family and a child. But – our company is doing fine. Our company was always in the black and doing well because we were reinvesting the profits we were making instead of giving it to ourselves. For example, we realized we needed more help and more employees, so we had to pay them first. We will hopefully see the dividends in the future. Even now – Joe and I don’t get paid more then $45,000 a year, so it’s not like we feel like we’ve made it! Instead of making $100,000 a year we are putting that money back in the business so that we can grow it because it takes so much money just to run a business that isn’t manufactured in China or public with equity investment.
So – after 7+ years of blood, sweat and tears – do you feel like it all has been worth it? Do you still feel that the sacrifices that you had to make were a good thing?
Ah – yeah. There is a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answer to that question. Do I feel like we’ve grown a great company that is doing well and is worth the sacrifices? Yes, absolutely. Do I feel like there have been challenges along the way that I wish I wouldn’t have had to go through, that I wouldn’t have wanted to put my wife and my son through? Yes. Just the stress of running your own business, isn’t always your ideal. You might think, ‘I’m going to go and live my dream starting my own business.’ But, it’s a lot more then that and you can’t really anticipate that right off the bat. So, now you have employees – which means you now have health insurance, payroll, unemployment wages – there’s a whole mountain of additional work that is not clear to you upfront if you are a small business starting from scratch.
Did you always envision the business turning into a much bigger production or did you originally just think it could be a good way to subsidize your acting career?
It was a ‘let’s see what happens’ approach. When we started the business we obviously wanted to see it succeed and perhaps be something that would sustain us as a lifestyle and full-on business. That said, it didn’t necessarily mean to me that I would have to postpone, give-up or halt my acting career, which I didn’t for a number of years. And neither did Joe have to stop what he was doing. At some point we had to make a decision to focus on one or the other so that you can devote the appropriate amount of time to grow a business with greater attention. We didn’t want to spread ourselves too thin, so we had to make some calls on what we were doing then and where we wanted to focus, with the knowledge that if we ever wanted to return to what we were doing then it is there – it’s available.
That’s something I noticed on your website when I was reading through your bios – your entire family has multiple interests! Can you speak at all about how diversifying your interests might actually help you business?
I think all of the things that you experience in life – whether it’s a different career or a change in your life all add to the experience of what you are currently doing. My acting background helps me sell product which is kind of what I was doing on a day-to-day basis, I was selling myself as a product to sell other people’s products. I was then able to translate that into doing it for our company. Acting is also a self-sustaining business. You have to know what you are selling, you have to know who you are selling it to, you have to have a product – you are your own self-sustaining business that you are negotiating contracts with. That led into me being able to do a lot of the same things for McClure’s. Joe was a scientist before and a classical guitarist, so his blend of analytical science type acumen helps him be a really great production manager. My dad’s background in logistics has helped us figure out how to share our product with where it needs to go and have all the ducks in a row to do so. My mom comes from a background where she started her own business doing massage and spa therapy. She was still doing that while working with us, but she knows her own business so well – hers was a very physical business, so she was on the production floor every day. That translated well for her that she was able to do something physical in both careers. So, I think wherever you come from – there are people who have quit their advertising jobs to start a family recipe or they have done social work awhile – whatever they have learned from those other careers, you utilize those. It’s never a loss. You’re never going to go, ‘Oh! Now I’m starting over again from scratch!’ You’re actually not. You’re bringing a lot of assets from your life to your new position. It can be so daunting to start your own business and can feel like you are doing it from scratch, but you are bringing a lot of resources that you might not normally think about until you look back at them.
That is a good reminder! Do you think you would have started the business without your family or is working with your family part and parcel of why you started McClure’s?
I think whatever you do, if you are starting a business, it is good to align yourself with good partners. Whether they are your family or good friends or colleagues. Going it alone can be – just what it is – you are doing it alone! So as much control as that is and that might sound exciting to some people, all the decisions and all the responsibility is on you, but as you grow you have to surround yourself with good, key members who are smarter then you and who can do a better job then you. You can’t do everything, nor should you have to do so – but you should do what you are good at doing and allow those who are good at what they do, to do what they do best. You shouldn’t try to tackle something that is out of your realm. The owner and founder of Spanx, Sara Blakely, said, ‘Higher your own weakness.’ I think that is a great idea, as you shouldn’t try to do everything yourself and that there are smarter and more capable people then yourself to help you grow your business.
I know that in Brooklyn and around the country there is a big rise in the artisan culture. Do you find that the artisan community is supportive or is it super competitive?
Mostly supportive. There is obviously competition within your own category, but mostly I find it supportive. There is such diversity of products that people are approaching it from different angles and I find that very supportive. Because they understand what it means to have a business. Of course there is competition. There can be first timers who are looking for the next “hot” thing, which is an easy thing to do or they have a ton of money already and see it as a fun thing that they can make a buck in as well. So, yeah, that can all be present as well but it is all a part of the learning curve as you grow a company. You hope that what you built, the foundation, is strong enough so that the consumers, cause that is who you are working for at the end of the day, can ultimately make that decision and they can understand why they are purchasing your product over someone else’s.
What inspires you? What is your personal inspiration that keeps you moving forward in this business, which I am sure, can become difficult sometimes?
I think inspiration-wise, I look at where we were and where we are now. That’s a big inspiration – how we’ve grown. Another big inspiration is hearing consumers and people who really like our products tell us how much they like it or how it’s influenced them. Especially since, you know, we aren’t medical doctors – where the real praise should be with people who are doing life saving things! But, it’s really nice to hear people say, ‘Hey – I love your products!’ It really just makes me happy. Working with my family is inspiring, as much as it is challenging. Which I think any partner is. Your family is just your family, so you are with them all the time. They’re with ya for life!
What is your ultimate goal for McClure’s Pickles? Where would you like to see the company eventually be?
The goal, I think is to continue making high quality food products. Whether it’s pickles or whether we expand to other areas or whether we start making foods for other companies, we want to make the best quality products that we can and we want to be known for the quality of the product that we make. And not be identified as just another brand on the shelf. We want the consumer to go, ‘I feel personally connected to this brand and I can actually find some kind of connection to my family by hearing the story of the McClure family’ – which I think is the 2nd most important driver for a purchase. You walk into a store and if you don’t know our brand you are going to look at the packaging of the item itself and you are going to look at the price. If you do know the brand, they you’ll go with the brand, but if you’ve never tried it then you’ll look at what it is and the price compared to other items or brands that you know. So, if people know our story and they get connected to our product then we feel like we have engaged them in a way that is different then other products. We don’t want to just make generic foods; we want to make high quality foods that people associate with McClure’s. That would be the goal. It’s kind of a wide goal, maybe a stricter goal would be to want to be a $50 million dollar company – it may be that, but it ultimately comes down to wanting to make high quality products and have a connection to our consumers.
What do you think have been the biggest struggles for you in the process – whether that be personally or within the company? And how do you balance your work with everything else?
The biggest challenges, personally, are workload. When you build a business and it starts to get successful you are just investing so much of your personal time and energy into it that at the end of the day it becomes hard to let go of stuff. That can not only be challenging on yourself, but challenging on your family, and it’s hard to let go. I’m sure some people can do it better then others, but for me it is difficult. I do need it to be different, so I am trying to make changes to do that, but then ultimately, you are responsible for everything. So, it’s a juggling act. The people who care for you and maybe don’t work for your company don’t understand it. You can try to explain the responsibility to them, but you also have a responsibility to them – to be a good husband, father and friend. And that’s very difficult. The other challenges I’d say is growing a business and taking on the financial responsibilities and risks that come with it. As you grow and you get more money, you get more problems and more responsibility that you ever could have expected. That can result either in great success or a lot of personal and financial, company risk that you have to figure out if that is something that you really want to take on.
What are the steps that you took to find that balance? I know that a lot of people struggle with this, so is there one or two things you would suggest?
Well, I’d say it’s still ongoing. It’s not something that is a success story – otherwise I’d write a book about it! ‘Here’s how to be a successful entrepreneur and have a life, too!’ There are a lot of books out there, but it’s about how that person figured out how to do it for himself or herself and it might not work across the board. So, it’s an ongoing struggle. There are things that you just need to do. You have to listen to yourself and to the people around you who love you. They are going to express the most desire for you to change if you are not doing what you need to be doing. It can be hard to hear that, but it’s an important thing to listen to. So take it seriously when you are being told those things. Also, don’t try to do everything all at once, but set goals for yourself. If you can put that much passion into your business, you can put that much passion into your own life as well. So, I think it’s possible to do so – it just needs as much focus and attention.
What the biggest piece of advice would you have to someone who wants to start his or her own small business? Perhaps something that you know now that you wish you had known then.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions of people – the worst thing they are going to say is ‘no.’ And getting help from someone you trust whether it’s in your industry or not is probably the best key advice that I can say you should take. If you do have someone who’s in the industry or in another industry that’s done something similar, it’s great if you can get that type of advice because it helps your learning curve not have to be so sharp and abrupt. You could be making decisions which are short-changed by your growth – for example, you could be growing faster and you made a purchase on a piece of equipment that will only get you by for six months and you need something that will get you by for three years, so now you have to go and spend another $200,000. So, if you are starting your own business, don’t be afraid to ask questions and take a risk – cause it’s all a risk!
NOTES of Reflection:
- You don’t have to give up one thing to start another. Bob didn’t see starting McClure’s Pickles as completely leaving his love for acting – but instead a new venture that was adding to his prior experiences. So often we think that in our career we have to be singularly focused, but humans are complex people with multiple interests, so why do you have to limit that? If you are exploring a new career or adventure it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. By letting go of that expectation, it makes it all a little less scary and all encompassing. Diversifying in investments and life are both good pieces of advice!
- Surround yourself by good people who compliment your skill set. Know what your strengths are and what your weaknesses are. If you want to create something of your own, it is vital that you know what you are able to focus on and what you can delegate. You still want to be aware of and engaged in those pieces, but you will even more successful if you can call on successful people to help you. Part of being a small business owner is also supporting other people in their ventures and goals. That task you hate or aren’t very good at? Well, there is someone else out there that loves it and rocks at doing it! Plan accordingly.
- It pays to stay true to your brand – know what that is and stay consistent. McClure’s Pickles prides itself in being an American business that utilizes local ingredients and people. It is a family business through and through. This is what people are buying at the end of the day – not just a quality product but also the McClure story. If they were to all the sudden decide to move production overseas or change their suppliers in order to save money, it would ultimately change the product and hurt their business because the consumer would feel duped. Bob and Joe realize this – they stay true to their consumer and keep their best interest in mind. So – if your venture grows, don’t allow greed to get in the way of your original vision.
- Things will be difficult. If you go into a new venture aware about the fact that owning your own small business or taking a risk means that life will have it’s difficulties at times then you are more likely to weather those difficulties with more grace and calmness. Don’t be disillusioned to think that just by going your own way that means that all your troubles will disappear – it just means that your troubles will be different. The beauty is that you own those troubles and have the ability to make the decisions around them. You want to be aware of the challenges that might exist, but not let them paralyze you from making forward movement. In the end – if you are passionate about whatever it is that you want to do the difficulties will just be a part of it all and not something that debilitates you.
- The Complete Works of Shakespeare – And I don’t mean just one or two of the plays, but if you’ve ever read them all it’s a great journey that tells the stories of so many great characters as well as the story of a writer and the people who influenced the work.
- Inc. Magazine – Not only does it give great guidance and insight, but has a perspective that is often lacking in an entrepreneur when, as a businessperson you can become “all-consumed” with what you “think” is important.
- The Onion – My favorite way to read something that is incredibly intelligent and just plain dumb ol’ funny at the same time.
* Feature image via Justin Hackworth Photography; Sponsored by Atly @ AltNYC
* Video via Dark Rye