Today’s interview originally aired in December of 2016 as episode #40, but it remains one of my favorite interviews. In this interview, Annie talks about what it’s like to start a company while on Active Duty. She talks about her decision to leave the Army, and her initial plans to go to culinary school - which, as you can imagine, is quite a big transition and one that was not always met with the support of those around her. If you’re thinking of starting a company - either on Active Duty or years after your transition to a civilian career - this is a fantastic episode for you.
Annie Taft is the Founder & Executive director of The Brazen Gourmand, which is a lifestyle brand for the culinary curious. She started out at West Point, where she graduated 17th in her class and served in the Army for over five years as part of the intelligence community. When she left the Army, she participated in the Stanford Ignite Program, after which she started three different companies, of which The Brazen Gourmand is one.
StoryBox- People trust each other more than advertising. StoryBox provides the tools and supports businesses need to take the best things customers say about them, and use them to drive more sales and referrals. StoryBox offers a 10% discount to companies employing veterans of the US Armed Forces.
Podcast recommended by Annie - Startup: https://gimletmedia.com/show/startup/
Stanford Ignite - https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/programs/stanford-ignite/campus/post-9-11-veterans
1 Million Cups - weekly meeting of entrepreneurs (every week someone pitches their idea and receives feedback from other entrepreneurs)
Transcript & Time Stamps:
Joining me today in Chicago is Annie Taft. Annie is the founder and Executive Director of the Brazen Gourmand which is a lifestyle brand for the culinary curious. She started out at West Point where she graduated 17th in her class and served in the Army for over five years as part of the intelligence community. When she left the Army she participated in the Stanford Ignite program after which she started three different companies of which one is the Brazen Gourmand.
How would you explain the Brazen Gourmand?
So the Brazen Gourmand, I actually started when I first graduated from West Point as a creative outlet for me doing a lot of food writing and food photography because that's what I was interested in. It was my passion project. But it's evolved over the years where now I'm developed it more into an all-around brand that I vocalize through visually influencing with social media - that’s writing about restaurants and events, product reviews, and then also collaborating with a lot of restaurants and chefs. It's really taken on kind of a multi-faceted approach to all things in my mind.
What is your day-to-day routine like?
This is something I definitely struggled with when I first got out of the military. I knew I was going the entrepreneur route. At first the idea of getting to shape your day in any way you like sounds like a dream come true. But I found I really needed more structure in place so I developed almost an OCD like time schedule.
A typical day now is I wake up and I've broken out my day into 30 minute increments by what I think of as the different departments of the company. So I'll address communications for 30 minutes or I'll look at marketing for 15 minutes. So a typical day involves me working on either closing out current projects that I'm working on or seeking new collaborations. A lot of times, I’m off-site working with restaurants or going to events to do coverage things. So I'd say every day has a lot of different elements to it. It’s almost difficult to predict what a day will look like when so many of the products I'm working on are very different in scope but I try to keep pretty standard structure. I even force myself to structure and remind myself like sit down and eat lunch or you know go and just read for 30 minutes to keep my brain going. So I'd say a typical day has some structure built in but it’s also definitely diverse.
Structure is something I'm trying to work on as well because I noticed that a lot of times when I'm not working I'll start getting stressed or feeling guilty that I should be working and I think that more structure has helped because it it feels like you know you're following a pattern when in entrepreneurship very few patterns exist.
Even with the structured time I found myself within that time what I think of opening new tabs in my mind. When I think about being on a browser and I constantly have like 30 tabs open. I tell myself ‘You need to close one out and move on’. Especially as an entrepreneur, I’m constantly opening these new tabs in my brain. What I did to help me work through that is to focus on each category of how my day is broken out. I have a running prioritized to-do list under that category. So I say, “OK for the next 30 minutes, my sole focus is only on outreach and networking.I have a running to-do list under that category that's in order of priority and I can close them out one by one so it really makes me feel on a day-to-day basis that I'm really actually making progress.
What is your lifestyle like?
It’s going to sound cliche but part of the beauty of working on this is that I’m focused on something I’m naturally interested in every day. My day-to-day daydream is about dining and cooking and food and cuisine. The structured part of my day I typically have go from about 7:30 until 3:30 and in there I've scheduled some forced down time whether it's a walk or working out or eating. Then the rest of my afternoon and evening, leave to go out and eat or meet with people. I inevitably find myself continuing to work on projects or working on social media through the evening but it blends in naturally because it's what I'm interested in.
It feels like it’s 24/7 but I'm very comfortable taking breaks from it because it doesn't feel like going to work and coming off work if that makes sense. Although this has been years in the making of getting to this point, it was scary to jump into it full time.
I remember in the military, being told that if something felt good or easy then you probably weren’t doing it right. I think it's taken me a long time to shed that mentality. I’ve been able to shift from what I think I should be doing to get to the point where I’m like, “No this is what I want to do.’
What was it like starting this company while still on active duty?
For me it was almost out of a need for sanity. As a creatively minded individual in the military, I didn’t often get to tap into that side of myself. When I first graduated, I was just craving an outlet for writing and taking pictures. So that's how it originally started with a need for a creative outlet. The way I was able to maintain it is treating it as a hobby because I didn't put too much pressure on it.
I had no true intention when I first started of seeing it as a business. I just saw it as something that I really enjoyed doing so in that sense, when I had off time, instead of feeling like I had to go work on this side project of mine, it felt like I just had some free to go work on a project I was really excited about. So iit grew naturally out of that as a creative outlet. That's how I think I was able to find the time to work on it - because it was something I really enjoyed doing
At what point did you see yourself doing this for a living?
While I was working on the Brazen Gourmand in the military, my dream was that I would eventually get to work on this every day but I don’t know at what point I really recognized that it was possible because military members are so preconditioned with all of the expectations of what being in the military and what life after the military should look like.
So I didn't think that it would be a natural path that I would find myself on and so for that reason I think it took a long time for me to see that there was that option . My transition from the military kind of reflects that idea of recognizing that I wanted to find a career that encompassed a more broad variety of my skill set then I had been exercising while in the military. But I still thought I needed to go down a predetermined route. I was working with the JMO recruiters and you working on my path toward corporate America. But with each step, I was thinking that’s not what I wanted to do.
I had an ‘Ah-ha” moment that I remember vividly. I was sitting in one of the Army transition courses and it was a voluntary course about going to trade school and how to sign up for apprenticeships. It was so far out of the realm of what I had considered doing but I just thought ‘Hey why not check it out.”
The course instructors kept saying, ‘Forget about what job you want.Think about what you love to do.’ That day I ended up applying to culinary school because that's what I really wanted to do. Unfortunately, the culinary school I ended up enrolling in went out of business a month before I got out of the Army. But I felt because I had already made that jump of telling myself that the options were so much broader than I was giving myself credit for.
I had opened the floodgates of recognizing I could work in this type of field full time. So that was the moment where it went from being a hobby to being something I felt like I could do full time.
There's various challenges when transitioning out of the military. There’s a laundry list of things that you've got a kind of a tackle. For me, one thing has been combatting the sense that it wasn’t possible for me to do this full-time. I'm thrilled to be doing it but it was an uphill battle of like telling myself that I really could do it.
One thing I was very fortunate to have was the support of my family. I’ve been so vocal about this as my passion for so many years that when I told my friends and family, I wanted to go to culinary school, it made complete sense. It was more me and the expectations I had put on myself. I also struggled with a lot of my military mentors not understanding and a lot of my co-workers in the military not understanding.
I really appreciate that because when I was leaving business school, I had an offer from McKinsey & Co but ended up deciding to start my own company. My parents were skeptical at first I think once they saw how passionate about that I was, they understood.
I had gotten pretty far with the JMO recruiters.I had taken the GMAT and started applying to school. So I had gone down those paths. But going down those paths also made me realize that I was sure I didn’t want to go that way. When I had that realization about what I wanted to it, my conviction was so strong that it was a lot easier. As part of the transition process, I had to go talk to our Brigade Commander. I was so sure of what I wanted to do that instead of going in there apologetically, I was so excited to say that this was what I was going to be working on. It was reassuring during that interaction when the Brigade Commander told me, ‘Great, it sounds like you found what you really want to do.” That's the first person who's had that reaction rather than, ‘You’re making a mistake’.
I think once that lightbulb goes on and you know what you really want to work on, being able to ave that conviction is what helps get through those last hurdles of actually making it a reality.
What were some of the challenges you faced in starting your company?
I knew that I was excited about in the field but understanding how to make it all a reality seemed like a black hole. I had no clue where to begin.
After realizing I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I got my hands on every resource I could. I took Boots to Business courses. I took entrepreneurship courses that the Army transition program offered. I just tried to get myself a basic foundation. get my head in that space of like okay
I also took part in VetTechTrek. That was my first exposure to large corporate America and my mind was blown. I saw veteran excelling at all these different companies and startups and that was just like this another major eye opening experience. There was this whole untapped world out there where veterans weren’t going down a prescribed route and suddenly I didn’t feel so alone.
Attending the Stanford Ignite program taught me so much of how to actually get a business running. They actually gave me the tools of how to make it a reality. Leaving that program, I had all the confidence in the world that I could find the resources needed to get my company going.
Can you talk a little bit more about how the Stanford Ignite program is structured?
was sitting in Korea in a transition class and I was kind of frustrated that so many of the veteran entrepreneur programs were all the same and they weren't really something you could bite into . They were very surface level and I found the Stanford Ignite program and I almost thought it was too good to be true.
It’s full-time for a month and is a very intense environment. It’s like a micro-MBA of sorts.
Part of the program is that you pitch an idea for a business and then your peers vote on the six or seven ideas that you want to incubate during your time in the program.
When I first got out of the military the first thing I worked on was a dining events company. The company put on dinners and tastings and I would host the events and plan them.
So at the beginning of Stanford Ignite, I pitched an online marketplace version of event planning and it ended up being one of the ideas we incubated. As we worked with our mentor, we slightly pivoted the idea into a system that automated reservations.
The whole Stanford Ignite experience was incredible, you couldn't ask for higher caliber professors. Condoleezza Rice was one of our instructors. We went to class from 8-5. Then after hours is when we worked on our various businesses that we were incubating. It was such an incredible experience for me not only to be in a room of like-minded veterans who wanted a less traditional path but then to also have a team of six brilliant veterans working on my concept was just like too good to be true. We worked on the plan for a month and then on the final day when our group pitched to the panel, one of the panel members asked if I would cancel my flight and stay and really give the idea a shot and launch it in real time . So that day I canceled my flight.
Wow, what was that like?
One of the panelists had said that he had come there specifically to talk to me and his first words to me were, ‘Are you willing to cancel your flight and stay here and I didn't even hesitate..I said yes and hat was that. For the next couple months, I was just going a thousand miles an hour learning so rapidly. There was no sleeping happening. I was couch surfing and living rotating my clothes over and over.
The biggest takeaway for me was that t I realized that I was working in more of a tech space and in that capacity I was getting further and further away from what it is that I really loved which is working directly with the restaurants and storytelling. I had already spent so much time getting to what I knew I was passionate about so it was very important to me to be true to myself. Despite the mind-blowing amount of doors that were open after the Stanford program, I eventually walked away from Silicon Valley. I learned so much but ultimately it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I went through that process all over again of explaining to people who had a particular expectation that this wasn’t what I wanted to do.
I benefited from my mentor - the one who had originally asked me to cancel my flight. I was scared to death to tell him that that wasn't what I want to do because he believed in me so much and it was the greatest feeling on earth when I finally wrote to him and he completely supported my decision.
I really admire the self-knowledge you must have to make all of these tough decisions.
I just think so much of the ability to do that comes from the commitment I made to myself at West Point that I wasn’t going to waste any energy like not being happy or not being challenged.
My sophomore year at West Point, I was stressed out and overwhelmed. I was questioning whether that was what I actually wanted to b doing. I was miserable and really hitting rock bottom. I had powerful wake-up moment when I Realized that my life was my own and I could make my own decision. Even at West Point with all of the structure and the discipline or in the military where you feel confined by someone else's decisions, I could still control my attitude. I could shape how I operated within that. I think that’s why I ended up having a great time at West Point and in the military as well.
Just having the attitude that you’re going to get the most out of an experience and also being able to recognize when it’s time to challenge yourself in a way that is more aligned with your personal interests is important. That kind of positive and confident self-talk has guided my decisions ever since.
Did you do the Stanford Ignite program that is specifically for veterans?
Yes, there is a veteran specific Stanford Ignite that they do every year for post-9/11 veterans. They have two other versions of the program for students and other professionals as well.
As a veteran, I would 100% recommend the veteran version. There is no difference in the caliber of the professors. There is a slightly different focus because a lot of the leadership courses and things on management that the normal program would cover is more glossed over in the veteran version because they recognize that you’ve also had a great deal of experience in those areas. They spend a little bit more time focusing on finance or other things that you probably didn't get in the military.
Going into it I was concerned that since we were all veterans, we would all be very like-minded that we wouldn't challenge each other. But that wasn’t the case at all. Everyone was so excited about entrepreneurship and for that reason I would 100% recommend the veterans program.
You're similar in your military service but have very diverse backgrounds and interests. I was just blown away by the talents and non-military related skills that people were bringing to the table.
What is the cost associated with the Stanford Ignite program?
It's a subsidized program so the only cost to the veteran is around $2,000 for room and board. That’s compared to the traditional program that is about $15,000. So it’s just an incredible opportunity.
Are there any resources that you’d recommend to listeners?
I also started going to 1 Million Cups. Once a week , a group of entrepreneurs get together and someone an idea for about 20 minutes. And then other entrepreneurs there will give you feedback and share ideas.
I also like going on Twitter just to see what people are talking about.
Also tapping into the veteran network wherever you’re located can be extremely powerful.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?
The number one thing for me -because d it took me a few years to even get to that point - is to find ways to strip your mind of what you feel like you should be doing and really getting at the core of asking yourself what you really want to do. It’s not a failure or dishonorable to say that you want to leave the military and try something else. Serving in the military was an amazing experience for me, and recognizing that I wanted to do something else didn’t feel like quitting to me. Leaving the military is not a failure. A veteran who's doing something they are passionate about is a great reflection of the military because they are show that they took all the skills they learned in the military and are putting that toward something they really care about.