We’re in Aspen right now with Susan Gershon, who’s got a really interesting past.
LW: Susan started out in the restaurant business in college. She stayed in that for 10 years and then she went into the decorating business for 20 years.
Susan, how did you get the idea that you could start your own restaurant at such a young age?
Susan Gershon: It all started in my mom’s kitchen.
She was such a good cook and a fantastic pastry chef, just untrained, but doing it for the family.
I just loved watching and being in the kitchen with her. That’s where I learned all of her secrets.
I went to university and studied psychology, sociology, anthropology, and Italian cinema. I wanted to become a movie producer.
When I graduated in the eighties, there were still not a lot of jobs for women, surprisingly.
I was virtually unemployable because of the degree I had. Plus, because of my personality and my demeanor at the time, I was kind of a rebel and hard to deal with so I didn’t even apply for any jobs.
The Person Who Changed Susan’s Life
Luckily I met a mentor. Someone who gave me some ideas about my career and helped me focus on what my interests and talents were and that’s sort of how it all started.
I knew that I was good at desserts, making cakes, and being creative.
So, I started thinking about what I could do with those talents.
LW: That reminds me of when Mark Cuban said that when you’re starting out in life don’t just focus on what you’re good at or what you’d like to do, take a look at what could be a marketable skill.
You had these other interests, but fortunately, you ran across a mentor that could help you figure out what skill set you could really get fired up about but was also a marketable skill.
I’m curious about how you stumbled upon this mentor?
SG: It was meant to be. I stumbled upon this person through friends. This person ended up giving me ideas and guidance.
I never had that in my life at all.
I had a very strict Catholic upbringing. I was sheltered very much from the real world.
I went to a Catholic girl school every day and then straight home. Then I went to university and studied hard. So it was lucky that I just stumbled upon this person through my friends.The thing is ideas are a dime a dozen, but if you don't have 'em, you're kind of stuck. Your life can be one idea away from being changed, so keep looking! Click To Tweet
LW: You need to let your friends know where you are. Ask them for help.
Sometimes I got so worn out from coming up with ideas that I would get everybody in a room and let them know the problem.
I would tell them “Here’s what I see now, what are we gonna do?”
I would let them come up with ideas because sometimes the best ideas came from the least expected guy in the room. Everybody you interact with has their own experiences, friends, and insights.
That’s sort of what happened with you, so how did that make you feel?
SG: I was totally excited but then sort of didn’t really believe it. I had some disbelief, but then I went forward because I really had no choice.
I had to land on my feet. I knew I wanted to be a multimillionaire and be successful.
Nothing was gonna stop me. It was a combination of different things that was fueling me. It was ego, anger, and excitement.
Don’t Be Afraid To Experience Fear.
LW: That’s exactly the process that happens when we identify something that we really want. We really start thinking about it in a real way.
The next thing that always happens is the biggest doubt. We have our biggest combination of doubts immediately come racing into our mind.
Did you experience that fear?
SG: I experienced that because of my upbringing.
A lot of people are raised with only positivity, and they probably don’t experience that kind of fear and disbelief the way I did.
LW: It’s hard not to reach 20 years old without a good bit of negative programming from someplace.
Even if your parents and everybody is encouraging, there will be people we come across in life that sticks those negative ideas into us. We don’t even realize we’ve been infected with it.
SG: I was completely innocent, but I knew that I had to be successful because I was a pioneer of the Gloria Steinem age. She was my idol.
There was no way that I was going to university to look for a husband, not me. I wanted to be successful.
LW: There was no reason you couldn’t do it, but you had to believe it. You had to have your role models to get you thinking.
So how did it go, Susan? You’re opening this store, you’re scared, you’re excited.You gotta get something that kinda excites you, but it scares you at the same time. Click To Tweet
If you’re going to reach your potential, you gotta go after things that are scary and exciting because once you do, it will be the greatest thing in the world.
Those are the things that are worth going for. So you had this exciting, scary thing, but you attacked it.
Was it an instant success? How did you get established?
Your Biggest Challenges are the Best Teachers
SG: It took a while to get started.
I didn’t have the best staff because at that time the economy was doing really well so Canadian students didn’t want to work in a restaurant.
That resorted to me hiring illegal people and people who couldn’t speak English. That caused some challenges.
My first pastry chef was a primadonna and only wanted to bake the things she wanted to bake.
Managing people wasn’t my strong point.
The staff didn’t wanna listen to me. They thought they knew more than I did.
Plus, as I said, the economy was strong, so they had an edge over me because they could walk at any time.
They could just go find another job any time. So it wasn’t easy. I had to learn everything but I did it and it became successful just because the products were so good.
LW: It’s challenging to not allow yourself to be just dependent on one source.
You were able to exactly do those things. You were successful because you were focusing on what you could control.
What did you learn about managing people from that experience?
SG: It’s best to keep a real professional distance.
It’s important to keep up with laws and regulations, treat people with respect and dignity and treat them equally.
LW: You had to put up with a lot of things that you would have preferred not to but had to in order just to keep things going. How did you do that?
SG: I tried to keep my head above water at times.
Many times I would love the people as friends, they were just so dear, but they would take advantage of me. I’d let them bring their families in for free meals or if they had a graduation, I would pay for everything.
I got so taken advantage of by people.
LW: Do you think you brought some of those problems on yourself due to running the business at a young age?
Do you feel like if you had gotten the handle on how to stop letting things get outta control people would not have taken as much advantage of you?
SG: Checkmark on every single one. I believe what you’re saying is true.
LW: You can say to them, I gotta run a business or I gotta get somebody else in here.
We all learned that that’s a fine line, and we are afraid of running people off that we need. The thing is you navigated it for as long as you could.
Did you sell the business, close the business, or transition on?
SG: I sold it. Somebody bought it.
LW: When you’re starting a business, right from the beginning think about having an exit plan because it could always it can be fun and exciting when you start it, but you then realize it is not gonna be nearly as much fun in the later years as it is in the beginning.
You had the mentor, but they basically gave you the idea of starting.
SG: The mentor gave me encouragement which was what I needed, but I did come up with the rest of it myself.
My advice to those that want to start a business is to keep the thought in the back of their mind that they wanna make this business attractive to a buyer because they don’t wanna be doing the same thing for the rest of their life.
If you’re okay with that, that’s fine. But I wasn’t, I wanted to move on and to change. I wanted to explore my other talents.
LW: Thanks so much for taking the time to share these fabulous insights. I know it’s going to mean everything to those who are out there getting ready to start businesses or they’re in the middle of it trying to make sense of dealing with some of these same problems.
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