Excerpt from an email interview with the new Nothing But Austin blog... a bunch of old info for some of you, maybe a few intersprinkles of some new bits...
When you decided to end your career as a "profoundly bored" software professional, did you face any backlash or lack of support from friends and family?
They had grown pretty used to seeing my flounder around so I wouldn't say that was a terribly difficult stage. My folks gave me the great gift of a college education in engineering but weren't very heavy-handed in advising me to make use of it or tell me how to run my life. They were certainly quizzical about the soup peddling thing at first but after my stints at teaching yoga and freelance writing, it wasn't a real shocker. They knew I was very engaged in it and happy and proud so that was fine.
When you first started your business, you say you sent an email to your friends asking for $10 in exchange for soup on their porch. How effective was that? Did people laugh at you or embrace your quirkiness?
Embrace. Like any bootstrappy business, it began with friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends. Basically the South Austin circle. People may ridicule the bumper stickers that describe the South Austin thing, but I have to say they're all true. People loved the Soup Peddler. It wasn't just kitsch, but there was really good food and there was really good writing to go with it and there was a sense of belonging to something insider and cool. Back then, it was a different culinary scene with zero avenues for someone with my limited culinary experience to make a go of it. So it was audacious in its way, like "hey, I'm going to work outside of the system and see if my blood, sweat, and tears can make this thing work." And people really felt that gesture, they felt my passion and energy and supported it. It touched a nerve quite dramatically so much that The Soup Peddler became a sort of folk hero.
Your name: The Soup Peddler is pure genius as you peddle to deliver soup and you're "peddling" (selling) soup. How did you come up with the name?
Marijuana. Smoking it, then sitting and thinking.
Were their other names you had before being called The Soup Peddler?
Yes, when I first started it, it was called the Soup Subscription Service by Savory Soul Sustenance. Believe it or not. But probably two or three weeks into the business I came up with the name. It took probably a half hour to design the logo, which hasn't changed since.
Do you have any ambitions to sell your soup in grocery stores or other retail outlets?
We are opening our own retail outlet with one of the founders of Daily Juice, it will be a nice Jo's Coffee-style kiosk on the corner of Lamar and Manchaca called Juicebox/Soup Peddler. I've been chronicling the development of that project at blog.souppeddler.com and it's a pretty interesting read for folks who are into entrepreneurship, design, or architecture.
When I think of your name "The Soup Peddler" and the way in which you deliver your product, I immediately think of a comic book superhero. Any chance you would develop a costume as uniform while delivering soup along the streets of South Austin? That would be interesting?
There have been many thoughts of caricaturization of The Soup Peddler character once I sort of separated myself from that legend. I wrote a slightly fictionalized book of memoirs that was fairly successful on Ten Speed Press, selling over 10,000 copies. There have been thoughts along the way of turning it into a screenplay, a stage production, an action figure, etc. But I don't really have a media department and I've been kind of busy with various things like my life, my family, my interests, and my business. Cool thing is (see attached file) the Zach Scott Theatre did a production some years ago called Keeping It Weird which was a stage play developed from the verbatim remarks of Austin luminaries and weirdos including myself. The superhero costume was derived from comments in my interview regarding tension living up to people's expectations of me as a local hero. The costume still lives in the props department at the Zach. Spandex is for the young.
You've gotten tons of local and national press coverage in print, online, and television. What's your secret to gaining so much press attention?
Do the work yourself. Serve up the story on a silver platter. Media folks are super-busy and it is very, very difficult for them to find content that is interesting, subjects that are honestly friendly and helpful. Of course much of it comes from having an interesting story, but that really comes from authenticity, being true to your passion and community. The other part is really doing the work for the press, knowing what their needs are and providing for them. The camera crews, the sound crews, the reporters, whatever... be really nice to them, feed them, ask them about their day, be real, be humble. It makes everyone's day go better.
You started your business with only $60 in your bank account. Were you afraid of failure? Did you have a Plan B? What motivated you not to quit with such great odds stacked against you?
Some people say that the greatest point of risk for a venture is Day 1, and it goes down as you go along. That's one way of looking at it. From a purely statistical point of view, yes, the odds of the business succeeding are at their worst on Day 1. But you have other weighting coefficients along the way like the amount of debt involved that change the magnitude of the downside of the risk. So in one sense, the risk was at its lowest when I only had sixty bucks and not a whole lot of heartache on the line. You can't forget the value of naïveté with regards to the entrepreneurial spirit: This is someone looking at a gorgeous sunrise while a raft of churning storm clouds are encroaching from the west. I'm saying I didn't know what odds were really stacked against me so I paid them no attention. I always say that if the me of back then came to ask the me of now what I thought about starting The Soup Peddler, the me of now would have laughed the me of then out of the room.
Most entrepreneurs in your situation who "put everything on the line"
work an insane amount of hours to get their business up and running. How many hours were you working to initially build your business and when did you become profitable?
It has always been profitable. That's the nice thing about truly bootstrapped, organically-grown businesses. There was a whole lot more DIY and sweat equity in this business than real equity funding. In fact, there has been no equity funding. For a while, I worked pretty darn hard. But after you achieve a certain point of scale, you're able to extract yourself to work solely on the business instead of both on and in the business. That's a much better arrangement.
Did you have any secondary form of employment to maintain income while building your business?
No. I didn't really require much income at the time. Just getting-by money. But I'm a big man now and a fully functioning member of the economy.
From all the press I've seen about you, you seem to take life so casually. What words of encourage can you provide for new entrepreneurs who are looking to break into business but fear the loss of stability from their 9 - 5?
Do the numbers. I ALWAYS have my business plan spreadsheets open on my laptop. I am ALWAYS looking at numbers. There was a database system years ago called Delphi. There's another biggie called Oracle. Get it? Databases and spreadsheets are meant to ANSWER QUESTIONS. Entrepreneurship is all about answering questions. Numbers answer questions. Fears are based on unanswered questions. Figure it out. I'm not trying to be opaque here, just honest.
South Austin is famously known for it's food carts/trailers, but you're the only company I know who delivers soup on a bicycle.
Er, uh... we haven't done that for about five or six years now.
Since becoming "The Soup Peddler," have you had any competitors? If so, how has it affected your business?
We've seen some competitors come and go, some trends come and go. Basically we're in the realm of restaurant alternatives. The whole thing where you would schedule an appointment to go "cook" or mix a bunch of pre-prepared foods together, like Super Suppers or Dream Dinners... that's gone. The trailer thing is a wonderful thing but I'm fairly certain it has passed its peak already. The Snap Kitchen/My Fit Foods thing is the new one. It looks pretty strong right now, it could work, or it could be a dead end. Nobody has really challenged us on the prepared foods delivery. It's pretty headache-filled, so it's a long row to hoe to get where we are with it. We are certainly not immune from competition, but we still seem to be surviving in an original little niche and supported well by our very very very well-valued customers.