The Definition of Success Belongs to You
“Scale thoughtfully. Source locally.”
My ears perked up.
I had just finished listening to an episode of The Tidbit on Full Service Radio hosted by Kim Bryden, Founder and CEO of Cureate. The show discusses tidbits of knowledge around starting and running small businesses with a food and beverage lens.
The outro Kim uses to sign off from each episode reverberated through my mind.
In a time where hyper growth tech startups have hijacked the meaning of entrepreneurship, the subject of business growth has become a passionate interest of mine.
Why is it that scale above all else has become the goal of many businesses? And why has it become the primary factor that deems a business worthy of celebration?
Every time I see an article highlighting a startup whose title is “Tech Startup raises $X Million in Series B funding round,” I cringe.
Why is giving away a piece of your businesses to someone who cares more about their return than you or your mission something to aspire to? When did this become the benchmark for entrepreneurial success?
When I heard Kim sign off her show by calling upon business leaders to be intentional and thoughtful about their growth goals, I had to find out more. So I reached out to Kim and invited her to chat about it over coffee.
What I learned from Kim’s story was intriguing and inspiring. I found in her an impassioned determination to chart her own path, a deep desire to create systemic change, and the pragmatism to know how to do both. And I saw how her story shaped what it means to her to be successful.
Baby Boomers Shaped how Millennials view Success
“I am a perfect combination of both of my parents,” Kim shared with me during our coffee chat.
Like many millennials, Kim was raised by baby boomer parents who instilled in her the values that have formed the way in which she views the world.
On the one hand, Kim’s mom was a 1st grade teacher who supported her daughter’s creativity, passion, and idealism. I can hear Kim’s mom telling her what many children in the 90’s heard.
“You can be whatever you want to be.”
On the other hand, Kim’s father worked a steady and secure career at a large corporation for over 40 years. Kim recalls family meetings growing up where her father regularly posed the same question to his children.
“What are you doing to financially contribute to the family?”
These two seemingly opposing messages conflicted Kim as she was growing up.
“I was a straight A student. I was involved with student organizations. I was a good kid,” Kim recalled thinking. “Why wasn’t that enough?”
It didn’t make sense to Kim that she had to play by somebody else’s set of rules in order to pursue her own dreams. This frustration formed her drive to question the systems that conform us all into thinking of success as just one thing.
Yet over the course of her career, Kim’s success was shaped by the balance of both of her parents’ influence. She learned that success was something she would have to define for herself or others would do it for her. But she also came to understand that if she wanted to actually achieve that success, she couldn’t just ignore the realities of the real world. She needed to find a way to either play by the rules - or to change them.
Nobody cares about art in a recession
When Kim entered college at American University, her dream was to become a museum curator. She studied Spanish and the arts, and graduated with honors. “But when I graduated” Kim shared, “I learned that nobody cares about the arts in a recession.”
It was the first time Kim had to make a major decision about what a successful career would look like for her. Like many others who graduated in the recession, she put her dreams to the side and chose the option that offered financial security.
Point for dad.
While awaiting a security clearance for what she thought would be her future career at the FBI, Kim was offered an opportunity with the DC Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. She decided to stop waiting around and took the job.
While a local regulatory agency wasn’t all that sexy and exciting, it introduced Kim to neighborhood change agents and the world of small business.
When she saw how business and entrepreneurship created agency in the lives of those small business owners, it reignited in her the spirit of the dreams she had set aside. Inspired, Kim decided to leave government and shift the trajectory of her career toward another passion - food.
Point for mom.
Creating value at the expense of personal agency
“At the time, the only exciting things happening in the food and beverage space in DC was Whole Foods and Honest Tea.” Kim recalled. She was fortunate that one of the two, Whole Foods, recruited her to lead their marketing and community relations team and help them open their first store in Foggy Bottom.
Kim joined the Whole Foods team and excelled in her new role. The experience cemented in her the belief that small and big business could work together to achieve systemic change. In a way, it was Kim finding room for the values that both her mom and dad had instilled in her.
The more that Kim excelled, however, the more she bumped into organizational roadblocks. “My supervisors were constantly wowed by the programs I created,” Kim told me. “The concept of a marketer working with numbers was a shock to them. But they were hamstrung from promoting me by Whole Foods’ policies and procedures.
“I thought that they valued higher profit margins and innovative marketing programs. It turned out they valued tenure, process, and procedure more.
“It taught me that playing by the rules was more important to big business than creating value.”
Is valuation really the same as value?
Excited about the food and beverage industry, but looking for an opportunity that didn’t limit her opportunity to excel, Kim shifted from big business to a venture-backed startup.
She joined a quickly growing company that put private chefs into people’s homes for an easy weeknight meal or a unique celebratory experience.
It didn’t take long before Kim saw past the company’s valuation and learned that the amount a company can fundraise isn’t a great benchmark of their worth.
“The company had a good idea and a wealth of tech talent,” Kim shared, “but nobody in the C Suite seemed to acknowledge the marketplace differences in food culture in each city. If they did, they would have understood that using the same strategy to launch in cities as uniquely different as LA and NYC was a bad idea. It was crazy to me that a company like that could raise $20M.”
Ultimately, Kim’s hunch was right. The company eventually folded.
“After going through that experience, I knew I wanted to work with real businesses. Those who cared about customers and cash flow, not valuation.”
So in 2014, Kim started her own business to help grow small food businesses by connecting them with large organizations and and institutional partners looking to source more of their food locally. She called it Cureate, a nod to her dream of becoming a museum curator.
Helping Small Business Reclaim Their Own Definition of Success
Going back to what motivated me to speak with Kim in the first place, I asked her what “scaling thoughtfully” meant for her own business.
“Scaling thoughtfully means really thinking about what success means to you. Not to the media. Not to the rest of the world,” she responded.
“At Cureate, our goal is building out a regional supply chain from Richmond to Philadelphia. Our whole business is about sourcing food locally and shifting purchasing dollars back into the local economy. Our aspirations have to align with our mission.”
But Kim also understands that to achieve her definition of success, Cureate can’t do it on it's own. And neither can the small businesses Cureate serves.
In addition to Cureate’s procurement platform, a huge component of Cureate is empowering small businesses to navigate the challenges of starting and growing their business. Cureate provides mentorship and educational resources, activates community partnerships, and of course there’s also The Tidbit.
A few days later, as I was writing this article, I turned on another episode of The Tidbit. Near the end of the episode featuring Maryellen Georgiadis, who I can only describe as the Suze Orman of food, Kim said something that really hit home.
“Often times when we’re talking about what it means to have a successful business, people want a silver bullet solution. But it’s so different depending on the size of your business, the success that you’ve deemed for yourself, how many people you want through your door. There’s so many factors that it’s impossible to say this is the one way to do it.”
It’s an important message for all of us. Whether we want to build a successful business or simply live a fulfilling live, we can’t use other’s definitions of success to guide the way.
We must define what success means for ourselves.
We must scale thoughtfully.