Real Talk: How to Navigate Building a Brand When Your Business Partner Is Also Your Life Partner
Real Talk is an ongoing, co-branded article series in partnership with AccelFoods that aims to highlight workplace and brand building topics that often go undiscussed. The goal of the series is to not only shed light on these topics but to ultimately open up the conversation and spark a meaningful dialogue about it with industry influencers and beyond.
From ice cream sandwich trucks and cocktail shooters to innovative tea concepts, there are few fun food ventures Freya Estreller hasn’t helped bring to life. At the time she co-founded her first big venture, Coolhaus, she began both a business and personal relationship with her now wife Natasha Case. And while it may seem natural to marry your passions with your interests, Estreller will be the first to admit that it hasn’t always been easy navigating brand building when your business partner is also your life partner.
In our first Real Talk article, in partnership with AccelFoods, Estreller gets real about work-life balance, why she stepped away from the day-to-day operations of Coolhaus in 2014, and gives us an inside look at her current role as Head of Operations at Tea Drops.
Q: Let’s first chat about your entrepreneurial background. What inspired you to launch Coolhaus in 2009, and did you have any doubts at the time about starting a business with your partner?
A: Coolhaus and the quirky idea to marry ice cream and architecture was actually Natasha’s idea that she had developed in Architecture Graduate School at UCLA. I was working in Real Estate Development and Finance and when we started dating, she brought a Richard Meier Lemon ice cream sammie. I was hooked and immediately started helping her get Coolhaus off the ground, first as an art project and reinvented ice cream truck, as we both had very little working capital and experience in the food industry. So yes, we started dating and launching Coolhaus at the same time! And we didn’t really think about the repercussions of that. Thankfully, it all worked out – we are happily married with two dogs and our son Remy, who was just born a year ago.
Q: What were some of the most difficult decisions you both encountered in the early years of growing Coolhaus, and how did you work together to problem solve?
A: Definitely scaling and managing our team, especially in regards to our ice cream trucks. We went from one full-time person, Natasha, to 11 trucks and two-scoop shops and 70 people in LA, New York City, Texas, and Florida in the span of three years. We were also very young — 25 and 27 respectively — when we started. Because we both divided and conquered different spheres – I was operations and finance and Natasha was sales, marketing and branding — we were able to problem-solve pretty well those first few years. It also helps that we are able to fight honestly and productively.
Q: Let’s ‘real talk’: What did you find to be the most challenging aspect about having a business partner who is also your life partner?
A: Always talking and/or fighting about Coolhaus! I actually stepped away from day-to-day operations in 2014 because we no longer had an optimal working relationship, which as you can imagine was spilling over into our personal lives. We still have majority ownership of the company together and I like to say that I’m the First Lady of Coolhaus because I pretty much have her ear, whether she likes it or not.
Q: If you could go back and change anything about the way you’ve approached building a brand with your partner, what would it be?
A: I don’t think I would change very much. I will say we were very fortunate to have Dan Fishman, our other business partner and one of our angel investors, join our team in 2011 and in a full-time capacity. It was crucial to have that third voice and tie-breaker.
Q: Are there any entrepreneurial duos who you most admire who are mentors to you?
A: We are big fans and friends of Sara Blakely of Spanx and Jesse Itzler of Marquis Jet, Zico, etc. I also just met Kevin Datoo of Dollar Shave Club and his wife Penny Linge of Hello Giggles, who is in an investor in Tea Drops. Kevin gave me a tour of their fulfillment center and I fully geeked out.
Q: What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are life partners and are considering going into business together?
A: Make sure you can fight and fight productively. It also helps to have complementary skill sets.
Q: Was there ever a time when either party considered leaving the business to save the partnership or vice versa?
A: See my previous response to question No. 3! It was a tough decision but the right one. We are now able to have a better perspective of each other’s businesses. Natasha even came in to do a branding and design brainstorm for Tea Drops when I started which influenced our new branding direction.
Q: When your business partner is your life partner, can you ever really turn work off? What are some tips for achieving work-life balance?
A: I hear a lot of CEOs and leaders now talk about work-life integration (as opposed to work-life balance) and we fully subscribe to that.
We just make sure that when we are focusing on something besides work, like spending quality time with our son Remy or friends and family, that we are 100 percent focused on that, especially on the weekends. Running a business can be a marathon and a sprint at the same time, so it’s critical to set aside that ‘off’ time to recharge.
Q: And lastly, tell us a bit about your latest business ventures, from launching Ludlow’s Cocktail Co. to taking on the role as Head of Operations at Tea Drops. What excites you most about the journey ahead?
A: Well, right now I’m fully focused on Tea Drops, especially having just raised $1.9M to accelerate growth. As Head of Operations, I need to make sure we have enough tea in stock and that our customers get their orders on time, especially during Q4 which is the busiest time for us. Ludlows Cocktail Co. has recently partnered with Amy Atwood (a well-known natural wine and spirit distributor in Los Angeles), Mary Bartlett (ex-Beverage Director at Ace Hotel Los Angeles), and Morgan McLachlan (head distiller of The Spirit Guild in Los Angeles) to produce a gin called Future Gin. It is, I think, the only vertically integrated female distilled, female distributed and female-owned gin. Our little side project launches in a couple months and we’re excited for everyone to try it.
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