The Courage to Fail Paved a Path to Success
“The experience of turning a school project into a real life business and putting that energy into it has actually helped me throughout my life and career…all of my various “failures”, have made the importance of quality and doing things right my central focus.” – Mollie Sitkin (’11)
Mollie Sitkin didn’t arrive to the MBA program with a clear set of career goals. She just knew she needed to build a practical skill set. She had entered the workforce as the economy was descending into the 2008 crash and despite her newly minted dual undergraduate degrees in biology and economics, had difficulty finding stable work.
“Deciding to go to the MBA program had an almost immediate impact for me professionally.”
In 2009, Mollie moved to the North Bay and began as a full-time MBA student at Dominican. To support herself, she also found work pouring at a tasting room at a local winery. A few months into the MBA program she was speaking with the Vice President at the winery and shared some sustainability principles she was learning at school. The VP was impressed and asked Mollie to build and lead a sustainability program for the winery. Mollie agreed and built and led that initiative where she readily applied lessons from BSB to her work at the winery.
“The curriculum was related and my learning was directly transferable to several aspects of my job,” Mollie remembers.
For the final year of the MBA program, Mollie and her classmate Michaela Biaggi teamed up for the capstone project requiring they create a business plan. They had discovered a shared passion for kombucha and decided to build a business plan for a bottled beverage company they named LonjeviTea Kombucha. During the second semester they refined their idea and combed it over looking for weak points with their professors. As the year came to an end, Mollie felt ready to seek new work away from the winery and she and Michaela decided to turn their business plan into reality.
“We had a lot of help and support from our professors with creating the business plan and doing the financial modeling. Having professional support to guide us was so helpful.”
Over the summer, Mollie and Michaela hustled to put their business plan into action. They found a distributor who agreed to work with them if they could get their kombucha placed on the shelf in fifteen Whole Foods Markets. They pounded the pavement and drove around to different Northern California Whole Foods stores with a ‘letter of intent’ (LOI) for buyers to sign committing to carrying their product. Their LOI strategy was not a standard practice but Mollie recalls the buyers being amused and impressed by their tenacity. Mollie and Michaela brought the fifteen signed LOIs back to the distributor and he agreed to partner with them. LonjeviTea Kombucha launched into Whole Foods Markets in October 2011.
“That was another big lesson I learned. It’s important to have your business diversified so if something like that happens, the business can survive.”
Their success would be short-lived. About six months after launching, they began to hear industry concerns that there was more alcohol in kombucha than companies were claiming or that consumers realized. Shortly after, Whole Foods pulled all of the kombucha products off the shelves; at the time, Whole Foods was 75% of LonjeviTea Kombucha’s business. They sought the advice of one of the BSB MBA faculty to figure out what to do. They were advised to buy back all of the kombucha from all of the other stores that carried their product in case there ended up being an issue with the alcohol content. Without product on the shelf and amidst the climate of uncertainty, Mollie and Michaela couldn’t keep the business afloat and decided to shut LonjeviTea down for good.
After LongeviTea shut down, Mollie worked for a few other bottled beverage companies in marketing roles; lessons from the MBA program, especially related to people management, stuck with her.
“At most of the various companies I worked for, my biggest issue was always how they treated employees and being a manager of people when you don’t share the values of the company you work for is really tough. I felt pushed to figure out what I wanted to do on my own,” Mollie recalls.
In considering her next step, Mollie thought about relevant coursework from the MBA program. During the first year, she had written a marketing plan for a walnut business, a business she was familiar with because four generations of her family were walnut farmers and her parents had started a wholesale walnut business. Growing up, Mollie watched her self-employed parents and decided she’d pursue a different path, imagining herself as an executive working for a big company.
“I was only 21 when I started the MBA program so I hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do and I didn’t have very much experience to inform my reality. I needed to try other things unrelated to the family business.”
After getting more business acumen through the MBA program and gaining practical experience both as an entrepreneur and in roles at bigger companies, working for herself and working for her family business grew in its appeal. Her parents had named their ranch Old Dog Family Farm but had never grown the business beyond wholesale. Mollie decided to build the consumer side of the brand and bring consumer products direct to market. Her LonjeviTea Kombucha experience would prove invaluable.
“When I started the Old Dog Ranch walnut brand most of my experience had been in the beverage industry and so the first product I wanted to make was walnut milk. I encountered a lot of the same problems that we had dealt with making kombucha: challenges with storage, refrigeration, packaging, and a new relatively unknown product. I had to problem solve and create products that were shelf stable, had longer shelf lives, didn’t need refrigeration, and were not super heavy to transport. Products that were easier to sell and manage. So now we have walnut butter and walnuts.”
Mollie launched the consumer side of the business in 2013 with $7,500. It’s been cash flow positive since the start.
“I wanted to be sure I was paying for everything I committed to. I prepay for things. If my business fails, my family is out. I also decided to really control my growth. With LonjeviTea we needed to scale quickly. It felt too fast, we got overwhelmed. I wanted to avoid that this time around.”
Today the Old Dog Ranch walnut business is profitable and demand continues to grow organically. Mollie manages four employees and production has doubled since last year. Quality is the number one focus for Mollie who cites the importance of being product-first.
“My Dominican experience was really foundational to getting me to where I am today. I’m so glad I did the MBA program. The experience of LonjeviTea helped me so much in being a confident business owner and making it work. These experiences never would have happened without my connection to my classmate Michaela and the MBA program.”
Learn more about Mollie’s story and Old Dog Ranch.