My guest today, Robyn Sue Fisher, is the founder and CEO of Smitten Ice Cream.
If you’ve been to the Bay Area then you’ve probably heard about Smitten, and maybe you’ve even had the pleasure of tasting the delicious fresh ice cream that comes straight out of the ice cream machine and into your hands in less than 3 minutes.
Robyn has always been an ice cream lover. When she graduated from business school in 2007, she got her hands dirty (literally) and joined an engineer in his basement as they invented the fastest ice cream machine.
These days, Smitten sells its fresh ice cream in shops all over the west coast of California.
On today’s show, Robyn talks about what she found out when she started researching the ice cream industry, why she worked on inventing a new ice cream machine, the difference between men and women investors and much more.
You can Subscribe and Listen to the Podcast on Apple Podcasts. And be sure to leave us a Rating and Review!
“I did not start it to be a one-off. I started Smitten to change the category.” – Robyn Sue Fisher
- What is Smitten
- How to make ice cream
- Why Smitten Ice Cream is environmentally friendly
- What is the Brrr machine
- Where to find ice cream
- How to make an ice cream machine
- What is different between men and women investors
“With Smitten, I worked with a team of engineers to invent an ice cream machine that makes ice cream in less time than it takes you to get a latte at your favorite coffee shop.” – Robyn Sue Fisher
- Connect with Robyn Sue Fisher:
“I made myself a promise going in that I would not leave without loving my job.” – Robyn Sue Fisher
Kara Goldin: Hi everybody, it’s Kara from Unstoppable, super excited to have Robyn Sue Fisher here this morning with me from Smitten Ice Cream.
Robyn S. Fisher: Woo-hoo.
Kara Goldin: If you guys have not heard of Smitten it is the best ice cream. I first had it over in Hayes Valley at, was that your original-
Robyn S. Fisher: That was the original.
Kara Goldin: Store, that was the original. So, so, so yummy and it always, I always drive down Hayes Valley and anytime I have my windows rolled down I’m like, “Where’s it coming from?” It’s always the … Making the cones-
Robyn S. Fisher: Oh, the waffle cone smell.
Kara Goldin: I know, it’s so, so good. So welcome.
Robyn S. Fisher: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, super excited to be here with a fellow female entrepreneur and Bay Area based entrepreneur too, so I’m going to talk. First I want to just really understand, how did you start Smitten and how this get going?
Robyn S. Fisher: Sure. So I was in business school, and I’d been a management consultant for about five years prior to going to school, and I’d made myself a promise going in that I would not leave without loving my job. And I think that was primarily based on seeing a lot of mentors, female mentors, who got to a point where they were wanting to have kids and didn’t love their job and then kind of left the workforce and then had hard time thinking about how to get back in. That honestly, as a woman, was a little bit scary, so I basically said, “I have to love my job before having kids.” And I thought I wanted kids, so I was pretty adamant about it and set the bar very high and so at school I went to all the career fairs and couldn’t find a job that really excited me.
Robyn S. Fisher: So I decided to take it into my own hands and take something I love and make it better. Ice cream has always been special thing to me, literally since I was a little girl, my mom used to tell me I had two tummies, and the one tummy was solely reserved for ice cream.
Kara Goldin: Oh that’s awesome.
Robyn S. Fisher: So I starting looking just critically at the industry and was pretty dismayed at what I uncovered. This industry that to me should be all about love and joy and innocence is really, really tainted. And so my goal with Smitten was to reverse engineer everything to make it live up to and exceed the ideals of the category because ice cream should be true and ice cream should be good, and I didn’t think it was. And so Smitten literally, from how the product is made to what’s in it and what’s not in it, to the impact on the environment. Everything was reconsidered and kind of reversed inside out and upside down such that we could put our, sort of hang our hat on everything and put our stamp of idealism on everything that we do.
Kara Goldin: So, let’s talk first about, okay, well actually maybe first about the technology behind it because it’s a really fun experience just watching it be made. So tell people who, it’s a technology Brrr?
Robyn S. Fisher: Yes.
Kara Goldin: Okay.
Robyn S. Fisher: So it started out with the idea of turning ice cream into a fresh food. Right? When you think about food, how especially over the last decade, you come to expect that your food will be fresh, right? However, ice cream in our minds has been left out of that and in the category it’s built for an 18 month shelf-life. So with Smitten I worked with a team of engineers to invent an ice cream machine in less time than it takes you to get a latte at your favorite coffee shop. So our Brrr Machine, which is spelled B-R-R-R, and we call ourselves Brrrista’s instead of barista’s. But our Brrr machine turns fresh ice cream in under three minutes.
Kara Goldin: Under three minutes, that’s amazing.
Robyn S. Fisher: Under three minutes, fresh, from scratch with all amazing ingredients.
Kara Goldin: That’s amazing.
Robyn S. Fisher: That’s what we did.
Kara Goldin: How did you think of that? Like-
Robyn S. Fisher: It was literally this goal of turning it into a fresh food and so I literally at the beginning, I went to a Starbucks and I sat there and I timed people and I was like okay, how long, literally, does it take for someone, on average, to get a latte. And, at what point do they start getting annoyed? And it was this three minute cut-off.
Kara Goldin: Oh, so interesting.
Robyn S. Fisher: And so in looking at how to turn ice cream into fresh product, A. I had that in mind, and B. the bigger the batch the longer it takes to freeze. So I sort of honed in on the size that our, sort of bowls should be for our Brrr machine and started working with an engineer in his basement and literally learned how to weld, learned how to Dremel, like just hands dirty, hands bloody, let’s dive in and figure out how to invent this thing that doesn’t exist. So it was a long process, it was two years of prototyping in literally this guy’s basement before we came up with something that made higher quality ice cream than I’d ever seen in my life.
Kara Goldin: And did you actually think this would become a company? Like I often-
Robyn S. Fisher: Yes, the goal was always to become a company. Honestly, I did not start it to be a one of. I started Smitten to change the category and it’s been sort of a very purposeful path and we’ve got a lot up our sleeve still, but it was not intended to be like a little tiny boutique, so.
Kara Goldin: And how many years ago was this now?
Robyn S. Fisher: Oh my goodness. So I graduated from business school in 2007, so it’s been a while.
Kara Goldin: Not that long. So, not that long.
Robyn S. Fisher: Yeah, it’s been 12, yeah, years.
Kara Goldin: That’s super fun. So what were some of the challenges in starting business?
Robyn S. Fisher: Oh my gosh, I mean I think as an entrepreneur it’s like there’s so many challenges to overcome and that’s what, that’s what makes me, me now. I like to say that all those things are like scars on my knees that I’m now proud of.
Kara Goldin: Mm-hmm (affirmative), totally. I have many scars.
Robyn S. Fisher: Yes, so I think the first big challenge was, I mean inventing this machine, and then, so it was 2007 when I started and 2009 when my prototype machine was done. If you remember through 2009 it was like a-
Kara Goldin: Blood bath.
Robyn S. Fisher: Horrible, horrible blood bath, right? And so I didn’t even consider raising money at that point I was just like, oh my gosh, I spent my life savings basically on building this prototype ice cream machine and now I am, and I have all this business school debt. And now I am like, I have this machine that works and it’s 2009. Like holy-
Kara Goldin: Yeah.
Robyn S. Fisher: Exclamation, exclamation, exclamation point. So I actually was consulting on the side and I was offered a full time job by this really cool company and I had two weeks to decide. And so, I was all right, I have two weeks to figure out if this thing is going to work or not and so I went to Walmart, I got a Radio Flyer wagon. I went to the craft store and got milk crates and I took a motorcycle battery, I borrowed a motorcycle battery from this shop and I rewired it.
Kara Goldin: This is awesome.
Robyn S. Fisher: Yeah, to power my prototype machine and I charged this motorcycle battery every might and plug it into my machine in the morning put it under the milk crate, strap it on my prototype Brrr machine and then go to the Farmer’s Market, fill with fresh ingredients and hit the street.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome.
Robyn S. Fisher: I established a Twitter feed on when Twitter was just beginning and I’d just shout-out to the abyss, “Here’s the flavor of the day, here’s where I’m going to be, come and get it before I sell out or before the cops find me.”
Kara Goldin: Yeah.
Robyn S. Fisher: And that was my life for the next couple of weeks and it just took off.
Kara Goldin: That’s so great.
Robyn S. Fisher: And it just changed my life and so I turned down that job offer and just kept going and never looked back.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome, and so did you do this by yourself. Like initially, I mean were you … Did you have a partner? A lot of people, I feel like we’ve interviewed Jenny from Rent-a-Runway, they were business school partners. Were you just doing it?
Robyn S. Fisher: Yeah. I had different people help with different functions so I had [crosstalk 00:08:33] amazing, I had a chef who was amazing. I had a couple of friends who come with me to work the register, register, quote, unquote, and I had a boyfriend whose now my husband who would help me fix the Brrr machine when it broke and so I just had-
Kara Goldin: Yeah, sort of great.
Robyn S. Fisher: I just had a sort of cadre of people to lean on, but it was me. The brand was me and it was me trying to figure out every day, how do I take this one step further.
Kara Goldin: So you’ve stayed on the west coast to date and are plans to take this out further, nationwide, what sort of future?
Robyn S. Fisher: So the future of Smitten I think is very exciting and also rooted in what we’ve done to date but we’re really embarking much more on an omni channel strategy and working on some really neat ways of getting Smitten, bringing this fresh product to consumers at their home via both direct to consumer, and business to business transference.
Kara Goldin: You know what I love about your story is that like you didn’t, I meet so many entrepreneurs along the way who are like, “Oh I just had to start this because I saw this other company and they’re doing really well and I think I can make it a little bit better and so that’s why I started it.” You actually started it because you saw this hole in the market. It was like a big puzzle. I deal with, I mean, that’s what I saw when we started Hint, it was just like why is everybody doing water with sweeteners in it? That’s not water at all. And I’ve been saying this for 14 years. I still can’t believe that companies like Vitamin Water for example have a trademark for water. Especially living in the tech capital of the world and I hear all of these people who can’t get trademarks on their tech companies because they’re too descriptive, or whatever, I mean it’s amazing how some of these companies have been able to get that.
Kara Goldin: But anyway, I look at sort of what you’ve done. I mean this is really hard. Like what you’ve done. It’s not like, you’ve obviously got the background and the intelligence to go and do lots of other things but you just took on this majorly hard thing. So I think it’s like super admirable and I hope you’re keeping a journal of all the challenges because-
Robyn S. Fisher: One day I’ll write a book.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, so it’s, it’s interesting along the way. I’m just finishing up, I’ve been writing for two years and I’m just finishing up my book, hopefully this weekend actually I’m planning on finishing touches on it.
Robyn S. Fisher: Oh, can’t wait to read it.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, so and its really, not just the challenges of sort of growing a company but also so many people along the way saying, “You can’t do it.” And figuring out, at the end of the day that I can actually do it and if I really put my mind to it and figure out how to do it and just keep making progress along the way, so. You have a number of female investors in your company too.
Robyn S. Fisher: I do.
Kara Goldin: We were talking a little bit about that. What have you seen as kind of the key difference between some of the female investors that have invested in you. I mean what, I don’t know, you don’t have any private equity in the company yet?
Robyn S. Fisher: No.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, yeah, yeah, which is very similar.
Robyn S. Fisher: Yeah, we’ve been incredibly lucky that we have a bunch of amazing individuals who’ve been really supportive.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome.
Robyn S. Fisher: And jumped on the journey of changing the ice cream category. But the, I’d say the female investors versus the make investors, I think it’s just a different understanding of what it’s like to be a woman in business, and a woman who can care about your family and still lead with power and confidence.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, totally.
Robyn S. Fisher: And sometimes you’re taking phone calls with a child screaming in the background, and that’s okay.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, no, totally. I agree.
Robyn S. Fisher: And I show up here on my mini van bicycle.
Kara Goldin: That is so awesome that you do that. That’s-
Robyn S. Fisher: Go exer-cycle, yeah, it’s a fun ride. But I think that similarly I’ve been able to work with some amazing male investors and interestingly I think a lot of my investors also have daughters and they see investing in women as a way of making sure that their daughters have more opportunity in the future.
Kara Goldin: Yeah.
Robyn S. Fisher: And I think that’s really powerful and should be applauded as well.
Kara Goldin: Yeah.
Robyn S. Fisher: So, yeah, it’s been an honor to get to know the people involved and looking forward to-
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome, that’s great. So how can people find you and what are some of the ways that they can get to Robyn Sue Fisher?
Robyn S. Fisher: They can email me and they can email my team at [email protected] You can come to one of our stores, we have a bunch around the bay area. Three in the city, one in San Jose, one in Oakland and one in LA.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome.
Robyn S. Fisher: So come try the ice cream and then give me some feedback.
Kara Goldin: Yeah and if you have to find a reason to come to San Francisco it’s to come try Smitten ice cream. And Hint too, we have a store, you can go both of them. So while you’re here in the Bay area.
Kara Goldin: Well thank you so much Robyn for coming by, I love it.
Robyn S. Fisher: Thank you so much.
Kara Goldin: And definitely try Smitten ice cream guys it’s really, really, yummy.
Robyn S. Fisher: Thank you.