Part 1. Knee-deep in sugar
I’m shirtless with my arms crossed in front of me, standing with my legs spread apart. This is my strategy stance. The modern, standing desk version of The Thinker. I’ve summoned it to plot my approach to eating a nine-and-a-half pound sheet cake. I’m alone in my apartment’s kitchen. A cake covers the stove, which is, by the way, the best use of the stove I’ve yet discovered. The lights are dimmed to help me concentrate. I didn’t come this far to come this far. No, I came this far…for this cake. It’s a yellow cake wearing a thick coat of frosting — two pounds of it — with gaudy lettering. My independent research shows that white people love this shit. To give you a better sense of this cake’s size — the amount of star dust that had to be reincarnated to create it — all I need to tell you is that it was ordered and created with the expectation that it would satisfy an elementary school’s entire teaching staff.
After an appropriate amount of “strategery,” (nodding, mumbling, and Ace Ventura quotes), I unfold my arms, inhale through my nose, and drive my fork into the frosting and right through the cake’s springy sponge interior. The first piece is gone before the sugar can emigrate to my bloodstream. Then another. Then another. I eat piece after piece, in the kitchen, alone (I’m not crying, you’re crying). My concentration has enabled me to channel Augustus Gloop, of Willy Wonka infamy. I empathize with Gloop — if Mr. Wonka’s river was made of cake instead of chocolate, I probably would have also fallen into it (even knowing I’d get stuck in a tube in front of my family, a group of strangers, and an eccentric candy tycoon).
My pupils dilate in response to the cups of sugar melting in my stomach acid, and I hit my cake intake capacity after four or five (I temporarily blacked out so I can’t say) lumberjack-sized pieces of cake — I mean that in both the sense that it looked like a lumberjack had cut the pieces with an ax because they’re massive AND that the pieces were fit for the appetite and caloric needs of someone who has chopped down trees by hand for an entire day. After a ceremonial bow to acknowledge the formal conclusion of my binge and to express my gratitude to (what’s left of) the cake for its willing sacrifice, I wash my face and crawl under the bed covers.
This wasn’t my first cake binge. And what I’ve learned from years of this behavior is that the cheaper and lower-quality the cake, the better for binging. (Like a drug user who might make an analogous argument, I have zero scientific validation of my cake quality to satisfaction ratio hypothesis but I do have a whole bunch of anecdotal evidence). The king of cheap, low-quality sheet cake? Costco. According to an amateur on the Internet, a half-sheet cake from Costco (which is 12 inches by 16 inches) can feed up to 48 people, “with each person getting a generous 1” x 4" slice of cake.” The Internet really can be savage. 1) Who cuts cake slices with such reckless, unbalanced dimensions? 2) Describing a 1" x 4" piece of cake as “generous” is, itself, generous. What the cake reviewer should have said was “pieces cut in the (ass backwards) dimensions I’ve suggested are generous if your guests have self control and self respect”. Sure, I have a problem. But this story isn’t about that problem, exactly.
This is a story about the absurd lengths I went to, to quit binging on cake. It’s about how I put my reputation and my savings on the line to try to invent a dessert that’s actually good for you — I even started a company in the process (my investor pitch started with my admitting my problem, like I was opening at a well-dressed AA meeting). Above all, though, this story shows what it means to believe that you owe yourself the effort of doing things every day that will help you learn and grow. How else can we expect to become the greatest sum of the parts and opportunities we came into the world with? (The story is unquestionably also about cake, of course). So take off your shirt, assume a strategy stance, grab a fork, and let’s dig in.
Part 2: Hell is all-natural…probably
I dart across the street towards the Foggy Bottom neighborhood Whole Foods, in Washington, D.C. I’m welcomed by a guy who says, “Welcome!” Given its location smack-dab in the middle of George Washington University’s congested urban campus, the store’s aisles and pre-made food stations are mobbed with students, even though it’s June. For a bunch of people who “can’t even” when it comes to routine burdens (like washing athleisure clothes…in a machine…that washes things for you) the patrons here are surprisingly enterprising, popping between free samples while staying endlessly distracted. I take the escalator (even though I’m more of a stairs guy) down to the store’s belly, where aisle after aisle of organic food waits to fulfill the lifestyle needs of its next buyer. As I step off of the escalator I’m hit, full force, in the face by a forest-scented sneeze. (Whole Foods calls this its “personal care” section). After I reorient myself with a guac sample, I make my way to the wall of Earth-tone-packaged desserts at the back of the store.
I take careful stock of the dizzying number of “healthy” dessert options. Then I whip out my tiny notebook (in which I’ve left myself a helpful reminder to get a bigger notebook) and a pen and start capturing exactly how many grams of sugar, fat, carbs, protein, and fiber are in each item. After I take some pictures of the different desserts’ packaging, I wait patiently for other shoppers — like a lion at the shrubbed edge of a watering hole (that is also waiting patiently to conduct market research). This is what guerilla-style user research looks like. However, it feels more like when you’re at a restaurant that has single-person bathrooms and you accidentally open the door on someone who didn’t lock the door (only, in this case, I was doing that on purpose).
I made this type of field observation part of my weekly research routine as an entrepreneur in Georgetown University’s student incubator program (another part of my routine involved reminding myself that I needed a bigger notebook but never getting one). The program accepts about only a dozen student startups each summer. Short for talent — or maybe they just wanted a good challenge — they accepted my startup, Defy Desserts, and provided a generous amount of seed money and mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs. Part of the process once you’re in the incubator program is that you must conduct interviews with your target audience to make sure your product or service is actually doing something for someone(and my mentors did not accept my binging anecdotes as evidence that a substantial market exists for healthy desserts. So, here I was, ambushing people at Whole Foods).
I put my hands in my pockets (so as to not appear like I was ambushing people at Whole Foods), and pretended to be genuinely curious about a shelf of bohemian-named breakfast items. Just as I was learning how many of my recommended daily amino acids I could get from Theodosia’s SuperGrains Bowl (all of them!), a trim, middle-aged man made his way to the ceiling-to-floor temple of “all natural” desserts. My plan was simple: observe what he put into his basket then creep up (in a super casual way) and ask him, as if I was an unknowledgeable customer, why he picked the dessert, what he likes about it, and why he would recommend it (I code named the operation“Sugar High”…but I’ll have to change it now because you know it — damn, you’re good).
The man dancing now in my spiderweb reached for an unremarkable white bag that looked like a package of coffee beans, labeled Tate’s Bake Shop Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookies. “Whoa, those look good, what are they?” I asked, after sliding up next to him, trying to seem more curious than intrusive. After doing this cold open enough times, you get the sense that even though grocery stores are packed with people, shoppers are reluctant to engage beyond the occasional “excuse me,” when passing through a crowded aisle. I held my breath as my inquiry floated towards him and hung in the air. “Oh…these are just chocolate chip cookies,” he replied after realizing we were the only two people in the area and that I must have been talking to him. “What kind?” I persisted (still holding my breath…I love a good challenge). “Oh, uh, Tate’s,” he responded. (Two for two, this guy was sharp). “What do you like about those?” I continued. After a few more questions, his responses were getting more revealing and helpful. I figured he had to be a middle-aged gay man. I knew because he said “I’m a middle-aged gay man…” while explaining that his lifestyle encouraged him to make what he considered a healthier dessert choice. Besides putting me in awkward situations, these conversations were actually teaching me a lot (like what to do in awkward situations). We parted ways, and I returned to the captivating stack of grain bowls to wait for another customer.
Part 3: Picture this…
I developed the idea for a healthy dessert endeavor in February — months prior to my acceptance into the entrepreneur program — and had been doggedly pursuing viable recipes ever since. I had been channeling my (endearing) lack of moderation into wild kitchen sprints; I’d try recipe after recipe until the ingredients ran low or a recipe tasted so bad that I had to pause the session and rethink my life choices. I thrived on a vision of creating the healthy dessert — one that actually benefits your health. This dessert would, first and foremost, taste like a normal dessert (I’m nothing if not ambitious). It also had to be healthy enough for me to be okay with eating it every day (this was quite an ambition, and once word got out, I started receiving threatening letters from the vitamin and “apple-a-day” people — the one-a-day business was their turf, they said). To be one-a-day material in my book, the dessert had to have a certain amount of protein and fiber and as little sugar as possible. The experiments started with a doctored version of my uncle’s zucchini brownie recipe and, over the next few months, zig-zagged through many other types — cake, cupcakes, cheesecake, cookies, brownies, donuts, and even a pie or two. In total, I would end up trying 75 different recipes, many of which I tweaked and tried multiple times.
I started spending each day studying baking and food science (the fat man’s chemistry), tweaking recipes, and calculating nutritional information before baking test batches (it turns out that my stove can make things, in addition to serving as a sacrificial alter for large cakes). Then I’d calculate ingredient costs for the most promising recipes. The closer I got to cracking a recipe, the greater the pressure and my sense of urgency became. (In a low moment I even drew up a contingency plan for if I was shaken down by Keebler elves or even Little Debbie). I had interviewed enough food R&D chefs to know that I needed to consider how much it would cost to scale my recipes before I finalized them. For instance, I was advised that corn starch was so expensive to scale in recipes that I should avoid using any, even in my kitchen tests (I started to wonder if I should stop putting bits of gold into my desserts but it hadn’t come up with the chefs so I assumed it was okay). The daily effort was grueling, especially because I hate baking — I’m too impatient for it (I don’t have time to tell you more about that). Thankfully, my girlfriend was there to help keep the baking tests moving. The alternative was watching me grope cake so I knew she’d be onboard.
Back at the Defy Desserts headquarters (my apartment) — still months before the incubator program was to start — I’m bending over a new recipe when smoke billows into my executive office (the couch/coffee table in my living room). “Shit!” I yell calmly, like a couple arguing in public, as I pop up and run into the kitchen. I fling open the oven door and fumble for the corner of the shiny, scoldingly hot baking tray. I had forgotten to set the stove timer, and the heat had worked some sweet potato brownies into brown-black crumbles. “At least the smoke al-” I say as the smoke alarm starts to chirp. I wave a towel in a circle to appease the smoke detector gods (“hero” is a bit much — I’m just doing what anyone else would have done). I stomp back over to the baking tray and inspect the burnt remains with my finger before flinging them into the trash. I pull recipe #23-A back out from my stack of notecards. This one is worth another shot. The sweet potato brownie has a lot of promise given that sweet potatoes have a mellow and natural sweetness, and good amounts of moisture and fiber. I move meticulously through the recipe and join the sweet potatoes and some healthy fats with almond flour, chocolate-flavored veggie-based protein, dutch cocoa powder, and a little espresso powder. When the brownies emerge from the oven, I coax one off the tray, still full of hope (like a baked goods version of me as a freshman in college). With a couple thoughtful bites, I decide the batch came out tasting like its list of ingredients reads…sad, with a distinct but ambiguous “not quite right” flavor (basically like anything vegan). I scribble a few notes about potential tweaks on the back of the notecard for recipe #23-A and file it away in a secret spot (it’s the drawer next to the couch — shit, you sly fox).
Part 4: It’s not about the cake
As the incubator program rolled through it’s opening weeks in early June, the other startups wasted no time moving their products and services forward. Immediately, I felt the pressure to keep the oven running with more kitchen sessions. How was I supposed to run a startup without something to sell? But instead of having me return to the kitchen, my program-assigned mentors had a different plan (I didn’t catch most of the plan after the part where they suggested that I buy a tiny notebook for research…I was already completely bought in and making mental doodles in my notebook). They explained that I had to first figure out if I was actually onto a big idea or if I was just fighting windmills (that’s a Don Quixote reference, for anyone who was robbed of a public school Spanish class experience) — I had to get out to my target customers and understand if they even wanted a dessert that benefitted their diet. This guidance is what would trigger the Whole Foods guerilla research and more than 50 other interviews with people I thought would be the most likely to want a healthy dessert. The approach seems obvious but when you’re pushing towards something that you assume is unquestionably right, it’s easy to get lost. I left the meeting that day, and for the first time in my life was excited to talk to strangers.
I reach down to dust off my jeans and try to push the wrinkles out of my t-shirt. I fall into an “official business” stance, grabbing my left wrist with my right hand, like an FBI agent or a chef being judged on the Food Network show Chopped. Too aggressive, I think to myself. I shove my hands into my pockets and lean to one side, like “cool guy” in a hair gel commercial (I would make an excellent “cool guy” in a hair gel commercial). Too casual, I think this time, and revert back to my first stance — “Hi, here for a class?” a bubbly voice inquires from across the counter (completely unaware of how official my stance looks). I’m standing in the lobby of a cycling studio, absorbing the atmosphere’s novel combination of motivational neon signage, pop music, and antiseptic spray. I’ve come here on a hunch that the studio’s fitness-conscious customers and trainers would love a line of healthy desserts as much as they love biking-in-place and smiling. “Actually, can I have 15 minutes to chat with you about dessert?” I ask, adding a quick explanation of my vision (downplaying my “guy with a vision” vibe). “Yeah, sure!” she responds.
After a few minutes of learning about how often she eats dessert — “not very often” — and hearing how disciplined she is — “very” — I notice her coworker come back and set down a Starbucks milkshake thing with my interviewee’s name on it (you know, that frozen drink that’s one-half whipped cream and chocolate and the other half is liquid whipped cream and liquid chocolate). Something wasn’t adding up. Why would someone who claims to be so mindful of her nutrition be okay drinking half her daily caloric intake like that? Towards the end of the chat, I ask if she could introduce me to any of the other instructors that are around. This time, the interviewee, who also views eating “as a way to fuel your body…it’s a lifestyle,” has just eaten McDonalds for lunch, “because it’s the only convenient lunch thing near us that’s not $400.” (I picture a lunch made entirely of corn starch and gold bits…mmm). After a couple weeks of interviews at all the fitness studios around town — all of which, apparently, use the same [adjective] + [edgy noun] formula to select names — I noticed that what the instructors and customers said and what they didwere very different. My observations were slowly but surely invalidating my riskiest assumption, that health-conscious people want a dessert that benefits their health. (I also noticed that meeting attractive people with bad personalities is like pouring cereal and then realizing there’s no milk). But before bailing on my idea, which I had focused relentlessly on for months, putting real energy and money into, I wanted to visit with one last fitness subculture — the CrossFitters.
Having spent a week at a CrossFit gym before (don’t judge me, it was free), I was excited to again experience these full-body workout zealots’ quirks in all their glory. I made my way to one of their worshipping temples, housed in an old industrial building (that had, no doubt, been renovated to look even older and even more industrial but with pull up bars). I entered the musty, rubber-scented pain dojo, searching for an employee through a chalky haze. I wasn’t welcomed so much as studied by a serious-looking man, who approached with a stiff, inflexible gait that made every step look painful. Like most CrossFitters who have sacrificed their first born at the alter of the WOD — workout of the day, or WOD, is the main workout routine chosen for a CrossFit session — he looked permanently swollen, partially broken, and very intense. Between his gym-branded shirt, sports watch, ponytail, and the fact that he was gnawing at protein in bar-form, I guessed he was one of the gym’s trainers.
I could tell that even a conversation would be a tough sell here. From the time I had spent with this group before, I recalled the cliquey, “you’re one of us or you’re not” feeling that every part of the CrossFit experience gives off. He approached and raised his eyebrows and head slightly while taking another bite of the protein bar, as if to say, “What did you say to me.” “Hi, I was hoping to chat for a few minutes about dessert,” I offered, hoping to pique his curiosity. Just like all of the other introductions I had made, I gave my “I’m a student, and this is in the name of education” flavored pitch for his time and input. Unlike my other visits, though, this guy was not game to talk about dessert. In fact, he was so unwilling to talk about dessert that I started to think dessert had wronged him in the past. As if it was dessert that had driven him to exercise to the point of permanent joint damage, and had taunted him until he grew his hair into a man bun hairstyle, which looked ironically like a scoop of ice cream on his head. “Look, buddy, we’re really busy here,” he started — at which point I noted two people in the gym’s workout area. “And we’re not interested in your project. Sorry.” (Yeah, I thought about making a mess on my way out, maybe steal a towel, but between the smell and the weights, tractor tires, and colored bands strewn everywhere, I conceded that they had outfoxed me by preemptively making the place look like shit). More important, I took his lack of interest as another signal of invalidation.
The crazy thing, though, was that I got the same cold, “we’re too busy for whatever this is” type of response from similarly ice-cream headed people at the next two CrossFit gyms I visited. I did manage a five-minute chat with one CrossFit gym goer but she “had to get home,” she insisted, before walking across the street and into a grocery store (I was jealous she lived in a grocery store). After a month of research, the evidence was overwhelming that none of my target users viewed dessert as a meal that can benefit your health, and very few considered the idea even remotely appealing. They didn’t want dessert to be nutritional; they wanted it to satisfy their urge to eat like shit and dislike themselves — just like me eating fistfuls of cake.
Part 5: Better a live donkey (to fail humbly) than a dead lion (to die with pride)
I sat in stillness with only the hum of the refrigerator filling the space around me, shifting my stare between the wall in my apartment and my tiny notebook. I jotted down “desserts for sick patients who are losing weight,” “software that automatically orders prescriptions for doctors,” and “senior caregiving service.” This was one manifestation of my weeks of effort to pivot my old idea and brainstorm a new one. I was obsessed with finding my next big idea, even with the artificial deadline of the summer program’s conclusion approaching. The program came to an anticlimactic end for me — instead of pitching like the other businesses I told a story about how I methodically killed my bad idea. So to answer the question of what happens next after you hit your bottom, it’s pretty simple: you keep trying but smarter.
In my case, I realized that it’s not your desire and hunger that generate an inspiring idea — the ideation process is a clumsy, unpredictable jumble that can’t be willed into working. Instead, the creative process relies partially on all of the knowledge floating in your head (because that’s how brain science — and lava lamps — work). That means you need to spend time filling your mind with new knowledge every day. The other part of the creating process is making the effort to observe the problems around you every day. Eventually, your knowledge and your awareness of problems around you click, and that’s a breakthrough. It’s usually when you least expect it, and it just feels right — that’s the best way I can describe it.
Now, I have cake to eat so I’ll let Winston Churchill show you out with this, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”