Renee Israel is a phenomenal business women, entrepreneur and mom. In this episode, she talks about:
- how she was juggling various ventures while holding a full-time job
- how she dove into the business, instead of backing off when she got pregnant
- what it means to be a franchise owner and have other people relying on you
Renee has taken the business through the full lifecycle and it is interesting to hear her perspective now that she is ready to move onto her next venture.
About Renee Israel:
Renee Israel worked with a consulting agency which she was passionate about; however left the company despite its perks. She left her job which was high-paying & career-moving as she wants to be more flexible, be able to say yes to stuff, and start her own family. She met her husband five months of being out of her corporate job and never doubted the move. She says in our interview "If he met me a year prior, it would never have worked because he’s an entrepreneur with tons of flexibility." Renee and her husband now have 3 kids, and the very successful company they started known as Doc Popcorn.
Question: Please introduce yourself.
My name is Renee Israel. I’m an entrepreneur. I work with my husband on almost all of our endeavors. Life has its own fun challenges.
Question: What was your “Aha” moment that you really have something going?
The Doc Popcorn idea came from my husband. He has a farmers’ market in Boulder, Colorado. Its whole mission is taking a commodity which everyone loves but making our own trips on it which is better for you to weigh more popcorn. In early 2000s, the whole natural movement was just there, getting started particularly in venues that we’re in like high traffic. We opened our first location in December of 2003. In 2008, we had 11 departments in Colorado and we are just about to open our third. When we had multiple locations open in different types of models: in line stores in malls, partitions in malls, hotdog carts, mobile carts, we knew that this is something that can be packaged and brought out in the world. I would say that we thought “Wow, this is a business” because we’re in multiple locations with multiple types of distribution options. That was the time when we were figuring out how to grow. There were multiple “Aha” moments. The first one was when we opened the first store and you have a line down the corner for your product. That’s the time when we were dating and I was in New York City for a year and a half before I moved out and made the commitment to be in Colorado. And building this business in Colorado rather in New York City which was really where it was first.
Question: What did that progression look like? What was that ultimate decision to move to Colorado?
It was two-fold. That was in 2003, we were looking for a place to test market the product in New York, we couldn’t find one anywhere. We needed a high-traffic venue like a mall or a stadium. Everything was just a kind of stall. This small property they call Macerich and they own the Queens Mall in New York. They said: “I know this is a crazy question but we have a small property out in Greenfield, Colorado at the Flyer Coffee Mall, there’s a cookie store there that wasn’t doing very well” and they are abandoning that space and the space was just there, empty for the holidays. They also said that if we could come out, we can have that space which was already built out and we have this huge space - that was the reason to push and move over to Colorado. That, combined with a family element, there was a serendipity element; it was available at the time we wanted it, and there was an element that we were pretty serious, we were kind of engaged but not yet. I think there’s this thing in the brain that said that this is a great opportunity, with the whole improvised style, 15 years in New York City, it was also the time when 9/11 just happened and I thought why not? Go try something new and here are a lot of reasons, and the idea of the business at the Boulders Farmers Market - I had a lot of reasons to do it.
Question: How did you manage to start a family while minding your business?
We got a couple of stores when I finally moved out there. I married and I got pregnant right away. In my mind, I was starting a new life in so many levels: I’m getting married, I’m leaving New York which was a big scary thing to a degree for me, I’m leaving my consulting world -because between 2003 and 2005, I was a consultant and I have a couple of companies, one in particular that I was on the founding management team of that I was working on and then moved to Arizona. That was the time that I was making the decision to move to Colorado. My involvement was popcorn and my husband. I abandoned my other entrepreneurial efforts that I was working on with another team to move to Colorado and show my love for popcorn, fell pregnant, and bought a house. All of that happened in one year. It was a lot of major changes, all at once.
Question: Once you moved to Colorado and you were pregnant, how did that look like? How did that transition to having a child, settling in, how did that change your life?
It involved so much and not to stereotype but I think most women that are working, whether it’s their own business or working for someone else, as we get more children, we back off. For me, it was the opposite. When I had my first child, I had tons of responsibilities because everything was in Colorado and I have a different skill set than what’s needed for the business. My world enabled me to work from home when I wanted. It was a very flexible situation because we only had one Store Manager who is still with us today. He is running it. It was a very flexible situation for me when I had my first child. If the business closes, it gets trickier. In 2008, we decided we wanted to franchise, we got partners in the franchise world. By 2009 to 2010, we were selling franchises to people to use our concept elsewhere in the United States, in other shopping malls, entertainment venues. Now, it’s different. Now, there’s travel, there’s other people using our concept to abandon their jobs. We have people leaving their jobs or maybe out of work. 2008 was a big turning point in terms of people being out of work so franchising was something people turned to and like: “I can be my own boss now, I’ll find something that’s already working and buy it”. It’s one thing to run something on your own but when you start to have franchisees and employees to serve these franchisees, then your life becomes less your own. Your flexibility becomes a little less because now, other people are relying on you to get work done on a certain piece within a certain timeframe. It got a lot harder. By the time I got my third kid in 2010, we have 25 locations across the country and in that year, we added another 15. In that time, I was in the first year of motherhood of three young children and we’re growing our business like crazy.
Question: What does your typical day look like then?
There’s so many different stages, there’s today and there’s then. It wasn’t until 2012 that we got an office so we were a virtual company before that and that gave me a lot of flexibility and a lot of leaves because I work from home. At that point, with three children ages 0, 2 and 4, my 2 and 4 year olds were going to a little preschool program for most of the day, the baby’s home, and I’m juggling the baby schedule with mine in her sleeping basket or her play chair. She was sleeping a lot at first but of course, as she grew older, I have to pay more attention to her. Eventually, that’s the time they go to preschool half the day and I got an au pair. I scaled up my support as my business grew and the number of family members grew. By the time my third child turned one, I turned to an au pair agency and what I realized is that we needed incredible flexibility for our business and for our life. The balance part, I’m still scrambling like if I have to go on a plane and be away for a couple of days. Sometimes we have to travel at the same time, I could not worry whether I have somebody to watch my own child so having someone to live with me was my best option and that’s how I started to handle it. It was a very inexpensive means of child care in terms of what you have to pay for the kind of flexibility that was required. My day looked like getting up, getting a couple of kids to preschool, going home, working, feeding the third one, and going to meetings. In 2012, when we had an office, I started going to the office pretty much daily because we have a staff now of ten people who were also going to our office. It’s important that we’re all together.
Question: When you started going to the office, did you go full time?
We strategized that every Sunday, religiously and to this day, my husband and I sit down and look at the week. I relentlessly schedule because there’s freedom in scheduling.
For me, there’s no freedom if you don’t schedule. I schedule everything and I think people don’t realize that if you plan to a degree and you can get your stuff in. I would sit down each night and look at the calendar and see which are interchangeable. We want to take our kids to school every morning. I don’t rely on what I don’t have. I don’t have a nanny that’s waking them up, dressing them up and feeding them. Unless I’m travelling, I want to do that stuff. Having it all for me is having the flexibility to balance my life the way I need to in a given week because there really is no balance. There’s no balance. It’s a pendulum when you own a business and there’s the business, there’s the kids, there’s yourself, and there’s your husband. It’s like there’s four quadrants there, there’s no way you can equally schedule love to all four every single day or every single week.
Our goal is an hour a kid, individually each week, each of us. I’m not talking about rushing to bedtime and story-telling. I’m talking about, for example, taking one of my kids to gymnastics and after gymnastics, we’ll have hot chocolate. That’s our time.
I’ll schedule that and it’s not the same every week. Sometimes, for two weeks, we’re both travelling, we’re both gone for four days so it’s not going to work that week. The balance, that week is for work, I’m travelling for work and the most that I’m going to see my kids is through Skype. I talk to them once a day for five minutes. When I come back, I’ll balance it back but work is still there. For me, the secret is no sleep. If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, what are you going to give up? So I give up sleep. For me, it’s important that when I can, and it’s not every day, between 4 and 8, I’ll try to end my day at 4. My first day ends at 4. My husband and I trade off like he take the kids to school in the morning, that makes me free at 7:30 so I can put in a 7:30 to 4:00 day. Be done for four hours until my kids go to bed and then I get some of my stuff done. That’s ok for me because that’s a choice that I’m making. I’m not going to sit down in front of the TV and watch, I don’t really care about that stuff. I love what we do so I’ll go work and I’ll do personal stuff like plan a vacation or help my kids be organized in their activities. All that stuff happens between 8 and midnight. That’s how it rolled.
Question: What would you say is the biggest struggle in trying to fit all the schedules into your day or your week?
In 2012, we were ramping up the business, I moved my mother out to Boulder, Colorado. I have my mother with me so I have my mom, an au pair, me, my husband and then my sister-in-law who’s also really helpful. For me, women don’t ask for help. We’re going to do this big heavy sighing and we all do it because I’m going to do better than anyone else. I can do it myself and I’m totally in that category. I’m that person. I work really hard to not be that person who uses the support networks that I built for myself. Sometimes that requires a lot of money, sometimes it doesn’t.
I know people, moms, who don’t have family around them. That’s fine but you have to fill it with friends, you got to find a way to structure it so you have a support network and know what you need that support network for and what they are going to do for you.
It might be Instacart, it’s part of my support network and I can do that at night, or whenever I feel like it. I think that you should work on your support network and think about it in terms of people and resources. What can you delegate to someone else?
Question: What are other things that you outsource?
I have a cleaning partner that comes in every Saturday because I’m the orderly, neat freak. Think about it, we had an office for several years and now I’m back to working at home. Bob and I sold Doc Popcorn last year and we now work for a company. It still has the same flexibility but it’s a little different because sometimes I’d get an email saying that I’ve got a meeting in Kentucky, and it’s next week. Without the support system that I have, I don’t know how all of the things can get done. Right now, we’re starting another company so it’s very busy. There’s just so much that some days, my struggle is to shed something that I just need to shed. I’m a woman in franchising committee, the International Franchising Vocation, and I run a task force for that about women in franchising. It’s got probably 20 networks across countries. I don’t get paid for that, it doesn’t help my business necessarily - I have a lot of stuff like that. I have a charity event each year and it takes six months of planning to raise half a million dollars for an organization locally. My other tool is I have an executive coach. That helps me with whatever thing is coming up. It’s mostly business-related but I also get to use it for personal, it’s all intertwined. Our lives are intertwined. I think that women are suffering from being compartmentalized the way that men do and so, if we’re entrepreneurs, everything’s kind of mingled. If your day is stuck with work and you’re taking it home, your kid is not feeling well or something happened at school, you’re probably thinking about it while at work, all day. When I think about the extra-curricular things that drive me in a big way, I have to think that every time I say yes to something, I have to say no to something else and if I say no to something, I will be able to say yes to something that maybe I really want to do. My husband and I thinks that as we grow older, we want to be able to say yes more to family and really watch our time. I volunteer, I give a lot of time to mentorship to young entrepreneur women, I want to do that but I also have to be mindful. I can do that once in a week, I used to do a lot more than that. It makes me feel that I’m giving back. I can’t do ten of them in a week because my business will suffer, my family will suffer.
Question: How do you prioritize mental health, physical health, family and business?
I think I prioritize my mental and physical well-being first when I can because I can’t do anything else if I don’t. I don’t feel guilty about that.
You asked me if I have a routine, I work out every day. I might miss a day or I may have grace period of a day but I used to be a tri-athlete, I’ve been an athlete my whole life and I’ve had a big struggle with the work out because I used to work out for 2 hours a day when I was less busy. And since I don’t have two hours, sometimes I would just not work out, but when I don’t work out, I’m cranky, I don’t think clearly. I can’t be a good boss or leader if I’m not feeling well. I try to work out in a set time but that doesn’t work, so that’s part of the Sunday scheduling where I look at my calendar and try to fit it in. I have two days that are not movable unless I’m travelling. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I don’t miss it. Everything else, I fit in like if I have a half hour, and that’s easy, I’ll just threw in my sneakers and run up a hill and come back down. I think it’s important for us to have physical movement and my advice around that is even when I’m travelling, I have a jump rope and I can get that in 20 minutes. On long, hard days where I have schedules from the morning ‘til 11:00 PM, I’ll get up 15 minutes earlier and do jump ropes.
Question: What are you most proud of in your professional and personal life?
In my personal life, I’m most proud of my kids, for sure, my husband, and my family. When I left Corporate America, it was in 2003 and I haven’t met my husband yet at that time. One of the reasons I worked for a consulting agency/marketing firm were to just turn and burn, all-nighters, and craziness. I loved it but what I knew I wanted to start a family at that time, I was 36, not that I’m panicking, but to be able to do that, I need to put myself in a position where I can do that. I left that job which was high-paying, career-moving and go do consulting on my own because I want to be able to say yes to stuff. When I met my husband, it was five months of being out of my corporate job. If he met me a year prior, it would never have worked because he’s an entrepreneur with tons of flexibility, he has no working hours that the rest of the world have. If I wasn’t available for him to go out to dinner, to go the US Open which was at 5 in the evening, we wouldn’t be able to create anything.
At some point, my proudest moment in my professional life was leaving my old professional life for my new one. You don’t work less, you work harder especially when you’re building something. The difference is on your own terms because there’s no one telling me I can’t take my kids to the doctor.
I have all these things I want done at the end of the day but my boss are the franchise owners so there are things that have to get done and I find ways to do it because I take it all really seriously. I’ve learned to prioritize and not all priorities are created equal like if my kids are sick, they want to see me, they don’t want to see my au pair or my mother. That’s the kind of things that the corporate world still do not provide for.
Question: Do you have insights or advice that you’d give to other women who are raising children and trying to “have it all”?
The definition of “having it all” is very personal, clearly. When you think about all the people writing about it and what it means to them, I remember one who said she gave up pretty much everything to raise her kids. She wrote this really depressing article in Times. I think that it’s a constant challenge. It just is. I have my husband who’s a total co-parent with me and I guess that’s part of it. I’m very lucky to have my husband who’s equally interested to be with our kids as I am. I don’t feel that his work is important than mine is. I think that when you have a breadwinner in the family, whether it’s the woman or the man, the breadwinner is the one who sets the tone on what that other person gets to do and I’m seeing that with a bunch of entrepreneurial women. I have a friend who’s a top journalist at a news station, her husband is an entrepreneur and when she started having her kids, she’s starting to build a new business but she can’t because at the end of the day, her husband’s earning the money and she has to take care of the kids. She has an au pair, she has a support group, but what’s stopping her is her guilt that she has a baby and she’s never with her baby, and I’m like “you know what though, you can’t be anything for anyone if you don’t do some things you’re looking to do to make yourself feel good”. That’s what she wants so I asked her if she really wants a business because she can do journalism on her own terms so why does she need a business? I think people should really think about what it is that they want to do every day and we only have 24 hours in a day so either you give up sleep or you’re going to give up time with your husband or kids or your work because something has to give. I only sleep for a few hours. People can just stop thinking about this balance and putting equality to everything and think of it more as a pendulum. One week is one thing and the next week is another thing. I take things week by week and then it comes day by day. If things go in shuffle then I have to decide where I don’t feel guilt. There’s guilt in the workplace and there’s guilt in the family. If I’m not helping my colleagues or if I have to stay at my desk for another 2 hours before I get to my kids. I have to make those decisions carefully but I make them as a week-long discussion, not by the day. There are people who want to meet with me between 3 and 6, I’ll try to do that twice a week and if it’s not a heavy week, I’ll make it three times. There’s not two nights I’m protecting. I’m not scheduling there unless there’s something that really needs to be done so I look at it as a whole week. There are people who are more structured and there are people who are less structured. If you are a structured being by natural trait, it works for you. You can’t have balance between everything, your kids, your husband, your business, yourself. You have to let something go. I do it too. I’m really harsh on myself.
Question: Do you have any book or sources recommendations?
There are so many good books out there. I’m definitely a self-improvement book junkie. I do read novels and stuff but the one that I’m reading now is, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. It’s a book that’s really about parenting but you can use it in your life too. It’s a book about how language matters. An example is, if we ask our kids “How was your day?”, they would just probably answer: “It’s fine, Mom” but instead, we can ask them “Teach me what you learned in school today?” and that’s the time that they’re going to be really specific and I’m going to get stuff out of them. It’s the language of parenting and how you talk to your kids in a way that you’re not talking at them but you’re inviting conversation and it exposes that all. It’s so brilliant yet it’s so hard to put in practice. On the entrepreneurial side, there is a book about leadership.
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