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Gluten Free Girl on Building a Business That Matters: Put Community First

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
creativity, featured

Danny and Shauna Ahern — Photo via Facebook.

Danny and Shauna Ahern — Photo via Facebook.

Kickstarter has helped countless small businesses find the funding they need to not only achieve their dreams, but help others by delivering services and goods that are in demand, but not always easy to get to market. Case-in-point: Shauna Ahern, who got her start writing the Gluten-Free Girl blog and cookbooks. Shauna and her husband have long dreamed of expanding their business to also include the sale of products — specifically, gluten-free flour blends, which can make cooking and baking for those with diseases like celiac much easier — but it’s their current Kickstarter campaign that’s finally made that a reality.

Here’s an interview we did with Shauna about the campaign — and what it means for her family.

When did you decide to write full-time? How did you decide to do so?

Oh I have wanted to be a full-time writer all my life. As soon as I understood that real people wrote books — when I was about 3 — I wanted to be one of those people. I typed out pages on my parents’ battered old Smith-Corona typewriter in my bedroom my entire childhood, scrawled words in puffy journals all through my teens, and wrote a lot of really bad fiction and poetry in my 20s.

You never could have told me that my professional writing career would begin because I had to start eating gluten-free.

In 2005, after months of a terrible mystery illness, I was diagnosed with celiac sprue. Elated to find I didn’t have cancer or a fatal disease, I said yes to it. The only way to heal myself was to eat really great food that didn’t contain gluten. I dove in, writing and writing every day about the foods I was discovering — amaranth leaves! good olive oil! coppa! — on a new site I started for myself and my friends. To my surprise, people I didn’t know started to leave comments on my posts. Quickly, the site became a community, centered on self-discovery and eating well and helping each other.

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The popularity of my site led to my finding my literary agent. There was the dream. An agent, from writing a gluten-free blog (on Blogspot, no less, with no real design sense)! It all stemmed from the passion I found for food and the belief that I should say yes to my own story. Pretty quickly, my agent helped me to get a book deal for my food memoir. I was elated!

And then the high school where I had been teaching full-time let me go.

For more than year, I had been wanting to leave teaching. I loved being in the classroom, but I really just wanted to write for a living. Still, I was terrified about how I would earn a living. How would I pay for my own health insurance? Those doubts kept me from having the courage to quit. So when I was offered a book deal in August, I had to ask for an emergency sabbatical from teaching, since the publisher wanted the entire manuscript by January. The administrators at the school said no and showed me the door. I was devastated for about 30 minutes, and then realized I was liberated. Now I had to make it as a writer.

I’ve been writing full-time for a living since then.

(And I thanked those administrators in the page of acknowledgments in my last book. They gave me such a gift, in the end.)

Describe a day in your life.

No day is ever the same in our home. I believe that’s part of the reason my husband, Danny, and I love this crazy creative life we have. We have to work hard and scramble for money sometimes, but we are never, ever bored. And we’re always learning.

For years, we have been peripatetic at times. We taught cooking retreats in Italy or we spent weeks in New York for book tours or I flew to New Orleans for 28 hours to speak at a conference, and then flew to San Diego to speak at another one. Now, however, our daughter has started kindergarten. That keeps us more grounded on Vashon Island, where we live, and makes our days a little more regular.

Shauna and Danny Ahern.On the weekdays, we wake up early (we have a seven-month-old son who is very excited to begin every day). After coffee, we play with our children, Desmond and Lucy. I might be coloring with Lucy on the landing of the stairs while Desmond is in the kitchen in his bouncer while Danny is making breakfast. We try to keep our phones away from us, the internet off, in the morning when they are with us. We’re not always successful — especially during a Kickstarter campaign — but we’re trying. There is always a dance party before we have to get Lucy off to school.

We have a kitchen studio on Vashon, a space we rent on a 12-acre farm. Right now, as I type, I’m looking at sheep in the rain. There’s a big garden outside, which is the source of our lunches. Today there was curried sweet potato soup and a mixed green salad with spiced almonds and a caramelized pear vinaigrette.

During the day, I might have floury handprints on my apron as I test another sandwich bread recipe. Danny is usually simmering or roasting or flipping something in the skillet. I stand at the big white door we have propped up as a standing desk, writing an essay about the changing season and my sudden desire to braise again. There are a thousand emails, always. Our friend Claire, who is our right-hand woman and partner in crime in our new business venture, keeps us on task and asks a hundred good questions. We’re all laughing. I start baking and jotting down notes on a new apple cake recipe. I have a profile of a local chef due to a national newspaper soon, so I stop to call her again for fact checks.

And our son is dancing to Michael Jackson in his jumper through much of it.

You’ve written three books, but this Kickstarter marks a whole new endeavor. When and how did you decide you wanted to start selling flour blends?

When I began baking gluten-free, I loved the challenge of figuring out all the different flours and how to combine them. Want to make a blueberry muffin? How about teff flour, almond flour, potato starch, brown rice flour, buckwheat flour, and sweet rice flour for one recipe? I would publish the recipe for those lovely muffins and some people would make them. More people would say to me, “I don’t have time for this! Can’t you make it easier for me?”

And then we had Lucy. And in our exhaustion of having to cook with a newborn, then a small child, we understood.

A few years ago, we came up with a formula for an all-purpose flour blend that worked in every recipe we tried. We published the recipe on our website and hundreds of people wrote to say how much it changed their baking for the better. But most people asked, “Can we just buy it from you?” We wanted to make the process easier, so we dropped the blend to three flours, keeping the flour blend 40% whole grain. Hundreds of people wrote to say their families loved the baked goods they made with our All-Purpose Flour Blend. This is their family flour now. Still, most wrote to us to say, “Can we just buy it from you?”

Two years ago, we started thinking about packaging and selling our flour blends (we have a grain-free blend too). For the past year, we have been working on this with real dedication. To create the best gluten-free recipes, we have blended and tested dozens and dozens of different gluten-free flour blends. After much research and thousands of hours, we have a co-packer we trust, a package design we love, and a package manufacturer. We are ready to launch two flour blends.

It has been a year of deep learning for us. I’m really grateful.

Gluten Free Flour Blends

Why did you opt to kickstart vs. partner with an existing brand?

For us, it was a clear choice. Our entire career has stemmed from online connections. Any success we have experienced has come from that passion for food and community that propelled my blog into a book into a cookbook career. We wanted to turn to our community to help us raise the seed money for the first run of the All-Purpose Flour. (And if we get more money than we asked for, we could bring the Grain-Free Flour Blend to market right away as well.) This is like a small town coming together, deciding to support something. And it means that people feel emotionally invested in this project working, as well as financially invested.

What have you found most effective about running a Kickstarter campaign?

We’re not funded yet, so we still need people’s help!

1601386_10152328801292201_182349133640799436_nThe only thing that works for us — and seems to be working — is being authentic. We’re just reminding people that we’re all in this together and we need their help. Breaking it down into smaller goals — two more pledges and we have 1100 backers! — has really helped us.

We tried to craft rewards that use the flour blends to let us feed people. We’ll make your pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving! (if you live in the Seattle area) We’ll send you the mix to make grain-free gingerbread men for the holidays! People have been happy about helping when they feel they are receiving something that matters to them.

We did it in our own way that made sense to us. Most Kickstarters use early access to the object you’ll get as the incentive to pledge. You get a huge savings on this cooler/video game/toy by pledging! But we have run this much more like a PBS or NPR pledge. Help fund us and we’ll send you a gift as a thank you. We decided to go after those folks who are truly loyal to us, who would understand this. That means our Kickstarter didn’t go viral, with lots of news attention. Instead, we are slowly building a business, one person at a time.

What has also been effective was hard for me at first. I’m not the kind of person to RT compliments about my recipes or work on Twitter. I like to let it all stand for itself. As a woman, I’m aware of how hard it is for many of us to stand up and say, “I’ve done something outrageously good and important here and I want you to pay attention. Seriously, you want this.” A lot of us women have been cnculturuated to not do that, to be quieter and more about pleasing people than standing up loudly. This process has pushed me toward being more clear.

We really do feel these are the very best gluten-free flour blends out there. And we believe they will help people to cook and bake with ease, freeing up more time for their kids and their own creative work. So I’m willing to RT nice things people say about me now.

Well, until this campaign is done!

What has surprised you about running the campaign?

It is like 17 full-time jobs at once. Take on a Kickstarter if you are prepared to give everything you have to it. There has been little sleep. There have been 2000 emails sent, with more to go out in the last week. We have been baking and taking photographs of the baked goods for reminders on Instagram and monitoring Twitter and Facebook and coming up with new rewards every day, based on people’s feedback. There is number crunching and worrying and little sleep and moments of real elation. I cannot wait to be fully funded on October 30th so I can breathe again.

Danny and Claire and I have been holding each other up and worrying at separate times and learning so much. Running a Kickstarter has been such hard work but it feels like good, necessary work. How can you start a business that matters without working your butt off to the point of exhaustion?

We have become such a strong team because of the hard work of these weeks. It feels like the right way to start a thriving business.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.