Finding a Business Idea You Love by Trial and Error
Eleni Gianopulos, WE NYC Mentor

Thomas A. Edison’s quote reminds me of my father. Sitting around the dinner table with my family when I was growing up, my dad always admonished us to “Find something you love to do!”

I eventually found what I love, though the route to starting my business was not exactly straightforward. Along each step of the way, I learned something that could benefit any entrepreneur, and maybe help you reach your goals a little quicker. Here’s a quick tour of my journey and highlights of the lessons I learned from each experience.   

I never did a day's work in my life. It was all fun.

Eleni Gianopulos

College degree, what’s next? 
I graduated from Southern Methodist University with a degree in psychology only because I held the most credits in that department. While I loved the psychology classes, I didn’t want to work in that field. I didn’t do well in school, nor did I really apply myself. Unfortunately, the gap year wasn’t in vogue then, because I definitely would have benefited from one. I was jealous of friends and family members who had clear career visions. They knew exactly what they wanted to be or do from day one and plowed straight ahead toward their goals. (Though I have since learned that didn’t mean their journeys were any easier than mine.)

Takeaway: Don’t be too hard on yourself. The stress and worry will cloud your judgment and get in the way of listening to your inner self about what is best for you.

New York City calls
I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew exactly where I wanted to live! I moved to New York and got a job at in the jewelry department at Bloomingdale’s. This felt comfortable because I’d held odd jobs since high school. The jobs I had growing up, while completely unrelated to the business I would eventually start, helped me understand hard work. I baby sat often, worked as a PeeWee golf attendant, was hired as a seasonal employee to wrap presents during the holidays (in a liquor store, of all places), and took part-time jobs in college at both a gourmet kitchen shop in Dallas and as a sales associate at a specialty stuffed animal store. I enjoyed working while in college in Dallas – certainly more than studying! And I was introduced early on to some very basic business practices: sales, month-end inventory, employee shift schedules and the absolute importance of reporting to any job on time. 

Takeaway: No job is too big or too small. Learn as much as you can, whatever you are doing. One day you will find yourself applying what you learned at past jobs to what you are doing now. 

The excitement of publishing
I would come home from work daily and pore over the New York Times help-wanted section looking for new opportunities. I was in New York City, so what more exciting career direction than working at LIFE Magazine? My dad remembered meeting a man named Paul Christopoulos, who worked at Time Inc. Christopoulos is my maiden name. Paul wasn’t related, but he helped me get my foot in the door at Time Inc. I learned early on to ask friends and family for help.

Takeaways: Networking is incredibly important because you never know who you’ll meet. Share your goals; the people you know might provide introductions that could make all the difference in getting a job, an investment, or an important new customer. The contacts you make might end up being important personally or professionally not just for you but also for a family member or friend. (In my case, it didn’t hurt that I shared a Greek last name with the person who could help me!)

A disguised blessing
After five years at LIFE Magazine, I wanted to take a leave of absence but my boss wouldn’t grant it. That turned out to be a blessing. It forced me to examine my career and my future and take the next step.

Takeaway: Good things fall apart so better things can come together.

Just desserts
Many of my friends were tossing around ideas about starting their own companies. Recently married and not working, I had lots of time on my hands – and no money. My friend, Kate Spade, also struggling to start her own company, suggested I start a catering business. “You love to cook. Why not start there?” I did, and soon learned I only enjoy cooking for friends… except for dessert. I started every catering job with dessert. I soon stopped catering and jumped right into dessert. Looking back, I realize the great value of two things I did: brainstorming with friends and moving straight to a new career (or pivoting within an existing one, like turning from catering to cookies). I didn’t spend countless hours evaluating the pros and cons because I had found what I love.

Takeaway: When you find what you love, run with it. 

What once was stressful was now fun. Catering had felt too broad. I approached cookies in exactly the opposite way, staying very tight and focused. At first I made only oatmeal cookies. My husband and I hadn’t been married for long and our combined income was minimal, especially since I was relying on part-time work from LIFE. We could afford the risk of starting the cookie business. I began small and stayed focused. I went to the grocery store a block away, bought oats, sugar, flour, raisins and spices, and started baking that afternoon.

Takeaway: Don’t let the big picture complicate things. If you’re not ready to jump off the diving board into the deep end, just go to the other side of the pool.

Courage (or guts)
As soon as my first batch came out of the oven, I went to Grace’s Market Place, a neighborhood gourmet store a short walk from our home, and presented my business card (made at Staples) and oatmeal cookies to the pastry manager, Jay Stone. He bought the cookies immediately and asked, “What else can you make?”

Takeaway: Listen to your customers. Many of my best ideas have been from my customers!

Growing and moving
I added cookie flavors and the business grew. I moved the baking operation out of our apartment to the Greek Orthodox Church in Tenafly, New Jersey, after the church in Manhattan reneged on its commitment the night before I was to start baking.
Takeaway: Discuss the challenges you’re facing with people close to you. That’s how I solved my immediate problem of where to bake. The church in Tenafly provided an affordable intermediate step until my husband found the Chelsea Market through the New York Times.

One store – why not more?
Today I’m looking to open a new retail location in addition to the Chelsea Market. I closed my store on Madison Avenue near 90th Street because it proved too small to allow in more than a few customers at a time, and the neighborhood cleared out every time the schools were closed.

Takeaway: Review, analyze and make hard decisions. Change can be a very good thing.

Moving on
I let the perfect get in the way of good. I spent more money renovating the Madison Avenue store than the business would allow. The store was a mistake (although I dislike using that word) and I should have closed it sooner than I did. I have learned to be more thorough in business decisions. My impulsive personality has been both a benefit and burden.

Takeaway: Surround yourself with people who complement your strengths. In my case, I loved to bake. Although I had no formal culinary education, I knew if I tried and tried again, eventually I would get it right. And in areas where I lack expertise, don’t do well, or just don’t enjoy myself, I look for employee hires and mentors who are strong in those areas. Balance is key. Find balance in your workforce and personal life. Both are key to success and happiness!
Whether your path to finding what you love is short or long, straight or winding, pursue it with passion. You may just wake up 20 years later and be astonished at how far that small oatmeal cookie has taken you.