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Mrs. Fields Cookies: How Debbi Fields Built an Empire From Scratch

This article is from our friends at LearnVest, a leading site for women and their money.

When people ask how she turned her cookie recipe into a $450 million company, Debbi Fields, founder of Mrs. Fields, likes to say she grew up in an extremely wealthy family.

But since her father made $15,000 per year as a welder for the United States Navy and her mother stayed home raising five children, their wealth wasn’t monetary.

“We made every dollar stretch,” she remembers. “My father believed that true wealth was found in family, friends, and doing what you love.” Debbi managed to take that advice and build an empire around a lone cookie recipe.

While she no longer manages the day-to-day operations like she did in her original shop in Palo Alto, she is the company’s spokesperson and now working on a book of new cookie recipes to come out next year (yes, we’re excited!) and a television show about mentorship.

Which is why we picked the brain of the real-life Mrs. Fields about the dictionary that changed her life, how to get a business loan, and why good chocolate (and vanilla) is always best.

First of all: Why cookies?

My mother raised five children without the luxuries we have today—like a washer and dryer! Cooking was a chore she especially resented, and that showed in her meals. Since the food wasn’t as great as it could be, I used to refuse to eat. The only thing I was actually willing to eat? Cookies. I would bake my own using imitation chocolate, margarine—nothing real, because we couldn’t afford to have that in the house.

What made you turn your cookies into a business?

I had worked since age 13—as a teen, I worked at a department store and spent my first paycheck on real butter, chocolate, and vanilla—and spent two years in junior college before marrying my first husband. He was trying to start an investment firm. I was a happy housewife.

But one night we went to dinner at the beautiful, intimidating home of one of my husband’s clients. This man asked me, "What do you do?"

“Oh,” I replied, “I’m just trying to get orientated.”

He got up, pulled an enormous, leather-bound dictionary off the shelf, put it in my lap and told me, “The word is oriented. If you can’t speak the English language, you shouldn’t speak at all.”

Incredibly embarrassed, sitting there in his library with tears streaming down my cheeks, I realized I wanted to be somebody. I could hear my father’s voice telling me that wealth was doing what you loved, and what I loved was cookies. So, that night, I gathered myself together and set out to become a somebody.

How did you get from your own kitchen to a bona fide store?

When I broached the idea of turning my cookies into a business, my family thought I was crazy. They told me I didn’t have any money, education, or experience, but hearing them made me only more determined. I started going into banks and asking for a loan. I would bring my business plan and my cookies, and they would look at the plan and eat all of the cookies and tell me, “Thanks, but no.” I started waking up every morning and telling myself, “Somewhere, there’s a person who wants to say yes.”

This was back in the late ’70s. I kept bringing my cookies and sharing my dreams, and finally I managed to get a loan with 21% interest. I was thrilled.

What did you learn from that?

The gentleman who finally granted the loan told me, “I love your product, and I love your enthusiasm.” From the bank’s perspective, they need to trust you, that you’ll pay back the loan. Also, you need to let the product sell itself, whether it's a good, service, or skill. If you want someone to pay for it, you should let them try it first.

Also—and this is my personal tip, here—find the banker nearest retirement, because he or she might be less concerned about the technicalities and more interested in following his or her heart.

Were there any rough spots when you were getting started?

The morning my first store opened, my husband bet I couldn’t make $50 in sales. Of course, I took that bet. I was sitting in the store on our first day, waiting for customers, and after a few hours, I realized that not only were there no customers, I was going to lose that bet.

So I took to the streets. I walked up and down the street, letting people try the product, and that day I ended up selling $75 worth. I had to realize that failure means something isn’t working—and I had to try something new.

I structured my business to give me immediate feedback so I could see right away whether I was failing. I used to get the profit and loss sheets 10 days after the month ended, and that was just too long to wait. So I sat down and worked out not only how much I needed to make per month, but also per day and then per hour. It was something like $32 an hour. And hey, we could do that! Even as the company grew, we still set our sales goals by the hour.

When was the moment you knew you made it big?

I think success is something you earn every day, and I never felt like I earned it. I break it down to every customer, every cookie: If I didn’t make my customer happy and my team didn’t honor the recipe and our purpose, I wasn’t successful in that moment. It’s easy to get comfortable, but it’s important never to lose touch with that feeling of opening day—that enthusiasm and excitement, that desire to touch every customer.

What’s an entrepreneurial trick you’ve learned along the way?

Never ask a question that can be answered with the word, “no.” This doesn’t just apply to business; it’s for daily life as well.

For instance, when I call a hotel, I don’t ask, “Can you give me a discount?” First, I get the name of the person I’m speaking with, and then ask them to direct me to the person who can give me the lowest price on a room. When I get to that person, I ask if they’re the person with the power to say, “Yes.” They tell me that they are, and at that point, they’ve already agreed! I just haven’t asked yet.

What are some of your own personal finance tips and tricks?

Because I grew up on imitations, margarine, and fake, to me the most important thing is to buy the best. That doesn’t always mean designer, or most expensive—it means pure and good and what makes you happy. What I’ve learned is that “good enough” never is… that’s the philosophy of Mrs. Fields.

I buy things because I fall in love. First I fall in love, then I see if I can afford it. If I can’t, it doesn’t mean I can’t still love it—I just won’t own it. I would rather love something and appreciate it than compromise and buy something that I don’t love instead. If it’s something I could maybe afford, I sleep on it for a few days, then check back. If it’s there and meant to be, it’s mine.

After growing up with limited means, the little things give me joy. I just bought a pair of inexpensive sparkle shoes—I love things that sparkle!

Any final words of wisdom?

The American dream is true. It works and it’s possible for everybody. Even the word “impossible” says “I’m possible.”

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  • Photo courtesy of Marco.