Why I Started a Company: A Q&A With Meals to Heal's Susan Bratton
Leaving a successful career to pursue an entrepreneurial venture is a scary step. But, once you’re passionate about the business you’ve been planning in your mind, it can almost be harder not to make the leap.
If you’re currently grappling with this decision, tune in over the next few weeks for advice from women who have been there before. Daily Muse contributor Eva Werk has talked to three entrepreneurs about their experience and asked them to share their wisdom on overcoming fears, shifting gears, and starting companies—all right here.
As with many great entrepreneurial ideas, the vision for Susan Bratton’s company Meals to Heal came about when a personal experience was coupled with a need that she felt wasn’t being met in the market. “It was one of those light-bulb moments when you say, ‘Wow, I think I actually found what I want to do with the rest of my life,’” says Bratton.
Spurred by losing her dear friend Eric to cancer four years ago, Susan founded Meals to Heal, a nutrition service that provides customized meal delivery and nutrition services to both cancer patients and their caregivers. The company’s mission: make the lives of people like Eric and his family more manageable by providing them with customized solutions to their nutritional needs—things like meals delivered to their doorsteps, help finding nutritional counseling, and access to an array of information on diet during cancer treatment.
In her former life, Susan was a Wall Street investment banker, though that still gave her 25 years of experience in the healthcare sector—she worked with nursing homes, physician management companies, and HMOs on strategic and financial decisions. While she acknowledges that it was a big shift moving from the world of Wall Street to starting an entrepreneurial venture, she still credits her skills from her investment banking days for helping her grow her vision.
Read on to hear Susan’s thoughts on the challenges—and rewards—of making this career change and heading out on her own.
How did you make the transition from healthcare investment banking to creating Meals to Heal?
I kind of just jumped off the high dive. I'd been thinking of doing something that was more on the entrepreneurial side, and then I lost my friend Eric. That was my tipping point. And once that catalyst occurred, starting the business was a foregone conclusion. I just felt so passionately about the problem and helping people that I mustered up the courage to leave my job and start the business. And once you jump, there's no way to get back. You're going.
Was the transition to entrepreneurship difficult? Did it take a while to get the company up and running?
It's strange how life works. I left my job in early 2010 to work on the company, and a month later my dad was diagnosed with cancer so I paused things for the year to focus on family. In January 2011, I got very serious about the company again and I spent a couple of months doing research, reading 600 or 700 peer-review journals on the medical evidence of nutrition and cancer patients. Then, I wrote a business plan and we launched commercially in May of 2012 with a pilot program. It took a little over a year after really starting to work on it to become an actual business.
What do you see as the biggest challenges working for yourself?
The hardest thing is that I don't have a partner to bounce ideas off of. So, I created a scientific advisory board and a board of directors, surrounding myself with people who are experts in areas that I'm not as knowledgeable about, and who really care about the success of the business. I also brought in a consultant who has been a great sounding board for me.
Whether you have a partner or not, it’s important to have somebody to be a sanity check. It’s easy to make so many decisions in a vacuum, but you really have to take yourself out of that vacuum and see what other people think.
Are you afraid of failure?
I'm definitely afraid of failure. I have a type-A personality, and that probably drives part of it. But also, there is a mission behind this business, and if it fails, there's nothing else in the market that's helping these people. I want this to succeed because I want to help people like my friend, Eric. I want to make their lives better—not just the patients, but their caregivers, too. I watched Eric's family struggle with their own nutritional issues and other issues around his diagnosis. Failure's not an option because this is so important. In a perfect world, I'd like to help every person who has these issues that Eric had.
It's not a debilitating fear, but it's always in the back of my head, driving me forward. If there's a big brick wall in front of me I have to figure out how to blast through it or put a ladder up and crawl over it. There has to be a way to make it happen.
How do you think you've grown as a person since starting this business?
I’ve grown in so many different ways. I've learned a lot of new skills: operations, finance, marketing, and sales. As a banker working with companies, I would look at all those aspects of their businesses, but it's a completely different thing to have to do it yourself.
Marketing, for example—the actual mechanics of setting up a marketing program is something that I'd never done before. This summer I read a book about social media for dummies. I'm sitting on the beach reading this book and people are looking at me with this enormous book and thinking, "How old are you? You don't know social media marketing?"
I've also learned a lot more about building teams and creating a positive work environment. I never really had to think about that before. How do I make this a great company to work for? I want people to go home every day and think, "Not only do I love what I'm doing, but I love the company that I'm working for."
What advice would you give to other women who want to start their own business or do the work they love but maybe are too scared to take the leap?
I saw these two great cards in a card store. One said, "Leap, and the net will appear." Things work out. They don't always work out exactly how you'd think, but they will work out.
The other one read, "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone." All I can say to people who are afraid is that I just wish that I would have done this so many years before I got the courage to do it. It took me 25 years to become an entrepreneur and to really pursue something that I passionately believe in. It's such a rewarding experience and it’s also hair-raising and frustrating and frightening all at once but it’s really worth it.
The other thing I would say is, don't blindly follow a passion. Be deliberate and focused. Do your research. Make sure that there's something there and you've thought through all of the risks and taken the steps to mitigate the risks to the best of your ability. Talk to the naysayers and let them really push your thought process. Write a business plan—there's no better discipline than to sit and write a business plan.
Then, trust your instinct and believe in what you're doing. Leap, and the net will appear.
To read more interviews with female entrepreneurs from all walks of life who are following their passions, visit Unleash the Brilliance Within.