27: "The Partners" - Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs

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"The Partners" 

Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs are the co-founders of Food52.com. Their goal was to create the first crowd sourced, online cook book. As you will see if you visit the site, they have already achieved much, much more than that - a fully realized food, cooking and lifestyle community and ecommerce destination. 

I talked to Amanda and Merrill about the birth and evolution of their partnership, about why they spent 5 years testing 1400 recipes and about the existential challenge of auditioning to play the part of 'you.'


Three Takeaways

  • Follow your passion. 'What do I love to do? How can I make a business out of that?' 
  • A willingness to listen to others and each other, and to learn from that experience. 
  • A fundamental respect for the fact that people have their own journeys. 

"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 27: "The Partners" Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs 

"A future investor had really encouraged us to make it Amanda and Merrill dot com.  But we felt really strongly this isn’t about us. It’s about this world we’re creating."

Charles:                               

Hello. You're listening to Fearless, where we explore the art and science of leading creativity, that unpredictable, amorphous, and invaluable resource that's critical to every modern business. Each week, we talk to leaders of the world's most disruptive companies about how they're jumping into the fire, crossing the chasm, and blowing up the status quo. Leaders who've mastered the art of turning the impossible into the profitable. Today, the world needs leaders who can unlock creativity like never before. Why shouldn't that be you?

 The partners.

Merrill Stubbs:                          

A future investor had really encouraged us to make it amandaandmerrill.com. But we felt really strongly like this isn't about us. This is about this world that we're creating.

Charles: 

Fearless leadership has a lot to do with ego. A lot. Bring too much, and people will work overtime to highlight year hubris and diminish your dedication. But bring too little, and they'll chase you out the door before you barely get your feet under the table. As with most aspects of managing a company dependent on creativity, finding and maintaining the right balance is everything. When you're starting your own business, there's a period of time that lasts roughly until you hire your fourth or fifth employee, when you still believe that you are finally, truly your own boss. Free forever from the responsibility of working for others.

In those magical, fleeting days before the reality and the responsibility show up in full 4K resolution, you see the world through a lens that starts, and often ends, with you. It's in those early moments when one of the most important decision affecting the long-term success of your business has to be made. What are you going to call your company? The temptation, a siren's call answered by many entrepreneurs, is to put your own name on the marquee. There are several reasons for this. Some that can be post rationalized, some that can't. And almost all of them, in my opinion, wrong. Putting your name on the door makes it much, much harder to cross the threshold any business has to cross if it's going to achieve long term success. That crucial transformation, the gateway to lasting success and happiness, if in fact those two are divisible, is for the company to continue to be successful once the founders have left.

In a different age, it was common for founders to put their names on the door. In some industries, advertising and fashion most visibly among them, it was actually expected. That age was marked by a time in which hierarchical organizational structure and top-down leadership and management were the order of the day. But today, in the age of collaboration and self expression, the most successful companies are designed to extract the best thinking from across the organization. And they're built with purpose with a capital P.

When the story of the company is focused on the who, the platform on which that company's success is built is more fragile and less scalable. But when it's focused on the what, or to borrow from Simon Sinek's insight, the why, the potential of that company is limitless.  In many ways, the embodiment, the epicenter, of truly fearless leadership comes through a simple reframing that Chris and I fell upon out of instinct in the early days of building our own business. Rather than seeing ourselves as essential, we worked every day to make ourselves irrelevant. We reasoned that if, when we were ready to sell, the company no longer needed us, the buyer's confidence in the value of the business would go up. And our departure would be without limitations or lasting commitments to any future buyer. Because if there's one thing that's better than financial success, it's financial success with freedom. Fearless leadership is absolutely about ego. It's about knowing when to let it out, and when to put it away.

Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs are the cofounders of food52.com. Their initial goal was to create the first crowdsourced online cookbook. As you'll see if you visit the site, and I hope you do, they've already achieved much, much more than that, building a fully-realized, food, cooking, and lifestyle community and e-commerce destination. I talked to Amanda and Merrill about the birth and evolution of their partnership, about why they spent five years testing 1,400 recipes, and about the existential challenge of auditioning to play the part of you.

 Amanda, Merrill, thank you so much for being here. It's really a joy to have you on Fearless.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Thanks for having us.

Amanda Hesser:              

Thank you.

Charles:                               

My first question to you is -- Amanda, let's start with you -- where did creativity first show up in your life? What's your first memory of something being creative?

Amanda Hesser: 

I think actually outdoors. Because I lived in the woods in Pennsylvania, and it was the '70s so there wasn't a lot of parenting involvement. So I think in just playing in the woods and on the rocks and imagining things, I feel like that was sort of ... It wasn't forced upon us, it was just like the kind of thing that, if you wanted to have fun, you had to be creative.

Charles:                               

What kind of things were you imagining?

Amanda Hesser:              

I feel like I was often actually making homes and organizing. Now I'm thinking actually of when we would visit my grandmother, who lived on the Chesapeake Bay. We would go down to the shore and we would build these little rock homes, which actually Merrill and I have discussed, because you did that as well.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Yeah. And my kids do, and your kids too.

Amanda Hesser:              

And still do. Yeah. And it's not like it's something unusual that other kids don't do. I do think it had a big place in my imagination, and just those kinds of activities were really important to me.

Charles:                               

Merrill, what about you?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

The first thing that came to my mind when you asked that question was a memory of my grandfather, my maternal grandfather, telling me and my sister stories before bed. And he had lots of different storylines that were recurring.  His favorite one was about a bird named Henry the goo goo bird, who would show up at his window and ask how my sister Abby and I were. But he would only communicate with my grandfather, and then he would relay to us the conversations. And funnily enough, my father, not the son of this grandfather but my mother's husband, so not related at all, would also tell us very similar stories. Not about Henry the goo goo bird but about Fred and Frederica, who were two seals who came to talk to him in Maine -- my parents had a house in Maine -- and would swim up and ask him how me and my sister were. And he would relay to us these conversations. And we always just missed them. Oh, they were just here, Fred and Frederica, they'll be so sad they missed you.

Charles:                               

If Henry the goo goo bird had shown up with the other grandparent, that would have been something.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Yes.

Charles:                               

Wow, Henry the goo goo bird-

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Henry the goo goo bird is legendary in my family.

Charles:                               

Henry the goo goo bird and Fred and Frederica.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Yeah.

Charles:                               

Interesting. How did you guys meet?

Amanda Hesser:              

We were introduced by a-

Charles:                               

Henry the goo goo bird?

Amanda Hesser:              

Yeah. He sent a message to Merrill. Through me.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

He talked to my grandfather.

Amanda Hesser:              

And I said ... Yes, exactly. This colleague ... I used to work at The New York Times. And a colleague of mine knew Merrill through his boyfriend at the time. And I was looking for someone to help me with a cookbook that I was working on, and she was just moving back from Boston, where she had done catering and taught cooking. And just the timing was perfect. And we met in The New York Times cafeteria, which at that time was in the old building, the most drab ...

Merrill Stubbs:                 

I was seduced, as a 25-year-old, 24-year-old. I was like, ooh, what's this place?

Amanda Hesser:              

That smell of old grease. Yes, really.

Charles:                               

You casually threw away the fact that you worked for The New York Times. You did something quite significant at The New York Times. Tell the listeners what that was.

Amanda Hesser:              

I was a longtime features writer and eventually food editor at The New York Times.

Charles:                               

And have been in a movie, right?

Amanda Hesser:              

Oh, yeah.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Oh, that little thing.

Amanda Hesser:              

Well, I wrote about Julie Powell, who wrote this blog about cooking from "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," which was turned into the movie "Julie & Julia." And so I played myself in that movie.

Charles:                               

Did you find that hard, playing yourself? Did you need motivation?

Amanda Hesser:              

I'm pretty good at it, actually.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

You were really convincing.

Amanda Hesser:              

But I did have to audition for it.

Charles:                               

Did you really?

Amanda Hesser:              

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles:                               

To see whether you could play yourself?

Amanda Hesser:              

Yes, and that was a really ...

Charles:                               

How great that they thought you could.

Amanda Hesser:              

Actually it was one of the most stressful things I've done professionally because I thought, like, what kind of existential crisis will I have if I don't get this part?

Charles:                               

Right. Talk about the ultimate judgment of am I worthy of being me.  Actually, that's a lot of pressure.

Amanda Hesser:              

Yes.

Charles:                               

So, Merrill, when you were invited into this meeting, this conversation, where were you in your journey at that moment?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

You mean when I met with Amanda for the first time?

Charles:                               

Yes.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

As she said, I had just moved back to New York -- I'm from New York originally -- from Boston, where I had spent three years working in various food-related fields. I'd been to cooking school previously, before that, in London at the Cordon Bleu, post-college. And knew that I loved writing, knew that I loved cooking, was trying to kind of do a little bit of both, get some hands-on cooking experience, and started writing my own food e-mail newsletter. I mean, this was really before ... Blogging was just becoming a thing. Food blogging was very new. And I decided I really wanted to get into food writing. And in Boston at the time there weren't a lot of opportunities to do that. I had interned at America's Test Kitchen for a little bit, but I knew that moving back to New York was going to bring me broader opportunities. And so I moved back to New York, and got this intro to Amanda literally the first week I was back, I think. And it all just kind of went from there. I feel like there was a lot of Karma at work.

Amanda Hesser:              

That was 2004. So we've been working together since then.

Charles:                               

13 years.

Amanda Hesser:              

Yeah.

Charles:                               

What drew both of you into food to begin with? Merrill, why don't you start? How did you get into that world? What brought you into it?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

From a very young age -- I'm going to go back to storytelling again -- I was kind of obsessed with the idea of cooking. My mother loves to tell this story about, one day I came into the kitchen, having just read a book, and said to her, can we roast some meats? And it turned out I was reading the "Little House on the Prairie" books, and there are so many great food descriptions in those books. And I was just completely caught up in them and fascinated by those descriptions. And she said, that's when I knew. I don't know if I knew at that time, but-

Charles:                               

Out of all the things that "Little House on the Prairie" books could have led you to, it's probably one of the better ones.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Learning how to live on the prairie probably wasn't going to have career prospects for me.

Charles:                               

Right.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

But then I didn't really come to it in any kind of real, structured way, until college. My senior year in college I was writing a thesis about Medieval literature, and trying to procrastinate, and I started teaching myself to cook from "The Joy of Cooking." And I was living off campus with two roommates, and very quickly realized that if I cooked, people really wanted to come over. And that was really appealing. That all of a sudden our house became this gathering place, and I was responsible for that. And I really, really loved that.

Charles:                               

And Amanda, how about you? How did you end up at The New York Times as the food critic?

Amanda Hesser: 

Kind of by accident. I never intended to go into food, and certainly not writing. English was my least favorite subject in school. But I grew up around great food. And people who are drawn to food usually have one of two extremes. Either they were surrounded by good food and good cooking, or they were completely deprived of good food, and therefore sought it out. So Merrill and I are on the sort of lucky end of that spectrum.

But, you know, I grew up around good American home cooking. It wasn't gourmet food. My mom didn't buy "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" because it was too expensive. She had these kind of basic American home cooking cookbooks. But she made everything from scratch, as did my grandmother. She made bread from scratch. Every summer they made pickles. We cooked crabs when we went to Maryland.  She cooked seasonally before it was a fashionable thing to do. But it comes from a very kind of blue collar ... Like, this is practical and sensible and this is the way you do things. It also turned out that they were very good at it.

So I think I had just an innate sense of what good food meant, and that it was something that was important. But, like Merrill, it wasn't until I was in college that I started really paying attention. But I think it comes from the being deprived of it. Like, I was suddenly taken out of the environment where it was just a regular part of my life, into an environment where I'm eating at a cafeteria every day. And I'm also, by the way, bored with what I'm studying.

I studied in Europe in my junior year, and I traveled a bunch, and it was the first time I was really exposed to foods from different cultures and how important it is to everyday life in Europe. And I fell in love, and I wasn't sure what to do with it. So I kind of just dove in. I came back and I wrote a letter to my favorite chef in Boston and asked her if I could work for free. And I did that at a bakery. I worked at this bakery on Saturday nights and drove the delivery truck around Boston around 5 AM, and delivered bread. And took a food history course. And all of a sudden I was kind of in the food world, finding myself.

Charles:                               

How did you go from there to The New York Times?

Amanda Hesser:              

So, then I moved to Europe, and worked in restaurants and bakeries in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and France. Went to La Varenne cooking school in France. Worked for the owner, who was a cookbook writer. And I think that's sort of when I ... I was drawn to writing, but I didn't really know where to start. And I think working for someone who was a writer was very helpful because I could see that this is a job. It seems so basic now, but not that long ago, food writing was a job for a very kind of elite few. There was no clear, linear way to get from where I was to becoming a food writer, so I just kept pushing and trying. I pitched some stories. I pitched a story to The Washington Post and they took it.  I actually wrote my first book about a gardener in France, and I pitched that book and got a literary agent. And then I was like, okay, I guess I'm a writer now.

So I wrote that book, and I had met some really interesting people along the way, including a woman named Nancy Jenkins, who is a food writer. She used to be a staff writer at The New York Times, she has written many cookbooks. And without me knowing, she actually recommended me to The New York Times.  When they called and left a message on my home machine -- now I'm dating myself -- and I was two days away from moving to Los Angeles, I thought it was a prank call. Because why would they be calling me? Everyone else was saying no to all my pitches.

So I moved to LA ... I went and I met this editor, in Grand Central Station, wearing wool pants on a really hot day because it was the only pair of nice pants I had. So I sweated the entire time. And then I just moved to LA because I figured, oh, I'm never going to get this job.

Charles:                               

And they called you?

Amanda Hesser:              

Yeah. They called me. They brought me back, they flew me back for a day of interviews. And I was so nervous, my mom drove me to the city for those interviews and I was so nervous that I threw up in a flowerpot on Fifth Avenue on my way. But I managed to not say anything too stupid during the four hours of interviews, and went back to LA and thought, well I'm still not going to get it. And then they called me and they wanted me to meet the executive editor. So at that point I thought, well, he's not really going to bother meeting too many food writers. So I'm going to take this free ticket and bet that I'm getting the job, and move back to New York.

Charles:                               

And you did.

Amanda Hesser:              

I did.

Charles:                               

Wow. So you guys meet. You're working on a book, did you say?

Amanda Hesser:              

Yes, we were working on what's now "The Essential New York Times Cookbook", which is a retrospective of all the Times' best recipes from 150 years.

Charles:                               

How interesting. How did that morph into this incredible website that you guys have built now?

Amanda Hesser: 

Well, there were, I think two aspects. One was just us building a professional and personal relationship over the course of five years, which is how long it took for us to do all of the research and recipe testing on that book that was necessary, and for Amanda to write it all. It's a huge, amazing accomplishment.

Charles:                               

So you actually tested every recipe, that had already been in The New York Times?

Amanda Hesser:              

We did. We retested.

Charles:                               

To see whether they were right the first time?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

We didn't test every recipe.

Amanda Hesser:              

Oh not ... No, yeah not, there are tens of thousands. But we tested 1,400.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

We chose.

Charles:                               

Did you really?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Yeah.

Amanda Hesser:              

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Took a while.

Charles:                               

What's the criteria when you test a recipe, to decide whether it's valid? Do you have to like it?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

We kept it pretty simple, which was, would we make this again?

Amanda Hesser:              

Yeah. It was that and-

Charles:                               

That's a good criteria.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

And we ate most of-

Amanda Hesser:              

Would we want this to be part of our cooking life? Yeah.

Charles:                               

So you ate most of them.

Amanda Hesser:              

Meaning, ate most of ...

Charles:                               

Of the 1,400, you ate all of the-

Amanda Hesser:              

Oh, yeah, we tasted all of them.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Yeah, we cooked all. Yeah. Some of them much more happily than others. And Amanda's husband, Tad, had tasted most of them too.

Amanda Hesser:              

Yeah. Yeah, so the book has like 900 to 1,000 recipes in it. And we were already testing kind of the cream of the crop that had been recommended by readers, etc. So it wasn't like we were just testing things and putting everything into the book. It was really a matter of curating. We're pretty tough critics.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Yeah.

Charles:                               

What was the favorite thing? Out of 1,400.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Booze pie? No, that was-

Amanda Hesser:              

I was thinking of that one-

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Were you?

Amanda Hesser:              

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Charles: 

Booze pie?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Booze pie.

Amanda Hesser:              

It's actually called Dick Taeuber's cordial pie. And I think he's some kind of scientist. The New York Times had published this recipe in the '70s of '80s, and it essentially is a kind of a gelation-based cream pie with alcohol in it. And the base recipe has, I believe rum and something else in it.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Brandy, I think, maybe?

Amanda Hesser:              

Maybe brandy. Yeah. But he then created this grid of all the different ... Like, you could make a grasshopper version, you could make a-

Merrill Stubbs:                 

The crust is usually a crumbled, cookie crust. And so, he did this matrix of combining this kind of filling with this kind of booze, and these flavorings with this crust and then you'd get this version.

Amanda Hesser:              

Yeah. It was very cool, actually. And it was a bit hit.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

And delicious. Yeah.

Amanda Hesser:              

Yeah.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

You have to be very careful with that, though. It's not for-

Amanda Hesser:              

Serving size, small.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Yeah.

Charles:  

I can imagine. So you put the book together. You said it took five years.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

It took five years, so we got to know each other very well. And we realized that we were very compatible as professional partners, at least in the kitchen. And we would chat a lot. So we talked a lot about what we were seeing happening in the food world, online, which was burgeoning, and food blogs were becoming more and more numerous all the time.

Charles:                               

So this was what year? What period?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Well, this was starting in 2004, and up until basically 2008, 2009. And things were changing a lot and we were both ... I was freelancing and Amanda was still at The Times for a lot of this. So we had the perspective of food writers and editors, and then also, kind of just in our own personal lives, seeing what was happening, offline and online. And also, go diving into these amazing archives of The Times,  where, back in the early days, back in the 1880s, all of the recipes in The Times, or the majority of them, actually came from readers. So they were crowdsourced. And it was because everyone just knew how to cook. Or, at least, the women did. And so not only were there all of these recipes that readers would write in with and that were published in the household column every week, but they were also very sparse in terms of directions. Because there were a lot of assumptions being made about the readers just knowing instinctively what to do with an ingredient list.

It was really interesting to see that. And also see some of the ingredients that were called for at the time, that we both, I think, assumed hadn't been available until recently. But there were recipes for risotto in the 1880s, that then disappeared after the war, when there was a lot more Spam that came into the recipes. There was really a dark time in there. So, there was a real sophistication and this kind of community collaborative quality to recipe writing and sharing.

And we were seeing that being echoed, in our time, with food blogs. And also offline gatherings. People were meeting up to do food swaps and have underground dinner parties, and everyone clearly was moving beyond just wanting to be a consumer of food media, to wanting to have a voice and produce it. Or at least have a conversation about it, and share their expertise and their passion, and talk about food and home and entertaining. And it was this very sort of social thing that was happening, and we didn't see that reflected online. Certainly with any of the kind of legacy brands that had moved from print to digital, or created digital presences to supplement.

That was really where the gears started turning. And we felt like there was an opportunity to really kind of tap into what was happening. And serve people in this way that we personally felt like there was nowhere for us to go to get inspiration and have a social experience around food and home, and this sort of community aspect that's so innate to all that.

Charles:                               

Was there a moment coming out of this realization that you thought, we're going to build a website together?

Merrill Stubbs: 

Yeah. Amanda called me. I was in a taxi going to the airport to go to Croatia, I think-

Amanda Hesser:              

Yeah. Croatia.

Merrill Stubbs:

... with my family for my Dad's 60th birthday. I'm trying to do my math, yeah. And Amanda said, can you talk while you're in the cab, for a few minutes? And she called me and she said, do you want to do this thing with me? How about if we build a website and we create the first crowdsourced cookbook? I said, yes, of course. That sounds like a great idea.

Charles:                               

And did you know what that would mean at that point? How strong an understanding of what it would take to make that happen did you have, at that point?

Amanda Hesser:              

I feel like I had some understanding of what we would need to get done. Because when I left The New York Times, I had actually left so that I could work on this other ... This start-up that had nothing to do with food. And so I spent a year. I call it my grad school year, where I kind of immersed myself in this world, met a lot of people, got a sort of sense of, like, who the players were in terms of investing, but also, what a back-end developer is, what a front-end developer is. A lot of the kind of team and structure that goes into building a website and a start-up business. And it was actually kind of, as painful as these things are, a really valuable experience because that other company didn't raise money, so therefore didn't do too much damage, but learned a lot. And I think that that sort of helped us at least have some road map to get started. This was a very different kind of business.

But what we actually turned to, initially, because in these situations it's really helpful to do what you know well, was, we thought, well, how are we going to get some money, to get this built. And we knew how to sell a book. And with a book, you get an advance, to write the book. It doesn't mean you have to spend that money on ... I mean, you can spend it on whatever you want. A lot of writers use it on research, or travel, to do research. Or whatever. Or just their living expenses while they're writing. What we did is we sold a two-book deal to HarperCollins and they very kindly gave us the advance for both books upfront, knowing that we needed some cash to build a site. And honestly, this was the easiest part of building our business ever. We were like, well, this is going to be-

Merrill Stubbs:                 

If everything could be that easy.

Amanda Hesser:              

This is going to be cake. And then nothing was ever easy again. So we used that advance to hire a design firm, build the site, pay someone, once the prototype of the site was launched, to manage it for ... Make sure it stayed up, or add improvements. And we basically used that to test out the concept for the business, while also the site itself helped produce the content for the book.

Charles:                               

And there's a story behind the name Food52, right? How did you decide that?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

A lot of URL searching. But we wanted something that was simple and memorable. And we decided that we liked names that combined a word and a number. So then we though about a wood that was pretty obvious, obviously related to what we were doing. And then a number that had meaning. And because we launched our proof of concept as a weekly recipe contest system where we could solicit recipe contributions from readers and therefore build out the content for these books that we had sold, 52 made a lot of sense. Because we were doing a recipe contest every week. In fact, we were doing two recipe contest every week. But, you know, semantics. But also, just the idea that food is present in your life all the time.

Amanda Hesser:              

And we're here with you.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Yeah. All year long.

Charles:                               

So there was an emotional kind of connection with the audience?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Oh, yeah, absolutely. And we knew that that was really vital for building this kind of business. And that there's real power in having strong editorial sensibility and voice. And that you can build incredible loyalty and devotion. We really focused on doing that the right way. I do think that we both felt like there was something a little impersonal about the name Food52. And actually, a future investor had really encouraged us to make it amandaand merrill.com. But we felt really strongly like, this isn't about us. This is about this world that we're creating, and the name will take its own kind of ... It will gain feeling, over time. Like, it may feel a little empty now, because what is Food52 before it existed?  It's just a word and a number.

Charles:                               

And that's true of all the great brands. I mean, Nike meant nothing until they made it Nike.

Amanda Hesser:              

Right.

Charles:                               

Google is the same thing. What did Google ...? Bunch of strange letters thrown together at random, apparently.

Merrill Stubbs:

It's just like people's names. You know, you start to associate certain names with the people you know who have them, and sort of imbue them with personalities.

Charles:                               

Yeah, I'm stuck actually, how often leaders show up and think, if I get the perfect name it will all figure out ... Like, the name's just an empty vessel, till you decide what it stands for.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Right, till you make something of it.

Amanda Hesser:              

I mean, I do think if we had called it amandaandmerrill.com, it would have resonated more immediately and maybe we would have grown faster in the beginning. But I actually think we would have run into ...

Merrill Stubbs:                 

I think it would have limited us.

Amanda Hesser:              

Yeah, it would have really limited us. And I think that you see that with any kind of brand that's led by one person. I mean, it has really held back Oprah.

Charles:                               

It's funny. Although-

Merrill Stubbs:                 

And Madonna.

Charles:                               

It's almost [crosstalk].

Amanda Hesser:              

She's the only example I can think of where it really hasn't, but it does, generally. And I think that also it's not in our nature to kind of push ourselves to the forefront. Like, we have no interest in being celebrities or personalities. We want to be a presence, and for people to see that we are approachable, and that even though, yes, we are trained cooks, we are regular home cooks. We make mistakes. I think that's part of our brand DNA, is being there with you and making mistakes alongside you. And that that's all a part of the sort of pleasure and growth with cooking and home.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Yeah. I think we see our responsibility as sort of twofold. One is we're here to provide inspiration for people. And the flip side of that, or the complement to that, is to provide support and real sort of practical utility to allow people to kind of up their game. And that requires a degree of accessibility.

Charles:                               

What did you think the journey of building a website and a business was going to be like, and how has it differed in the experience of it?

Amanda Hesser:              

We both have parents who built businesses, very different businesses. But I think there are important kind of parallels with any business, no matter what industry it's in. Just the sort of grit that is needed, the intense loyalty to it, and belief, and doubt. That it's a journey. I think we were both exposed to that at an early age.

Charles: 

Did you define success early on? Did you say, this will be what we want it to be when it has these characteristics, or this kind of audience? Did you ever sit down and say, this is what the goal looks like specifically?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

We didn't put very specific parameters on it. And I think we still don't. We resist that because the world changes all the time, and you have to be ready to adapt and to take advantage of new opportunities. And social media was just completely nascent when we started Food52. Twitter was brand new. Instagram didn't exist. Facebook looked very different. Social media has become a huge opportunity for us, in particular Instagram, being so visually oriented.as a food business, that's just kind of a natural place to be for us. So we try not to put really, again, sort of tight parameters on our vision.

But I think what we did agree on early on was we wanted to create a brand, a new kind of brand that didn't exist, and I would argue still doesn't, that really provides a comprehensive resource for people who feel passionate business kitchen. And home kind of wove its way it a little bit later. We felt like there was an opportunity to create a brand that, again, was inspirational but didn't talk down to readers or customers, and that really involved them in the process and really got them to feel invested in it and connected with them in a very different way that was much more tuned in to sort of the way the world is going.

Charles:                               

And aesthetic is obviously very much a part of the website and the brand now. Was that always part of your consciousness, that that was going to be important?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Yes, from the very beginning. It was, I think, one of the first things that we did, was trying to find a great photographer.

Amanda Hesser:              

And one of the ways that we recognized the community, the winners of the recipe contests in the beginning, was to photograph them professionally. And that was like a prize, you know and we felt that that made sense. That there really was something that felt exciting to community members. To have a professional photographer, someone style their recipe and photograph it professionally, was this form of real recognition.

Charles:                               

What's been the biggest challenge that you found, or the biggest surprise, maybe better put, as you have jumped into this and worked your way through the evolution of building and running a business?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

I think I might actually call it more of a challenge than a surprise, although maybe they're sort of one and the same. You may have a different answer, but for me it's been the constant need to evolve our roles as leaders. And it's actually been one of the most exciting challenges. It's sometimes really ... I mean, it's also the hardest. But it means that it's never boring, because six months go by and that might mean we actually need to have a different role than we did six months earlier. Depending on new hires we've brought on, or a change in focus.

Or, you know, not that we've ever pivoted, but pouring our resources more into one area of the business than another, and that requires us to take on different roles or be managing different things, paying closer attention to certain things than others. Time of year is a factor in terms of our roles. I mean, this time of year, moving into holidays, it's our Superbowl from all angles. And so we actually end up being much more public facing this time of year even than we are the rest of the year. Would you say that's true?

Amanda Hesser:              

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles:                               

You mean the two of you are public facing?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Yeah. I mean, the opportunities are much more, much greater, this time of year. They happen all the time, but the density of them just really increases this time of year. So we have to really be out there, spreading the message.

Charles:                               

Is that the same perspective for you?

Amanda Hesser:              

I absolutely agree with that. Maybe the surprise is that the surprises never stop.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Yeah.

Amanda Hesser:              

And I would say, on most days, this is what we feel so lucky and excited about, is that there are new challenges all the time. And then on those days when you haven't had enough sleep, they feel less appealing. But I do think that there is something to be said about the fact that we started this business once we were pretty well into our careers. And so I think our perspective, our expectations, are different. In some ways I feel like the pressure has been higher, because we were established in our careers and we couldn't fail a then just move on in the way that, if you start a business when you're 22, you can. In fact, it's sort of like a badge on honor, like you're expected to start and fail a few businesses before you figure it out. But if you have domain expertise and a reputation, that changes things.

And so I think we faced that, but I also feel like a huge advantage. Above all else is our incredible friendship and working relationship. And such deep trust. But I also think we both came to this with some professional maturity, that really helps you when you're starting a business and you have so many things that can throw you off.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Resilience. I think we both had some of that already. We developed it and that's been really, really helpful. And then also being about to, as Amanda said, lean on each other. I also think that's been an interesting surprise. How much our relationship has developed and changed over the years. And it's been incredible. I mean, I do think that we're quite unusual in our partnership and how well we communicate and how easy things are, and respectful they are between us.

We actually have a couple of people who report to both of us, and sometimes people are wary of that, because they want to know ... Oh man, am I going to be in the middle of some blazing debate between the two founders who disagree, and how am I going to possibly know what to do? And we tell them, you know, that just doesn't happen. Not that we don't ever disagree, but if we do, we have the muscles, we've exercised the muscles over the years to know how to work through those disagreements and listen to each other. And we respect each other's opinions so deeply that that's just not an issue. People ... Of course, you can tell them than and they don't believe it until they see it. But I think it's really unusual.

Charles:                               

What have you learned about yourselves in this process, each of you?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

How tough we are.

Amanda Hesser:              

Yep. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Merrill Stubbs:                 

And we don't always give ourselves enough credit for that. I think we're starting to.

Amanda Hesser:              

Yeah. I think about this a lot, is that I kind of pride myself as being, not a loner but a do-it-myself-

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Independent. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amanda Hesser:              

Independent. I always ... I mean, it's definitely, that was my reputation in the family, was that I was independent minded. But I love partnering. I think that that has become really clear to me. I mean, I love working with Merrill. We talk about this a lot I can not imagine starting a business alone.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Or having a bad partner.

Amanda Hesser:              

Oh my God. That would be-

Merrill Stubbs:                 

That's maybe even worse.

Amanda Hesser:              

Yeah, I think so. Yeah. What else?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

What else have we learned about ourselves?

Charles:                               

Do you have disagreements? Do you fight?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

We don't fight.

Amanda Hesser:              

We don't fight.

Charles:                               

Never.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

We have had respectful debates.

Amanda Hesser:  

Yes.

Charles:                               

Wow. That's fantastic,

Merrill Stubbs:                 

I mean, not that we don't have emotional conversations. And in fact, I mean, I think that's one thing that we've also learned about ourselves and maybe not for everyone, but I think probably for a lot of people, that it doesn't actually make sense, when you're working so closely with someone to remove the personal from the professional. You can't. That wall doesn't serve anyone once you get to a certain point, and we've learned, over the years, not to kind of bottle you particular personal stuff that's going on and say, no, I've just got to plow through, and I'm not going to share that with her because that's my stuff. Because it always reveals itself.

And so now, we just hare it all, we get it all on the table, because we help each other. And we often find that when one of us is in a bad place, the other one's actually in a better place, and is able to support and buoy the one who's having a tough time. And that actually feels really good, if you're the one who can be that support. So it serves both of us, and it usually works out really well. Yes there are times when we're both down in the dumps, but then we can also-

Amanda Hesser:              

We also laugh about that, too.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Yeah, then we can commiserate and cry together, or whatever it is. You know? And it's just like, such a relief not to hide that. And it ends up really benefiting, I think, the work we do, our relationship with each other.

Amanda Hesser:              

When we disagree about something, we always just feel like, huh. And then interested. Like, you're disagreeing, what are us seeing that I'm not? And I think in any kind of working partnership or any kind of close relationship, that's the ideal place you want to be. And so, it's actually super helpful. I think we just kind of naturally came to that.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

We've worked hard at it.

Amanda Hesser:              

Yeah. Yeah, we have. Yes, that is true.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Yeah.

Charles:                               

What does that work look like? How do you ...?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Lots of conversations trying out different kind of conversations over the years, I would say.

Amanda Hesser:              

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Again, making ourselves vulnerable to each other. I think that's huge. Getting to the point -- and this happened gradually -- where we could open up more and more and more and feel like we could lay in on the table without risking the other person judging or feeling nervous that they were about to be left kind of along. Like, that the other person was going to lose it or abandon them, or not be able to hold up their side of the deal. I think that it just takes practice.

Charles:                               

Do you make every major decision together? Do you divide and conquer?

Amanda Hesser:              

Yeah on the day to day, we divide and conquer, but anytime I think, oh, you know, Merrill would want to know that, we make notes and then update each other. But if it's something like a big business decision, like direction or whatever of course we make those together. I'm just thinking of, I had a recent idea and I told Merrill and she was like, interesting. And she's thinking about it. And then we'll talk about it again. And that's how we do stuff. It's like that process is really important and helpful.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

You mean the one where I said, ooh?

Amanda Hesser:              

And I was like-

Merrill Stubbs:                 

And Amanda thought I said, oh.

Amanda Hesser:              

And I was like, oh, she's not into it.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

And I was like, no, I really like it. I just want to think about it.

Charles:                               

That extra o in the middle. [crosstalk]

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Exactly. I should put a third o in. That really would make it clear.

Charles:                               

[crosstalk] oooh. Yeah, remarkable. Yes. Entire industries have had their direction changed based on that missing o.

Amanda Hesser:              

One vowel.

Charles:                               

Quite striking. What have you learned about how to lead other people and manage other people? Because that was not a part of what your experience had been until you came together. Until you started this business.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Well, you had managed a fair number of people.

Amanda Hesser:              

I'd managed some, yeah, but in a very different kind of environment.

Charles:                               

Where somebody else was setting the rules, right?

Amanda Hesser:              

Yeah. It was like, well, The Times is such an institution, you know. And so it has its own kind of set of rules. No ones in charge. Ever. The institution's in charge. And that's pretty cool but it's also totally annoying sometimes.  Anyway, I think you never master this, and I think that we continue to learn. And for the most part, it's really, I think, interesting to both of us in that there's a certain amount of psychology. I mean, a lot of psychology in it.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Some guesswork.

Amanda Hesser:              

Some guesswork. And gut.

Charles:                               

Trial and error.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amanda Hesser:              

And then also, I think actually a lot of it is our own confidence, in our feelings about actually how someone might be doing, and what the right path forward is, whether it's for them and/or the business. I think we've gotten a lot better at that. One thing, I feel like we're very efficient in responding, and we always have been. I think that we're getting better at the sort of nuances of things. To give you an example of something that ... I have a very ... I would say, not one of my best characteristics is ... I mean, I do think I'm quite candid, but sometimes I feel like I need to tell you what the flaws in your thinking are. Perhaps. And Merrill has a really good gut sense of we that's worth it, and how to go about it. And how to temper language.

And again, I do think some of that comes from my dad running a business, and he was very blunt. And so it's kind of part of my upbringing, my understanding of how you communicate. But in this kind of business, and also just in this time in the world, that's not effective. And so, I feel like we learn from each other a lot.  It's been helpful, also personally, too, because I think that I handle things better.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

It's funny, I was going to come at it from the exact opposite direction. And I think this is again, just further proof of why we complement each other so well. Because my background is much more about avoiding conflict. And I was taught to just try and smooth things over. That was the most important thing to do, was be the diplomat. And I think that's also just naturally a part of my personality. And so I learned from Amanda that actually it's important to temper that with some candid truth and direct feedback. And that, in fact, if you avoid giving people feedback that may be hard for them to hear, no one is benefiting. So, if something isn't working out, and you just avoid having that conversation, they're not learning. And you're just dealing with someone who's not doing the job that you need them to be doing. And Amanda's really good at candidly but very kindly delivering constructive feedback in that way. And I've learned that from her.

 And I also thing the other thing that I've really learned is that being a leader is not about being like, and it's not about having friends. And that's not what people are looking for from a leader.  It doesn't mean you have to be mean or heartless, but you have to be okay with not being liked, and providing people with something beyond that. Instilling confidence in them, showing them that you're confident about where things are going, the direction, the vision, this is stuff I think we've had to really work on together. With your wife over the years who has been an invaluable help.  And this is also part of our roles evolving, that, you know, when there's five people, you all can be a family. And the management is very different than when you're at 75 people. And you can't interact with everyone personally, you can't know everyone personally. And you certainly shouldn't be thinking about being everyone's friend. You need to think about getting up there and projecting confidence and sharing the mission and providing direction.

And I was just having a conversation with another founder at a dinner a couple weeks ago -- I told Amanda about this -- and he's at 150 people. And I said, well, okay what do you think are the major differences between 75 and 150, because, you know, what do we have to look forward to? And he said, I'm really at the point know where I actually don't know everyone's names, and that's really painful for me. Because that's not how I think of myself. I like to have personal connections with people. But I've realized that I'm playing this part, and that's my role. And m role is not to get involved  in the nitty gritty. It's not even about management so much. It's about leading. And I think we've been traveling down that path, and it's not easy by any means. But it's really valuable.

Charles:                               

It's such an important distinction, isn't it? I mean, this notion of there being a difference between leading and managing. Which, I think, is a surprise for a lot of people. Until you really understand what those differences are. Really powerful. And I think your reference point about describing an organization as a family, my antenna, when it's anything larger than about eight people, my antenna go up when I hear somebody say to me, you know, we're a family-run, or we have a ... I mean, it's not going to work. Because you can't fire your family.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Right.

Charles:                               

Right? I mean, there are some people you would like to fire, in your family. But legally and physically, you can't do that. And if you're not prepared to fire the people that work for you, you can't hold everybody to a high enough standard that supports everybody. You know, I'm always a big believer that when you allow one individual enormous leeway, it's so undermining and destructive to everybody else who's pulling their weight and more. And in order to honor the whole, you actually have to be willing to take tough decisions about the individual.

When somebody leaves Food52 -- I'm sure they'd never leave Food52 but on the occasion that somebody's life path takes a different direction and they do -- what do you want them to say about having worked there? What would be a perfect description, as far as you're concerned, about the kind of environment that you want to have created?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Well, if we sort of look at our core values, we have our list of ten. We don't need to go through all of them. I think the ones that immediately jump out to me, that we want people to leave with, and have them really resonate with people, is that we're constantly focused on doing something different and innovative in our space. We've pioneered a totally new business model. That's really true. A lot of people talk about content and commerce, but they live separately, whereas they're truly intertwined into one comprehensive experience for our readers and our customers. So that we're doing something really innovative and new, prioritizing personal touch. Both within our ranks and with our community. And that we believe that that is scalable, if you make wise decisions and invest your time and resources appropriately.

And that we are a place of true collaboration. That we have a strong vision, and we're very clear about where we're headed. But we welcome ideas and we believe in the value of ideas from everyone who works for us and then everyone who comes to the site. That it's an open forum and we believe that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Charles:                               

What are you afraid of?

Amanda Hesser:              

Failure. I mean, in a very blunt way. I feel like we feel less afraid of it now. A lot less. But things happen in business. I mean, everything feels very uncertain in the world right now, so I think everyone is feeling a little vulnerable, whether in their own position or the business itself.  And there's just not a feeling of complete stability. I guess I would say that things could go awry and the business could not work. I think that one of the things that, I don't want to say dogs us, but it is just that we took on venture capital, and when you do that, there are expectations around your level of growth. And we've had great growth. But each kind of new phase of your business, things change dramatically, in terms of how things function and how you keep that growth going. And so, you know, there's always the kind of, well what if we have a bad year and we kind of lose the support of the investment community? And then what would ... you know. Wow, I'm getting dark.

I guess this is, I think, our deep fear. But I also feel like our business is in a place now where it has value. And the business itself is working. I don't think that it's just going to-

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Poof. Implode on you.

Amanda Hesser:              

Implode. But things could maybe go sideways or something.  And that would be a drag, because we've poured our hearts and could into it. And many other people have as well. What do you think about it?

Merrill Stubbs:                 

I think I'm less and less afraid of something that we do, or a decision we make, leading to some catastrophic results for Food52, and more afraid about the things we can't control. To your earlier point, just the state of the world. What that will mean, not just for us but for anyone in business.

Amanda Hesser:              

I actually feel a little bit bullish about it. Because I feel like-

Merrill Stubbs:                 

For us.

Amanda Hesser:              

Well, for us, because things are so unstable that I ... And, sort of in a macro political climate that is unstable, people kind of cling to what's close to them. And they want to be at home, they want to be comforted. And then, additionally there are some shifts in technology that we'll feel the benefit of. Which is like, people are not going to the movies as much. They're not going outside of the home as much for entertainment, because they can get so much at home. And so there's a real kind of push towards the home. Not to be ... I don't want to be like, take advantage of what is kind of a terrible time.

Merrill Stubbs: [crosstalk]

Amanda Hesser:              

But to us, yes it could have a great benefit to our business, but we also just feel like home is deeply important to us, personally and as people who are running a business about it. And so, it's not necessary a bad time for the kind of business that we're in.

Charles:                               

I wrap every show with what I describe as three themes, or three takeaways that I've heard from this conversation listening to you, about what I think makes you successful as leaders. So let me try these on for you.

One is, you're clearly following your passions, both of you. And obviously the passion is fundamentally driven from the same place. I think there are not enough leaders who actually just lean into that very basic human characteristic, which is what do I love to do? How can I make a business out of that? And you clearly have found that.

Two is, it's obvious in your partnership and it seems clear from the way you talk about the people that work with you and for you, you just respect people. You are willing to listen to others and each others, and to learn from that experience.  And I think that, again, one of the themes that's come out of doing this podcast for me, is that that is a very consistent characteristic that has emerged. And especially I think in what I would describe as modern leaders. I don't think that listening was seen as a trait for leadership 10 years ago. I think it was decisiveness and resilience, as you mentioned. Resilience is still important. Decisiveness is still important. But this notion of, we have to listen to everybody around us, because you don't know where the idea's coming from, and because people can contribute and have different expectations. I think that is really powerful.

And I think attached to that is the third theme, is fundamental respect for the fact that people have their own journeys. And you're offering them an opportunity to come and join yours for the time that you want. And you've got intention around that, but this is a possibility for you if you're interested in that. And the respect that people show up, I think, as individuals, is again really powerful.

Do those resonate with you?

Amanda Hesser:              

Yes.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Pretty, yeah, spot on.

Amanda Hesser:              

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles:                               

Thank you both so much for coming today and being part of this, I really appreciate you taking the time. And I wish you nothing but success with what I'm sure will go on being a very very successful partnership. Thank you.

Amanda Hesser:              

Great. Thanks so much.

Merrill Stubbs:                 

Thank you so much.

Charles:                               

You've been listening to Fearless, The Art of Creative Leadership. If you like what you've heard, please rate us on iTunes. It helps a lot. If you want more information on this episode or any of the others, go to fearlesscreativeleadership.com. And thanks for listening.