Quitter to Winner

Thursday, October 21, 2010

INTERVIEW: Engineer > Career break > Ice Cream shop owner

Jim Ingram opened Mt. Tom’s Homemade Ice Cream seven years ago. A total 180 from his engineering career. Jim shares the why and how of his transition.

How did your career break come about?

I wasn’t one of those guys who hated working for someone else. I worked for a good telcom company with decent pay. Got my masters for free. I left at five every day and never took work home. It wasn’t bad. I did that for about 13 years. But one day I recall sitting in a meeting. I looked across the hall at a guy 25 years my senior. He worked at the same company for many years, probably doing pretty much the same thing day in and day out. He looked pretty beaten down. I didn’t want to be that guy in 25 years. While I was comfortable, I started to think that something was missing. It was like a dull ache. I thought I should push myself before it’s too late.

I took a director-level position with a tech startup. Going from a comfortable job to startup was a big risk. It crashed and burned after 18 months. After my layoff I went to the beach wondering, now what? I had essentially been working most of my adult life without a real break. I thought, how could I make this an opportunity? Travel was my first choice. I drove cross- country, coast to coast. I spent that summer living out of my car, camping or couch surfing and journaling. I didn’t think much about future during that time. As I was heading home I got a call from a buddy asking if I wanted to do another trip backpacking through Australia and New Zealand. That turned into another year of travel.

How was your reentry into the workforce?

My heart wasn’t in the job hunt. After all that time off, I thought about what I really wanted to do. I realized I had a chance to do something very different. I started to look out of the box. One day I was having breakfast with my dad. We were talking about his long run as an ice cream shop owner. It sounded like a fun business. It was also serendipitous. In an entrepreneur class I wrote a business plan to start an ice cream shop. So I had a rough plan and 40 years of real-life experience to tap into. My dad discouraged me at first but he came around. He said if you find a good location, go for it. That’s when another fateful incident occurred. I ran into a friend I hadn’t spoken to in years. She knew someone who was looking to rent the space I’m in now. It was perfect. Everything was lining up. I thought I’d give it five years. If it didn’t work, I could go back to engineering. I’ve been at it now for seven years.

Peoples’ careers are very much a part of their personal identities. How did you manage the “identity crisis” of a career transition?

I didn’t have much of a crisis. I did get a masters in engineering. I was going down corporate path pretty hard, and I did take it seriously, but I didn’t live to work. I didn’t work late or take work home. I actually work much harder and longer hours now owning my own business. I have to say the transition really wasn’t a problem for

How has your life improved since becoming an entrepreneur?

One thing I always tell people thinking about starting their own business: it’s a lifestyle. It’s so intertwined with your whole life. That’s why it’s so important to create an environment you enjoy. For my shop, summer is very busy. It’s fun but exhausting. The rest of the year it all balances out. It requires sacrifices, but that word sounds negative. The rewards so far outweigh the negatives. I take the month of January off. It’s sometimes tough to find a life/work balance, I’ll admit. But I try to remind myself of my Dad’s saying: I’m not going to work; I’m going to play.

Creativity is unlimited with owning your own business. If I have a cool idea, I can try it out the next day. You can’t always do that in a corporate gig.

An unexpected positive to my business is my connection to the community. People in town know me. Kids say there’s the ice cream man. It’s unexpectedly satisfying. I’m also creating jobs for high school kids. For some it’s their first job. The work habits they learn here will stay with them for their career.

Do you miss anything about your corporate gig?

I had a pension, health care, three or four weeks of vacation, and nights and weekends off. Those are the obvious perks. But one I didn’t think about was the social network built into working with a big company. When owning your own business you have to create your own social structure.

What advice do you have for someone considering:

A career break: If you get laid off, I recommend taking a break if you can manage it. It’s a great opportunity to do some things you can’t do on two weeks vacation. You can also decompress. You can view it as an open slate and look for opportunities.

An entrepreneurial venture: My dad’s biggest concern with my decision was, why throw it all away to become ice cream guy? What I’ve learned is that when you start your own business, nothing is a throw away. I was a supply chain engineer. That thought process in my old career works with how I deal with suppliers, vendors, and manage the numbers. I was also a shop supervisor. I found out how to find the good in people. My work experiences all became relevant in some way at the ice cream shop.

I also recommend viewing it as an adventure. There are a million reasons not to do something. There are another million reasons to do something. I didn’t want to look back on my life with regrets, wishing I had done something.

Talking to other people in the industry helps a great deal. I went to a local ice cream conference and spoke to vets in the industry. A lot of people helped me out. I’m willing to do the same.

What was your biggest obstacle when you started your business?

I bought the place in October seven years ago. I had to build out the kitchen and buy the equipment. I never worked a cash register. I had to learn everything from the ground up. I finally opened for business in the middle of winter. An ice cream shop in the winter. Needless to say there were a lot of lonely days. I certainly worried sometimes that it wouldn’t work out. But it was good in a way. It gave me a chance to work out kinks while it was quiet. When summer came around, I had more flavors and knew how to run things. Getting the word out took time, too. Word of mouth has been very helpful.

I’ll ask you the same question you ask others on your blog: What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

It’s tough to call yourself a failure if you try and give it your all. It’s a life experience. You could define some things as a failure, but you don’t have to look at it that way.

Finally, why do people love Mt. Tom’s ice cream so much?

It ties to the philosophy of starting a business. How can you create something better than competitors? If you don’t have a good product, people won’t come back. I’d have to say my ice cream is really creamy and good to the palette. I try to add something unique to each flavor as well as come up with new flavors. I recently made maple bacon ice cream. A lot of people tried it, and tons of people talked about it. I also made Guinness ice cream for St. Patrick’s Day.

People also like the experience. In an era where you can buy just about anything on-line, I think it's never been more important to foster the 'experience' aspects of your business. Someone once told me as ice cream shop owners, we're selling 'memories'. I clearly and fondly remember going to the local old-fashioned
candy store when I was a kid. If I'm able to create a memory or two like that with my shop, I will have succeeded beyond my greatest expectations.

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