Starting a brand from scratch
Starting a brand from scratch
Kristen Tomlan, Lippincott alum and founder and CEO of DŌ Cookie Dough Confection, shares how she pivoted from a career in branding to founding a company that quickly went viral. Listeners will be inspired by Kristen’s endless optimism and her mission to spread joy—one sweet bite at a time.
Heather: Today, I’m so excited to speak with Kristen Tomlan, founder and CEO of DŌ. Kristen took the world by storm in 2014, when she launched DŌ—the world’s first ever edible cookie dough—and the brand quickly went viral. She’s gone on to open flagship stores in Greenwich Village and pop-ups around the country; she’s partnered with Bloomingdale’s and Williams-Sonoma, launched home baking mixes (which, I imagine, in COVID have been very popular) and even published a book. So, I’m so excited to see an old friend, a former colleague and a badass businesswoman. Welcome, Kristin.
Kristen: Thank you so much for having me.
Heather: So, you were at Lippincott, where I currently am, and decided that you were going to take a leap and start your own company based on this idea of edible cookie dough. Talk to me about that time, that decision process and how things unfolded once you decided I’m going to go—because you were kind of doing it on the side a little bit, right?
Kristen: I was working at Lippincott, as you mentioned. I was working at the time in…the group has changed…it was the retail group. When I first joined, I went to school for interior design but really fell in love with branding. Then, the group evolved; and when I left Lippincott, it was the innovation group.
I was in love with helping brands build their customer experience. And on the side, I was continuing to just bake for fun and bring stuff into the office. I had this idea for DŌ when I was with a bunch of my girlfriends. We went to a cookie shop in Philadelphia, and this cookie shop had all these different fun flavors of fresh-baked cookies. Instead of buying any of the fresh-baked cookies, I stumbled upon this freezer that had pucks of their chocolate-chip cookie dough for you to go home and bake. I turned to my girlfriends and said, “Hey, I just want this cookie dough.” I mean, these were my college girlfriends; so they knew that I always had a roll of Nestle Toll House or Pillsbury in the fridge. That was like my late-night food—my dessert of choice.
So, I ended up walking out of this cute little bakery without buying anything that was baked. And we sat in the car and were shamefully passing these pucks of cookie dough around and worried about getting sick. That was the moment for me where I thought, “Why is this not a thing?” We all love cookie dough in its unbaked form. At this point—it was, like, 2012 I think when I had this idea—I thought, “It’s 2012. How has nobody made cookie dough so that it’s safe?”
Heather: All of these centuries have gone by, and no one has figured this out.
Kristen: I know. And then the second piece, because I had this branding background and this retail design background, I thought I really want a place to go that celebrates eating cookie dough however you want it. I, of course, like it straight from the mixing bowl. My dad likes it mixed with a big bowl of ice cream. My best friend likes it fresh out of the oven. Why isn’t there a place that we can go and sit and have a cup of coffee? Or a glass of cold milk? Because I would have loved to sit in that bakery and been able to enjoy those treats. So that kind of set me on my quest to create my own brand, because I wasn’t able to find anything on the market like it.
So, I really started with what I knew. I started with the branding aspect, and with the baking and then put together this business plan. I thought that’s what you do if you’re going to start a business. I started working through this business plan on nights and weekends. I was still working full-time and, ultimately, decided to launch the business online first—really just to partially test the market to see what the response would be. Also, I had a full-time job and no money to go and open anything. I really needed to figure it out, and I wasn’t able at the time.
Heather: You were working on this business plan, because as you said, “That’s what you do when you’re going to launch a business.” At the time, were you taking that to investors, or was it really for you to capture your thoughts on what this was going to be?
Kristen: It was initially to capture my thoughts and work through. At the time, the business plan was for a retail store—because that was what my vision was for. Also at the time, my husband (I think he was my fiancé at that point) works in real estate development and construction. He was helping me with the numbers side of the business plan, trying to understand what this would cost to open up a store in New York City. And as we were going through this exercise, we very quickly realized that it was going to be incredibly expensive to open up a store and really start a brand that nobody had ever heard about. You know, being a New Yorker, you see places that open up all the time and you think, “Oh my gosh, that’s such a great idea.” And then something goes wrong…don’t know what it is…there’s a million different things…and then they’re closed six months later. I didn’t want to be one of those brands. So, I thought, I’m going to take a step back and try to understand the first thing about running the business and make sure that there’s going to be a market for this. I had never started a business, but this was just a really good idea that I felt compelled to follow and felt like this needed to be in the world.
Heather: What were the reactions of the people around you. Here you are, you’re working for a leading consulting firm you’re doing well and now you want to go off and come up with this business for people doing this thing that had been shameful. Did people encourage you? Did they think you were crazy?
Kristen: It was kind of a mix. I think for most people, their initial reaction was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s the best idea. Yes, of course, I love cookie dough. Like that would be so great if I would be able to eat it safely.” And I think one thing that I did that some people are nervous about—I think when they have a business idea, people keep it very close to the chest and are like, “Oh, I don’t want to tell people about my idea, because somebody is going to steal it or somebody is going to take it.”—but I kind of took the opposite approach and talked to everyone that I possibly could about this idea. I wanted to get their reaction, because I also wanted to hear the negative things. What did they think about this? What would they buy? What would be their favorite flavors? For me, it was all kind of like my own little market research. So, I would tell everybody about it and try to get their perspective on my new business. I was just Chatty Cathy, talking about it all day long.
Most people, especially the people that are close to me, were very encouraging and helpful. My #1 advocate for starting this business was my boss at the time—Randall, whom you know. I told him about the idea many times, and we talked about it at length. He would always come over to my desk and be, like, “Well, what’s going on with the cookie dough idea? How’s it going?” And I would be, like, “Well, quit giving me so much work, and I could actually work on it.” I was living a consultant’s life, so I was traveling nonstop. I had clients all over the globe, so it was difficult to find the time to work on it off the side of my desk. But I really wanted to make it work.
Heather: Well, it’s great to have that encouragement from somebody who is a boss, a mentor, a sponsor—because I do think that there are times when there’s a sense of, “You’re doing good, stay in your lane, keep going…let’s not take too many risks.” And I think that, if you don’t take risks, you’re not able to build something great and meaningful. So, that’s amazing that you had all of that.
Then it comes to a point where you say, I can’t do this, I can’t live a consultant’s life and build this business. Tell me what happened after you left Lippincott and how you really got everything off the ground.
Kristen: I had launched the business when I was still working, and I originally decided to launch it online. We were doing nationwide shipping.
Heather: From your apartment?
Kristen: From my apartment at first, yes. My first customers were my friends and my family and my mom’s friends whom she was telling and, you know, just people that knew me. So, I did it out of my apartment for the first couple of months. Once things started to take off, I quickly realized that I couldn’t keep juggling these two separate lives. I felt like I wasn’t able to give my business 100 percent and wasn’t able to give my work at Lippincott 100 percent, and that was not fair to either one.
Luckily Randall was wonderful and, again, my #1 cheerleader. He helped me kind of transition to that next phase, and I was able to really concentrate on all things DŌ. And at that point, I moved the business out of my apartment and built a commercial kitchen where we were just continuing to expand our nationwide shipping, our catering offering that was just happening organically and then our New York City delivery. We were doing this all out of a kitchen in Midtown. And what also ended up happening was, as I was building the customer base and trying to understand what people were ordering and just figuring out all of the things about running a business, I had started to hire some people on my team.
At that point, we had the location as a pickup location. If you worked or lived in the neighborhood, you could order cookie dough online and then come and pick it up—so you didn’t have to pay for delivery or shipping. But what started to happen was, people would just show up at our kitchen. At first, they were like, “Oh, I’m here to get some cookie dough.” And we’d be, like, “Okay, what’s your order number?” And, they were, like, “Oh, we didn’t order.” For me, I thought, “Oh my gosh, maybe we need to have cookie dough available on the spot. I can’t turn people away. I couldn’t tell them, :Oh, go order—and then you’ll have it in three days.: That doesn’t work for people.
So, we started to make some extra available there to sell. And when it was gone, it was gone. And that kind of had a snowball effect. The more people found out that we had some available, the more people came and the more we made. Then, by the end of 2015, those walk-in sales became a third of my business revenue. That, for me, was a sign that I really wanted to go back to that original idea of creating a storefront and an experience around cookie dough—especially at that point. We had taken over three other units in the building, because we were just expanding so quickly. Then I decided that it was time to start looking for a retail store so that I could build out my original vision for the brand.
Heather: …which brings it full circle to what you started doing at Lippincott. And as you know, we are big believers in the power of digital to run our lives but, as well, the power of the physical tactile experience that brings people together that can be a manifestation of what the brand stands for.
So, tell me what the process was like in creating that retail space and some of the signature moments or signature innovations that you wanted to incorporate so that it was a bit of a wow factor for people.
Kristen: I definitely used my expertise that I was developing over the course of my time at Lippincott. What I learned there was that you have to think holistically about this customer journey, and you have to think about every single touch point. That’s really how I approached this retail design and the space and experience and trying to understand where are the moments that I can innovate or bring moments of surprise and delight along this journey. So, for me, it was a couple of things:
One, we have this really big window into our kitchen that you can see from the front of the house. You can see all of the magic happening behind the scenes. And that was really important for me to highlight, so that people could see it being made. We make everything by hand. A lot of hard work and love goes into all of these different flavors; and I wanted everybody to be able to experience that and have this little “kitchen theater” moment, where people could see into our kitchen. That was something that was core to who we were, because in that original kitchen that we had, people walked right into and could see all of it happening. So, I wanted to maintain that in our retail environment.
And then, as far as the actual experience, we mimicked an ice-cream experience, because that is familiar to people—except our product, instead of being ice cream, is cookie dough. Of course, we have ice cream as one of many things, but it’s kind of a “pick your own path.” But I wanted the experience at least to be familiar enough to people, since the product was a little bit new and different—at least how we were serving it. So that was certainly a moment that was important to nail.
And then, with social media being such a huge part of any business and the way that we find customers and how I grew my business initially, just organically through social media, I knew that there had to be moments where people could take amazing pictures of what they’re eating and be able to share it with their audience. So, we created a number of moments with the lighting that we used and the neon signs that we used. And some of the backdrops really helped us kind of go viral on social media, because I had really had to think about all of these touch points along the way.
Heather: It’s so amazing. And then you started to do pop-ups. What was that experience like?
Kristen: We’ve done so many different popups; and for me, especially as an experience designer, it’s so great to be able to design something new and different—even if it is, you know, something short-term for us to kind of innovate our menu, or our experience, or shrink it, or enlarge it…or whatever that means. For me, it’s always a fun way to play. And the brand has taken on many different forms, everything from being available at Citi Field for all of the Mets games for the last handful of years to a pop-up at the Bryant Park holiday market or in Montauk during the summer season. It really has taken on many lives. And that, for me, is so fun. It’s just a great way for us to infuse more joy into people’s lives—because, in these moments, they’re able to experience us.
Heather: What have you learned in continuing to build the business through this time?
Kristen: The pandemic fundamentally shifted our business model, because a majority of our revenue prior to 2020 was from our retail footprints and our pop-up locations that largely closed completely with all of the stay-at-home orders and all of the things happening, especially, in New York City. For me, it was a moment to pause and be, like, “Okay, let’s go back to our original mission, and that is to spread joy.” And during this time of uncertainty and with so many people suffering in different ways, how can we do that?
So, we really shifted our efforts into our e-commerce business. I thought if people can’t come to us, then we’ll go to them. And we started all of our marketing efforts focusing on that direct-to-consumer business. We were shipping cookie dough around the nation as gifts, as a thank you, as a thinking of you, as sympathy presents. People were sending it because, again, I think it was this thing that was nostalgic. It brought people happiness during a time of uncertainty. And, luckily, we were able to grow the e-commerce business over 80% in 2020 because of that. Thank God that we had that aspect of the business, because otherwise I don’t know where we would be today. That really helped us stay afloat during a really difficult time in New York.
Heather: I can only imagine. And, again, a testament to the foundation that you built—maybe not even knowing what you were building—that you could go back to and rely on, and I’m sure it will continue to shift.
Kristen: I think what I learned most was that 1) we’re resilient, and 2) I have the world’s best, most hardworking team that I wouldn’t be able to do it without. So those are my key takeaways. I just am very thankful and humbled by everything that’s happened in the past.
Heather: I know you talk about being a serial problem solver. What other lessons can you share about other times when you’ve had to solve a really difficult problem?
Kristen: I think the next biggest problem that I had deal with was when we opened up our retail store. That was a big shift in how the business operated, since we were going all direct-to-consumer and then opened up this retail store. Our expectations were blown out of the water by the lines that were down the block—and the amount of press that we got and this viral sensation that really took off. That was something that I didn’t expect. And, of course, I was beyond thrilled about the response and so happy to have customers lining up and waiting for hours for our cookie dough. But it was also a very difficult time and caused a lot of problems to figure out for myself about production, and staffing, and scaling and managing a lot more people and a lot more complexity with the business. So, for me, any problem that I have to solve, you just have to chip away at it one little piece at a time. And that’s exactly what I did. It’s like, okay, what are we solving today? Let’s do it.
Heather: Let’s go for it. Lots of people, especially coming out of school and into this world, are more open to nontraditional paths of starting their own thing, of being innovative, of taking risks. It’s really hard and, I think, requires grit and passion—and, as you said, resilience. Besides making sure you surround yourself with great talent, what else would you share with those that are just getting going and might be unsure that it’s going to work out for them?
Kristen: I would say two things: One, have a good support system. Have that network of people that you can turn to. I think being an entrepreneur and starting something new can often be very lonely. So, just lean on the people around you to get their advice and maybe some of their hard work, as well. And don’t be afraid to ask for their help; because, you know, the people that love you are more than willing.
Secondly, just trust your gut. I think whatever people are building or whatever they have an idea for, they’re the ones who kind of know, at their core, what the end goal is and what they’re thinking about. And so, I think always going back to just trusting yourself and trusting that gut instinct is just so important.
Heather: The podcast is called Icons in the Making, and I think a lot of the inspiration that I had around whom I wanted to have on as guests was the notion that tomorrow’s icons are going to look and act and build things very differently. I think it’s a really exciting time. As you look ahead at the brands, the icons, the people, the businesses that are going to be successful, what do you think has shifted?
Kristen: I think technology plays a huge role, as we see that being integrated more and more in our every day. I also think people are really interested in the story behind the brand or the icon and the other ways that the brand or the business kind of gives back. I just think that brands don’t live in a silo, and we’re all connected in many different ways. I think that people want to support brands and look to brands that they feel have a similar mission and ethos and mindset as their own. So, I think that giving back and making sure that there’s a good story to tell at the end of the day is important to people.
Heather: Absolutely. There’s so much discussion around diversity and sustainability and broader social change. What are some of the ways that DŌ is making sure that part of your story is focused on some of those larger issues?
Kristen: The thing that is core to our mission is, again, spreading joy—and we do that through a number of ways. And we get involved in a lot of organizations that help children and women and hunger around New York City, which has gotten even more difficult and worse over during the pandemic. So, really, partnering with organizations to give back—especially in the food space or any place that we can inject a little bit of joy and happiness—is where we look to give back.
Heather: Looking ahead, what are you most passionate or excited about?
Kristen: I am looking to help other entrepreneurs in a similar space. I feel like what I found through my network of other entrepreneurs is that everybody’s kind of spinning their wheels trying to figure out what they’re doing—but we’re all often trying to solve the same problem. So, if there are ways to connect entrepreneurs through technology and some of the technology that we’ve needed to develop for DŌ, to have that as a more widespread offering to entrepreneurs that have businesses online is something that is my newest project that I’m working on. I feel like I’ve learned so much over the years and figured so much out on my own that I want to pay it forward and make it a little bit easier for entrepreneurs that are in my shoes, or were in my shoes, to run their business a little bit more smoothly.
Heather: That’s amazing. Well, I have to say, the mission of DŌ is spreading joy; but that really comes from the top, as we say, and the founder—and you are so amazing in what you’ve done and what you’ve accomplished and the way in which you’ve done it. I’m so happy that you were here with us, and I can’t wait to see you in person again. Now I’m hungry, and I want some cookie dough.
So, thank you so much for being here today.
Kristen: Yeah, this was a pleasure.
I think that people want to support brands that have a similar mission and mindset as their own.