Name: Elyse Oleksak
Job Title: Owner, Bantam Bagels
College Name/Major: Columbia University, Sociology
Website: www.bantambagels.com/nationalshipping (we ship nationally!)
What does your current job entail? Is there such a thing as a typical day?
Elyse Oleksak: There is definitely not such a thing as a typical day. As a business owner, you are everything. Your current job is from managing people to forecast planning to sales and marketing, expansion planning, publicity—we do every single last thing, or we at least make the decisions in every area.
What inspired you and Nick to leave your jobs at Wall Street to start your company?
EO: I think what inspired us was a really, really great idea. When you really boil it down, being an entrepreneur, if you’re going to just pour and dedicate your entire life, every minute of your day, into one thing, you really have to believe in that one thing. You have to just feel so strongly that the world needs your idea, and if you don’t make it come to [fruition], someone else might and you can’t miss this opportunity. Nick came up with this idea, and we both thought it was so fabulous that we couldn’t pass it up.
What is the best part of your job?
EO: I think the best part of my job is, for the first time, truly, working hard towards something that I 100 percent believe in and feel invested in. Working hard doesn’t feel like work when you’re the one leading it. You know, it’s not an assignment I have to finish; it’s something I want to do to move my future ahead.
What is one mistake you made along the way and what did you learn from it?
EO: I think a mistake we made early on was not being cogent in our branding on everything we did. We were more focused on the business side and our product, without a full understanding of the way we were being represented and how that effects our growth overall. In the beginning, our packaging was a little bit sloppier, we had different logos out in the world—we just didn’t have a consistent presence and I think that was a learning point when we went on the shelves of Starbucks, and we’re now launching in grocery, of how much more impactful we have been since streamlining our brand.
What was your experience on Shark Tank like?
EO: Shark Tank is just as intense and exciting as everybody says it is and as it looks on TV. It was an incredible opportunity for us. We sort of grew up Shark Tank watchers since season one, before it was even Emmy-award winning. We were definitely inspired by the [entrepreneurial] culture that it created. We did not take the opportunity lightly. We put together a study guide, we spent hours and hours watching every single episode, we wrote down every question and quizzed each other on how we would answer it, we had our study guide on numbers, cut our financials in every way possible, and we memorized everything. I think we studied harder than either of us did for the SATs. We went in there so ready—we even had signals of how to respond, like different nods for what we’d accept so we didn’t have to step out. Preparation was certainly key, and it showed because the Sharks responded well and we got a deal and it was so exciting. It had a monumental impact on the business—first, in having the partnership with Lori, and it’s also given us support from Shark Tank watchers. It’s not something to be undervalued. Reinventing the bagel in New York City—it’s such a bold thing to do and we knew that. Even though we believed in our product, we had people who were doubtful and who wanted to try our bagel just to prove us wrong. But once you’re on Shark Tank and it shows people a behind-the-scenes look and what goes into the business, it gave us a support network of people rooting for us. It’s been tremendous.
How do you deal with criticism in the industry?
EO: I think we deal with criticism all the time. Normally as a business owner, you don’t hear the positive—just the negative feedback. When you go to a restaurant, you might tell your mom or your friend that you really liked that restaurant, but you’re not going to call the business and tell them. You might come back, and that is showing them that you liked it. When you’re not happy, you’re going to make sure they know. There’s no shortage of getting constructive feedback; it’s something you have to learn and develop a tough skin over time. We look for patterns or anything we hear multiple times, and how we can improve on that. You definitely have to sift through people who are just using feedback platforms for the sake of expressing their voice versus real constructive criticism that helps move the product forward. We’ve never believed that we were done, or had a golden product to never be improved on. We listen to customers all the time, whether it’s feedback on flavors, and so we’ll tinker around with a few different things. You certainly have to be ready for feedback and criticism at every angle.