The role of connections in business and entrepreneurship
Connected By: A New Series by Rachel Schwartzmann
Behind every success story is a series of big breaks, mentorship, guidance, and happy accidents.
Behind the Scenes of the Upstart's Rapid Launch in Whole Foods
For Ibraheem Basir, family meals were a melting pot of his mother's southern cooking, along with inspiration she gleaned from their Caribbean and Latinx neighbors.
If you dream of starting a company and want the inside scoop of what it’s like running the day-to-day of the business, you've come to the right place. In our series Startup Diaries, we ask new founders to take us to work for a day, and reflect on what they discovered during the process.
Today, we go behind the scenes with Ibraheem Basir of A Dozen Cousins, a Bay Area-based natural food company that makes soulfully seasoned beans inspired by Creole, Caribbean, and Latin American recipes.
Basir grew up in a big family in Brooklyn, New York. For him, dinner was always loud and delicious. Family meals were a melting pot of his mother's southern cooking, along with inspiration she gleaned from their Caribbean and Latinx neighbors. As he got older, Basir started to recognize the importance of healthy, natural foods, and had trouble figuring out how to reconcile these preferences with the dishes he had grown up with. So he started A Dozen Cousins—named for his daughter and her eleven cousins—as a way to recreate the authentic foods he loved as a child in a healthy, easy way. Basir brought us with him to work to give us a glance at what an average day for a young natural food company preparing for a national launch in Whole Foods looks like.
5:00am –– I woke up and prayed with my wife. I have been starting my day with the same pre-dawn prayer since I was a child. That continuity brings a lot of calm and structure to my day. The exact timing changes throughout the year based on the time of the sunrise, but during the summer it is pretty early, so I usually go back to sleep afterwards.
8:45am –– I wake up again. My daughter is our human alarm clock. I usually get her out of her crib, give her some water, and spend a few minutes with her before my wife takes over their morning routine and I get ready for work.
9:20am –– My office is only a few blocks from my house so I rode my bike and made it in around 9:20 am, which is a pretty typical starting time for me.
In order to avoid procrastination, I usually start my workday with all of the things that I don’t really want to do. This morning was a mixture of filling out forms, mailing out samples, and sending follow-up emails. If I let this stuff linger in the back of my mind it will annoy me all day. Instead, I usually bang out my “busy work” in the morning so I can focus on more creative and strategic work later in the day.
11:00am –– I had a check-in meeting with one of the account executives on my sales team to discuss a new natural channel retailer that we are trying to get in to. My company uses a third-party sales broker for most of our accounts and it has been a really great partnership so far.
Our company is too young to invest in building out our own sales team, so working with a broker allows us to leverage their knowledge and relationships without taking on all of the cost of hiring a full-time sales staff.
11:30am –– I set aside some time to find a freelancer for a role I am looking to fill. I always spend a lot of time reviewing potential partners before I decide whether or not to work with them. Beyond talent and experience I always try to find people that are positive and proactive. In a start-up environment where things are moving really fast, I don’t really have the time or desire to follow up a million times to get things done.
In this case, I emailed a few people for recommendations and also combed through Linkedin to find people that might be a good fit. Linkedin doesn’t always get the love it deserves, but it's a really helpful place to leverage your network and find great talent.
12:45pm –– After going down a (valuable) freelancer rabbit hole, I grabbed lunch a little later than usual. Most of the time I eat leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. Today, I had food from a photoshoot that is taking place later this afternoon. This is not staged: I actually ate beans and rice for lunch!
1:20pm –– I am completing the instructions for some upcoming product demos that we are doing at Whole Foods Market. We just launched nationally with Whole Foods in June and we have our first in-store promotion in August. This is really important for us because we are still a young brand and for many shoppers this will be the first time they have ever interacted with the brand.
It's important that I provide clear instructions for the people doing the demos in store. That includes how I want the product to be prepared, what they should serve with it and what the key messages are.
4:00pm –– I attended a photoshoot for our upcoming virtual pop-up with Uber Eats. We will be preparing bean and rice bowls in our ghost kitchen and Uber will be delivering the meals to folks all over the East Bay. Our products are traditionally sold in grocery stores but I thought this would be a fun way to give people the full meal experience in a really easy and convenient way. I am also excited to man the grill.
I actually don’t love attending shoots like this in person. I typically prefer to set the objectives and then stay out of the photographer’s way. I am way better at judging and selecting the final images than I am at giving feedback along the way. Today’s shoot was about one hour and I thought we ended up with some great looking images.
5:30pm –– I stopped by the “Undefined Collective” which is a retail space in Oakland dedicated to showcasing female and minority owned brands. A Dozen Cousins is one of the brands featured, and I went to set up our merchandise in advance of the grand opening. I hung around for a bit to speak with some of the other brand owners and then headed home.
6:45pm –– I got home a bit later than usual given everything that I had going on today. I played with my daughter for about an hour and a half before dinner. During that time we called my mother and sister on Facetime to chat for a bit. My mother and all of my nine siblings live on the east coast so I usually have a small window in the evening to speak with them after I get off work and before they all go to bed. My daughter is getting old enough to recognize her grandparents, aunts and uncles, so I try to speak with a family member for at least a few minutes every day.
8:10pm –– We eat dinner together. It is probably later than most families, but it suits our schedule well and it allows me to spend some time with my daughter after work.
9:15pm –– My daughter is in bed and my wife and I get a chance to connect. Between having a toddler and running a business this has become our primary time to recap our days, see how the other person is feeling and make plans for the rest of the week.
11:00pm –– Zzzzzzzz
So that was your day. How did it compare to your ideal day?
It was really helpful for me. It was good to see how you’re spending your time in a very objective way. I have my calendar but this was another helpful exercise, so I enjoyed that. It was also interesting to see how I organized my day. In the course of reflecting, it became clear that I do certain tasks in the morning, certain tasks in the mid-day, and certain in the afternoon. I don’t think I was conscious of that until I wrote it down.
This was a pretty busy day so I had a lot of stuff going on, particularly in the afternoon. So that part of it was not normal; I’m usually more grounded in my office and doing business via phone and email. But on this particular day I was doing a lot of running around.
What was it like keeping track of your day?
It was interesting to me to see that I often start my day with the stuff I don’t want to do. I learned something about procrastination a while ago that basically said—a lot of times we’re procrastinating because there’s something about the task you don’t really want to do, the nagging items on your to-do list or the things you don’t think you’re going to enjoy or aren’t sure what decision to make. So I usually try to start my day with those types of things, from 9 to 11 I try to bang out that stuff. In the middle of the day is when I tend to have a lot of meetings, so 11 to 2, that’s kind of when I’m talking to other people. Then in the afternoon I usually like to have more reflective time, really unscheduled, no urgent things that need to get done. Just thinking ahead or doing creative work. I think I knew some of this stuff, but this clearly solidified it for me.
How do you stay organized and on task?
I use Google Calendar, that’s probably the app that I use the most which is probably not surprising. But the nature of the work that I do, I interface with a lot of different people and functions and so I do spend a decent amount of time on phone calls and in meetings. So Google Calendar is my number one thing.
Then I have little tricks that I’ll do, like I try to have most of my meetings fall on two days a week so that I have some days without any meetings. I don’t like to take meetings after a certain point in the afternoon just so that I always have a few hours every day to think. My main thing is that you can’t schedule and optimize everything—you need a bit of time to just roll around in an idea or play around with a thought. And so I try to hold pockets of time throughout the day and throughout the week to do that.
How does your life as a founder compare to what you thought it was going to be?
I had my daughter two months before I left my job to start this business. So, in my mind, fatherhood and entrepreneurship are linked. It’s hard for me to think about one outside of the context of the other.
So, within that context, the two things that stand out to me the most are number one: freedom and flexibility. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to be a founder, I wanted to be more in control of how I spent my time and the things that I spent my time on. I would say that has really proven true. If my daughter is feeling ill and I need to clear out the morning, take her to the doctor, I can do that. I have enough control over my day and my routine that I’m able to move a little more peacefully and purposefully through my work. That’s one thing I expected and has proven true.
The thing that I probably didn’t expect as much is just the sheer amount of uncertainty and stress. I am a pretty calm person; I’ve been a calm person most of my life so I’ve always been able to manage stress well. But this has taken it to a different level in terms of volatility. It’ll be like, on Monday we’re about to get the biggest customer in the world, and on Tuesday everything is falling apart, and on Wednesday it’s back again. So there’s just a lot of up and down and mood-management.
I’d say, in particular, the first six months of being an entrepreneur a lot of what I was doing was just mental. [Figuring out] how do you get yourself back to a grounded place where you’re not getting too high when things go well and not getting too low when things go poorly? And just facing each challenge as it is. That’s been a big part of the journey that I wasn’t anticipating but that I’m happy for, ultimately.
What are your current business goals?
We are a pretty young company, about six months old in terms of being in the marketplace. The first three months we were just an online business, so e-commerce. Then March we got our first retail customer, and June we expanded nationally to Whole Foods. And so right now we’re really focused on introducing the brand to other people. Most people who hear A Dozen Cousins it’s the first time they’ve heard of it. So a lot of what we want to do is just raise awareness of the brand and hopefully get off to a really strong start with the retailers that we’re in.
That’s really the number one business goal, which is not super detailed, but today we’re at a point where we’re trying to get as many people in the tent as possible. I, of course, am thinking ahead. So year two, I’m thinking of what new products we might want to launch, how we want to continue to grow the brand.
I also spend a lot of time thinking about the team—who are the partners that we need? An agency? A freelancer? A part-time worker? We’re still very lean but I do spend a lot of time thinking about all the pieces that we need to continue moving forward. My goal is to always have a really diverse best in class group of people working on the brand. So that’s something I spend a lot of time working on.
Do you have any words of advice for other founders that you’ve learned so far?
One is, just to be mindful of the fact that everyone, I think, who is in a position like this is dealing with a certain level of stress, uncertainty, and volatility. And so, a lot of times it’s hard to see that from outside. Part of the business is a little bit of ups and downs, and so I would just say to be mindful of that and give yourself a little bit of slack. Make sure you’re building a healthy routine to deal with that, whether that is a confidant, exercising, meditating. I’m sure people take many different approaches, but I would encourage people to be mindful of the stress aspect of it.
The second thing I would say is: Don’t forget to put your own fingerprint on what you’re doing. One of the things that always makes me a little sad is when people are so obsessed with the best practices and what other people are doing or getting recommendations for every single step along the journey. Whether that’s in terms of how you want to build a team, how you want to go to market, what types of marketing activities you want to do, what you want the brand personality to look and feel like.
A lot of times, it’s an element of human nature to look for comfort in following the crowd. But it’s kinda corny, it kind of takes away from the fun of doing your own thing. But one of the really fun things about starting your own business is that you can kind of rewrite the rules a little bit.