My new book, Beyond Barriers, includes profiles of six women who have turned their toughest challenges into their greatest strengths. One of these incredible people is Natasha Case, CEO and Co-Founder of Coolhaus. This is her story.
Natasha Case had a happy upbringing and received a stellar education. She also possessed a strong sense of ambition. During high school, she became interested in studying architecture because she thought it might create more career options. Since both of her parents worked in creative fields—animation and architecture—she felt inspired by them, but at the same time, she wanted to do things differently.
Despite wanting to assert her uniqueness, she became an architect at Walt Disney Imagineering, a literal hybrid of what her parents did. She worked in hotel and master planning for three months as a contractor in the hope of gaining full-time employment. However, just one month before being hired full-time, the recession hit, and Walt Disney Imagineering instituted a company-wide hiring freeze.
Natasha panicked. Her planned pathway blocked, she didn’t know what to do next. She didn’t have a concrete backup plan, only a quirky, passionate hobby she had been thinking about for years: an idea of merging food and design. Friends and colleagues suggested it was a good time for her to explore this idea, but to Natasha, it didn’t seem like a viable option. Failing to get the Imagineering job was the first major setback she’d experienced in her life, so she didn’t know how to navigate the resulting emotions.
Eventually, she got another job in the design field, doing sales and marketing for a design trade show, but the momentum for growth and a path for climbing the ladder at that company didn’t exist. Instead, the job was little more than day-to-day work. Since she had nothing to lose at that point, she started to think seriously about her side hobby. Maybe it was time to give it a try and chase her dream.
When Your Path Closes, Find Another Path
Natasha had a passion for architecture, but she felt like it was a disconnected field, even though architects make a huge impact on society. In fact, architects design the urban landscapes around us. As she thought about this, Natasha realized that if she wanted to do something meaningful with her architectural knowledge, she would have to get creative, combining it with other interests and using those interests to make architecture more accessible.
She came up with a concept of using food to talk about design and called it farchitecture: food plus architecture. One of the first iterations of this concept was designing an ice cream sandwich inspired by architecture and naming it after famous designers. By combining her passion for design with her love of food, she created her innovative company, Coolhaus.
At the time, grocery stores didn’t carry artisan ice cream brands. However, building a brick-and-mortar store wasn’t an option for Natasha because she simply didn’t have the money. She also didn’t yet understand the wholesale space. All she had was a unique idea to make architecturally inspired ice cream sandwiches and the design skills to create the branding. Somehow, she had to launch this very boutique concept in a category dominated by big brands and cookie-cutter products.
Creative Bootstrapping Pays Off
She decided to use a food truck to sell her ice cream. Since there were no other LA-based gourmet ice cream products like hers, she had to figure out a creative way to promote her company. She decided that a great place to launch would be the Coachella Music Festival.
Unfortunately, Natasha couldn’t figure out how to get there. She had spent all of her money on the truck—an old, refurbished mail delivery truck. It couldn’t even drive down the street, much less get her all the way from Los Angeles to Coachella. She learned that if she joined AAA Platinum, she would receive one free 200-mile tow. That was just far enough to get her to the desert where Coachella took place, so on the morning of Coachella, she pretended the truck broke down, even though it had never worked in the first place. The truck got towed out into the desert in time for the launch. The moral of the story? Creative bootstrapping pays off.
Natasha debuted her ice cream at the festival, using the truck as a prop and utilizing social media to promote the idea of gourmet ice cream as a mobile food. The idea took off and instantly became viral.
While this initial experience proved successful, it was only the beginning of a long, arduous journey. Nevertheless, from that point on, Natasha had a clear purpose to become a game changer and innovator. She wanted to do something radically different. Her big dream for Coolhaus was to become a household brand, the Ben & Jerry’s of the millennial generation.
Based on her success at Coachella, Natasha purchased more food trucks to sell the product at various locations. New challenges arose with this expansion. Now that she was selling ice cream in different cities, she had to figure out how to maintain consistent quality and service, and she had to deal with the logistical challenges of running a business that was so difficult to scale.
Keep Pivoting Closer to Success
The strain started to affect Natasha’s business, so she decided to revisit the sales channels that hadn’t been possible in the beginning: wholesale and brick-and-mortar. She looked for good brick-and-mortar locations and also reached out to Whole Foods to do a local test of five ice cream sandwich SKUs (stock-keeping units). Very quickly, though, Natasha saw that they were going to need real investment to make either of those options succeed.
Even though her company was composed primarily of food trucks, massive buzz was generated around the brand. That buzz, combined with the rapid growth of Coolhaus, piqued the interest of investors. Natasha received her first angel round of funding. Although it was not a massive success, the right timing and the right investors helped her business grow exponentially. The secret sauce? Concentrating on wholesale. It was scalable with low overhead, and it provided an option for exiting. Coolhaus now doubles and triples wholesale every year, and they continue to produce the highest-quality product while pushing through barriers to expand their reach.
Throughout her journey, Natasha evolved as a leader, a business owner, and an entrepreneur. She knew this was more than just a hobby. She had to master not only the creative side of designing a product but also the business side of making it profitable and achieving growth.
To do that, she had to learn new skills, take risks, and fail many times. Because of her willingness to do that, she eventually found the right people, manufacturers, and investors to make her business successful. Looking at her success now, people would have no idea how many times she had to cold-call potential investors and retailers, begging them to take a chance on her. So much of her journey to this point has been messy and painful, but she has persevered.
What drove her, despite every hardship, was her conviction that Coolhaus could become this generation’s Ben & Jerry’s, her desire to become a game changer, and her passion for innovation. She stayed focused, and as a result, she now gets to celebrate her huge success as a highly recognized company in her market.
For more advice and stories on how to turn your challenges into successes, check out my new book, Beyond Barriers.