Something I don't share too much of online is that for the past 11 months, I've been continuing to push my education forward by enrolling in Juniata College's MBA Program. My mission is to continue learning to be a more effective leader as AssureTech's CEO. Along this journey, I took a course called Entrepreneurial Management, where the final project involved connecting with an entrepreneur that I felt I could learn from and interviewing them. I chose Betsy Craig, the founder and CEO of MenuTrinfo, because we had just formed our partnership to bring the EpiCenter App to college campuses.
I wanted to share my conversation with Betsy, captured in my final paper, as part of AssureTech's month-long celebration of founders in our community with you below. I believe she's got an incredible story that other aspiring founders in our community can learn from.
INTERVIEW WITH AN ENTREPRENEURIAL MANAGER: BETSY CRAIG
International MBA Program
This paper aims to address how successful entrepreneurs can simultaneously balance the defining traits of both startups and larger companies. Entrepreneurial managers, the term we used in class and that will be seen throughout the paper, describes a manager that is effective in keeping his or her organization flexible like a startup, but in a strong position for continued, sustainable growth. I interviewed Betsy Craig, the entrepreneurial manager behind MenuTrinfo. Her company continuously innovates while delivering consistent performance for clients in the food/food allergy industry. I will begin by introducing the importance of being an entrepreneurial manager, share Craig’s personal philosophies, and come full circle by explaining why aspiring CEOs should observe the practices discussed in this paper.
Introduction to Entrepreneurial Managers
One significant challenge a growing a company faces is striking the right balance between the energy and maneuverability of a startup with the structure and discipline of a full-fledged enterprise. Legendary companies, like General Electric, Apple, or Amazon, are prominent examples of how harnessing this duality can lead to success. The companies mentioned above carry a distinct level of prestige – even when compared against other industry giants – not only because of their success in the marketplace, but also for their fascinating ability to remain innovative in spite of their size and increasing quality standards.
What does this mean for an aspiring entrepreneur? If you are starting out or considering your own venture in the future, observing certain principles used by both well-known large companies and leaders of smaller-yet-successful organizations can help you create an enduring business. The leaders in these organizations can be described as entrepreneurial managers, or managers that find a way to keep the startup spirit alive and well as they develop the company.
One such leader is Betsy Craig, the founder of MenuTrinfo, whom I had the chance to interview. She shared the ups and downs she has experienced along her entrepreneurial journey and offered some of the kernels of knowledge she has picked up along the way.
Betsy Craig: An Entrepreneurial Manager in the Food Allergy Industry
Craig’s entrepreneurial journey is one of both professional and personal resilience – a critical element to building a company which she made abundantly clear in our discussions. I believe her approach to entrepreneurship could be summarized in the following three core ideologies: learn from your mistakes; keep the passion for what you do alive; and focus on the long-term. A single quote from Craig that encapsulates these three principles came from when I asked her for her definition of an entrepreneur, to which she responded:
"[An entrepreneur is] a stubborn, brilliant, [and] inspired, person who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer – with a solution to a problem, need, or want that exists or is about to exist in the world."
Learn from Your Mistakes
Entrepreneurs inevitably make mistakes. The best ones find ways to learn from shortcomings or disappointments so the experience can have a net positive impact on them as a professional and on the enterprise at large.
I asked Craig about some of the disappointments she has encountered throughout her entrepreneurial journey, and whether or not she would have done things differently.
“Actually, hindsight is truly 20/20,” she explained to me. “But I am not at all sure what I would do different – as each move and action lead me to right here, right now.".
Her outlook on mistakes is more like a student that has paid for tuition in exchange for a quality education. “Mistakes, or seeming mistakes, have taught me some of the most important lessons to date,” she said.
I believe her approach to coming to terms with mistakes helps entrepreneurs stay resilient through the hardships associated with building a business.
This naturally led to my follow up question: with competitors popping up, what makes your business unique? For Craig, innovation and creating a truly unique service proposition help set the barrier to entry high.
“[It comes down to] what we do and how we do it. We are the only ones in the country that do a lot of the offerings we do,” she explained. “[We’re] leading the industry and driving the mission. MenuTrinfo exists to inform people of what is in their food so they can eat without worry.” This answer also touches on Craig’s belief that passion for what your company stands for is a key factor to being a successful entrepreneur. I will break down her thoughts on this more in the next section.
Keep the Passion for what you do Alive
Something that was apparent in every answer Craig shared with me was that she is
incredibly passionate for what she does – and that is something to which she attributes much of her success!
She started by explaining that “100%” of her decision to start MenuTrinfo was a leap of faith. She advised me, and any other aspiring entrepreneur to, “Make sure you love what you are doing – as that is what keeps you going when nothing else can.”
Craig is no stranger to hardship along her entrepreneurial path. She shared some of the personal difficulties faced along the way that made starting a business even more challenging.
“[I was surprised by] my health going so bad and having to run the business through it all,” she said. She was diagnosed with systemic scleroderma in October of 2005. Her workday and treatment schedule often overlapped. She described how she was either interrupted or had to work around things like, “Stem cell transfer, taking conference calls from the hospital room, [working] day in, day out, of, on the business [while feeling] so sick. [It] was insanely hard. Crazy."
The illness and treatment gave Craig a better appreciation for the food industry. This helped shape her company’s mission because certain ingredients, for example, would impact how she felt. Her company site offers some insight on how this experience impacted MenuTrinfo during its formative years:
"I started paying close attention to ingredient lists and began to appreciate restaurants that paid the same level of attention to their menus. Betsy started to think about food from a different perspective, and with her husband Rocky’s software engineering skills, they set out to make the food industry better for people with specific dietary needs."
I felt obliged to ask how she and the business endured, despite already having a strong feeling that I knew what she was going to say.
“I honestly don’t know how I got through that time except for maybe [my] stubbornness,” said Craig. Once again, her passion and refusal to give up won the battle. “Maybe that’s what kept me alive in the end,” she added.
The passion that leads you on the path to starting your company does not, on its own, keep your entrepreneurial spirit alive, however. Craig explained that the passion required to build a successful enterprise needs to be rekindled at multiple junctions along the way.
“At least once a week I wanted to cash it all in,” Craig shared. “Especially because I am married to a super successful man who, at any point in the first 10 years, could have fully supported our lives with a lot less stress.”
Craig kept her dream alive because of the impact she saw it having on the lives of the food allergic community. “[I] moved forward because I would get an email from a mom whose kid could choose a college because of MenuTrinfo,” she said. “Or a restaurant owner would refer a new restaurant chain to us because they heard we solved all the nutritional needs and [made] life easy for them."
Craig’s company has trained colleges in 46 States and two provinces in Canada and has helped dozens of restaurants, hotels, and food manufacturers improve their practices. Her company’s success can also be measured in a qualitative way, with testimonials like Craig mentioned. One from Douglas Davis of Marriot International helps capture the impact MenuTrinfo has on their clients:
"They have a proven track record of reliability and excellent customer service at competitive prices. AllerTrain and MenuTrinfo carefully hire the best and most competent experts who are all great people! Betsy and her team can cut through regulatory confusion, speak our hotel language and deliver on our high expectations. Their team possesses extreme patience with our food and beverage operations group as we try to solve the needs of our thirty brands. We consider them part of our Marriott family. (AllerTrain.com, online)."
Focus on the Long Term
Craig’s final core ideology has to do with her focus on the long-range planning of her business. This change in focus is part of the pivotal step of transitioning your venture from a startup to a full-fledged company. This is also when you make the personal shift from entrepreneur to entrepreneurial manager.
“It’s a marathon for decades – not a sprint for a day or month,” she explained after I asked how her role has changed now that MenuTrinfo is more established.
Building for the long term takes tremendous personal commitment over a long period of time, according to Craig. “[Finding a] work/life balance is so hard. There was no balance really until the last year or so. Always, I am thinking of the business, the people we get to help, and what can I do better/different,” she explains. “I have made personal sacrifices – more than I could possibly count. It’s hard, and not for anyone that wants a 40-hour-a-week job. 12 to 16-hour days are standard."
Part of Craig’s long-term plan involves maintaining what was referred to this semester as the “Day 1 Mentality.” According to Dev K. Dutta in In Competition with Oneself: A Qualitative Inquiry into Amazon’s Entrepreneurial Culture, the “Day 1 Mentality” involves the following criteria:
“Keeping the organization perpetually in the 'first-day mode' (characterized by uncertainty, edginess, experimentation, risk-taking, and tolerance for failure).” (Technology Innovation Management Review, June 2018, Volume 8, Issue 6)."
This long-term approach to developing the business has led Craig to implement industry-leading trainings, like her company’s Food Handler certificate program. The program was born from recognizing the growing need for state-specific training for people involved at various steps of the food-handling process.
Craig balances the need for startup-like innovation with attention to detail – in true entrepreneurial management fashion. Each state has its own requirements, and AllerTrain’s courses are accepted, and in many cases, recommended, in any state that allows outside training (as opposed to ones where only in-county certificates are allowed) (AllerTran.com, online).
MenuTrinfo’s pursuit of new ideas that fit the enterprise’s core mission in the long run are contributing factors to the new partnership Craig and I have entered into. She believes in helping colleges better support their food allergic students. This has traditionally meant equipping staff with the knowledge and training to create a safe environment for students with food allergies. But she also recognizes the other implications that suffering from food allergies has on young adults’ lives. This led to our decision to pair AssureTech’s emergency software, online community, and translations with her training programs in a way that students across a participating campus can easily access.
According to the official release, “I am personally thrilled that smart minds like yours and a great company like AssureTech are joining forces to make MenuTrinfo’s offering of services even stronger,” said Craig about the new partnership. “Those campuses that take advantage of this app will be able to offer their students incredible benefits that make dining safer and more comfortable for students dining with food allergies,” (epicenter-app.com, online).
Built to Last, by Jim Collins & Jerry I. Porras, analyzes the principles that historically strong and industry-leading companies observe. Once such principle that leaders at these organizations follow is what they describe as being a “genius of the and,” which contrasts with less successful companies fall victim to the “tyranny of or.” A “genius of the and” is someone that holds two seemingly opposing ideas at the same time in order to help the enterprise succeed (Collins et al., chapter 4). I believe that entrepreneurial managers, like Craig and others we have read about over the past eight weeks, fit this description. They practice both startup-like adaptability and the consistent performance seen in larger, more established corporations. They do not force a decision between continued innovation or reliable results.
In my interview with Betsy Craig, the CEO of MenuTrinfo, she elaborated on her approach to building a successful company in the face of different professional and personal obstacles. Her emphasis on how building a business is a direct result of one’s own resilience – both personally and as a businessperson – aligns with many other entrepreneurs’ stories – including my own. She attributes her success to this willpower. refusal to give up, and commitment to learning.
When asked what skills she believes help her most and that she would recommend to aspiring entrepreneurs, she explained, “[It’s my] stubbornness and willingness to learn anything I need but don’t [already] know."
I believe that one of the most significant lessons I have learned this semester, that has been drilled in further during my discussion with Craig, is the importance of building mechanisms that keep you in a perpetual “Day 1” mentality as you grow.
I started the semester in the midst of an exciting stage in AssureTech’s growth, which Professor Harford described as the time to, “begin working on your business and not just in your business." We discussed big ideas, like branding, networking, and innovation each week. I would argue that one of the best things an entrepreneur can do – especially when trying to help their company jump to advanced stages of growth – is to start thinking about ways to systematically implement practices that encourage these things that can sometimes be lost as you transition out of the startup stage. I believe that is the essence of being an entrepreneurial manager.