Natasha Case / Coolhaus
os Angeles native, Natasha Case, received her Masters of Architecture degree from UCLA, and began interning at Walt Disney Imagineering in Hotel and Master Planning. During this time, she started baking cookies, making ice cream, and combining them into “cool houses” with co-founder and wife Freya Estreller. Today, Coolhaus is the leading women owned ice cream brand in the country and distributes in 7,500+ grocery stores ranging from Whole Foods to Safeway to Publix markets including hand-crafted premium ice cream sandwiches, artisan pints and chocolate-dipped bars. Natasha works as CEO, creating new products, designing packaging, leading marketing, and innovating ideas.
Tell me about your entrepreneurial path. You come from an architecture background – what made you decide to try starting a business?
I always thought about architecture as something I was really passionate about, but at the same time, I saw a broader application for it and a chance to learn the rules and then break them apart. That definitely segues into entrepreneurial thinking, but I wasn’t deliberately thinking about that path. When the recession hit, I was working at Disney Imagineering, which was my first job after seven years of architecture school. I had already been experimenting with “food meets design” and was calling it “farchitecture.” Under this concept umbrella,
I started baking cookies and making ice cream and naming the combinations after architects. I’d give them to people at work who had gotten bad news to lighten the mood or as comic relief. Someone maybe had been laid off or heard something they didn’t want to hear, and I’d say “Here’s a Mies Vanilla Rohe or Mintimalism.” It was a very passionate hobby and a way to do certain things with design but definitely not think of it in a traditional way. Then I met Freya, the other founder. She had a little bit more business background and saw the business potential in the idea. That’s when we really started thinking of it in that way: putting numbers to it and going through the cost of goods. She turned on that light.
What were some of the first challenges you faced in those early stages of starting up?
We had such humble beginnings – we had nothing to work with in terms of dollars, and because of the recession, we weren’t going to get a bank loan. People were not looking to throw around money into investments, and we were young and didn’t have much to show for ourselves from a business front. So we had to do everything and figure out absolutely everything on our own. Freya and I also started dating right when we started the business. That definitely creates an interesting foundation, because you’re learning to run a business of ice-cream sandwiches but also learning who each other is. There’s a lot of unknowns. You’re figuring out how you’re going to work together and how you’re going to be a couple. Many people could have told us that we were heading for a disaster by throwing all the eggs in that basket. But sometimes
you just know and it works out. I think that was a combination of luck and instinct. Business resources were also much more scarce. We had to just figure things out with cold searches online or by cold-calling people and asking them how they did it. Now, there’s coworking spaces and millions of panels and events and conferences fully dedicated to that startup experience and so much more awareness about it. I like that we came from none of that, because I think in some ways entrepreneurship has become over-glamorized. But it definitely did not not make it easier. I also certainly experienced ageism: people just being like, “Oh you’re a twenty-five-year-old kid. You have no clue.” So we had to constantly believe in our idea.
We want to be the household brand of our generation. Specifically, there’s an incredible opportunity to do that as a culture of women leadership.
How would you characterize what success means to you now?
We want to be the household brand of our generation. Specifically, there’s an incredible opportunity to do that as a culture of women leadership. That’s going to be very meaningful for our generation, to be a powerhouse of women who are behind that brand, who created and are very involved in that thought process. Although I think we’ll have to eventually break out of even the freezer aisle, I think there’s a massive opportunity in the novelty world. Most of the premium brands that really represent today’s culture of what people want from ice cream are creating really exciting pints. And that’s still worth a lot. Innovating and making full time is a lot of work, and you still don’t see those premium brands really touching the novelty part of the ice-cream category because it’s almost doubly difficult. It’s about doing unique flavors made really well. But you also have to think about: Am I going to create a whole new novelty? Am I going to reinvent something that involves cookies and cones? There are all these other facets to it. So I think we could completely take over and be the quality, the brand and the voice that people are looking for. Ultimately, we’re interested in a strategic exit. So I think it’s something we could very much bring to the table for a multinational strategic partner.
Looking back, can you pinpoint any mistakes or things you might have done differently?
I don’t look at the mistakes as needing to do them differently, because I think you need those mistakes to come to certain realizations. As long as you come to them quickly and, in entrepreneurial terms, fail forward, it’s totally fine. For example, we opened a truck operation in Miami. It made a lot of sense. We were basically snowboarding our trucks from New York down to Miami because their summer is the opposite of New York’s. And we did grow awareness and learned a whole other market; however, ultimately it was really difficult to remotely manage a business in Miami, so we had to pull the cord. But I’m proud of how quickly we did it. Also, we had built a lot of awareness down there, and now our grocery business is quite strong. That’s connected to the fact that we had the trucks there for a year or so.
What’s something you still consider a strong decision?
The way that we started to focus on grocery as a major potential winner. We started as a truck business. Then, in 2012, we decided to re-examine a couple of channels we hadn’t had the opportunity to in the early days, which was brick-and-mortar shops and grocery. We opened our flagship store in Culver City, but we also did a test with Whole Foods. They were amazing partners, but I don’t think we really treated and saw the Whole Foods business as the potential business we now see it. Wholesale is really tough when you’re a little guy. You’re getting less margin, you don’t really have all the scalability built in. But now we’ve fine-tuned our business to lend itself towards scaling there. We can’t have a truck, and we can’t have a shop in every city, but we can be everyone’s hometown ice-cream brand by being able to be at their local grocery store shelf.
What advice would you give to founders starting out, especially to those who are women or part of demographics that are underrepresented among entrepreneurs?
The most honest answer is, if I’d have known how hard and crazy it would be to put on an annual conference and do the work at the magnitude of what we’ve done, I don’t know if I’d have done it. Just to be honest, right? It’s a lot, and it takes a big emotional and personal toll, even with all the success we’ve had. It’s just kind of the nature of everything that we’ve done.
So if I’d have known that, I may not have continued to go down that road or pursued the idea. And I would relate that answer to starting Space Called Tribe – the amount of time and work that it took to get the building going, to continue to fill it and support entrepreneurs, and even be in a city that’s so, so underestimated… it’s a lot to carry.
What professional advice would you give people in the early stages of starting out?
Visioning is really important. It could be a journal, it could be a Pinterest board, but map out what the two-, five- and ten-year mark looks like to your business and looks like for you. I think we women don’t factor ourselves into the equation enough, often thinking about everybody else instead, so you need to know at the two-, five- and ten-year marks, are you going to be making enough money from this business? Are you going to feel burned out? What’s your role going to be? Just taking the time to think really, really big.
How has being Los Angeles–based influenced your company?
Hugely. There are a number of factors. People don’t think of entertainment this way, but it really is an industry built by bohemians and artists. It’s a creative industry. So LA is not built as a nine-to-five, and that that lends itself really well to the entrepreneurial setting and lifestyle. Another thing is that I call LA almost like a rehab for New Yorkers. You have a lot of that big-city and New York energy here, but it’s also mellowed by the fact that it’s a warm climate, and that it’s the West Coast. It’s a little more chill. I’ve found it to be a really good workforce. You have driven people who are hungry, but they also want to be balanced and have fun and enjoy what they’re doing. It’s not this insanely over-competitive environment. We also started with trucks: LA is pretty nice so you can run a truck business year-round here. It’s a car culture, so people really notice your ice-cream truck. It looks cool on the freeway.
LA is also a city that’s continuing to figure itself out. That’s an exciting place for entrepreneurs. Now, you have so much tech business coming down here. It’s becoming much more multifaceted than just being about Hollywood. LA is so hugely influential to why we are the way that we are.
What are your top work essentials?
Reusable water bottle, matcha green tea, good sunglasses, strong lip color.
At what age did you found your company?
What’s your most-used app?
Boomerang for Gmail.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
You can walk through a wall when you don’t know it’s there. So, a perceived obstacle can actually be your biggest gift.
What’s your greatest skill?