When she was pregnant with her first child, Nicole Bernard Dawes spent an entire afternoon trekking through New York City in search of a simple snack: organic saltine crackers.
She didn’t find them, but the quest got her thinking. It was 2001; she couldn’t be the only one who wanted organic saltines.
She had the connections and experience to take action. Her father, Steve Bernard, was the founder of Cape Cod Potato Chips. In 1996, she had joined the company herself and helped introduce a reduced fat version of its popular kettle chips.
When her father sold Cape Cod Potato Chips to North Carolina snack maker Lance in 1999, “I realized this was my chance to start my own company,” she says. “I spent the next year focused on figuring out what I wanted that to be.”
After the saltine epiphany, Dawes teamed up with her father to launch Late July Snacks, headquartered in Boston. Her father’s death in early 2009 left her figuring things out by herself. “And without his voice of reason preventing us…we decided to go into tortilla chips,” she says.
Now in its 14th year, Late July is aiming to hit $85 million in annual sales. Sales have grown 40 percent every year for the last four years, Dawes says. The company employs 25 people.
In addition to saltines, the company makes an assortment of organic, non-GMO crackers and tortilla chips, including a new chip line inspired by taco truck flavors. “For better or worse,” she says, “my launch strategy has always been: Is there something I want to buy and can’t?”
Dawes spoke with Fortune about running a company with a significant other, hiring the right team and succeeding in business.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you go from filling your apartment with cracker dough test batches to doing millions in annual sales?
We officially hit stores in 2003 with crackers. That wasn’t what I’d always dreamed of—I always wanted the company to be more than that—but you have to start somewhere and nobody else was doing [organic saltines]. And because there was no one really competing with us, we were able to get those crackers out nationally almost overnight.
For the next seven years, we always had good growth, but when we launched these tortilla chips in 2010, we were literally the overnight success that took seven years in the making. Our company just started exploding. My husband and I decided to risk the whole future of the company on the launch of those chips. If it hadn’t worked, you and I wouldn’t be talking today and the future of the company would have been radically different.
What have you learned over the last 13 years about succeeding as an entrepreneur?
It is absolutely essential that you believe – even to the point of delusion – that you will succeed. The problems you’re going to face are going to be so enormous that if any part of you at any point admits there’s a possibility you could fail, doubt starts to creep in. I think that’s the most dangerous moment for an entrepreneur: starting to believe there’s a chance you could fail. At the same time, make sure there is somebody in your life who’s a reality check. For me, that’s my husband.
I’d also say to never believe your own hype. Never, ever think you’ve made it. The minute you let down your guard or rest on your laurels, that’s the day that your competitor is going to come eat your lunch. When we were small, I thought, if we can just hit $200,000 per month in sales, all our problems will be solved. There is never a number you’re going to hit where all your problems will be solved.
And of course, there’s your team.
What is the formula for building the right team? Were there things you had to change about the hiring process in order to get there?
Obviously if I’m hiring a finance guy, he has to have finance experience. That’s obvious. But outside of things where you need a specific skill, a few years ago we started hiring almost exclusively on company culture fit and personality. You can train skill, but you can’t change a person’s attitude.
Is it hard to truly screen for that in an interview?
We take a really long time when we interview people. I spend time with them. I want their peers to spend time with them. Because little red flags come up during the process. It’s so important to everybody’s well-being that the next person who comes in is going to be a positive contributor. You want someone that’s going to make everyone else feel better than they currently feel, not worse.
What’s one of the biggest mistakes you see entrepreneurs make?
You have to understand your own business, obviously, and all the different sides. If there is a part you’re not overly comfortable with – for me that was sales – you better figure it out because that’s the one that’s going to prevent you from succeeding. Sometimes, I talk to people and they’re not comfortable with P&Ls [profit and loss statements]. That’s incredibly dangerous, obviously. People will say, “Accounting wasn’t really my thing.” As an entrepreneur, you really can’t make that statement about any part of your business.
Your name and signature are on the back of the bag, and you’ve always used your own name and image to market the brand. Did that ever feel too intrusive?
When you’re an entrepreneur, your life and your business are intertwined. That’s the commitment you make when you start a business. On some levels, I do feel a little bit guilty about that – like I’ve dragged my whole family along with me on this dream, this crazy idea.
But then I think – I grew up in the exact same environment and I loved it. When I was a kid, one of my proudest moments was having my class take a tour of the Cape Cod Potato Chips factory. So I’m hoping that will be the case with my kids, too. They feel really proud of the company, and we try to include them in as much stuff as we can.
What benefits have you seen for your kids growing up in an entrepreneurial family so far?
No matter what you do in life, the skills you pick up on learning how to run a business and understanding how businesses work are invaluable. That was an enormous gift my dad gave to me. I explain how a P&L works to them. One of the earliest things that they could never wrap their heads around is why don’t we advertise on TV. Instead of just dismissing that, my husband and I took the time to explain why we don’t and how much that costs, showing them how much money we have in our budget to spend on marketing.
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Your husband is also your business partner at Late July. Do you have any advice for successfully working with a significant other, particularly as an entrepreneur?
For us, I think the reason it works is because we try to encourage open disagreement. We don’t always have to agree with each other. In fact, on a lot of work things, we don’t. We hope that makes it easier for our staff to feel that way too. We want everyone to be open and honest about how they feel. You don’t always have to agree with me.
I think it also helps that we separate areas of expertise. Even though we overlap in all the departments, there are some I oversee and some he oversees. Marketing and operations are his; finance and sales are mine. We clearly separate out who is in charge of different things.
The other thing is making sure we still make time for each other. During the day, we love to get out and take a hike together if we can. We still talk about work usually, but we’re enjoying each other’s company.