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Meet the Woman Entrepreneur Behind
the Chic New Food Startup, Din

Since moving to San Francisco 7 years ago, entrepreneur and foodie Em Olson has blazed a unique trail. Now working on her second startup, the young founder continues to let her passion for food guide her as she fearlessly pursues her mission: to bring people together through the love of cooking.

Em’s entrepreneurial journey began with Foodzie. Launched when she was just 24, the online marketplace for artisan food-makers was named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Food Companies, and even landed her accolades in Inc Magazine and Food & Wine. After successfully selling the company, Em continued to create innovative content around food, producing and starring in her own taste-making web series.

With her latest venture, Din, Em has created a way to bridge the gap between restaurants and home cooks, making it simple to whip up chic, high-quality meals at home. Divine Living caught up with the entrepreneur to pick her brain on all things startups, and find out what we absolutely must try next time we’re in San Francisco.

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Where did your passion for food begin, and how did it lead you to San Francisco?

I recognized my passion for food when I was in college. I was a chemistry major, but kept finding I was putting off all of my chemistry homework to cook. I worked my way through food magazines and that’s how I learned to cook. Food is the universal connector, which is why I’m so drawn to it. My move to San Francisco came a few years after college when I began building my first startup Foodzie. To me it was the best place in the country at the intersection of food and technology. I’ve been here 7 years now.

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Did you always imagine you’d work in technology?

No, that sorta happened by accident. But I was always drawn to STEM in my education until midway through college when I became drawn to food. It was at that point I thought I wanted to be an Editor of a food magazine so I studied journalism.

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Talk to us about making the leap from working a job, to starting your own company. What did it take for you launch Foodzie?

The idea for Foodzie came to be while I was working at The Fresh Market. I saw all of these small artisan foodmakers who had a tough time getting into our store, and I thought, what if they could sell these products online? My husband Rob and our friend Nik were building another idea but liked this better and so we all started working on it together. It definitely took having a founding team that could build something from nothing. As for the leap, I think you often need a forcing function to work on it full time. For me, it started to feel like a conflict of interest with my day job and that forced me to choose. I thought of the downside if I failed (I was 24) and honestly there wasn’t much, so I went for it. For the first 6 months I waited tables at night and worked on my startup during the day. We applied to Techstars, a tech accelerator, this was in 2008, and we got accepted. That really changed a lot for us.

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So now after successfully selling Foodzie, you’ve recently launched a new company—Din. What is Din, and what was the journey like for you in-between companies?

My new company Din is connecting restaurant kitchens with home kitchens to help you become a better cook. You get recipes from local restaurants and they do all the prep work, then we deliver the prepped and whole ingredients to your home, so you can cook it in about 20 minutes. The inspiration came when my husband and I realized that we had become so busy with our first company we had no time to cook (and it was the thing we loved most about food). So we set out to solve it. As for the time in between, I really needed that to reset myself and find my own identity again. I had really merged my identity with my company and when that went away I felt pretty worthless (which is crazy right?). But after some much needed travel through Southeast Asia for two months, I reconnected to myself and felt stronger than ever.

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What surprised you about the process of selling your company, and what did you learn?

A company is bought not sold. We really only engaged in the process because we had a big company we really admired who was actively pursuing us. But wow, the diligence process was excruciatingly difficult to manage while also trying to run a company. After four months and nearly closing that deal, it actually fell through, which was devastating. But at that point we were pretty far down the path and decided to continue with a sale, but with a different company—Joyus.

What’s one of the biggest things you know now working on Din that you didn’t in your first startup? What are you doing differently?

Sleeping! Ha. But no really, I think it’s honestly about taking care of yourself. I made this pact with myself in between companies that I’d wake up without an alarm and promised I’d continue to do it while running a startup. And I have! It was a game changer for my ability to stay calm, focused, and not get overwhelmed. There is a “let’s grind it out” kind of culture in Silicon Valley and it tends to burn people out. You go through many waves of emotions and many periods of doubt as you’re building something new. I believe you find success if you don’t give up. It’s a lot harder to push through when you haven’t slept.

No company can be great without a great team. What’s your secret for hiring and keeping A player talent?

We hire 50% for culture and 50% for talent/skills in the particular role. We follow a pretty rigorous hiring process and rely heavily on referrals. I think you really need to know your values, your why, and what you believe in—this is what sets the foundation for a unified team. It’s easy to want to hire someone who might be super impressive in their experience, but I feel like it always backfires if you don’t ensure they also match your culture. This combo is harder to find so you usually have to be much more patient as you hire.

What’s your long-term vision for Din, and what else can we look forward to from you?

We want to have a meaningful impact on local food communities, and I think we’re uncovering this new important connection between the restaurant kitchen and home kitchen. My long-term vision is to create a new and important revenue stream for restaurants, so more restaurants can succeed as businesses. And at the same time, by bridging them with home cooks, the chefs can serve as teachers to get more people cooking more often.

What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions around the tech start up scene?

The press focuses a lot on funding announcements and the money part. The people who build great startups aren’t there for the money, they truly are there to build something that canhave an impact. San Francisco is a place where you can have crazy dreams and go after them because you have a community that supports it, I love that about this city.

Naturally we have to pick your brain about food as well! What are your top three can’t-miss food experiences in San Francisco right now?

A slice of the lemon tart at Boulette’s Larder (it’s perfect food material), the family-style tasting menu at The Progress, and the elevated Mexican cuisine at Californios.

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What’s your favorite, go-to dish to make at home right now for an elegant, yet easy weeknight Dinner?

My favorite dish recently is from one of our Pop-up Chefs Joji Sumi, who’s currently a sous chef at Nopalito. He makes a Steamed Snapper that’s steamed in fumet (fish broth) served over rice tossed with a cilantro puree, with a side of broccoli. It’s finished with white soy, peanuts and cilantro. I could eat that dish every week.

 
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Learn more about Din at: din
Follow Em on Instagram @emilylafave

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