Tiff’s Treats tips for starting a business

Learn about how the Austin cookie company actually started in the D-FW area, which is also its biggest market.

DALLAS — Sorry to put this into your head, but we’re talking about warm, gooey cookies with the founders of Tiff’s Treats – which technically started in Austin in 2000. 

But the idea and the first batch of cookies were baked up in a Richardson house by a college student home for winter break.

How it began

Leon Chen, looking at his wife Tiffany (Tiff) Chen, says, “It started because this one…my lovely wife now…but she stood me up on a date.” 

Tiff chimes in, “Well, I did. But I also apologized. I made this batch of cookies, drove it over to his house and they just so happened to still be warm.”

Obviously. Leon fell in love… with Tiff… and with the idea for a business they would start in an Austin apartment. 

Tiff explains, “We were 19 years old, 19-year-old sophomores in college. And there’s just something to be said about being naïve. We call it young and dumb and naïve. We just didn’t know what we didn’t know and that actually served a really great purpose for us because we just kind of barreled through everything.”

A new book about the business

Now, these pioneers of warm cookie delivery have a new book hot off the presses, in which they share some of their business know-how. 

It’s called “It’s Not Just Cookies.” 

Their timing is good. Last year, a record 5.4 million new business applications were filed in the U.S.

All those new entrepreneurs might be hungry for advice from a couple who turned a little kitchen experiment into a $500 million sugar high, “Yeah, I think usually our biggest nugget of advice is be passionate about what you’re doing. If you want to do it and you want to be successful at it, do what you can to make that the primary focus in your life and have the other things be kind of second to that so that you can really put focus on it. 

The couple adds, “And…never underestimate hard work. It’s going to be hard work, and that’s something that you can control. You can work as hard as you’re able, and that will really pay off.”

Low points on the way to success

It certainly paid off for them. But there were low points, like losing the lease on their first location in Austin. 

Tiff recalls, “This was the most likely time we were going to go out of business, and it wasn’t for anything we did. It was that we had lost our lease. We didn’t have enough money to lease another space. No landlord in their right mind would have extended us terms on a lease, and we just had nowhere to go. 

She adds, “We ended up pushing forward and having a great outcome and finding that unbelievable landlord who would take a chance on us and finding a converted house and turning that into a kitchen, as opposed to a normal restaurant space. So, it worked out for us. But when we lost that lease and we had, I think we had like 45 days to get out, that would be one of my lowest.”

And then they opened a second location in Dallas. But they say the cookies there were off at first, “The consistency went way off… the cookies got huge, like just giant. They were bigger and they were darker, and they were crunchier.” 

Turns out the Dallas ovens were too hot. That taught the couple about consistency, the importance of communication with staff, and about being hands-on leaders. 

By the way that one Dallas location apparently got North Texans hooked, “We have like 24 locations. It’s our it’s our biggest market and so we have more stores in the D-FW area than we do in any other city.”

Managing the pandemic and what comes next

The pandemic has brought many challenges to the business as far as managing concerns and communicating with employees. 

The Chens say one of the biggest challenges in the past few years, though, was keeping up with soaring demand, “Everybody that was missing birthdays and anniversaries…you have to remember how many occasions we all missed and people were just sending cookies. We scrambled to hire. We hired hundreds of people to keep up with that initial boost of demand.” 

And apparently, many of those orders were people treating themselves, “We saw a big boost in self consumption and people, especially nights and weekends, just needing that comfort snack.”

They sell a lot of cookies. Might they also eventually sell stock? 

“Oh yeah, that that would be something that we would definitely evaluate when the time comes”, they say. 

Their storefronts have already expanded to a handful of states, and more expansion could be on the menu. 

They say, “There’s no reason we can’t have warm cookie delivery in every state.”

If they aren’t where you are, you can find some of their recipes in their new book, along with some of their reflections on becoming successful in business. 

They say the recipes don’t leave out any secret ingredients, “But you do have to formulate them differently for home because we’re talking about smaller batches, so they’re tweaked so that it is a home version of the Tiff’s Treats recipe, but we’re certainly not leaving anything out to make it less good.” 

By the way, they say the old standby chocolate chip is still the biggest seller.

For those of you looking for some business advice from the couple, I asked them for 13 pieces of advice. Check them out below.

A baker’s dozen of Tiff’s Treats tips

1. SAY YES, THEN FIGURE IT OUT

When we started out, we had no plan, much less a formal business plan. If we’d taken the time to scope out the project and weigh the pros and cons of starting a business concept that had never been done before — while we were sophomores in college — there’s no way we would have chosen to give it a go.

If we hadn’t said yes to certain things, then figured them out later about one hundred different times, we wouldn’t be in business today. These days, we’re a lot more careful and measured in our decision-making process, but we continually remind ourselves and our team not to overanalyze every situation. 

If you know what you need to do, be confident that you’ll figure out the “how,” and say yes.

2. LAUNCH FIRST, PERFECT LATER

The number one mistake we see new founders and experienced leaders make is to try to perfect something too much before launching. 

Many times, you have no idea what you need until you put it out there. A good example of this is when we built the software for our company. If we had tried to build what we thought was the “perfect” system, it would have taken us forever. 

By the time we launched it, it would have already been outdated and needed to be redone immediately. Instead, we built a system that did the basics of what we needed, and over the years let the system evolve by adding features as our company has grown.

During this process, we discovered that many things we thought we needed, or thought were most important, were soon replaced by new issues, problems, and opportunities. 

We would have wasted precious resources, time, and money, specifically, if we’d tried to build version 4.0 before launching version 1.0. One of the most underrated but learnable skills is how to iterate.

3. FIND A NICHE AND STICK TO IT

Hands down, the most frequent response we receive when delivering a box of cookies is: “They’re still warm!” 

Well, of course they are — that’s what we do. From the start, we decided that delivering our cookies not only warm, but also right out of the oven, would be our niche. 

This means that the cookies aren’t baked in advance. Right before your order is due, the cookies are put on a tray and popped in the oven. Once they come out of the oven, we have a short window to allow the minimum cooling time for the cookies to keep their shape, before they’re packaged into a box, just for you, while still hot. 

If we miss that window and let the cookies cool too long, we have to start over again and bake a fresh set of cookies.

When facing a tough decision, one that can go either way, use your gut as the tiebreaker. For any decision big or small, we always go with our gut — no matter what anybody else says or what any analysis shows.

5. LEARN FROM YOUR FAILURES

In our history, we’ve possibly had as many failures as successes. At the end of each year, we create “Top Ten” and “Not Top Ten” lists of the ten best and ten worst things we did that year. 

Besides getting a cathartic laugh out of the worst things list, it gives us a chance to reflect and see what we can learn from some of the more spectacular failures.

6. GET COMFORTABLE WITH HARD WORK

Although there’s a lot of great advice out there, we continue to return to a foundational idea that’s underrated, because there’s no trick or hack for old-fashioned hard work. 

Here’s what we tell ourselves and our team: There is so much about life and business that is out of your control. There will always be somebody who is smarter than you, who is better connected than you, who has more money than you, and who might be luckier than you. 

You can’t control those things. The only thing you do have control over is how hard you work.

7. PRIORITIZE EXECUTION OVER IDEAS

People often mistakenly think that business success is based on one great idea or a series of great ideas. They say, “Warm-cookie delivery! I wish I had thought of that idea!” 

This always makes us smile because we wish it were that easy — to simply have a great idea and then everything else falls into place. 

While bright ideas are essential, execution is often overlooked. In the early years, coming up with ideas wasn’t an issue — getting everything done was. That remains true today.

If you have no way to execute a plan, there’s no sense in dreaming it up.

8. BRING ON THE RIGHT PEOPLE

One ingredient that any successful business must have is the right people at the right time. Building and growing a business takes all different kinds of people and skill sets. 

Though our business has needed different things at different times, the one constant requirement has been good people.

At the core of what we do, we connect people through warm moments. People rely on us to be a part of special moments in their lives. 

When we meet new people and they hear we started Tiff’s Treats, the first thing they usually do is share their “warm moment,” their first or favorite Tiff’s Treats experience. 

We love this because it’s extremely rare for any brand to be able to participate in one of the best moments of someone’s life, like the birth of a child. 

Few brands get to be part of something so amazing and personal, but for some reason, our brand does. 

That is truly special and something we don’t ever want to take for granted.

Because we’re involved in so many “warm moments” in people’s lives, it’s important that we “make it right,” no matter the situation. 

In the business of on-demand delivery and on-demand gifting, we’re bound to make mistakes. We try hard to minimize them, but it still happens. 

We have a company goal to keep our error rate to 0.35 percent or under, which means we strive to be accurate 99.65 percent of the time. 

Even when the mistake isn’t our fault, we strive to make it right.

Protecting the brand is something we regularly talk about within the organization. It only recently dawned on us that when we’re talking about “protecting the brand,” we’re actually talking about protecting it from ourselves more than anything else. 

Over the years, we’ve remained relatively simple in how we operate and what we provide as far as product and service. 

We’re careful when adding to our product offerings, which must be in service of, and not a distraction from, being best in the world at warm cookie delivery. 

This doesn’t mean we avoid expanding our offerings. 

But, staying laser-focused on what we do best has been a key to our growth. We use “protect the brand” as our filter, whether it’s at the store level or the board level.

Walking down the halls of our office, you’ll see wonderful people who are here because they want the same thing: to make history, to build something that has never been built before. 

We talk about it often with our team and have realized it’s such an intrinsic motivating factor. So, we hire people who have a passion around building and creating something special together.

In our experience, there are two kinds of people: Those who are uncomfortable with change and those who hate it. 

That’s not entirely true, but it’s safe to say that change is an unsettling concept for most people, which is why it’s one of our values. 

If change is something you can’t get on board with, and you’re hoping for a job that remains basically the same from your first day to your last, you’re in the wrong place. 

Starting a company in a nonexistent industry means you get used to adapting things to fit your needs and making changes when something better comes along.

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