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I’ve been honored to work with Natural Foods for almost ten years now, though my real education in food began much earlier. Lately, I’ve come to see that working with food is not the end goal: on a deeper level food provides an accessible platform for sharing inspiration with other entrepreneurs, in all industries across a wide variety of disciplines.

Which brings us to ice cream, and one of the lessons of this post.

Cold Comfort is one of the most impressive, quirky, welcoming ice cream parlors I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit. They’re tagline just about sums it up: “Doing whatever the hell we want since 2010.” Yet what they want is actually quite specific: their goal is to foster community. They accomplish this in several ways:

  1. Every Flavour Feels Like An Exclusive Offer: Cold Comfort has a rotating menu of over 340 flavours, yet they only offer 6 – 7 on any given day. Did you see your favourite flavour featured on Facebook or Twitter? Better hurry, because it’ll be gone tomorrow. Want them to make a new flavour just for you, one that you’ve dreamt of but never seen anywhere else? Ask them: they’ll whip up a batch for only $25. That would be unheard of at one of the larger chains – for that type of business ‘community’ has an entirely different meaning. Lesson: You can’t build a successful business by offering only one option with the same set of features every time your customers are ready to purchase. And if you offer a million options at once you’ll leave your customers feeling more overwhelmed than amazed (think food coma = not good).
  2. Play to your strengths: The most popular flavours make it into heavy rotation, but they also offer a complementary menu of ice-cream sandwiches. This highlights what they do best: making exotic flavours from scratch using the highest-quality ingredients. Lesson: Sometimes your original canvas is too small and you need to branch out into an entirely new product line. If you are specific about how you expand, the new line has the potential to be even more successful than the original.
  3. Everything they do points to their deeper values: Zany flavours and ice-cream sandwiches all point to their love of crafting delicious food by hand, but they don’t stop there: they also promote other local companies that love food just as much as they do. So in addition to ice cream you’ll also find bread from Fol Epi, chocolate from Sirene, and a few other products from like-minded small businesses nearby. They are encouraging their customers to think local for everything they eat, not just ice cream. Lesson: They didn’t start this business just to make ice cream; no, that’s just the gateway to a more vibrant community. It all comes back to community.
  4. They’re very specific on what they WON’T do: Want two scoops in a cone? Ha! Don’t make them laugh (and believe me, they will. It’s your own fault you didn’t read “No Cones” on the chalkboard when you walked in). Want to place a special order for an ice cream cake? Read their disclaimer first… if you dare. Imagine reading this on the websites of either DQ or Baskin Robbins. Yet Cold Comfort’s goals are completely different from these dairy behemoths. Lesson: Ice cream is the context, community is the goal.

It’s clear that the creators of Cold Comfort asked themselves the really hard questions early on. And I don’t mean, “Do we like making ice cream?” That’s (almost) a no- brainer. “Are we ready to create the best environment for nurturing and supporting a vibrant community, using ice cream as the foundation?” As I mentioned in an earlier post, that’s a question worthy of a lifetime of exploration.

Lately there has been an incredible amount of press about “unicorns,” companies that defy all expectations by exceeding $1 Billion valuations in what seems like the blink of an eye. But is this the only kind of company worth creating, joining as an employee, or supporting as a customer? What kind of work excites you, and what type of community are you trying to create? Those are the types of questions that all of us need to ask ourselves.

It’s easy to Oooh! and Aaaah! as we point at the unicorns, but how often do we pause to recognize entrepreneurs who are creating experiences that are no less novel, no less revolutionary? We look to the most lofty peaks for inspiration, when real innovation lies all around us. A company’s valuation only tells part of the story, a story that is being rewritten even before the ink on the press release has dried. Look more closely to find the true lessons hidden behind all those zeroes. Sometimes you can learn just as much by walking down the street and ordering a pint of vanilla to go.

Are you ready to ask the hard questions?

unicorn, ice cream, community