Kat Cole: Big Brands Benefit From ‘Small’ Investments

It’s been just shy of a year since Kat Cole was appointed group president of FOCUS Brands, the parent company of sweet shop Cinnabon, where she served as as president.

Cole, a businesswoman with intense focus and dedication, spends most of her time maximizing FOCUS Brands’ business through global licensing, manufacturing, and e-commerce. But over the last six years or so, as she’s navigated the corporate world, explaining why bake shops like Cinnabon can survive America’s health-food craze (hint: It’s all about letting yourself indulge) and expanding the brand's portfolio to include a range of new partnerships and products, she’s also been working on a new role: Angel investor and business advisor.

“Even though I’ve been in big corporations, I’ve always been in franchising, which builds muscle for supporting small business,” she explained.

Cole said her interest in helping small businesses become successful started when a close friend and mentor recommended she reach out to a startup that needed some business advice. At that point, she wasn’t thinking of becoming a board member, or taking a large stake in the company. At first, Cole was just interested in lending an ear to listen, and perhaps a helping hand if it seemed like a good fit.

"It’s a shame not to have that one coffee with someone, or answer a tweet or a call. Time is precious, but I know a lot of leaders who have tons to give...not just to big corporations."

- Kat Cole, FOCUS Brands Group President

“I realized my experiences were incredibly helpful to small businesses and startups whether they’re a business that makes consumables, or services, or even tech,” she said. “I loved it…it always started with just advice. But then I started to invest in companies I really believed in, and take equity in companies to which I was an adviser. It was opportunistic at first because it fed my soul.”

She said what started for her as a sort of side passion has become much more intentional. Cole herself, separate from her role at FOCUS Brands, is now involved in more than 10 different brands ranging from e-commerce companies, to startup brewers, and apparel businesses. But her efforts don’t end there. She said there’s a lot of untapped potential for big companies like FOCUS Brands to partner with small business.

“It’s one thing for me to be an investor and mentor, but it’s another thing for my company to ‘believe’ in them as well,” she said. “Big businesses are seeing the value in partnering with startups, and for FOCUS, women founded startups.”

A Simple Request to Chat

Brands, journalists, and consumers might know Cole best for her easily-accessible presence on social media. She routinely interacts with those who initiate a conversation with her on Twitter – whether it be a compliment about a recent trip to one of FOCUS Brands’ retail outlets, or a question about a product – she said she answers every tweet she gets.

One fan of hers in particular found out just how great a resource Cole could be.

“I was just hoping for a response, quite honestly, anything really,” Tracey Noonan, CEO of Wicked Good Cupcakes, based not far from Boston, said.

Noonan and her daughter own their shop, which they opened in 2011. While they’d found success on their own terms – both through local customers and national media attention after they won a round of financing on ABC’s (NYSE:ABC) “Shark Tank” – Noonan felt like a piece was missing. Having looked up to Cole as a businesswoman, she wondered what Cole’s advice to a small-business owner might be.

So, she did what any person in the 21st Century would do: She tweeted at Cole.

“I was just hoping for some insight; how to get to the next level because I think every business reaches a plateau and needs some help,” Noonan said.

For Cole, deciding to respond was a no brainer. But what compelled her to schedule a phone call with Noonan was her tenacity and willingness to put herself, through a Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) direct message, in front of someone she admired. Cole said she easily could have left it with a quick bit of advice on social media, but she considered how a potential business partnership could benefit both brands and both women.

“The fact that she was comfortable enough reaching out on social media, that she was politely persistent in her follow ups, that she was positive and energetic and complimentary even though she had a goal…that level of directness and determination gave me confidence in her as a business person,” Cole said.

From that initial phone conversation blossomed a full-blown brand partnership between Wicked Good and FOCUS Brands. Over the course of just one month, Noonan worked alongside product developers and Cinnabon bakers to conceptualize and bring to market a new line of products that were a mashup of Cinnabon’s famous flavors and Wicked Good Cupcakes, all packaged up in a mason jar.

Noonan said it was an absolute whirlwind of a process to get the new product offerings from concept to reality in time for the holiday season, but it taught her how to be nimble, flexible, and open to ideas.

“With any business, it all comes down to your execution, and your being prepared or organized,” she explained. “Whatever you’re doing, you need to be able to execute because you could have the greatest product in the world, but if you can’t be consistent, you’ll be a flash in the pan. Reach out to someone you admire, find a mentor, but in doing so, have a vision and a clear image of where you’d like your product to go.”

Cole said when she’s looking to partner with a business – whether by herself or through FOCUS Brandss –, or even just lend advice, one of the biggest turnoffs is figuring out that the person she’s speaking with isn’t really open to her perspective despite having sought it out. Going into a conversation close minded, she said, is a recipe for disaster.

“What would have happened if Wicked Good stuttered and said, ‘I have vacation?’ The window [for a partnership] would have passed. I think my favorite line is ‘hustle muscle.’ Say yes to things before you’re ready, but you’d better have the hustle muscle to close the gap between what you don’t have and what you need to have. If you really believe in jumping off a cliff, you better be willing to build the plane on the way down,” Cole said.

Exercising the Hustle Muscle

While Cole’s passion plays well with her desire to help others, she hasn’t lost sight of what equipped her with the tools to lend the best business advice. She said she doesn’t just dole out her experience in corporate America as advice; she also uses what she learns working with small businesses to help her be a better executive at FOCUS Brands.

Cole doesn’t like the term balance as it implies she has to leave one task for another. Instead, she said the key to her success has been harmony.

“I don’t have kids. I tell people my startups are my kids in a way, so I spend my weekends, nights, my time on planes or in taxis, and between meetings answering startup questions. That’s part of my community, and many of the people I advise and invest with have become friends. I don’t compartmentalize my worlds. I don’t’ have to be one kind of person with each part of my life,” she said.

In other words, she doesn’t force her activities to be separate from one another. For example, as Cole was providing context for this story, which happened to fall during a business trip to New York, she explained that she was accomplishing two things almost at one time: Talking with me and her business partner, Noonan, while squeezing in a quick run as the last hour of daylight clung to the skyline.

Its Cole’s way of occasionally drawing a line between her worlds when she feels it’s necessary.

“When I was sitting with Tracey, I would say ‘I’m sorry, I have to look at my phone.’ It’s my way of saying my personal life is my priority but I’m still going to be here with you….It creates a culture that enables people to bring their full selves to work…there’s a level of vulnerability that comes with that and leads the other person to relate, allowing the lines to blur,” she explained.

Noonan said to her, as a small business partner, it just makes Cole feel human.

“It makes me feel not as intimidated in dealing with her. It’s quite touching, and nice to see someone like that,” she added.

As for her mentor style, Cole said she’s not very hands on at all. She prefers to lead business owners to their own conclusions, providing context and perspective along the way.

“I don’t like to give direct advice (in a mentor capacity). I like to share stories that are in some way relevant to them, and then let the person listening come to their own conclusion because it will serve them in a greater way. What they take out of it is what they need, and they’ll see it more meaningfully,” she said.

She qualified that statement, though, adjusting a bit to say that when she’s an investor in a company, she absolutely will have her hands in the business.

“It’s the degree to which you’re invested and the degree to which your advice is needed and wanted. There’s definitely a difference between stakeholder and minority shareholder or advisor. I’m always clear on expectations of my role depending on what it is,” Cole said.

Her biggest advice, which also happens to be her biggest lesson: Life is short and business is fleeting, so share your strengths.

“It’s a shame not to have that one coffee with someone, or answer a tweet or a call,” she said. “Time is precious, but I know a lot of leaders who have tons to give – not just to big corporations. They have lived a life, learned things, and don’t say yes to people who have reached out, or who don’t reach out when they could have. I’m not suggesting you spread yourself thin. But the world would be a much better place if everyone who had a story to tell shared it with someone else,” she said.