One Smart Cookie: The Founder of Mrs. Fields Shares How She Did It

By Libby KaneLearnVest

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When people ask how she turned her cookie recipe into a $450 million company, Debbi Fields, founder of Mrs. Fields, likes to say she grew up in an extremely wealthy family.

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But since her father made $15,000 per year as a welder for the United States Navy and her mother stayed home raising five children, their wealth wasn’t monetary.

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“We made every dollar stretch,” she remembers. “My father believed that true wealth was found in family, friends and doing what you love.” Debbi managed to take that advice and build an empire around a lone cookie recipe.

While she no longer manages the day-to-day operations like she did in her original shop in Palo Alto, she is the company’s spokesperson and now working on a book of new cookie recipes to come out next year (yes, we’re excited!) and a television show about mentorship.

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Which is why we picked the brain of the real-life Mrs. Fields about the dictionary that changed her life, how to get a business loan and why good chocolate (and vanilla) is always best.

First of all: why cookies?

My mother raised five children without the luxuries we have today–like a washer and dryer! Cooking was a chore she especially resented, and that showed in her meals. Since the food wasn’t as great as it could be, I used to refuse to eat. The only thing I was actually willing to eat? Cookies. I would bake my own using imitation chocolate, margarine–nothing real, because we couldn’t afford to have that in the house.

What made you turn your cookies into a business?

I had worked since age 13–as a teen, I worked at a department store and spent my first paycheck on real butter, chocolate and vanilla–and spent two years in junior college before marrying my first husband. He was trying to start an investment firm. I was a happy housewife.

But one night we went to dinner at the beautiful, intimidating home of one of my husband’s clients. This man asked me, What do you do?

“Oh,” I replied, “I’m just trying to get orientated.”

He got up, pulled an enormous, leather-bound dictionary off the shelf, put it in my lap and told me, “The word is oriented. If you can’t speak the English language, you shouldn’t speak at all.”

Incredibly embarrassed, sitting there in his library with tears streaming down my cheeks, I realized I wanted to be somebody. I could hear my father’s voice telling me that wealth was doing what you loved, and what I loved was cookies. So, that night, I gathered myself together and set out to become a somebody.

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How did you get from your own kitchen to a bona fide store?

When I broached the idea of turning my cookies into a business, my family thought I was crazy. They told me I didn’t have any money, education or experience, but hearing them made me only more determined. I started going into banks and asking for a loan. I would bring my business plan and my cookies, and they would look at the plan and eat all of the cookies and tell me, “Thanks, but no.” I started waking up every morning and telling myself, “Somewhere, there’s a person who wants to say yes.”

This was back in the late ’70s. I kept bringing my cookies, sharing my dreams and finally I managed to get a loan with 21% interest. I was thrilled.

What did you learn from that?

The gentleman who finally granted the loan told me, “I love your product, and I love your enthusiasm.” From the bank’s perspective, they need to trust you, that you’ll pay back the loan. Also, you need to let the product sell itself, whether a good, service or skill. If you want someone to pay for it, you should let them try it first.

Also–and this is my personal tip, here–find the banker nearest retirement, because he or she might be less concerned about the technicalities and more interested in following his or her heart.