When Robyn Sue Fisher, MBA ’07, first went to a Stanford GSB reunion and told her former classmates that she was selling ice cream on the street, there was some confusion about what she meant.
“Someone asked me if I was on Wall Street, and I explained that no, it was an actual street in San Francisco,” she says.
Her entrepreneurial test-drive on the streets proved to be a big turning point for Fisher, who now runs San Francisco-based Smitten Ice Cream, with nine highly acclaimed shops in Northern and Southern California.
Before she arrived at business school, Fisher was a management consultant in New York City, Boston, and Paris. At the end of her long nights, she would treat herself to a frozen dessert. But she was disappointed that the handy late-night option was full of artificial ingredients and, in her opinion, didn’t taste as good as fresh ice cream. She dreamed about creating a better, natural solution that would bring the utmost joy to anyone who ate it.
Feeling out-of-place in the corporate world, Fisher headed for Stanford GSB, hoping to come across a dream job. As she looked at alternatives, she was captivated by an opportunity at global design company IDEO that involved “being creative and making stuff and using all the parts of your brain,” but she didn’t get the position. Fisher did get an offer from the FBI to be part of a new program, hiring MBAs to integrate business thinking into different departments.
But meanwhile, in the classroom, other prospects beckoned that proved even more enticing than the FBI.
Crafting A Product, a Business Plan, and a Calling
“I dove into entrepreneurship and decided to focus on something I love: ice cream,” Fisher says.
During her second year at Stanford GSB, Fisher took the two-quarter Startup Garage course, which gives students the opportunity to test their entrepreneurial ideas.
She gathered a group from across Stanford GSB and Stanford Engineering, excited to form an all-female team in that largely male environment. Armed with an idea sparked by a physics professor who made ice cream in class, the team tinkered around, trying to create a mixer that used liquid nitrogen to turn fresh ingredients into ice cream in just a few minutes; they also developed a business plan for shops that would delight customers with freshly made scoops. The co-founder of Galaxy Desserts, Paul Levitan, MBA ’91, acted as mentor.
“I wanted to expose myself to entrepreneurship and product design at Stanford, and I had that opportunity working with my team in Startup Garage,” Fisher says.
Fisher admits that her early batches of product weren’t very good; it would take her several more years to invent and perfect the technology. At school, she served ice cream every chance she got, including at a classmate’s wedding. “I had a lot of support from classmates and professors,” she says.
When she graduated, Fisher decided to pursue her ice cream business full time. Levitan has been on Smitten’s advisory board since its founding.
“My mantra is, ‘No regrets.’ I’d rather try my hardest and fail than play it safe and ask, ‘What if?’ I’m comfortable with failure because regrets hurt more,” she remarks.
Next Up: Customers
She spent two years after graduation developing her prototype equipment, iterating dozens of times until she had a machine that reliably produced the freshest, smoothest ice cream that she had ever experienced, using only the purest, highest-quality locally sourced ingredients. She originally called her ice cream machine Kelvin, after the temperature scale, and patented the device, later changing the name to Brrr® for trademark reasons. Then she put Kelvin/Brrr® on a red Radio Flyer wagon and went to the streets of San Francisco to start selling.
“I kept asking myself, ‘What’s the next thing I need to do to understand if this is going to fail or not?’ and I focused on that,” Fisher says.
She knew that she had a hit when lines started forming around the block to taste her flavor of the day.
“Those were long, hard days, but I’m thankful for them, because they helped me to establish the culture and values of the company,” says Fisher. Those four values: Make people’s day, commit to being the best, think like an entrepreneur, and be genuine.
As she continues to grow the business, Fisher is determined to maintain the positive culture that she built while selling ice cream on the street. She opened her first Smitten shop in 2011, and the ninth debuted in December 2017. She now employs more than 200 people, whom she calls Brrristas®; they’re ably assisted by her Brrr® machines, which have earned four patents and have one patent pending. Fisher’s team aims to spread joy with a constantly expanding array of churned-to-order flavors as the company expands to its 10th shop — slated for spring 2018 — and beyond.
— Dana Mauriello