The life of an entrepreneur always looks simple on the surface. We see people online who own businesses and have an abundant number of followers and we assume they have it made. We assume they are rolling in cash, riding around living the life of their dreams.
Interestingly enough, most entrepreneurs can attest to facing a a lot of strife and struggle before getting to that happy place. Yesterday TFF MAG sat down with Ella Russell of Crumbville to chat about what her journey as a business owner has been like so far.
In case you weren't aware, Crumbville is one of the yummiest treat stops in Houston. Not only are Ellas recipes original and delicious, she also offers a plethora of vegan options for all of our vegetarian and vegan friends.
During the interview we discussed everything from what it takes to build a brand from the ground up, to keeping a tight knit circle of friends who believe in you on days you don't even believe in yourself. Ladies, this interview is FAB! Enjoy and make sure you stop by Crumbville next time your'e in Houston!
TFF MAG: Tell us about your journey to Crumbville. What inspired you to start your company and what was your journey along the way like?
Ella Russell: I guess it was 13 years ago. My sons were three and nine and they both signed up to take treats to a holiday party at school. I was going through a financial hardship so I didn't have money to buy cookies, but I had all of the ingredients at home. I decided to bake their cookies myself. I brought the cookies I had left over to my coworkers and they asked me to bring more to our company potlucks in the future. That went on for a while.
After a while I got tired of baking chocolate chip cookies and decided to try something new. I would invite my friends to game nights at my house and bake different cookies and have them try them.I did that for a while and then I started making cookies so much, I would have them all the time. I would put them in little baggies and keep them in my car so anytime I went somewhere, I would give them cookies.
TFF MAG: You were slangin cookies all over the city.
Ella Russell: Basically. I mean I always had them with me. *Laughs* I gave cookies away at grocery stores, church, the bank, wherever I went, After about three years my friends were like "you're crazy, this is a thing. You should be selling these". So in 2007, I decided to make it a business. In 2008 I got on social media which was Facebook. In 2010 I got on Twitter and that's what changed the game. My friends had been waiting for me to get on Twitter becasue they were tweeting about my cookies.
I got on Twitter and I went from making cookies for my friends and my family here and my hometown which is Galveston, to delivering in seven different states by the end of the year.
TFF MAG: That's insane. When did you decide to get really serious about baking?
Ella Russell: Well, I was selling locally for a while until we started doing things in other states. I was promoting my cookies through a company called Score More that's based in Austin. They do local concerts and shows. I would go to the concerts and I would always have cookies with me to pass them out in the crowd.
One day I heard that J. Cole was coming to town for a concert. I'm like, a HUGE J. Cole fan. He actually came on the weekend of my oldest sons birthday. I wanted to go to the concert but my son wanted to go skating and he told me if I chose the concert over skating he would feel some kind of way. Anyways, I ended up taking him skating and I missed the concert and saw everyone on Twitter talking about it later.
The next morning I saw his promotional team online asking who wanted to go to his concert for free in Austin. Tweet this person, tweet that person, follow follow blah blah. So I follow and tweeted and did everything they ask us to do. I get dressed to go to church and my phone rings as i'm pulling up. An unidentified number calls me saying that their from J. Coles camp and that they were looking for Edubalicious from Twitter. Im like "ahhh oh my god"
TFF MAG: *Laughs*
Ella Russell: We talk for a few minutes and they give me this girls number who i've never met before that has an extra ticket. So I call her and she's ready to leave right then and i'm telling her that I can't leave because i'm about to walk into church. I asked her if I could just drive my own car and meet her and get the ticket from her later. She was like "yeah". I don't know this girl from Adam and I wasn't sure she would do it, but I agreed anyway.
My homeboy agreed to ride down to Austin with me for the concert. I told him I wanted to make cookies to bring to J. Cole because it was his birthday. I made the cookies, we go down there and I meet the girl who has the extra ticket, and we click right away. We're having drinks and talking like we've known each other for years. I ended up telling her that I made cookies and needed to get them to J.Cole. She ends up telling me that she knows the promoter and that's how she got the tickets.
The promoter is a young guy who goes to UT. He was driving for J. Cole so he let me put the cookies in the truck he was driving. J. Cole ended up tweeting about the cookies and reaching out to me to make cookies for his green room every time he was on tour. He said he'd seen me at his shows before and that he knew I enjoyed his music. He said that he would give me tickets in exchange for the cookies. I was like "absolutely i'll do that". This went on for a whole year.
For the next year, I went around with him to different cities in Texas and Louisiana while he was on tour. All of this stared because I didn't want my kids to be made fun of for not brining treats to school. I'm getting to meet Wale, Wiz Khalifa, Big Sean, they were still underground then. This was a long time ago. At one point Kendrick Lamar was sitting on the floor in front of me, and we're talking about music and I didn't even realize it was him. *Laughs* Anyway, we ended up taking a picture with him after the show holding the cookies. All of this was the beginning of more people reaching out to me and wanting to buy cookies.
At this point i'm in culinary school, I have two sons, i'm baking for Sunshines Deli and a place called Eat Gallery. I also had a job. Don't ask me how I did all of this because I still don't know.
TFF MAG: At what point did you decide to sever ties with your corporate job?
Ella Russell: In 2012 I decided to leave my corporate job to bake full time.
TFF MAG: What was that like? Were you scared?
Ella Russell: You know what, I said "god, give me a year to stack and i'll leave my job". I was at church and I can't remember what the message was, but the message inspired me to say that. I go to work that Monday and they're offering voluntary severance for anyone who wants to resign that day. They call a meeting and tell everyone they have to decide by Friday. Everyones whispering and talking about how they knew I would leave because I was always baking. Friday came and I was scared so I declined it. That weekend I got sick out of no where. I mean completely out of the blue for no reason. Physically sick. Throwing up, body chills, a migraine. I took it as a sign that I was sick because I declined the severance. I felt like I heard god talking to me telling me "trust me, i'm your stack". You know, the way I talk to god is different. I'm like "coeme on god, why you doing your girl like this"?
TFF MAG: *Laughing*
Ella Russell: That Monday I went back into work and I went into my supervisors office with my purse still on my arm and I told her it was time for me to go. We had that kind of relationship where she understood what I meant when I told her god told me I needed to leave.
She calls the area manager to see if they would allow me to keep a severance package. The area manager says they have to ask the union, and the union ends up saying no because they would have to go back and give everyone the option to change their mind if they allowed me to.
So I go back to my desk, sign in and sit down and start the day. We have this thing called "q" that would allow us to send instant messages to people in the office. My supervisor sent me a message asking me to come back to her office. She told me that if I was willing to leave payroll and switch departments to save this woman's job, they would give the severance package for her position. I agreed, signed the paperwork and that was it. I signed the paperwork on a Wednesday and I was gone by Friday.
I was thinking I was good baking for Sunshine and Eat Gallery and doing my pop up shops. Maybe a week later the people who owned the Eat Gallery let me know that they had a meeting with the owner of the building, and that he wanted his building back and would be shutting their business down. That location was going to become my main storefront. In hind site, I think god was testing me to see how bad I really wanted it. After that, things got hard. Not only were my ends not meeting, they were so far apart they couldn't even wave at each other. *Laughs*
I called my landlord and I said "hey, I don't want to get behind on my payments any further than I am on my rent". I was two years into a three year lease at the time. I ended up having to move out and my friends helped me pack. I had no idea where I was going but I wanted to get out so he could recoup some of his money.
I had a couple friend of mine who helped me move. When we were finished moving everything into storage, they told me to follow them to their house. My and my 11 year old son slept on their couch for nine months. Like, on the same couch. While I was living with them, Project Row House called me to invite me to be a part of an installation they were creating called "Small Business, Big Change". The focus was small businesses and the contributions they'd made to the community. I agreed but was apprehensive because i'm not an artist. What I knew about Project Row House is that their houses were installations. I called a friend of mind named Anthony Subaru who is a carpenter , a sculpter, and an art history teacher. He's also been featured in one of the Rowe houses before.
We discovered that both of us had family members who owned general stores back in East Texas. I told him it was an omen and we were destined to work together. So, he ended up making the space for me and it was Crumbville General Store. It was a bakery, meets installation, meets a general store. It was my first real taste of a store front. It was set up very similar to this but on a smaller scale. It did so well and my customers were excited about me having the space. I kind of let it morph into what it was. On Sundays we had book signings, screenings, and yoga. At first I didn't want to do it, but the closer it got to the end, the more I didn't want to go back to doing just pop up shops.
It just so happened that Project Row House owned the space i'm in now too, and it was coming available to lease. I was able to apply for their business incubation program, and we opened literally 5 months after the installation ended. I've been here ever since.
TFF MAG: That's one hell of a journey.
Ella Russell: Yeah, it's been a very wild crazy, unpredictable journey. It's made me look at "no's" differently. No's and rejection. When my kids signed up to bring the treats to school for the holiday party, I asked their dad to help me out. His response was "no, you got it". At first I was really resentful for him not helping me buy the cookies but if he would have said yes, I would have still been working at the phone company and I would not be living this amazing life. It's not easy but the payoff is worth it.
I really skipped over the party of the story where I talk about my friends who owned business who allowed me to pop up and sell my treats there. They all helped me to be able to have a space and to have somewhere to pop up. Because I know how important that was to me, i've been intentional about making this space an inside out pop up shop that's also affordable.
TFF MAG: That's amazing. How do you think social media affects the way outsiders see business owners?
Ella Russell: It's grueling. People think it's overnight success. They have no idea that your house was foreclosed and you moved to another place, and someone kicked the door in and stole some random shit like a guitar and drum sticks but you feel violated so you want to move out, but you cant afford it. They don't know the hard part, they just think "ooh, she's everywhere with these cookies". That's because I have to be because i'm six months late on my rent *laughing*. They don't know that. They just think you're making it and you've got it and you're ballin. I do everything myself while having my granddaughter 70 percent of the time, and raising my son and I still have a life....kind of. *Laughs*
I've been out of my corporate job for five years now.
TFF MAG: Did you have anyone help you with a business plan or did you just figure everything out on your own?
Ella Russell: Girl, business plan, What is that? *Laughs* I never had one. I still don't even know what that is. It's been like, I cross each bridge when I get to it. think about it, I never intended for this to be a business. Along the way people would just appear out of nowhere to help me. My accountant has been my accountant for 6 or 7 years and she knows a lot about laws and paperwork so she helps me.
I went to culinary school initially for baking and pastries. With the way the schedule was with my job, I never took a pastry class, I only took European Cuisine. I learned a lot about licensing and codes from them. Thats the extent of my business plan. Literally all of my friends helped me build this space out. There were strangers in here painting before I opened up *laughs*
TFF MAG: A lot of people have good ideas about starting a business or a company, but they don't always follow through to bring them to fruition. What do you think lit a fire inside of you to go out and start your business?
Ella Russell: I have amazing, crazy friends and they believe in me sometimes more thank I do. My friends were always there for me. They support me in any way to stay on this because they know this is "the thing". It's like a ripple effect and I can't even see how far it reaches. I would say always surround yourself with people who believe in you and are supportive. It's easy for you to question what you're doing and if it's the right thing. My friends had been telling me for five years to leave my job.
Ellas story is nothing short of inspiring. She bring joy to her community by providing a genuine space, authentic conversation, and of course, tasty treats. Ella, TFF MAG would like to congratulate you on your success and encourage you to keep going! Thank you for inspiring women across the country to go after their dreams.
Make sure you follow Ella on all things social media!