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

Libby Kane
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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.

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.

“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.

  • Marie

    I LOVE this article!! Mrs. Fields Cookie Book was one of my first cookbooks; I loved making her cookies growing up. I am currently on the hold list at my library for her book, One Smart Cookie, which is about starting her business (I’m surprised they didn’t mention it here, although it did come out a long, long time ago).

    What an inspiring story of persevering in spite of naysayers and other roadblocks. Go, Mrs. Fields!

  • Engchik

     I am honored to read this and get such amazing advice from an amazing woman! I am the same way in many areas- never ask anyone in a way they can say no- ask them in a way they can say YES!!! THX!

  • Mtejada

    One Smart Cookie?!  Is that how you describe a business owner who’s company filed for Chapter 11 twice in a period of 3 years?  I’m pretty sure that anyone who invested or lent credit to this organization would have a very different adjective for this “cookie”.

    • Gtbarnes

       To be fair, Mtejada, Mrs Fields sold the company in the early 1990s to an investment group.  While she remained as company spokeswoman, she was no longer in control and making the decisions that led to the bankruptcy in 2008 and near bankruptcy last year

  • Goldberry

    This is a nice article, but it’s so sad that someone felt they could criticize her like that for her English.  I find incorrect English annoying but I hope that I would never be so insensitive.  Obviously there is more to a person than their grammar or vocabulary (obscenity aside).  Snobbery could have the opposite effect and completely crush someone instead of inspiring them to achieve more.

    • http://mauishopgirl.com/ Taniashop

      Agreed.  I live in Hawaii where many people speak pidgin English and some ESL speak broken English. Being able to speak English well does not mean you are more intelligent or more intuitive than someone else and that is the erroneous assumption that many make. 

    • Peter Hoffman

      What’s even more amazing is that “orientated” is NOT incorrect!

      http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-ori1.htm

      Just imagine, if the boor had actually known what he was talking about, she might not have become the success she is!

  • Marge Edgerton

    I LOOOOVE THIS ARTICLE!!!!!!!!!!! so inspiring! fabulous hearfelt story!

  • LVSquared

    “For instance, when I call a hotel I don’t ask, “Can you give me a discount?”
    First, I get the name of the person I’m speaking with, and then ask
    them to direct me to the person who can give me the lowest price on a
    room. When I get to that person, I ask if they’re the person with the
    power to say, “Yes.” They tell me that they are, and at that point,
    they’ve already agreed! I just haven’t asked yet.” <<< This is amazing! Thanks for the advice :)

  • Quadira Sophia

    What an encouraging story! Years ago, I decided I wanted to be the next Mrs. Fields, and created some awesome cookie recipes of my own. Only I never had the necessary funds to really launch my business. I haven’t dared to get out a loan, not only due to credit rating, but also from fear of not being able to pay it back. Now I’ll have to reconsider how to launch my own dream, CW Sweets! (I create magnificent candies and a frozen dessert as well as cookies.)

    • Erica Stinson

      I am in the same boat. No capital and afraid to try for a loan.  It’s hard out there if you don’t have the capital up front, I am learning…

  • Miriam

    Loved the last quote – Terrific story :-)

  • Erica Stinson

    Glad I read this.  I am currently trying to turn my baking hobby into a business since I am unemployed for almost two years now.  I hope I can do it!

    • Mel

       You can :)

  • Corinne Phillips

    I have a new small business called Pretty Petals and yes everyone can get started and do what you really enjoy…it is soooo rewarding for me and I love to be at my shop everyday. I haven’t been in business for long but know the growth is slow!! I am working on my business plan and hope to achieve more capital in the coming year 2013!!

  • clover

    I like this article