These Women Launched Their Biz On A Tiny Budget

Naz Riahi knew immediately after her first lunch with Emily Schildt that they were meant for each other. Following an afternoon of great conversation, Riahi sent off an email to Schildt that was direct — her signature style — and declared that she knew the two would be partners one day. At that point, the 34-year-old former brand consultant didn’t even have a business idea percolating, but she trusted her gut — and she was right. Just a year later, Schildt, 28, and Riahi launched Bitten, a culinary conference that set out to change the conversation around food and open an inclusive community to a wider audience. The first conference was a success. A week before the event, tickets were totally sold out. The day of, Riahi and Schildt were fielding ticket requests from people willing to pay cash to get in. And when it was all over, the pair sat back and wondered just how the hell they survived the experience. But they didn't rest for long. Nine months later, they are preparing for the second conference and building a creative marketing agency. So how did they get there? Ahead, we chatted with the duo about the soaring highs and crushing lows of leaving their jobs and starting their own business with little more than their savings, some big ideas, and a lot of persistence. What was the impetus to start a food conference?
Naz Riahi: "I had always wanted to do something for myself. Especially since so many of the business owners in the agency world were men. I really felt like we needed to have more women running their own companies. And if I'm gonna think that, then I'm gonna need to do that, as well. "When I left my full-time agency job, I knew I wanted to do some sort of consulting, but I also was super-interested in the food space, because I thought it was really innovative and people were really incredibly nice. But at the same time, they were insulated and the same people went to the same events, which all seemed focus on problems, not solutions or innovations. "So I thought I would like to put on an event that brings people together from not just the food space, but also outside of it. We would talk about innovation and address the problems, but also focus on pop culture and trends. And when I came up with this idea — and then met Emily, who had food experience, and I really liked her — I knew I wanted to make this happen." Emily Schildt: "I left a rapidly growing food startup — it was actually the fastest growing food startup in the world. It was such a tremendous experience for me professionally and personally. My role evolved so quickly in four years that by the end of my time there, I was overseeing a team of 14. I felt really disconnected from the hands-on tasks that I had done in the beginning — and I missed that creative role. "I also felt disconnected from the food community, because I was no longer the one directly interacting with consumers or really had my finger as much on the pulse of food trends. So when Naz approached me with this idea, it felt like such a good way for me to get back to both of those things."
How did Naz sell you on the idea?
NR: "I called Emily and was like, 'Let’s do a food conference. It’s going to be easy.'" ES: "Yeah, she said it would only take four easy steps: get a sponsor, get a venue, get speakers, and get people to come. And I was like, 'Oh, okay. That sounds really simple.' No big deal." How did you decide who did what?
NR: "It really just organically kind of happened. Both of us trust the other one completely and utterly, which is a new experience for me. I'm pretty controlling in my work, because I want everything to be perfect. I'm really thankful that I have Emily, because she is amazing at what she does." ES: "I think that’s been the most challenging and rewarding aspect of this business partnership is that we're both very independent, strong, opinionated women — and we know that we can do it all ourselves. "But actually allowing yourself to not do it all — I mean this really translates so much outside of business, too, right? — which is like allowing someone to contribute equally and learning how to appreciate that and welcome it and trust in that. It's been such a great learning process. "You read everywhere that you should find a business partner who has complementary skills. And I wouldn’t necessarily say that Naz and I have complementary skills. We have a lot of the same skills, but we have the same vision. It's almost like unspoken — we share exactly the same vision for the business and aesthetic. That allows us to work through the other stuff more easily."

we're both very independent, strong, opinionated women

Emily Schildt
How did you make money when you first started planning the conference?
NR: "I sold my car and moved into a teeny-tiny apartment that was super cheap, in Bushwick. (I had to use my oven for heat this winter. It was really classy!) And I've gone into some real credit card debt. This was all very, very, scary, but I do believe that you have to take risks and not be afraid of losing money. I always wholeheartedly believed in my vision for Bitten and I knew it would work. But it also had to work. There was no other choice. I also took on a few small freelance projects to make ends meet." ES: "Prior to Bitten, I definitely hustled. I was that person you'd meet at a party where when you ask what they do, they start rattling off a list you can't count on your hands. In addition to freelance work, I designed résumés and pitch decks — which is actually hilarious because I'm not a designer by any means — but I utilized my storytelling skill set. I took gigs in strategy, copywriting, content planning, client pitch presentations (at agencies). I never stopped working. It was just a lot of long days — early mornings and late, late nights."

What has been the hardest part of the job?
NR: "It was probably the most stressed I've ever been in my life. It was really hard, because we didn’t know exactly what was in our future even just five days ahead. We didn’t know who was gonna say yes, who was gonna say no, how many tickets we were gonna sell. We have a much better idea this year going into it, because now we've done it once, but it was a tremendously stressful experience — even though I was very happy the whole time I was doing it. I was doing something I believed in and I was excited to be working for myself and with Emily. So it's a really weird feeling to be so scared and so stressed out, but also to be so happy and so excited."

"For me, there was this overwhelming sense of uncertainty and that started to spiral into self-doubt, which I've learned is just something that doesn’t go away no matter how successful you are. I mean, I'm not that successful yet, but I’ve had small successes. I think it's just something that you have to learn to battle or cover or deal with all the time. But it can really be somewhat debilitating at times if you allow it to take over, because you just start to ask yourself all of these questions: Is this totally stupid? Is anybody gonna come?"
How did you deal with those moments of self-doubt?
NR: "In a way, we were completely delusional in thinking that we could pull this off. That really worked to our advantage, because we were able to pull it off and it was successful. I was completely delusional in thinking that getting sponsorships was gonna be the easiest thing in the world. And Emily was delusional in thinking that getting people to come was gonna be the easiest thing in the world. We really egged each other on with those two things." ES: "While we both had insecurities, the insecurities were different. There was always one of us who could balance the other." NR: "A friend of ours, who has a fashion startup, told Emily that every time you succeed at something, no matter how little, take a moment and pat yourself on the back and know that right away there's gonna be another hurdle that you have to cross. Those hurdles are never gonna end." ES: "There are always gonna be obstacles. So if you don’t stop for a moment and say, 'Hey, we got over this one,' then you'll totally lose all of those moments." NR: "And Emily and I try to celebrate all the little milestones. When one great thing happens that we're really excited about, we go out and get Champagne and oysters."

What sacrifices did you make in order to build a successful business?
ES: "I definitely isolated myself a bit. I think as an entrepreneur, you have to be willing to sacrifice being understood and I'm not sure I was really prepared for that. No one believes in what I'm doing as much as I do, except for Naz. And no one really gets it, either, no matter how much you explain it. (And explaining it can feel like a burden to others.) Rather than talk about my work and risk feeling judged or incurring self-doubt, I preferred to shut myself out." NR: "I sacrificed shopping for nice clothes, living in a nice apartment, horseback riding, going out to nice meals, and a lot of other material things. I haven't gone on vacation in two years. Making this company work is just something I had to dedicate myself to. I was coming off a divorce, so I wasn't looking for another relationship and was able to forget dating, for the most part. That timing seemed to work out well in being able to say, 'Right now, I'm dedicating myself 100% to the business.' "My friends and family have been tremendously supportive and totally understand when I can't see them as frequently as I'd like. But this has also been a very lonely journey, except that Emily, as my partner, is the only person in the world who knows what I'm going through. She's going through the exact same thing. There's something so deeply comforting in that. "I realize these sacrifices are nothing in the grand scheme of things and that I'm lucky to be in a place in my life where I can make these sacrifices."

Emily and I try to celebrate all the little milestones.

Naz Riahi
What were you biggest fears launching your own business?
ES: "My biggest fear was that I would have to get another corporate job again." NR: "My biggest fear was that I was going to run out of money and end up on the street, homeless." ES: "There was also the vulnerability of it all. The fear of going all in and for it to not work. I was so fearful. What will people think? And that has been, I think, one of the most tremendous lessons from all of this, too. It's like it doesn’t matter. It matters what I think about myself and if I can sleep with myself at night. I knew that at the end of the day, I wouldn’t be able to sleep with myself at night if I didn’t see this all the way through."

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