Biz Buzz Extra

Q&A with Lucia Cleveland, founder of The Spice Hunter

jlynem@thetribunenews.comJuly 15, 2013 

Lucia Cleveland, a San Luis Obispo resident, founded The Spice Hunter in the 1980s.


Lucia Cleveland is well known in San Luis Obispo County as the entrepreneur who built The Spice Hunter in the 1980s from the ground up.

Although she is highly regarded for her business acumen, Cleveland is more than a successful businesswoman. She is an avid traveler, devoted mom — she decided to sell Spice Hunter in 1999 to C.F. Sauer to spend more time with her children — and is actively involved in helping emerging startups. Cleveland is a founding member of Cal Poly’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Cleveland, who lives in San Luis Obispo, recently talked to The Tribune about her former spice business, life since the sale and what advice she would give to other aspiring business owners.

Q: What kind of work did you do before you founded The Spice Hunter?

A: Before Spice Hunter and after college, I worked one year reading EKGs of patients with pacemakers. Then, I traveled across the country from New York, stopping to volunteer for the Forest Service in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, backpacking in and teaching nonimpact wilderness skills. Then, I picked apples in Wenatchee Valley, Wash., and then (I went) down the coast to San Luis Obispo, where I eventually got a job as an environmental aide with the county.

Q: What inspired you to launch The Spice Hunter?

A: I wasn’t advancing and learning as much as I wanted to in my career, and I had ideas for products because I loved to cook. I was passed up for a support class for a certification exam because of insufficient funding, and I started that weekend.

Q: As an entrepreneur, what were the toughest challenges you faced and the lessons learned from overcoming them?

A: Communication at various stages of sales: $1 million to $2 million, $5 million and $20 million. In the beginning of The Spice Hunter Inc., I told everyone what to do. As the company grew and became more complex, I depended on everyone maximizing his/her abilities and responsibilities. I needed others to take initiative. To do that, they needed to know what everyone else was doing and vice versa. As I was able to hire, I brought in more skilled personnel who had worked at larger, excellently run companies. They brought in advanced reports and systems that could be accessed by all. Also, when I had questions, I went to my mentors and eventually formed a board of advisers.

Q: How did you balance overseeing a busy enterprise and family life?

A: It’s amazing how much you can get done when you love your family and work and think it is all important. It is important to delegate as much as you can, which is hard in the beginning both financially and letting go. I had to think very strategically about priorities. I also simplified my personal life as much as I could.

Q: After Spice Hunter, what other projects have you worked on?

A: I’ve biked up the Alps, hiked up Machu Picchu, raced my Porsche, followed the Tour of California, Tour de France, visited a dozen or so countries, enjoy easy gardening (still learning!), was president of Festival Mozaic, and I am mentoring local startups and have never looked back. My husband, children and I have a full wonderful life and feel very fortunate every day.

Q: Why are you involved with Cal Poly’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and why is staying connected to aspiring businessmen and women important to you?

A: I was a biology major with no business experience or business-oriented family members. I found business at this small level to be a game or puzzle solved by common sense. I learned how to play by reading, taking a couple of courses and soliciting advice from a broad network of mentors I slowly developed. My investment bankers said I had the largest closing party they had ever been to. For me, experienced mentors were crucial to my success. Even MBAs without experience will need this. I started Spice Hunter with $10,000, so I have formulas to penetrate markets in a low-cost manner and can offer advice from my experiences and way of thinking.

Q: Do you mentor up-and-coming business leaders?

A: What I have seen so far is that many of my previous Spice Hunter employees have either gone on to continue running Spice Hunter in an excellent way or have been recruited with job-title and responsibility jumps. I am proud that I led an organization where employees, especially women — we were all women for most of my history there — were able to grow and have the opportunities to reach their abilities.

Q: The SBA says that half of all businesses fail within the first five years. What are some of the common misconceptions people have when they start?

A: They don’t keep their overhead low enough. Cash flow and undercapitalization is No. 1. I kept my job for the first few years and ran it out of my home in the early morning and weekends. This worked for me because there was not a rush in the grocery/health food marketplace. All Natural Gourmet did not start rapid growth until my 15th year. But I was poised for quick entry with expert endorsements (the high kitchen shops and their customers). We then went from 2,000 mostly specialty kitchen-type stores to 15,000 health food and grocery stores in five years. Also, many times, they do not learn from the marketplace. Often, their product needs to be fine-tuned. You have to figure it out before you run out of time or money.

The other thing I run into regularly is focus. Your business has to be your focus and passion. You need to always be making it better. This is much easier if you love it and can give up parties, etc., while you are starting it up.

Q: If a business owner doesn’t make it the first time, what advice would you give her to keep trying?

A: Look deep into why it failed. Was your overhead or your expenses/inventory too high? Was your product on target? Did it need to be adapted? Was this your area of expertise? Or, didn’t you get to be an expert fast enough? Being the first one to enter the marketplace with a product is very difficult. You have to have the resources to educate the market, or they may already have turned it down and that is why you do not see it out there. You really were not the first one.

Q: What is the best advice anyone has given you?

A: Greg Hind said, “Your employees are your greatest asset.” Along that line, from Norman Becco, “Hire people better than yourself.”

Q: Who are the people in your life who have been the most influential?

A: My mother. She always believed in me, and I still feel her love and support. Most of that support is an underlying belief I felt she had in me that I could do what I set out to do. She introduced or supported me in many things. Piano was my own idea, but I got a lot of recognition from her for it. I had lessons or trips to the library every day after school, so I gained the confidence that with help, I could get pretty good at anything I wanted, like horseback riding, swimming, singing, bridge, piano and ice skating. She drove me to most of those activities, and still I watched a lot of TV. She was also very positive and never criticized anyone. I felt I was in a fair and good world, and if I put good effort into it, I would be rewarded.

Q: Why is San Luis Obispo an attractive place in which to do business? In what ways could the business climate improve to attract more entrepreneurs?

A: It’s easy to find employees who are conscientious, honest and appreciative of a wonderful workplace. That is who they are and why they come here. The city and county could do better on the infrastructure issues. Both helping landlords find quality entrepreneurs to fill their properties and supporting local entrepreneurs to physically expand their business when they need to. All the decisions that go into planning and construction are an amazing brain drain, which translates to opportunities lost. Remember, they have to build and run a growing company.

Q: What will you do in five to 10 years?

A: I love what I am doing, with the interesting and rewarding mix it brings to my life.

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