How I Grew My Company in the Midst of a Personal Crisis

By Natasha Nelson, CEO, Co-founder of Yogurtini and President of YHI, Inc., Tempe, Ariz.
My sister, Chelsey, and I grew up watching our mother run a successful real estate business, so when we came up with the idea for Yogurtini, a self-serve frozen yogurt store, she was the first person we talked to. She had us write up a business plan and present it to her. She believed in our concept and our idea, and in spite of inexperience, we felt ready.

Then in the midst of putting together our plans, we received some awful news: Our mother was diagnosed with a rare form of Parkinson's disease called CBGD, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that affects speech, motor functions, and cognitive abilities. In the years to come, she would need our constant care and support, which would make it difficult to give Yogurtini our full attention. Should we go ahead and launch the business? That was the question we wrestled with for weeks.

After much soul-searching, we stuck to our plan. Managing a quickly growing business and my mother's health has been one of the biggest challenges of my life.

Fast success collides with reality
We launched Yogurtini in 2008. Our idea was to take a young and fun approach to frozen yogurt, so we serve it in our trademark martini glasses. The idea took off: After one year we started franchising the business. My sister and I currently own our flagship store, and we have eight other stores open nationally. We plan to have 50 stores by the end of 2011 and 150 stores by the end of 2012. Last year sales for YHI, Inc., our franchising company, were over $3 million.

It feels surreal to be growing a successful business during the saddest time of my life. I'm constantly shifting between two very different roles: president of our company, and my mother's caregiver. I wake up hearing my mom groaning in the next room, and then I go to sales meetings and make presentations.

At first, I felt empowered by managing this juggling act. We were moving forward quickly and working hard, and I was able to also take care of my mom. But one day in 2009, I hit a brick wall. The reality that my mom was dying sank in, and I completely shut down. I could not get out of bed on some days. I was not going in the right direction, and I needed help, for myself and for the company.

Knowing my limits
If I had to point to one thing that has helped me get through this challenging time, it would be my philosophy of openness -- in business as well as my personal life.

Sometimes business leaders feel pressure to have it all together, and aren't willing to admit when they're having trouble. Instead of hiding my feelings, I decided to be honest with myself about what I was going through, and began seeing a therapist.

At work, I was completely open about what I was dealing with at home and it meant that sometimes I had to lean heavily on my staff. The other day I was overwhelmed because my mom was not doing well. We have a store opening next week, and the planning is always quite extensive. I was at the office and I knew I had reached my limit. Fortunately, I have full confidence in my marketing director Andrea Depew. I emailed some of my tasks to Andrea, told her I needed to recharge and promised I would be back tomorrow at 110% -- and closed my computer. She took care of everything.

I've learned you can't be a control freak when you are growing a company like this. I have gotten better about recognizing my limits and delegating.

Even with our investors, I am honest. Once, I walked into a meeting and said, "I just had one of the worst mornings of my life, but I want to switch gears and talk about something I believe in." I think this approach gives our investors more confidence in us: They know exactly who they're dealing with. We bring our open, straightforward approach to the business and that's in part, I think, why we've been successful.

Although it's still difficult to serve as both caregiver and president, I know I am making the right choice. In 2008, I asked my mother if she thought I could run this business without her help. She could no longer speak, so she typed her response. She wrote, "I have taught you well, and I know you can do anything you set your mind to. So why isn't anyone working around here? Get to work!"

Beyond the yogurt business, Natasha has a passion for philanthropy. She works with Transformational Development Agency in her free time and recently traveled with them to Haiti.
-- As told to Caitlin Elsaesser

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