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Venturing Out with Arlene Dickinson and Matthew Corrin

When you think of the words “Canadian entrepreneur,” Matt could easily be the poster boy. He not only had a vision but also the drive to turn an idea he had when he was 23 years old into a major international business with locations in more than 15 countries today. This summer, Arlene Dickinson spoke with the founder of Freshii, Matthew Corrin, about what it’s like to strike gold so young:

Q: I was thinking back to when the first time you and I met, at one of your restaurants, that you had opened up in downtown Toronto.

A: That’s a great memory cause it feels like years ago, but it wasn’t that many years ago. That was the first location I ever opened. That was the store that I personally managed for about a year, when I first started out with Freshii.

Q: I know, it’s funny, as I was recollecting it, I was thinking about our conversation and I remember walking away from the lunch thinking to myself, “there is a guy who is going to do amazing things and build a fantastic business.” And you’ve set about and done exactly that. So congratulations on what you’ve done, because I know how hard it is, to work in the restaurant industry in particular. So, question for you: When you set out, did you see the success that you have now? Did you see that? Did you imagine it? 

A: Well, when I started I was 23 years old. I had this idea, after living in New York City and working in the fashion business for Oscar de la Renta. I saw these mom & pop delis on every corner on New York City that, outside of Manhattan, didn’t exist. What was so popular in New York was the ability to build your own meal, whether it was a salad or a bowl or a soup. I thought that was interesting, and so did millions of New Yorkers. I always wondered why it didn’t exist outside of New York City.

And so that, really, was the idea here, making healthy eating, the ability to control what went into your meal, make it convenient and make it affordable. Maybe the only difference that I had was I felt this would be relevant for citizens of the world and not just citizens of New York City.

Q: Did you ever think it’s not going to be a gigantic thing, a huge business, or did you say “I’m just going to try this and see what happens?”

A: The irony is, I wish I could look back on a business plan… I never wrote one. You know, I had a naive dentist and nurse, my mom and dad. I went to them and I said I have this idea, and my father, of course, was not in favour and my mother was totally all in…

Q:That’s common! He’s the skeptic, she’s like you can do anything honey…

A: They gave me $250,000 for my idea. So typically you start a business plan to raise money. I skipped that step. I wrote guiding principles. I thought about how I wanted to run the business, and not necessarily how many stores would I have. And what’s interesting, Arlene, is still today, we don’t set out to say we’re going to open a thousand stores, or two thousand stores or a hundred stores.

We really are just driving, and are driven by our mission. And if we do our mission, which is making healthy eating convenient and affordable for citizens of the world, over time, as long as we execute, there will be thousands and thousands of restaurants globally. But we really don’t have our sights set on a certain amount of stores, or a certain amount of cities or countries, that we plan to operate in the future.

Q: But let’s go back. You’re 23 years old, you have an idea, you go home and say mom and dad let me take your savings, and count on me. Dad says ugh, mom says yay, and you set out. That must have scared the living daylights out of you. That must of been a motivator, was it not? To pay them back?

A: I remember lying in bed at night, in those days leading into the first opening, and thought, “why would anybody line up and spend a dollar or two dollars more in the food court for a healthy salad? But the only thing that I really fear in business is failure. And I had this idea that I refused to fail, I refused to let my parents down and I actually carry that through today.

Today we’re a public company. Every single person I work along side with everyday at Freshii HQ and hundreds or our franchise partners are shareholders in the company. And it’s the same mentality, which is, I just don’t want to fail. I want to drive the business and drive the mission.

I think I benefited being a 23 year old with extreme naivety. I just did not realize. I was passionate about health and wellness, and I was passionate about consumer branding. I was very naive that the restaurant industry, specifically, had one of the highest failure rates of any retail business. So that was very naive. I think my youth and my lack of experience probably helped me jump through that barrier. I think as you get older it’s harder and harder to do that.

Q: That’s true. You said a couple of things there that I want to circle back on. One of them is that failure was the motivator. It’s being able to keep going. You’ve done things that didn’t always turn out exactly as you anticipated, right? Isn’t that part of the journey? 

A: Well it’s so true. I guess the word failure is relative. So my definition of failure is when your bank account goes to zero and you’re out of business. That’s failure.

There is a quote that Richard Branson gave in one of his books. He said, “In the world of business, the line between success and failure is very thin. Those companies that are under-capitalized often find themselves on the wrong side of that line.” And for years, Arlene, we were under-capitalized. We were just spending. We were building a great brand, batting way outside our weight. But we were spending a $1.10 for every dollar of revenue we were generating.

So we were just constantly and perpetually riding that thin line, of money or not, or success and failure. So I just constantly had that idea of just stay in the game, stay in the game. At some point, you’ll leverage your fixed costs. At some point, it’s all upside and great opportunity from there.

Listen to the interview here., 2017