Mike Keenan is the founder of The Juice Laundry, an organic juice company based in Charlottesville, Virginia. Since 2013 he has been blending and bottling the goodness of organic fruits and vegetables into juices and smoothies. Although he started his professional career as a lawyer, he quit after 4 years and followed his passion–healthy, all-natural juice. We sat down with him to get his perspective on entrepreneurship, taking risks, and great juice.
Can you tell us about your background before you started The Juice Laundry?
I graduated from UVA Law in 2008 and practiced with a firm in Washington DC for nearly 4 years before deciding to start TJL. No formal experience or training in the food or beverage industries.
Why did you decide to quit being a lawyer and start The Juice Laundry?
Practicing law had its upsides, but it didn’t take me very long to realize it was never going to be my passion. For some people it is, and that’s great. It was a valuable experience for me, but it wasn’t to be my life’s work.
As for what came next, I knew two things: (1) I wanted to create something, providing some tangible value and benefit for the community; and (2) I wanted to be my own boss. Focusing on juice/smoothies/health/wellness was the natural choice, as something I’d been integrating more into my own life at the time with great results.
Once you stop focusing on all the potential downsides…it becomes easy to focus simply on doing whatever is necessary to achieve the dream.
You started small, selling at farmers markets then moving to your own shop. Do you think it was a good idea to start small to test the market, or do wish you would’ve opened your shop from day one?
Lacking the resources or connections to go all in on day one, I really had no choice but to start relatively small. That being said, our path and timing has been fortuitous in many ways. I was able to make mistakes early on that would have been greatly magnified had they occurred in the context of a full-service retail establishment. When we finally opened our shop at the Coke Building this past fall, what people saw was the result of nearly 3 years of tweaking and fine-tuning (and things of course still weren’t perfect). Also, I think we found our ideal home alongside some great neighbors in the Coke Building, and that opportunity didn’t exist when I started TJL.
Many people dream of opening their own restaurant, café, or juice bar, but never actually follow through. Why were you different?
I think most people are extremely risk-averse. I’m not, at all. Once you stop focusing on all the potential downsides and being driven by fear of the worse-case scenario, it becomes easy to focus simply on doing whatever is necessary to achieve the dream. I’m also fortunate to have an incredibly supportive group of friends and family who played a huge part in making this possible.
What challenges have you overcome while running your business?
The same challenges that many first-time business owners will face, in the sense that the game is somewhat rigged in favor of those who are already playing. Banks want to see a sustained track record of profitability or past business success before financing the capital required for expansion. Landlords want to see the same thing before signing a new tenant to a long-term lease.
What is the hardest part about running your business?
Balancing the things that NEED to be done with the things that I WANT to get done.
How long did it take you to become profitable?
Before opening the shop, it was basically a break-even enterprise. The shop was immediately profitable.
How do you come up with the recipes for the juice and smoothies you sell?
Lots and lots of experimentation. We’re always looking for new ingredients and combinations. The bigger challenge is limiting the menu so it doesn’t become overwhelming for our customers to navigate.
What are your goals for The Juice Laundry? Where do you want this business to be in 5 to 10 years?
Multiple locations in multiple markets, creating the same potent, high quality, organic juices and smoothies for currently underserved communities.
Many would-be great entrepreneurs are perhaps stuck working for someone else right now.
If you could go back in time, would you still go to law school?
In certain ways, my experience pursuing a legal education and practicing law gave me some of the skills (and confidence) necessary to start my own business. I certainly don’t regret going to law school, but at the time, starting a business wasn’t even on my radar. If was giving advice to people who know their end game is entrepreneurship, I would say there are probably better uses of time and money than law school (or business school, for that matter).
Most people spend their careers working for someone else. Do you think more people should become entrepreneurs, or do you think the risks and challenges make it suited for only a certain type of person?
I think you hit the nail on the head that the risks and challenges of being an entrepreneur inherently make it suitable for only a certain type of person. That being said, I think we’re conditioned in many ways to pursue safe and stable career paths, and many would-be great entrepreneurs are perhaps stuck working for someone else right now as a result.
What advice do you have for someone who is torn between getting an advanced degree or taking a less conventional path?
If you think you’ll derive some concrete, extrinsic value from the pursuit of an advanced degree that will help you accomplish what you seek to accomplish in life, go for it. If you’re doing it solely for the intrinsic value of the degree, opt for the less conventional path; the whole idea of (and value assigned to) higher education is already changing and – in most fields – will look completely different in 5/10/20 years.