By: Shira Sans
On March 22nd, Seth Berkowitz, Founder and CEO of Insomnia Cookies, came to speak to the Heschel Entrepreneurship Club.
Berkowitz began with the story of the company and how it came to be. In 2003, when Berkowitz was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, he and his friends would stay up every night until 4am doing work. During one particularly late night, he thought of the idea of delivering cookies, a convenient way for college students to get a midnight snack. So, he drove up to the supermarket 40 minutes away, gathered up the proper ingredients, and, along with a friend, made some cookies to sell. The sales were such a success that his friends said they’d continue to pay him if he delivered.
Berkowitz figured that if students were satisfied at UPenn, students at other colleges would also be satisfied – and they were. Insomnia Cookies spread to college campuses across the country, with each college setting up multiple locations. He then spread the new retail chain to cities as well. Initially, he did not expect to succeed, but he did. In fact, his business in NYC alone is almost twice as profitable as his business on college campuses.
Berkowitz spoke about how college is the time to start a business; instead of having classes all day, he had classes from 11 to 3. Therefore, before and after classes, he had the time to run his business.
As the CEO of Insomnia Cookies, Berkowitz is always occupied. He is constantly responding to emails, offering his outlook on his coworkers’ ideas. However, the work is not entirely in his hands. He has hired a CFO and a COO, both of whom he trusts and gets along with well.
After he spoke, students asked him questions. Junior Noa Mintz asked Berkowitz how his company goals shifted over time, noticing that his initial goal for the company was convenience. Berkowitz agreed, telling the students that in the company’s beginning, he didn’t pay much attention to the recipe of the cookies, as it was only important that the cookies be warm and delivered. However, now they’ve perfected the recipe and aren’t planning on changing it. Senior Jonathan Mack asked Berkowitz what college courses, looking back, helped him create this company, and Berkowitz, an economics major, said that listening in his accounting class was vital to the success his career. However, he also told students to major in a subject that caters to their interests. He also majored in history, simply because he was passionate about it. When asked about the recession of 2008, Berkowitz said that there are always ups and downs in business, but you need to be ready for them and work through them. “Do what’s most profitable,” he said.
The company has grown the most in the past few years. Now, they have 113 locations. Because rent is so expensive, they make sure the stores are just the size for what they need: that’s why most are small.
Berkowitz said that starting his company was a leap of faith, but that’s entrepreneurship. He mentioned that it was particularly risky when he first started a retail shop in NYC. He didn’t know if high schoolers would like it, and he pointed out that all baking businesses in history have gone bankrupt at some point. He also said that in the beginning of his entrepreneurship, he was not ready to start a company alone, so he started it with a partner, who later left.
Berkowitz said that the hardest part of his career is balancing his work and family life. He’s always very busy, but he makes sure to be home every day to tuck his kids into bed, and he walks with his son to school every morning.
At the end of the discussion, when asked what he thinks about minimum wage, he said that he definitely believes that it should be raised because it would raise everyone’s salaries. However, he would rather it be raised slowly.