Entrepreneur Bets On Happiness With Grilled Cheese

Originally published on July 29, 2011 1:50 pm

Jonathan Kaplan describes himself as a "serial entrepreneur." He started his first businesses when he was a kid, with a paper route, snow shoveling, then landscaping. He's had a printing company, and a DJ service, playing Sweet 16 parties and bar mitzvahs — all before Kaplan hit college.

He's picked up speed since then, founding several technology companies, including the one that created the Flip digital camera. He sold that to Cisco for more than $500 million. The company later discontinued the camera.

His current project is a chain of grilled cheese restaurants called The Melt, set to open in August. Kaplan tells Morning Edition's Mary Louise Kelly that the reason for taking on grilled cheese is simple.

"Grilled cheese makes people happy, and when I created the Flip I wanted to really think about a way to change the way people captured and shared video, a way for people to feel empowered and make memories," he says. "And there's a lot of nostalgia, there's a lot of memories and there's a lot of happiness in the very simple grilled cheese and soup."

Kaplan went out to the Mall of America about 10 years ago, to talk to "everyday Americans" about what kind of food makes them happy.

"Grilled cheese is one of these food items that people talk about with emotional connection," he says. "[The] reaction was pretty much the same: People love grilled cheese."

Before moving forward with his bread-and-cheese research, Kaplan decided he wanted to do something else first and switched his focus to the Flip camcorder.

"When I started out [with the Flip], we wanted to democratize video. This was a pretty tall order to do when you had the likes of the Sonys and the Panasonics and the Canons," he says.

His team consisted of young entrepreneurs who "didn't really know much about video at all," and they ended up selling more than 7 million units. Kaplan says he was disappointed when Cisco shut the operation down, but he says, as a businessperson, he understands why the company has to make business decisions.

"They're still using our technology for many things that are happening at Cisco, but if you look at that business and the idea that we were only $1 billion of the $45 billion in revenue that that company generates every year, you know, I have to respect their decision," Kaplan says. "But I'm really excited about The Melt."

As for others who want to be entrepreneurs, Kaplan says he thinks "great ideas are going to get funded" in the current economy.

"The advice that I would have for entrepreneurs is very simple," he says. "Stick to your idea, stay focused, hire great people, and be sure that you're as passionate about your idea as you're telling everybody you are because if you are, if you're willing to eat hot dogs, if you're willing to take no salary, if you're willing to hear 'no' so many times that it sounds like 'yes,' then you'll probably be successful."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

Jonathan Kaplan, good morning.

JONATHAN KAPLAN: Good morning.

LOUISE KELLY: So your current project is setting up a chain of grilled cheese restaurants. Why grilled cheese?

KAPLAN: Well, it's a really simple answer to the question, and that is grilled cheese makes people happy. And when I created the Flip, I wanted to really think about a way to change the way people captured and shared video, a way for consumers to feel empowered and make memories. And, you know, there's a lot of nostalgia, there's a lot of memories and there's a lot of happiness in the very simple grilled cheese and soup.

LOUISE KELLY: You actually went out to the Mall of America - is that right - and talked to people about what kind of food makes them happy.

KAPLAN: Well, you know, it's interesting: Grilled cheese is one of these food items that people talk about with emotional connection. You know, when you're sitting with a friend and you say, what do you think of a salad? They're like, oh, salads are okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KAPLAN: But if you say what do you think of a grilled cheese? They say: I love grilled cheese. I mean, and they - it conjures up memories and nostalgia. And the words that I was hearing were just so exceptional. I mean, it reminded me so much of chocolate or, you know, some other things that maybe we won't mention on the air. But it's really, you know...

LOUISE KELLY: Comfort food.

KAPLAN: You know, comfort food. It's a real comfort food. So I did go to the Mall of America about 10 years ago, and I wanted to test this with everyday Americans. And the reaction was pretty much the same: People love grilled cheese.

LOUISE KELLY: You went out to Mall of America 10 years ago. Does that mean this is an idea you've had in your back pocket all this time, just waiting for the right moment?

KAPLAN: You know, one of the things that interesting about entrepreneurs is they tend to have a lot of ideas all the time. And 10 years ago, I was thinking about: What should I be doing next? And Flip hadn't started yet, and I'd just finished my last business and sold it to Sega of Japan, and I didn't know what I wanted to do. So I thought, hey, maybe I'll do a grilled cheese and soup chain. We'll call it something. I don't even know what we'll call it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KAPLAN: And so I went to this Mall of America and did some research, and just as I was doing some research I realized, you know, there's something else I really want to do first, and that's when Flip started and now it's time to do The Melt.

LOUISE KELLY: All right. So will you tell us what's in your back pocket right now, that 10 years from now, we'll be talking to you about?

KAPLAN: I can't wait to come back on the air and tell you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOUISE KELLY: All right. Jonathan Kaplan, as we said, you have started a lot of businesses over the years. Maybe the highest profile up to now was the Flip camera, which eventually did sell to Cisco. They shut it down. What did you learn from that?

KAPLAN: Well, I learned that anything is possible. When I started out, we wanted to democratize video. This was a pretty tall order to do when you had the likes of the Sonys and the Panasonics and the Canons and, you know, you have a group of young entrepreneurs that didn't really know much about video at all. But I knew that we were onto something. We ended up selling more than seven million units, and really, I think, changing video for the better, and I'm very proud of what the team created.

LOUISE KELLY: Were you disappointed when it was shut down?

KAPLAN: Well, of course, I was disappointed when it was shut down. It was very, very disappointing. But I'm also a businessperson, and I understand why Cisco has to make business decisions. And they're still using our technology for many things that are happening at Cisco. But if you look at that business and the idea that we were only a billion of the $45 billion in revenue that that company generates every year, you know, I have to respect their decision. But I'm really excited about The Melt.

LOUISE KELLY: As you gear up for this new venture, have you found it hard to start a new company in the current business climate? I mean, what advice do you have for other people out there who have an idea and might have a harder time than you have had trying to get the money to get it going?

KAPLAN: Well, I think that, you know, right now, the economy is in a place where great ideas are going to get funded. There are some times in our economy - in 2001 as an example, and maybe a year ago - where it was very hard to get any idea funded. But I think right now, we're coming out of our recession, and I feel like great ideas will be funded.

LOUISE KELLY: stick to your idea, stay focused, hire great people, and be sure that you're as passionate about your idea as you're telling everybody you are. Because if you are, if you're willing to eat hotdogs, if you're willing to take no salary, if you're willing to hear no so many times that it sounds like yes, then you'll probably successful.

LOUISE KELLY: Jonathan Kaplan, thanks very much.

KAPLAN: You're welcome. It's great to be here.

LOUISE KELLY: We've been talking with Jonathan Kaplan, His latest business is a chain of grilled cheese restaurants called The Melt. They open next month. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.