Monique Bernstein and Eli Zauner had only been dating for three months when they decided to go into business together. It’s the kind of decision that could have been a total disaster, the kind your parents would strongly recommend you reconsider. Three months? That’s around the time you start to consider leaving a toothbrush at your partner’s house…maybe. And they were considering depending on each other for their livelihoods? What if they broke up? What if they lost everything? And how sexy would it be arguing over spreadsheets?
It was a huge risk, but Monique and Eli are risk takers. Working corporate jobs in Cincinnati, they knew they wanted more. Though they liked their jobs, neither one could see themselves working for someone else the rest of their lives. So early on, they began making lists of business ideas.
“I had been traveling extensively,” Bernstein told Uproxx. “And I studied abroad in China. That really changed me as a person.”
Originally from the Midwest, Bernstein had tried little non-American food before living in China. But the program forced her out of her comfort zone, and allowed her to try cuisine she’d never even imagined before. Her horizons opened, she became more adventurous, and she developed a more sophisticated palate. By the time Bernstein left China, she felt like she was a totally different person. It was an experience she wanted to share, even with those who couldn’t afford to travel all around the world.
The pair came up with the idea for a subscription service that would bring customers a taste of other countries without leaving home. They called it Universal Yums — highlighting snacks from a different country each month, delivering the international flavors right to a customer’s door.
Bernstein and Zauner had no idea if the business would work. So as they invested their savings into the project ($2000 dollars each) they told themselves to look at it as a learning experience only.
“We decided,” Bernstein said, “to pretend we were taking a class at a college or something. We saw this money as an investment in learning, not in actually trying to get a huge return on this investment. We were like, ‘Okay. We’re willing to pilot this because we’re just viewing it as a learning opportunity’.”
Three years later, not only is the couple still together but to say they’ve had a huge return on that $4000 investment would be an understatement.
“Last year we did over seven figures in revenue, and so I think that $2,000 investment has paid off,” Bernstein said with a laugh.
How did they do it? One thing that has made Bernstein and Zauner so successful is that though they are willing to take risks, they’re also are extremely frugal with their money. For instance, they kept their corporate jobs for several months to make sure Universal Yums could earn them stable incomes — even though it meant long hours, and little to no social life.
They worked grueling hours in those first few months.
“We’d get in (to their regular jobs) right at 9:00am and leave right at 5:00pm,” Bernstein said. “Then we would come home and work until 11:00 at night and then on the weekends we would work. I didn’t see my friends. We didn’t really have a social life and if we weren’t dating, we probably would have broken up. It was just us two working, and working constantly.”
They didn’t have the money in the beginning to hire anyone to do PR, and so their marketing involved elbow grease and learning as they went.
“It was a lot of persistence,” Bernstein said. “He and I would both spend hours on YouTube just looking for any YouTubers that we might be able to send a free box to. I’ve sent thousands of cold emails just to different publications explaining the product. It was just a lot of manual effort in the beginning. Neither one of us had ever started a business before.”
In recent months, copycats of Universal Yums have sprung up, forcing the couple to stay ahead of the fray, coming up with new fun ideas to make their product unique. “I think our competitors help to keep us more creative and push our product forward,” Bernstein said, “because we’re always going to come up with original ideas of how to make the product better.”
It’s their strong work effort, constant innovating, and frugality that keeps them successful. “Our lifestyle has not changed at all,” Bernstein said. “I still drive the same car I drove in college. We live in an apartment. We’re just saving our money, and making plans for our future.”
Bernstein and Zauner have been successful so far. They’ve celebrated having sourced snack boxes from 24 countries, are growing their profits dramatically, and recently had their three year romantic anniversary. And they continue to spin ideas for how they can grow.
“We’re always aware of having Plan B, C, D, E and F lined up for us,” Bernstein said. “We’re always thinking about other businesses we might want to get involved in.”
Though it was difficult to start up a business and make it successful, Bernstein feels that anyone can do the same. “If you really want something, anything in life, you can always find a way to make it happen. You just have to make time and really think about how you’re going to reach that point. And you’re going to have to make sacrifices in different areas of your life in order to make it happen. You have to realize there are going to be sacrifices and get ready to face them. But always be persistent — don’t give up.”