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Q&A with Jan Horsfall: Entrepreneur building a gelato experience

February 11, 2011
photo - Jan Horsfall, founder and CEO of Gelazzi Photo by
Jan Horsfall, founder and CEO of Gelazzi Photo by  

Jan Horsfall has had a hand in starting four companies, including Internet pioneer Lycos and his latest passion, Colorado Springs-based Gelazzi, a “lifestyle gelato brand” sold through Gelazzi’s restaurants and online.

But don’t, he warns, call him a serial entrepreneur.

“I passionately hate that term,” he said. “It suggests one isn’t building something big for the investors, which is the opposite of the objective. We like big. We like cash flow.”

Horsfall has a marketing degree from Colorado State University. He worked for 13 years at Valvoline, rising to the position of vice president of brand strategy. He left there to take a senior role at Lycos as vice president of marketing; Lycos was sold for $7.5 billion in 2000 to Terra Networks. Other ventures have included Gemini Voice Solutions, a VoIP company, and White Summit Strategies, an investment firm.

In 2004, he founded Gelazzi — The Gelato Experience, which has tested locations in Denver, Fort Collins and Highlands Ranch selling gelato, an Italian ice cream. (The Denver store, though profitable, closed in 2009.) The recession put a brake on growth plans, and Horsfall essentially put the company on the back burner as he spent 18 months commuting to Boston to help sell Turbine, an online game company, to Warner Bros.; the sale was made in April 2010. Now he’s back to focusing on Gelazzi as chairman and CEO, backed by about 30 investors and $3 million in funding to date. A Houston store is in the works, with more on the way.

The down economy has actually worked in Gelazzi’s favor as the company moves ahead, Horsfall said: Many competitors have fallen by the wayside and commercial real estate leases and build-outs are cheaper.

Horsfall, 50, grew up in Iowa. He’s married with five children — four boys and a girl ranging in ages from 4 to 19 — “so there’s never a dull moment.”

Question: Did you always have an appetite for startups?

Answer: I have an appetite for finding foundational brand opportunities that can equal more than the sum of their parts. I’m not a fan of staying in startup mode, so getting things built to scale is something I love.

Q: Similarly, while tech has been something of a common thread through most of your ventures, those ventures have been wide-ranging, from Internet search to online games to gelato. Do you like diving into varied areas?

A: The similarity with these products — ironically — is their noticeable differences within their respective categories. People want different and they want things on their terms. Search engines made life easier because you didn’t have to manually research things for hours in a library. Voice over Internet basically meant you could burn your phone bill. Consumers love gelato because it’s the best-tasting frozen dessert — quantitatively — while factually being low in calories and fat.

Q: As vice president of consumer brand strategy at Valvoline, one of the areas you guided was the company’s Internet strategy. From, there, of course, you went on to Lycos. Has the Internet’s incredible growth, and its impact today on business and everyday life, been anything of a surprise for you?

A: I always felt like the Internet’s connectivity was appreciated too much in the early days and too little post-bubble. With Gelazzi, the opportunities we have to digitally acquire users online and then send them our fresh gelato overnight on dry ice seems remarkable to me.

An entire revenue stream, unbeknownst to us when we started Gelazzi, might very well become our largest profit contributor. That’s the beauty of the Web.

Q: What do you see as your biggest strength as an entrepreneur?

A: You’ll never get the bone out of my mouth. Once we start something, we finish it and make it big, even if the initial stages of the company are less than pretty. That’s always meant good returns for our investors and that’s as big of strength as I can imagine. I equate this to integrity — finishing strong by definition.

Q: Let’s talk about Gelazzi. How many locations do you anticipate by the end of 2011? What about five years from now?

A: In 2011, we want to put up five more company-owned locations, set the stage for our first franchisee area operator partner in Houston and take over the market lead for the online sale of frozen desserts. Five years from now we anticipate a two-pronged company aimed at both the food-services business and the direct online sale of frozen desserts and related products. Today we believe that’s at least a $50 million company with hundreds of locations and a powerful online presence — all headquartered in Colorado Springs.

Q: Gelazzi, in its growth plans, is focusing on warmer states in the South. So why start in Colorado?

A: You have to live in these store units to really see what’s happening when a concept like this is rolled out. We couldn’t do that from afar. But we’re going to live here and we’re going to headquarter this company here in order to do something great for Colorado Springs. The warm-weather locations will simply be a tactic we use to be a more productive company as we do so.

Q: You’re investigating the possibility of expanding into the Middle East/North African markets. Why there?

A: We have fantastic ties through Colorado State University’s College of Business and the Colorado Springs Technology Incubator — I’m privileged to sit on their respective boards — with many leaders in the region, most notably those in Saudi Arabia. We’re building partnerships that are focused on investment in our company, as well as investment in Gelazzi locations in places like Riyadh. It shouldn’t get lost on anybody that the temperatures also exceed 90 degrees for over half the year. That’s a good environment in which to take smart investment, as well as sell gelato.

Q: You list yourself as a strong advocate for the Surfrider Foundation (a nonprofit grassroots organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans and beaches). How did that become a cause of yours?

A: Respect the beach. That simple statement gets ignored on so many levels. All of us who have ever spent time in the ocean realize how special it is. I just want it to be clean and accessible for future generations. For so many of us, it’s where family and spirituality come together, and that’s something which is lodged very deep in my heart.

Questions and answers are edited for brevity and clarity. Call the writer at 636-0272.

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