Validate your idea
How do you know when an idea is worth pursuing? That is the question for many founders, since a delicious product doesn’t always (or even often) equal commercial viability. And while there’s no way to tell for certain if a product will be a success, founders can look to a few objective indicators when assessing white space in the market.
Fans of Shark Tank might remember seeing Nadine Habayeb pitch the sharks on her popped water lily seeds, a traditional Indian snack she described as a kernel-less, more nutritious popcorn alternative. For Habayeb and cofounder Priyal Bhartia, the decision to launch Bohana was seeded in the growth of the ingredient in places outside the U.S. “We found it was one of the fastest growing crops in the entire world,” she explains. “It was growing in India, Asia, the Middle East, and into the UK. Whole Foods in the UK was already carrying multiple brands of water lily seeds.” Bhartia has supply chain insights; Habayeb had a marketing background and was fresh out of business school. They seized the opportunity to create a high-quality, better-for-you snack brand for the U.S. market based on the up-and-coming ingredient—figuring it was only a matter of time before someone else did.
But finding the white space can be based in personal experience tool. Back in 2006, founder Veronica Lehman was a stay-at-home mom challenged with getting enough nutrition into her 6-year-old daughter after she declared herself a vegetarian. Ten years later, she sold her bar company, Pure Organic, to Kellogg’s natural food arm, Kashi. As an early entrant into the better-for-you bar market, Lehman owes much of the brand’s success to the connection she kept to the original problem that she set out to solve when mixing nuts and fruits in her home kitchen.
“I was motivated by a very real challenge,” says Lehman. “I didn’t even realize at the time that I was going to be hitting on all of these emerging trends, like organic, simple ingredients, fruit- and nut-based products. Gluten-free wasn’t even a term when I started. A couple years later people started emailing me telling me that my product was the best gluten-free product they’d found.”
Lehman encourages founders not to obsess over fads, but rather to think bigger picture about overarching societal trends and the “why” behind them. Start with a problem that you feel in your own life or see in society. “If you do it authentically, you innately are capturing trends.”
Build momentum with buyers
Whether you’re selling into retail, direct to consumers, or both, building initial momentum when your product is unknown and untested is never easy. Lehman and Habayeb both started their journeys by targeting independent retailers. “Independent specialty grocers were our best friends,” says Habayeb. They still consider those grocers a keystone to their brick-and-mortar presence, despite having moved into large chains like Wegmans.
Lehman also focused on local grocers with Pure Organic, which helped keep distribution and shipping costs manageable: “I literally Googled ‘natural food stores Michigan‘.” Once independent grocers and smaller, natural-friendly chains in her home state were saturated, she moved to neighboring states, with support from brokers she hired to deploy the same strategy.
“Get in front of the buyer with a great innovation story,” Lehman advises founders. “The story should be twofold: around your uniqueness in the market and your success in the market. Start local or in a targeted geographical area where you can find success and start to build that successful sales story. Then you can take that to the next retailer and the next location.”
It’s also important to note that you’ll have success at certain retailers and not others—even when it seems like a perfect fit. “Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason for it,” Lehman says. “When you get discontinued from the shelf it’s really tough. It happened to us at a number of retailers.” She advises founders not to take it too much to heart—just pick up and move on!
Build a fan base (D2C marketing)
An advantage founders enjoy today is the ease of entering the direct-to-consumer channel, which can offset the high costs of supporting a product’s shelf presence in retail. Direct-to-consumer website sales were key to Bohana’s strategy from the beginning, as well as via Amazon to drive volume.
“We started with an influencer program basically from Day 1,” explains Bohana CMO Kelly Shogren. “We saw some success from the beginning. Then we shifted to making it a subscription model. We’d send them Bohana for three months and ask for an honest testimonial at the end. That changed things.” Influencers knew they were getting multiple packages, motivating them to share the product more frequently and allowing their followers to see it multiple times. Now, they start with their biggest champions first when they launch new flavors.
Shogren also emphasizes the importance of quality over quantity for emerging brands—an influencer with five thousand highly engaged followers who’s genuinely excited about your product is much better than hoping for (or paying for) a singular post from a bigger name.
Be ready to pivot
Test out ideas across your marketing channels with the understanding that many may not work. “Always recalibrate. Be conscious of how it’s all being received,” advises Shogren. Even your original notion of your value proposition and audience may not be quite right. Always look for clues and be ready to try something new.
Bohana started off targeting health-conscious Millennial women as their core consumers. They eventually evolved that audience to include moms after realizing Bohana was a great replacement for the ubiquitous Goldfish when it came to snacks they could share with their kids. They even redesigned their packaging to be resealable, increasing its convenience and appeal. These opportunities could have been missed had they not stayed close to their customer.
Lehman advises the same when it comes to product innovation. “Keep bringing in new products and flavors to delight your consumer. Hone your sense of how they will respond and where you can innovate to grow your business.”
Build a strong brand and stick with it
One thing that Habayeb took away from her background in luxury marketing, she says, is the importance of protecting a brand. “If you believe in your ‘why’ and your reason for being, you’ll come back to it. You’ll look to your core values even as you iterate, change packaging, change brand, marketing language,” she says. “Keeping your branding position is what ensures the longstanding viability of your business.”
Lehman agrees: “Have a solid foundation of what you are and what you stand for. You can tweak your messaging, but it doesn’t change who you are.”
In the end, remember that building a food or beverage business is about having the endurance, and the courage, to keep going.
“Celebrate your wins along the way and look back at how far you’ve come,” Habayeb advises other founders. “Getting from point A to B is so hard—and then you do it. Then getting from B to C is so hard—and then you do it. Take it one step at a time. You will get there.”