Written by Ori Zohar, Co-founder of Burlap & Barrel
“I’m gonna start a food company! How hard could it be?” -Everyone
Anytime you read the origin stories of successful food entrepreneurs, it goes something like this: I made something that people loved, my friends urged me to start a company making that thing, I did it, and now I’m super successful.
What about the hardships? Or the days your bills added up to more than the amount in your bank account? Or the months (years?) of living at a “founders salary”? Or how about all those friends that constantly pointed out the naive hubris of it all?
Back in 2017, my co-founder and I launched Burlap & Barrel, a single-origin spice company, literally out of his apartment. We wanted to build a social enterprise that would bring equitably sourced spices from smallholder farmers across the world to kitchens across America. We’re almost at the 3-year mark, so I wanted to share the most important lessons that I learned along the way.
1. Build in room for error
If you’re reading this, you’re most likely one of two types of people: either you (1) have a tight business plan and have mapped out your path to success or (2) you feel good about things and think plans are for suckers. I’ll bet you’re in the first camp since I probably lost most people in the 2nd camp by giving this article an action-oriented headline. Nevertheless, you’re here whoever you are. Thanks for sticking around.
The truth about any new company is that you can’t possibly know what you’re in for. Even if you’re familiar with parts of it, there’s so much you don’t have control over. Things won’t go as planned, you’ll get the wrong inventory, you’ll have business partners that leave you high and dry, you’ll have unhappy customers—but your business has to be strong enough to float on. So before you kick off your new venture, think about whether you’ve left room for figuring stuff out, for getting things wrong and trying again.
We’ve had sacks of spices slashed open when the exporters wanted a bribe and bought thousands of jars that ended up not being the right size.
Any plan based on flawless execution or going viral is going to be even more stressful and frustrating than it needs to be. Leaving room for error will mean you have some buffer when things are going poorly and it will feel so good when things are going well.
2. You’re in charge of sales (and PR)
I’ve come across so many founders that say they don’t like sales and plan to hire a salesperson as soon as they can. The problem is that it’s really difficult to outsource sales since the founder is the most important salesperson that your company will have. No pitch will outperform a well-told founder’s story. The same goes for getting press coverage—there’s no magic PR unicorn waiting for you to ride it to the cover story on TIME Magazine.
If this is one of your strengths, great, keep honing it. Press coverage requires fresh angles and new stories to tell. If reading that last paragraph made you slink down in your chair, don’t worry, it’s something we all can learn. Go to a networking event—every time you make a new professional connection, it’s your turn to pitch. Keep doing it until you land on something that you’re comfortable with but it has to be captivating. You’ll know that you’re there when people keep asking follow-up questions.
3. Simplify, simplify, simplify
Businesses are built on doing the same thing over and over. There’s magic in creating something new, and there will hopefully be so many opportunities to do that throughout the life of your business. But, ultimately, your success will be based on whether you can provide a consistent product or experience to your customers.
Whenever we’re launching something new, I always ask myself whether this is something that simplifies or complicates our business. Our bar for something that complicates the business is pretty high—we don’t want to distract from our day-to-day business for something trivial. Instead, we put our main energy towards improving how we execute our core competency each and every day, and often that involves finding elegant solutions that simplify our business.
Don’t over-complicate it—find what you do well that your customers love, and keep adding to the magic.
4. Launch sooner rather than later
Your hypothetical plans for what your business will be are much less valuable than actually getting your business into the hands of some customers.
You’ll gain a lot from real feedback and tweaking along the way, instead of betting big based on your “market research.” You know how Tony Hsieh started out? He took photos of shoes at a local store and posted them online. Whenever someone purchased a shoe, he bought it at that local store and shipped it to them. He could have leased a warehouse, filled it with inventory, and then launched his company, but that could have cost a pretty penny. Let’s say he sold 100 pairs of shoes at a $10 loss for each pair – that’s so much valuable information from a $1,000 investment.
5. Focus on your existing customers
Repeat customers are the lifeblood of most businesses (not looking at you, mortuaries). There’s a reason for that: it’s so much harder to win a new customer than it is to re-engage an existing customer.
Reach back out to your customers on a regular basis – use newsletters to let them know about new items or events, ask for feedback after they’ve received the product (bonus: that’ll give you feedback on what’s going well and a chance to win back angry customers before they leave a 1-star review), and send reorder reminders. Show your customers there’s value in staying engaged and you’ll build a loyal following and maybe even a community.
6. What’s your time worth?
Your time is finite and your business needs will feel infinite. How do you keep from being overwhelmed? The trick is in knowing that not every hour is created equal.
Take a look at your day and divide your time into high, medium, and low-value tasks. Judge the value based on what it would cost for you to hire someone else to complete that task. Aim to spend 80% of your time on the tasks that no one else but you could accomplish—these are the highest value tasks. Do your best to automate the lower value tasks or get freelancers/interns/friends to help you with them.
The key is to be honest with yourself about which tasks only you can truly do—and guard your time fiercely to make sure that you’re spending enough on what’s most important (not necessarily the most urgent) to creating a healthy business.
7. Follow up like your business depends on it
Misaligned timing is responsible for the deaths of more deals than any other cause. Most people reach out once, receive either a “no thanks” or no response, then move along to the next thing. The person on the other end is often just busy, overwhelmed, distracted, or maybe you just caught them at a bad time. Don’t be obnoxious or take it personally, just be persistent. For the most important doors to open, you gotta keep knocking.
Your secret tool is the Snooze button in Gmail. Send an email, then snooze it for 8 days. If 8 days have passed with no response, it’ll pop back into your inbox – followup again and snooze. If your contact says it’s not a good time, find out when would be and snooze the email until then.
I’ve emailed some folks this way for months (and months and month), keeping the conversation alive until finally the right time came along and we were able to make something happen. We’ve gotten so many partnerships and sales done just by persistently reaching out until the timing aligned.
So there you have it. Those are seven lessons that I’ve learned over the past 3 years. None of them are food-industry specific, but have come out of operating a single origin spice social enterprise. Best of luck on your journey, especially if it involves making our food systems even a little bit better.
Got more to add? Want to connect? Stop by burlapandbarrel.com and reach out.
Co-founder, Burlap & Barrel
Ori Zohar is a social entrepreneur and the co-founder of Burlap & Barrel, the world’s first comprehensive, single-origin spice company. Burlap & Barrel creates equitable global supply chains by working directly with farmers to cut out intermediaries and deliver exceptionally flavorful spices. The company has been featured in Epicurious, Bon Appetit, Saveur, and Fast Company, as well as in the kitchens of restaurants from Eleven Madison Park and Blue Hill to sweetgreen and Chop’t to home cooks across the country.
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