5 food startup lessons that helped us grow to 3,500 outlets

We want to share more of our journey from a small market stand to distributing in over 3,500 outlets as we grow in 2018. From the challenges of launching new and relevant products and scaling production to learning on the job.

I thought I would start this year by sharing five of my biggest learnings from the early RHYTHM108 days.

1. Become the expert

Steve Jobs said experts are clueless and, although I don’t fully agree with him, this really was the biggest learning in the early days. Most startups exist to innovate by definition, so knowledge from previous experience is sometimes just not relevant.

When I started, the first thing I did was I spent £5,000 to hire “the most experienced product development company” to convert my home recipes into retail-ready ones. After months of backwards and forwards, we had created a product that truly tasted like sawdust. I was also told that more investment was needed to continue development!

It was so heartbreaking – I had just spent my entire launch budget and the results were so far away from what I wanted to create. This was the push for me to do things differently. Why was I working with experts who had created the industry norm, when I was challenging it?

After months of backwards and forwards we had created a product that truly tasted like sawdust.

That evening, I bought two volumes of The Microbiological Safety and Quality of Food (fun!) opened the front page and buckled down with a blanket and a lot of coffee. I learnt about barriers, water activity, rancidity, free radicals and everything I needed to know about shelf-life.

I used these basic building blocks to create our Good-for-You Dessert Bars. It was one of the most expensive lessons I learnt, but the most valuable:

If you are trying to do exceptional things and develop exceptional products you cannot depend on those who are doing things the same way. You must go back to the basics.

2. The devil is in the details

The first time we ordered our display boxes for our Dessert Bars, we produced a standard design. Over time we realised that as a new company we were moved to the top or bottom shelves where no one could see our lovely products.

We went back to the drawing board and redesigned our boxes to a unique shape where you can see the entire wrapper face forward. These details were so important, and positively impacted on our Dessert Bar sales:

Exceptional products mean that there has been a lot of thought in each detail.

3. Just do it

Despite the fact that our packaging was not perfect, our website was not (and still is not) great, and the first batch of Dessert Bars was made by an overtired, grumpy entrepreneur – the bottom line is that we got the product out there, and most people loved it:

If you don’t try, you’ll never know. Even today, I have to fight against the urge to wait until things are perfect and just try things a lot more.

4. Think big, but the small solutions are what get you there

I remember people telling us that there was no way that we could technically produce our Dessert Bars without a £150,000 barline to manufacture them with.

We eventually found a second-hand table and refit it to our needs for a total of £2,000. This allowed us to cut 4,000 bars per hour. Not bad for a start! We just upgraded this table to a barline this year.

5. Belief in you is key

Our first meeting was with a distributor, who we still work with today – she took a risk on us (thanks Monika!). Our first bakery let us rent out space and helped us manufacture when we couldn’t keep up. Our first warehouse let us stock just one pallet. Our first lab spent hours explaining food safety to me.

All these tasks were definitely not worth the hassle for these individuals – money wise and time wise. But they did so because they believed we could do something unique. I’ve had so many meetings where things didn’t work out and almost always it was because I couldn’t convince the person to believe in me.

I hope this was useful and would love to hear your thoughts, learnings, and experiences too! Leave a comment below or reach me on Twitter @Rhythm108.

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Holly Sawyer
Holly is the Marketing Manager at Inkwell, the company behind The Pitch.

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