“We were lucky to be told early on to take our time, be strategic and make sure that we have the right items in the right stores.” Lizzie Ackerman on the strategy behind Birch Benders’ success.
Lizzie Ackerman is the COO ofBirch Benders – one of the fastest growing, bootstrapping food startups in Colorado. Having their big launch at Expo West in 2014, Birch Benders went from being in just 20 stores to now over 5000 – quite the increase in distribution in less than two years.
So how did she and Matt, her husband co-founder, pull off this kind of growth without outside funding? What were their catalysts to expansion? There may have been a lucky break here and there, but by and large, they can attribute their successes to a well-planned, and thoughtfully executed strategy.
Listen to the podcast interview here:
Lean from day one
Birch Benders got its start when Lizzi’s husband, Matt, finally had enough with all the effort that went into making pancakes. After lots testing lot of different concepts in the attic of their house in Boulder, the “just add water” all-natural, organic pancake mix came to fruition.
From frequent demos in Whole Foods stores to joining Naturally Boulder, Lizzi and Matt put boots to the ground in getting Birch Benders up and running. The two picked up a few self-taught skill sets, including coding and graphic design, to build their own website and create the first iterations of the branding and packaging.
Starting small, the two openly welcomed feedback about their product, branding, and everything in between. When it came to demos, exposure to “brutally honest” consumers turned out to be extremely helpful in figuring out exactly what the market wanted from their company. Rather than taking negative feedback personally, Lizzi and Matt used it as a learning opportunity, refining their recipe based on the ingredients consumers did or didn’t like.
During one demo in particular, a customer had some harsh criticism about Birch Benders’ then mason jar packaging, commenting that it was bad for the environment. Lizzi can laugh about it now, but it was at that point they knew a radical change to their packaging had to be made.
It took a couple years to perfect their ingredient list, but the founders of Birch Benders knew they’d only have one shot at getting on the good side of retail partners and consumers once they started focusing on distribution. After perfecting the pancake mix itself, they started working with a branding agency to revamp their self-designed packaging.
They took their time on the company branding: the logo, the feel and the packaging. Knowing the importance of getting things right from jump street, they spent well over a year on this stage of their product development.
“Rushing to get your product out is dangerous”, she says, “especially when your branding is still not quite right and you have not had time to perfect the price/pack architecture. It could lead to having a product that doesn’t sell.”
Good entrepreneurs are always looking for inspiration from other brands and mentors in the industry. At Expo West in 2014, Lizzi sought mentorship from one of the most successful natural food entrepreneurs in the game, Justin Gold, founder and CEO of the recently acquired Justin’s.
“I walked up to him and asked if I could grab a cup of coffee with him.”
Justin obliged and after a 30 minute coffee meeting turned into a few hours, the two formed a friendship that yielded invaluable guidance in building Birch Benders.
big takeaways for growing food brands
Lizzie says, “It’s important to know that getting on the shelf is easy. It’s getting your product to sell that’s the hard part. It’s also crucial to maintain great relationships with your retail partners. The natural grocery stores are great to start out in because they are much more supportive and forgiving when it comes to updates in packaging.”
Getting on the shelves is easy. It's getting your product to sell that's the hard part. - Lizzi Ackerman, @BirchBenders Click To Tweet
When it comes to the Targets and Krogers of the world, you need to have your ducks in a row. “Missing a single deadline can be extremely detrimental,” Lizzi says. In addition, having an ERP tool not only made running the company less stressful, but it improved their relationships with buyers and retailers.
Retailers like Target tend not to have a large warehouse but rather many small ones – meaning lots of small orders and lots of coordination in fulfilling those orders.
social media strategies for Bootstrapping Food Startups
In terms of marketing strategies to increase sales, Birch Benders has found a lot of success with Facebook campaigns. Recipe posts, in particular, seem to get a lot of engagement.
While Facebook has been the most successful social media platform for Birch Benders, they are seeing a lot of growth with Instagram where fans create more of their own original content related to their “trendier” flavors.
“It’s fun to see the different recipes people around the world create with own products.”
What was The Biggest Catalyst To Growth?
Birch Bender’s rapid growth in distribution from 20 to 5000 stores started when they found the right price point and package size. After years of testing and research, Birch Benders landed on where they fit best in the market, and from there, they hired brokers to push their products at higher volumes.
Ultimately, it comes down to having a great tasting product, at the right price, with the right look, before pushing forward with attempting to scale. It’s a discipline that’s surely easier said than done, but in the case of Birch Benders, it’s a strategy that has and will continue to yield success for years to come.