Grit and persistence. It’s taken me almost five years to get to where I am now, and we are still an emerging brand. I am nothing if not persistent. Success rarely comes overnight. It takes a LOT of time to not only carve your place in the market, but to also earn customer’s trust and excitement to really build a brand. Things never go as planned, either. It takes a lot of willingness to keep the wheels going when you get a lot of no signals.
As part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Renee Dunn. She studied abroad and did her thesis research in Uganda. While living there, she was blown away by their organic tropical fruits, bursting with flavors unlike back at home. But stand after stand, people traded fruits raw or looked for cheap ways of processing or exporting. She had heard stories about cocoa farmers never seeing a chocolate bar… but realized that this anecdote sums up a lot about our supply chains as a whole.
Those at the resource were completely separate from the opportunity and innovation that existed in the global market — resulting in high unemployment and food waste. Meanwhile, back at home, consumers looking for products that serve a higher purpose, there was a huge opportunity missed not only for local industry and job creation, but also to satisfy a growing need for US consumers.
My solution was to connect this ingenuity, drive, and bounty with folks who crave both good food and story. We now source directly from farmers, keep production in country by partnering with Ugandan businesses. Together, our 100% made-in-Uganda products build skills, market access, and create connection in our supply chains.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was born and raised in the Washington, DC area. My dad — hailing from Hartford, CT — was an economist at the IMF and my mom — a German citizen to this day — ran a family business alongside my grandpa in international property management in Germany and Israel.
Oldest of 3 and the only girl, I was independent, responsible, and self-starting from a young age. My brother’s tended to require more “attention,” so I stayed busy and went after what I wanted. I made my own plans and registered myself for after school activities and summer camps starting at the age of ten or so.
Both sides of grandparents were Holocaust survivors. On my mom’s side my grandpa was one of ten, and nine of them survived the Holocaust. As a result, we had a big family that was incredibly supportive, hard working, generous, and loved good food. They valued persistence, giving back, and living with purpose. With both extended families living globally, and due to the nature of my parent’s work, we were fortunate to travel when I was at a very young age. My first international trip was to Israel to visit my mom’s family when I was less than a year old, and my first time to East Africa was with my dad when I was in middle school.
As a kid, I was always super expressive. I loved dance, theater, and taking painting classes with my grandma. I was also eager to learn, an excellent student, easily excited by new material, and, granted, a teacher’s pet., At the same time, I was introspective, reflective, and a bit socially awkward. I always felt different from my peers in ways I couldn’t identify.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
I studied abroad and did my thesis research in Uganda. While living there, I was blown away by their organic tropical fruits. Unlike back at home, they were bursting with flavors, but I saw stand after stand where people traded fruits raw or looked for cheap ways of processing or exporting. I heard stories about cocoa farmers never seeing a chocolate bar. I realized that this summed up a lot about our supply chains as a whole. Those at the resource were completely separate from the opportunity and innovation that existed in the global market, resulting in high unemployment and food waste.
Meanwhile, back at home, consumers were looking for products that serve a higher purpose. There was a huge opportunity here being missed not only for the local Uganda industry and job creation, but also to satisfy a growing need for US consumers. Right now, there is a huge rise in plant-based diets and a demand for more unique fruits and flavors. In addition, consumers are looking for clean, healthy options and to purchase from brands that serve a purpose.
My solution? Try to connect the ingenuity, drive, and bounty of Uganda with the American consumers who crave both good food AND story.
Along with that, I source directly from farmers, keep production in the country by partnering — and educating — small businesses, and in turn, offer Purpose Driven Snacks to America’s growing conscious consumer market….and beyond.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It’s really hard for me to choose one mistake in the moment, I probably didn’t think any of them were funny… ha! I think a “funny” one was when we got scammed by a fake international customer. I fell for it hard. We were sitting on product after we had QC difficulties with our suppliers. I was so eager for someone to order, and discouraged by how things were going, that when I got an inquiry for a very large order, I got excited.
It sounded fishy at first, but when I asked for details and payment, they seemed prepared. The payment went through, and they paid upfront. So we coordinated the orders for them. They asked us to use a particular shipping company and pass through their payment (which I thought was strange, but again, they put up a believable front). After we had created all the boxes, we awaited shipping labels, and they never came. I started to wonder and a few days later, I received a call from a man asking why we had charged 3000+ dollars to his credit card. I soon made the connection that this “customer” had just used someone else’s credit card number, and we were essentially helping them move money around. We were victims of international money laundering!
We gave all the money back to the gentleman, of course, and we lost the money transferred out for the “shipping.” It was a painful loss, but a good lesson in learning never to be desperate for customers. It’s okay to say no and do due diligence.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Not thinking through what is different about their business,-whether from a product perspective or from a channel perspective. For example, just because retail might seem to be the obvious path, it doesn’t mean it’s the only one that you should follow. The same goes for eCommerce. Before you dive in, think about who you’re trying to reach and where, as well as your initial budget.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Start by making some samples. Get feedback from friends, family, whomever. Do a few focus groups or surveys. Try to get information on how people react to your product, brand name, other products in the category, other packaging in the category, etc. Put together a first iteration, and know that it is a first iteration. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just be informed when you put it together, and learn from there.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
One step at a time. I learned almost everything by doing. I tried to research my way through things in the beginning. I wanted to perfectly understand everything, and it held me up for a long time. Looking back, there’s nothing I could have done that would have prepared me for executing the idea other than executing the idea! While research and thought is important, if it is your first foray into the food space your best bet is to start executing. Start small, don’t invest too much, and just take the necessary steps forward. You will make mistakes, and you will notice challenges, but that’s what helps you get to the next step. It also leads you to people who can help you solve or address those gaps, but you often don’t even know who or what to ask until you come across it.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
It really depends on your model and the product you are trying to bring to market. If you have an innovative concept, but your strength is simply growing a brand and spearheading a business, then go for it, if you have the money available. Personally, we’ve never worked with any such consultant, and we’ve only considered doing so when scaling. Perhaps others in the industry will tell you otherwise, but as I mentioned above, we started small, made iterations based on feedback, learned A LOT from QC mistakes along the way. As a result, we came to understand the important SOPs that will keep our brand and product reliable while delivering on our promise.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
More and more today — especially in the COVID era — I think many would agree that bootstrapping and capital efficiency is the best way to go, if you can. Venture capital is expensive capital, and in uncertain times, it’s hard to maintain flexibility and adaptability when you have a lot of stakeholders on board. As someone who was new to the industry, I think bootstrapping and being forced to be capital efficient was actually a leg-up. I couldn’t be careless with our dollars. I had to learn quickly, prioritize, and grow slowly. I think building a nimble business is one that will ultimately last longer, because the groundwork is there. I had to learn to do things myself. Learning from my mistakes early, and with less expense, became a huge strength.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
This is a pretty broad question! I think as a general rule, it is important to look at the specific needs of your business. What worked for other businesses, won’t necessarily work for you. That said a few notes:
I do highly recommend trademarking your name and patenting any unique innovations early on, if you can. Although we don’t have a patent, we did talk to lawyers in Uganda about protecting our recipes as “trade secrets.”
When sourcing, meet with your suppliers. Get to know them. Get specific about SOPs and quality specs. Understand their needs, too. Know that it’s not a one sided relationship,- especially if you’re sourcing from farmers directly, like we are. It’s a relationship that has to work for both sides in order for it to be sustainable. Be as transparent and as communicative as possible. Understand how you can fill their needs, too, so that it is a long lasting mutually beneficial relationship.
For manufacturing, we’ve had issues with co-packers and 3rd parties. It’s hard to know what’s going to come up before you’re already in the relationship. I would make sure contracts are clear about who owns the rights to what, that you’re clear on the charges involved, and that you share your goals and projections with them whenever possible. Above all else, though, making yourself a customer they want to work with is important. They’ll likely have many other clients, so if you can build a positive relationship with them, that will be key.
Finding retailers is not hard. They’re everywhere! That said, landing them — and the right ones — is trickier. Even harder than that is proving success in those stores. In the early days, I literally got in the car and drove for hours, stopping at 20+ stores at a time with samples and sell sheets. I would try to do my homework in advance, including knowing who the buyer was, when they were available, what other products they carried, and why our products might be a good fit for their stores. I quickly learned which kinds of retailers moved our products well, where our products were best positioned, etc. I think the key is to find accounts early on that are going to be the right fit and show the potential for the brand.
With regards to distributors, whenever possible, let a retailer lead. You’ll have a lot more leverage, and you won’t have to worry as much about meeting DC velocity minimums.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. A good product! The product comes first. Sure, you might have a great brand and mission, but if your product isn’t good, no one will pay or come back for it.
2. Grit and persistence. It’s taken me almost five years to get to where I am now, and we are still an emerging brand. I am nothing if not persistent. Success rarely comes overnight. It takes a LOT of time to not only carve your place in the market, but to also earn customer’s trust and excitement to really build a brand. Things never go as planned, either. It takes a lot of willingness to keep the wheels going when you get a lot of no signals.
3. Passion and a clear why. Like the above, if you don’t have a clear reason for doing something, you’re going to burn out. If you’re just selling another chocolate cookie — no shade to cookies! — without a clear reason or differentiator or passion you will quickly call it quits. In the midst of the current pandemic, I would not have kept pivoting if I didn’t have a mission to tie things too. It’s just too challenging, and from the consumer side, people won’t care enough.
4. Understanding of the market. So you made an amazing chocolate chip cookie? Great. But aren’t there 5000 more on the market? How are you going to position yourself? What channels are you going to explore? How are you going to make yourself stand out? The wonderful thing about this industry is that there is SO much opportunity and space to play, but it does take you going beyond your own lenses, and understanding the landscape as a whole. You have to be able to carve out a clear space.
5. Humility and openness to feedback. I am the first to admit that I am not an expert. And I also know our products were not perfect when we first launched. Far from it! In the early days, I would get defensive when people gave feedback. The chips are too crunchy? Who cares! Think about the mission and the impact! Nope, not gonna work. You have to take a step back and adjust to meet the consumer needs as well as accept feedback from investors and advisors in the industry. It doesn’t mean you have to change things every time someone says something, but you do want to understand WHY someone might have a certain impression.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
This is a pretty big question — and I’m not sure I have an answer yet! I think we’re still learning, and only just starting to see the stickiness in our customers and online community. That said, I think it takes a lot of compassion, willingness to get into the customer’s head, as well as a willingness to share your side. A good product is baseline. You should always have that when launching. However thinking through how you’re going to stand out and create stickiness with customers is key. What are they going to latch onto? Is it going to be your story? You? Your brand? A unique aspect of your flavor profile or ingredient list? Whatever it is, identifying that and making it clear is essential. Be willing to connect fully with your customer and show them who YOU are.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Making the world a better place, so to speak, is in the fabric of our business, and I believe that all businesses today should have that in some way or another. It doesn’t mean you have to build supply chains in developing countries, but I think in such a crowded marketplace, emerging businesses should have some element of wanting to create positive change when bringing a new product to market.
In just the next few years, we’re creating over 150 jobs, relationships with 1000s of farmers, and putting in an additional 13 million dollars into Ugandan industry. All the while, we are building skills and market connections for the next generation in the hopes of achieving a true shift in the power dynamic of our value chains. In 2020 alone, we sourced from close to 300 farmers, 55% of which were women, paid farmers upwards of 68% above market price, and created over 30 jobs for local youth. Additionally, we’ve taken opportunities in COVID to build a community where we can. We have also donated over 5000 snacks to local hospitals and food banks and offered a care package program for those highly affected. We even shifted our order fulfillment to support a local NGO in Dallas that employs and creates work for intellectually disabled individuals, who had seen even less work as a result of COVID.
There are SO many ways to do good through business!
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My ultimate vision for Amazi is to encourage a shift in how we approach ethical sourcing and supply chains. I hope that more companies start to consider going a step beyond ethical sourcing when working with farmers in developing economies. How can we involve the surrounding communities and economies in more parts of our business? How can we close the gap so that those at the resource level can also be a part of this highly valuable, highly innovative space? I think asking these kinds of questions, and considering inclusivity in all parts of the business can be impactful.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Bill Gates, because of their Gates Foundation, and I also believe they would be super passionate about what we do at Amazi.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.