If you need people to reinforce that your product is great, you’re great, etc. this will be a major roadblock to success.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carmen Wagner.
Carmen Wagner, a Nashville entrepreneur, is working to raise awareness and funds for the National Angels nonprofit through a roasted root brew she created, nuJo. She believes in this as a vehicle to enable everyone to help improve our communities. nuJo, actually a prebiotic superfood drink, was recently included in the Top 10 coffee alternatives by Rolling Stone magazine.
Carmen trained within the CPG industry where her career included roles in product development, commercialization, supply chain, sales, marketing, category management and marketing while working with merchandise teams of select major retailers.
Carmen received a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, with a focus on Hospitality Services Administration from Central Michigan University.
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 grew up in a tiny, rural town in mid-Michigan, the youngest of 7 kids. I always knew I would not stay there, I usually wore a minimum of three layers of clothes — it’s FREEZING and rainy most of the year!
I clearly remember knowing that, even as a child, I wanted to one day make an impact in the world. Not the ‘beauty pageant, pie-in-the-sky change the world’ but I felt from a very early age a determination to do something for the ‘greater good’ in my life.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
My husband was drinking a LOT of coffee and was unable to kick the habit because as he said, ‘you don’t understand, there’s nothing like it!’
I am always up for a challenge, so I searched and realized, there was nothing like it on a lot of levels.
The options were inconvenient, outdated and left a LOT to be desired in taste and benefits.
“It couldn’t be THAT hard to come up with something better, why hadn’t anyone fixed this?”, I reasoned.
I started tinkering in my kitchen and about two weeks later, I realized I had become slightly obsessed with this entire concept.
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?
I started by ‘roasting’ as is done with coffee beans — so I burned a LOT of things (every type of bean, seed, nuts, etc.), to the point my poor kids were reluctant to drink anything that came in a MUG!
The entrepreneur route is not for everyone — it’s hard to hear ‘YUCK!’ — I got thick skin, and learned to not take things personally and to try, try, try again 🙂
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?
I read a TON and tried to learn from others’ mistakes, listen to everyone’s advice (and filter through for the nuggets!).
A big one is to not focus on buying a TON of anything, it’s okay to pay more per unit for smaller runs, ingredient purchases, etc.
The learning curves are huge early on, including incorporating feedback to make the product(s) better.. leads to multiple edits in ingredients, packaging, etc..
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?
GOOGLE! check out what is out there, specifically what those similar items have/don’t have to search for the ‘white space’ (the space where a product would fit in perfectly between what already exists).
Or this can also reconfirm the strategic advantage your product has. Next, figure out just who is gonna buy it and how much they would pay to see if you can afford to make it … 🙂
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?
Tagging onto the previous answer, the product has to serve a purpose to be viable.
Dial in on that purpose and from there, it is all about execution with excellence (and persistence…)
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 depends — on the person’s resources (financial, people, time, etc) as well as their background and personal circumstances and goals for the invention.
Do they want to ‘dabble’ or go ‘full court press’ ? That will determine their best approach to getting things going.
I personally had a lot of varied experiences (just enough knowledge to make me dangerous, or hopefully a slight clue when someone is trying to hustle me!) so I tend to take it as far as I can on my own merit and then strike out to utilize my resources, etc from there.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
I’m in the middle of this right now! Bootstrapping has been my mantra, I come from a line of small, independent business owners who have done that method their entire lives.
However, especially with an RTD bottled beverage in hand, VC is starting to become a discussion simply due to ‘minimum quantity requirements’ for bottling production equipment.
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?
I got great advice early on, through seeking out professional advice (attorney, lawyer, etc). It was a personal decision to go the route of utilizing 100% organic ingredients which led to seeking out specific raw ingredient sources. People talk in every industry, it’s important to ask the questions, ask some more, google and never underestimate the power of prayer in all decisions!
Finding retailers for me has been a combination of cold-calling, forming relationships and networking within those different relationships. People are typically supportive and respectful of entrepreneurs, and many are entrepreneurs of one sort or another as well.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Thick skin — people can be great and people can be too busy with their own orbit to give you the time of day.
2. Persistence — the difference between those who make it and those who don’t is often your continuing to persist in the face of adversity.
3. Drive/Confidence — if you need people to reinforce that your product is great, you’re great, etc. this will be a major roadblock to success.
4. Luck! — and a sense of humor… There is so much beyond your control, do your best, pray for the rest and then let it go.
5. A buzz about the brand — Social media, etc. MARKETING around the product, includes the packaging. Getting on the shelf is one thing, into the cart is another.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
My only advice is to give them something they need (or make them think they need it!).
People are fickle so this is a hard one as it depends on the product/demographic you’re going for too.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We contribute 10% of our proceeds to support the National Angels nonprofit, who partner with kids and families within the foster care community.
This is my goal, to help change the world, and encourage others to do the same, even if it’s simply through supporting nuJo!
As nuJo becomes a National Brand, people across the country will become exposed to us and, in turn, National Angels nonprofit.
Someone will notice their logo, look deeper and be moved to start a chapter in their community. The opportunity for generational change cannot be overlooked, with 80% of the current US prison population having spent time in the foster care system and this extends to our homeless population, drug use, etc.
nuJo will make the world a better place as we grow and provide exposure and financial support to National Angels nonprofit!
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.
If I could inspire a movement, it would be for people to get involved and become engaged in their community’s foster care programs. As Susan Ramirez, CEO of National Angels states, we may not all be called to adopt or even foster, but we can all do something. Whether as a financial sponsor, a mentor, volunteering time to assist with the many projects, or simply purchasing products that contribute goods/services to foster care communities, it all makes an impact. Only 50% of kids in foster care graduate high school by 18 and 97% will NOT complete a college degree despite a full state-school paid tuition program. This leads to 60% of former foster youth falling below the poverty line despite earning an income. Our seemingly small acts will add up to improving our communities well into future generations, resources well spent!
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.
Barbara Corcoran! She is my person, hands down. If I had 1 dollar for every time I was told ‘You should go on Shark Tank!’ 🙂 ….
But more than that, Barbara is the one person who I know would 100% grasp the vision for nuJo as a brand, would 100% LOVE the taste, and has 100% perfect knowledge & connections to get us on the fast track to National Distribution. That would be amazing. It has really been a high hurdle to get big dogs (read: copackers, bottlers, etc) in this business to take a female solopreneur seriously (I sound very young on the phone ugh!) I’ve thought of reaching out personally; however, nuJo is very early in the product journey.
With this being just a few weeks since I left my corporate gig to expedite nuJo growth, things are heating up quickly!
Whenever Barbara has time for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or even a break to taste her ‘new cup of Joe’, I will clear my schedule, meet her wherever she is and be ready with my mugs in a row!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.