Your USPs — You must understand your unique selling points. This is your point of difference between your competitors. If a consumer has a choice of A or B, why should they pick you? In our case, we are one of only a handful of certified gluten free noodles in the world, and we’re one of the only instant noodles that are registered with the Vegan Society. We use freeze dried ingredients and we use absolutely no nasties in our product. So what are your USPs? It’s very important to define this so you stand out and can articulate your point of difference versus the rest of the crowd.
Packaging is also important: How does your packaging stand out, how does your consumer get attracted to your product on the shelf? So packing USPs are also very important.
Asa part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Damien Lee, founder of Mr. Lee’s Pure Foods Co. a food-tech company and award winning fresh new brand of instant cup noodles. Mr. Lee’s noodles are “No” nasties, natural and gluten-free. Also one of the lowest in sugar, salt, calories and saturated fats with vegan options.
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’m an only child that was born in Melbourne and grew up in Sydney. My father is from Singapore, and my mother is Australian. My father came to Australia for college. He was an architect and my mother was a journalist. I had a great childhood, my parents were happily married and I grew up in a loving household.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
So, the “ah ha” moment for me was a little more complex. It was actually related to a company I had previous to starting Mr Lee’s. I was in China on a business trip and met two Chinese brothers who owned China’s fifth largest instant noodles company. They took me for a tour of one of their factories and told me they made over five billion instant noodles just for the Chinese market, but that they were really looking to export their products internationally, in particular to the UK and Europe. They then asked if I’d help them with this. I was flattered, but I had my own start-up company and was too busy. I also didn’t know anything about noodles, outside of eating them and I didn’t know anything about retail, so I declined their offer.
After I turned them down it got a little awkward so I started making small talk. I asked one of the brothers which noodles were his favorite The brothers looked at me and said they didn’t eat their noodles. And they told me I wouldn’t either if I knew what was in them. I paused wondering if I heard him correctly. I grew up with oriental heritage and ate lots of instant noodles all my life. I didn’t particularly care what was in them: They were convenient and tasted OK,..I asked why they didn’t use quality ingredients and was told that profit margins were so tight they couldn’t afford to do it, and that all the manufacturers in the marketplace skimped on quality to keep the bottom line. I was shocked, that was a real moment for me.
I went back to the UK and continued on with my start-up company and didn’t think much more about those brothers and their noodle company. I then I was blindsided with a diagnoses of stage four cancer, I went from being an entrepreneur to being a hospital patient…I had to radically change my lifestyle. I took all the nasties out of my diet, and focused on eating a raw diet. I became a big believer in “You are what you eat”. During my first bout with cancer, one of the things I craved was ironically noodles. But I knew I couldn’t eat them because of all the nasty stuff that was in them. Once I came out on the other side of my treatment a year later, I was faced with the challenge of what to do then: Do I try to get my old company going again? Do I get a job? Or do I do something new. The entrepreneurial spirit in me knew I was going to do something new. I thought maybe I could help the two Chinese brothers bring their noodles into Europe. But I did some research into the size and the opportunity of the instant noodle global market and very quickly realized it’s a very big global market, almost 120 billion instant noodles are manufactured and consumed around the world each year and growing. While it was a huge market, everyone was in a big race to the bottom. Just like the Chinese brothers had said, they all used inferior ingredients in their products.
That’s when I had the “ah-ha” moment and realized the opportunity. If everyone else was in a big race to the bottom, there was opportunity to go in the opposite direction. I could create the world’s healthiest instant noodle-one with no nasties, with real food, real nutrition, real protein and goodness in it. I was going to create my own noodles, ones that I would eat.
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?
One of the funniest mistakes I made early was not understanding the terminology and jargon used in the industry. I was sitting with one of the big retailers early on and he asked me what SKUs (unique products) we carried in our range. I answered by telling him how great my noodles were and how everybody wanted our noodles, and that we planned to go international. We were talking to clients in America and Australia at the time and I was really building it all up on how exciting our noodle were. When I finished, he repeated his question about SKUs. I continued to talk about flavors that we had and he reasserted that he needed the SKU numbers. I was really confused because I didn’t know what he was asking me and I looked at him blankly and he finally realized I didn’t know what he meant. He couldn’t believe I didn’t know this terminology having been in the business for two months This was like a chef asking you if you want a two or three egg omelet and you’re asking, “What’s an egg?” . The moral of the story is whatever business you are doing, do your research. Understand the industry you’re operating in and the basic jargon of it. Because if you don’t know it and you’re asked it, you’re going to look as silly as I did that day. We ended up laughing about it and today they are now one of our biggest customers, but I didn’t get the business that first day!
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?
One of the fundamental mistakes that any young food or beverage brand can make is not understanding the difference between kitchen samples and production samples. Let’s say you are making your product at home around the kitchen table (as a lot of start-ups do), and you’re buying your ingredients from different places, making your home samples, and you are happy with the outcome. The reality is when you give that formulation to your commercial partner who will make the product for production, it can turn out very different from what your kitchen table samples tasted like. The ingredients could be different, the equipment is different and there is trial and error when scaling a recipe. So it’s very important that when you finally get your product to where you want it to be, to actually get your partner to develop that SKU and send back those samples to you, so you can confirm that flavor profile is what you expect and want. If there’s a variation, you need to go back and understand where things may have gone wrong. I’ve made those mistakes, and I think a lot of start-up food businesses will make those mistakes. The last thing you want is to make 100,000 of that particular product and then realize it doesn’t taste anything like it should.
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?
The first step that I believe is really important is research. Research, research, research. You can develop a product thinking that you’re the first person to do this, or it’s the first of its type, and it isn’t. There could be 10 other similar products on the market, or other people doing it better than you could. If you don’t do thorough research first, you could end up developing a whole product and then find there’s no place for it in the market. Whatever your idea is make sure you discover a unique position for your product in the market. Otherwise, you can be barking up the wrong tree very quickly.
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?
A lot of people have good ideas, and a lot of people struggle to translate that good idea into reality for many reasons. It could be that they have a full time job and worry following their dream is too risky. There’s no getting around it, being an entrepreneur means you have to get comfortable with risk. The way to manage risk, is to research. Find out if there is a place for the idea in the market. Once you’re truly convinced, that’s when you can start to take calculated risks. That could be as simple as putting the hours in to try and drive the idea forward, even if you are still working another job, In the beginning I recommend juggling both. Keep your job (if you have one already) and put those additional hours in on the weekends and in the evenings to get your new venture going. As you become more confident in the market start talking to people about how they can invest in your idea. Do your research, and build your confidence and you will know when the time is right to go realize your dream.
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?
Yes, there are many development consultants out there. There are consultants for everything. I don’t necessarily believe in starting out with a consultant. In the beginning it can be beneficial to have a conversation with one because you might learn things you didn’t know before, but I’ve always been a believer in “blue sky thinking”. When I start a business that I’ve never had any prior experience in before my approach is to gather people that are outside the industry. I don’t want people to tell me I can’t do things a specific way because they believe in how it’s always been done. That’s not what I want to hear. I don’t want to know what’s possible or what’s not possible. I want to come into a new business naïve, with a fresh set of eyes and blue sky thinking. I reach for the stars. When my business is actually starting to gain momentum and traction, I then bring in consultants to help shape the vision and path that I already started to build. At that point, I have learned a bit and can tell the consultants where I am right now and how I got to this point. I can then get their view on how to move forward. Again, if you’ve done your research, identified your opportunity and nailed down your USPs, then it’s time to build it, forge it, make it, steam it, and bring in those experts later on.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
It really depends on your personal situation- if you have enough personal income to risk and finance the venture yourself, that’s easiest. But most people aren’t in that position. Assess early on in your business venture what it’s going to cost you to get off the ground, then double it or triple it because you never get it right the first time. Generally, it will always cost you a lot more and take far longer to get your business into a cash positive position.
For most people it’s important to find a sustainable source of investment. The last thing you need as an entrepreneur is to constantly be on the search for investment money, particularly as your business grows and becomes more cash hungry. With Mr Lee’s, we’ve done a lot of pitching for funding and that’s been a part of our business plan as we’ve grown and scaled. It was very time consuming. You need external funding to go big or go home. So, VCs or outside money all the way.
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?
It’s quite simple: Get yourself a good patent attorney who has experience in your particular sector. Quiz them, check them, find out if they’ve filed similar patents and work with them. Patents are complex, get an expert. Patents are limited by geography, so if you have a patent in the UK, anyone outside of the UK can still copy your product. You need a patent in all the countries you do business.
A source for good raw ingredients really depends on what type of a business you’re in. It’s so varied and it comes from so many different parts of the world. What you are looking for is really a reliable supplier. Look at their certificates and make sure they have all the accredited health and safety certificates.
To source a good manufacturer ask other companies in your field and find out who they recommend. Ask them who makes their product and who co-packs their product. Generally, if you speak to someone in their manufacturing department, and if they’re willing to give up that information, you can then build a relationship and get word-of-mouth recommendations.
Regarding finding retailers and distributors, again, it’s really a lot of recommendations and understanding the profile of your product and where it fits. You’ve got to look at the distributor and find what other similar lines of product they are carrying. If you’re a premium product, understand if they will be working with other premium brands because then they’ll be working with premium retailers. Or, if it’s not a premium and more mass market, try and understand if your distributor is working in that space because they will have those relationships. If you’re a mass market product then there’s no point to be working with a premium distributor that won’t have the connections you need for your business.
Retailers are the same, you’ve got to build your retail profile. If you’re a Harvey Nichols or Harrod’s type of product, and talking to a Walmart buyer, it’s not a good match. Walmart tends to discount products heavily, whereas Harrod’s likes to hold a high recommended price point and they very rarely discount. So it’s very important your retailer has the right profile.
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.)
Five things to create a successful brand line are:
- Brand story: What is your brand story?
Mine is my personal journey. My big “why” and my health situation was why I created my noodles. This question is really important because consumers today love stories, they love to get behind a challenger brand, and understand the uniqueness of the brand. Get out that brand story and truly identify how it’s come about. This is so important because how you articulate your “why” can help build a strong brand.
2. Brand position: What is your brand position? Are you a premium product? Are you an everyday product? Are you mass market product? It’s really important to understand your brand position and proposition. Lots of other things will come from this understanding in terms of your market strategy, consumer communications, where you market your product, what media publications you target.. So brand position is very important to identify.
3. Your USPs — You must understand your unique selling points. This is your point of difference between your competitors. If a consumer has a choice of A or B, why should they pick you? In our case, we are one of only a handful of certified gluten free noodles in the world, and we’re one of the only instant noodles that are registered with the Vegan Society. We use freeze dried ingredients and we use absolutely no nasties in our product. So what are your USPs? It’s very important to define this so you stand out and can articulate your point of difference versus the rest of the crowd.
Packaging is also important: How does your packaging stand out, how does your consumer get attracted to your product on the shelf? So packing USPs are also very important.
4. Understand who your customer is. Who have you made it for?
There’s no point in selling a product to teenagers if your product has a mature taste and is beyond the price point of teenagers. You really must understand your demographic. Discover who you appeal to and then go after them. Otherwise you are spending a lot of marketing and ad dollars that’s just being dispersed into a space with no real results. So find out who they are, know who they are and then go after them.
5. Investment: If you’re looking to be a little brand and serve your local region, your cash demands are probably less than if you’re a much more ambitious brand launching nationally or internationally. Different levels of growth require a very different amount of capital. Understand what your ambition is and where your business can go, how big it can grow, and how scalable it is. Understand fundamentally how and when you are going to need capital for growth, and how you identify where the capital is coming from. Whether it’s family and friends, angel investors, venture capital, or private equity. Start forming those relationships and exploring that landscape early. If you’re not great at fundraising, enlist people that can help you raise capital. There are lots of people out there that do just that, they raise capital for good ideas.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Ask yourself if your product serves a need. If it does that’s a good start! Then you need a story for people to connect with around your brand. How you communicate and articulate your story to your customer is important. In the case of Mr Lee’s, people connect with my personal journey and story very well, and they support the journey and the belief that I’ve created a healthier instant noodle because of my own personal reasons and beliefs around better eating. That connection has helped us immensely in getting the message across to a customer conditioned that instant noodles are nasty and bad for you. It’s important that you have a story that customers can connect with and fall in love with. Be a great storyteller.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I do hope that I’ve started by creating a healthy food option for time poor, busy people on the go. My new podcast show “Damien King Lee, Life Is…” is about inspiring people that are in a difficult place right now or lacking direction. It’s about my own journey, to give listeners a ray of hope and to believe if they dig deep that no matter how bad they feel rightnow there is hope and there is light. Some upcoming guests include Wesley Snipes, the Bella Twins, and Claire Holt. They’ve all had difficult journeys, made sacrifices, and had heartache while building their careers. I’m using the platform I have to help people in a new way; to hopefully inspire people by listening to my story and my guests’ journeys on the show. I’m working on other projects as well, including solving the world’s single plastics problem. That is another story altogether. I’ve been so fortunate through my entrepreneur journey with Mr Lee’s that it’s now spawning many other businesses and projects that I hope will leave a great legacy behind.
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 to encourage and motivate the big food companies to do far better than they are today. I believe they’re putting a lot of rubbish in our food chain and into our bodies through what we eat. They could do far better in terms of the sugars, the salts, and the junk that they put into the foods. The big food companies are motivated by cost. Just like those Chinese brothers indicated, they feel they can’t afford to put good stuff in a lot of food. People need to stand up to them and demand that they start reducing unhealthy and harmful ingredients in our foods, including ingredients that cause cancer. If that happens I think the food companies will do more, and do it faster. Small companies like mine, and many others around the world are the disruptive brands that are making a stand against the big companies.
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.
If there’s one person I would love to share breakfast or lunch, it would certainly be Michelle Obama. I find her to be such a genuine, warm-hearted, intelligent person that has so much to give. She is so warm and really wants to see the best out of all of us, the best in society, and she’s striving every day to do good. I would have so much to talk to her about and I know I would be inspired by her. So yeah, that’s the one for me, Michelle Obama, I think she would be amazing.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.