Jake Kneller of Sweet Nothings: “Willingness to change”

Willingness to change — it takes time to learn who your customer is, why they love your product, and when they are consuming it. Listen to your customers and be prepared to make changes that will meet your customer’s needs. As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or […]

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Willingness to change — it takes time to learn who your customer is, why they love your product, and when they are consuming it. Listen to your customers and be prepared to make changes that will meet your customer’s needs.

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 Jake Kneller.

Jake started at Impossible Foods back when the burger was in 3 restaurants. There, he quickly developed a passion for food innovation that led him to get his MBA at Stanford — knowing he wanted to start his own innovative food company. He met Beth through mutual friends at Stanford, where he is an adjunct lecturer on food, design, and technology. Excited by Beth’s unique creation and recognizing a gap in the frozen snack market for healthy, delicious products, he joined forces with Beth to lead the business side of Sweet Nothings. Jake was named Forbes 30 under 30 Class of 2021 for Food & Drink.

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 Los Angeles and spent my childhood playing sports all day, every day. At the start of high school, I decided to stop playing tennis and basketball to focus solely on volleyball. When I was recruited to play volleyball at Stanford (where we won a NCAA championship!) I spent a lot of time thinking about what foods made me feel good, but that I also enjoyed eating. I took over the role as Kitchen Manager in my on-campus house to make sure there was plenty of healthy and delicious foods to keep me (and my teammates) going!

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

After spending some time working in the food world, I realized that almost all innovation was focused on creating marginally better-for-you versions of classic sweets and snacks. My passion was always more centered around improving human health and I wanted to create something that was truly-good-for-you. The goal was to not launch another marginally better-for-you potato chip or candy, but a nutrient-dense, antioxidant rich snack that actually contributed to our daily nutritional needs.

My incredibly talented co-founder Beth gets all the credit for the initial product concept of Sweet Nothings! Beth dropped her youngest off at the first day of Kindergarten and started experimenting in the kitchen, with a desire to create something truly healthy and delicious for her and her family. She is obsessed with helping people understand that healthy can, and should, taste delicious. When I first tasted the product, I was blown away and we decided to partner in bringing it to people everywhere.

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?

There are too many to count, but this is definitely an industry where you learn by trial. One mistake that comes to mind is when we were first trying to find a co-packer. There was one that refused to let us join for the trial in person. We really needed to find a partner to scale with us quickly, so we said okay. They came back the next day and said it didn’t work, but still charged us the trial fee. They never responded to several emails and calls helping us to figure out what went wrong or what they would have changed.

We learned then that we are going to make plenty of mistakes, but it’s important to find partners who will help you learn and eventually grow. While learning the right approach to problem solving in this industry, you must “pay tuition” in some shape or form. But paying tuition and having no opportunity to learn, and choosing the wrong partners to pay tuition to, is not something you can afford as a startup!

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?

The most common mistake I see is companies creating another version of something that already exists. Retailers want brands to really bring innovation and “newness “ to their categories so that they have something unique to offer their consumers. If you are launching a popcorn line, what makes it different? Flavor profile? Ingredient sourcing? Nutritional profile? If it is difficult to articulate how your product is unique you will find it really hard to be competitive in this environment.

I will caveat that by paraphrasing a favorite line from one of our advisors — different doesn’t mean innovative or delicious. It needs to be different AND delicious.

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?

I would start by just making 100 units of the product. You will learn so much, so quickly, from ingredient sourcing to production process, and most importantly, consumer feedback. Give away 50 for free and ask each individual for each of their email addresses. Make a Google Form that can be completely anonymous and have 3 multiple choice questions that take 2 minutes to answer. See how many emails you get back to see if people want to buy more! You will learn so much from the honesty of an unbiased opinion.

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?

Similar to the suggestion above, I think there are low investment (both in time and money) ways to test something out and see how excited you actually are to move forward. However, I think 95% of success in starting a company is execution. A good idea is a great start, but nothing ever will go as you expect. Being prepared for the rollercoaster of entrepreneur life is the most important thing you should think about before starting out.

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?

I would recommend starting on your own and being very clear about what you envision the product to be before bringing on a consultant. Many consultants end up taking shortcuts that may not be in-line with the brand you are trying to build. In addition, I would make sure to structure an agreement around specific goals of the partnership to make sure all are aligned on what success looks like.

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 think it depends on the type of business you are starting. For example, in food, once you find product market fit it becomes a very capital-intensive business (working capital to buy ingredients and packaging ahead of production, investing in new grocery launches, freight, marketing etc). With this in mind, bootstrapping isn’t realistic for most of us.

However, if you are starting a services business or something else that is less-cash intensive or has a better cash conversion cycle, bootstrapping can absolutely make sense.

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 — you are going to hear no a lot more than you are going to hear yes. Finding ways to turns those no’s into motivation instead of letting them deter you is a major key to success. This industry is all about resilience and persistence!
  2. A vision for how you are different — you need to be able to clearly articulate to customers, investors, grocery buyers and all other stakeholders on how your brand is truly different. Slapping a new logo on a bag of pretzels isn’t going to cut it over the long-term.
  3. Passion — there are many weeks where you hear a lot more bad news than good news, whether it is production issues, a retailer taking a competitor instead of you, slow sales at a local chain, an ingredient delay etc. If you aren’t passionate about your mission and your vision, it makes it a lot harder to push through those inevitable roadblocks, put your head down, and keep building.
  4. Willingness to change — it takes time to learn who your customer is, why they love your product, and when they are consuming it. Listen to your customers and be prepared to make changes that will meet your customer’s needs.
  5. And most importantly, an amazing team. It takes a village to bring an innovative and delicious product to thousands of grocery stores, and is impossible without talented, driven people to work side by side with!

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

Listen to your customers! I have not heard of a single food company who got everything right the first time. It takes an openness to honest feedback and a willingness to find creative solutions to complex problems to get to a product that consumers love and becomes an enduring brand.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

From Day 1, Beth and I have been passionate about making healthy food accessible to all, not just those who can afford to shop at fancy natural grocery stores. We donate a portion of each cup sold to organizations fighting hunger like Feeding America, The Edible Schoolyard Project, The Ron Finley Project, Whole Kids Foundation and others.

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 we all just ate more plants and less animal products, it would make a meaningful difference in climate change, food accessibility and human health. You don’t need to go fully plant-based to make an impact!

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.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama! I love her passion for nutrition and goal of reducing childhood obesity.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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