Product. In most industries, especially food and beverage, the number one most important factor to success is having a good product — a product that the market cares about and people are willing to pay for.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Lin Jiang.
Growing up in China, Lin moved to the U.S. for college in 2014. She started Yishi in 2019 in Chicago when she was craving healthier breakfast that was also convenient and functional.
Inspired by traditional Asian foods from Lin’s childhood and looking for ways to practice self-care, Lin decided to re-create traditional Asian wellness foods with the most popular and fun flavors. Now, consumers can find these Asian-inspired functional oatmeals in large grocery stores like Whole Foods and many others. Yishi is steadily growing into a regular part of consumers’ daily wellness routines.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I came to the United States by myself at the age of 19. I remember it was my second time taking an airplane. I was so nervous that I couldn’t figure out how to fasten my seat belt. My parents took out a loan to send me to an American university because I had a dream to see the world, and they wanted me to broaden my horizon and have more opportunities. It was a bold choice for my family, but they had faith in me, for which I’m forever grateful.
I graduated from university within two years and was offered a job at the Boston Consulting Group before graduation. I worked as hard as I could and learned a tremendous amount. After two years at BCG, I received a promotion and was accepted by Chicago Booth, one of the best business schools in the world. But deep in my mind, I had always known I could do more and wanted to create something of my own.
Inspired by my Chinese heritage and love of Chinese cuisine, I founded Yishi in 2019 — a functional hot cereal that is based on the traditional Eastern art of self-healing, utilizing superfood ingredients to delicious, healthy products fit into one’s daily routines. This oatmeal helps you glow, focus, energize, and relax from the inside out. Yishi is the Chinese word for ritual — nourishing your body with whole, functional foods are more than just a routine occurrence. It’s truthfully a ceremonious moment.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
When I was a child in China, my mom would make black sesame cereal for me when I got home from school. The smooth, semi-sweet, toasty flavor made it one of my favorite foods. In China, black sesame cereal has been a staple food for hundreds of years because of its taste and wellness benefits.
As an adult, I began working and found myself reaching for unhealthy snacks often throughout the day. I needed something healthy and convenient that I could eat, and I kept coming back to the black sesame cereal that had been my favorite for so many years.
However, products in Chinese supermarkets were high in sugar and calories. I decided to start making my recipe from scratch for myself and my American friends. After their first bowl, they couldn’t wait to eat more. That was my ah-ha moment: I want to bring these delicious functional Asian cereals and the “food as medicine” concept to more people worldwide.
The American oatmeal market lacked innovation and diversity, and there was a gap between healthy and tasty products, let alone functional products. This category is the perfect launching pad for Asian-inspired functional food!
I believed in my vision firmly. So, I quit my job, gave up my MBA sponsorship, and took out a student loan to pursue my venture full-time while working on my MBA part-time.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
Since Day One, I have been working as hard as I can, but Yishi wouldn’t be where it is today without the help from my friends and mentors from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Yishi/ Crave Natural was born at Booth. I met my co-founder in our first semester; he now works alongside me and manages our supply chain daily. We grew with the University Incubator Program, where I could bounce ideas off of other incubator companies, and I have also been actively meeting mentors for feedback and industry insights.
We also competed in the 2020 New Venture Challenge (NVC) and won the finalist grant. This experience helped me improve my business plan and investor pitch, and it also helped Yishi receive interest from investors. We raised a $730K angel investment and used this funding to grow our distribution.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
For many retailers, hot cereal/oatmeal has experienced flat sales growth. The reason is the pervasive sameness of brand offerings (Similar flavors and packaging.)
Customers have to choose between taste and healthy. So either the oatmeal is tasty but contains added sugars and calories, or healthy, but the taste is bland.
Yishi brings exciting innovation and new customers to the hot cereal/oatmeal aisle. We offer unique Asian inspired flavors that are tasty, organic, and functional.
Every Yishi flavor starts with a base of organic, gluten-free oats, almonds, hemp seeds, and flax seeds. This base provides a complete protein profile and a hearty texture. Then we add in a blend of superfood ingredients such as black sesame, taro, matcha, goji, dates, cherries, and chia for added benefits and deliciousness.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We donate 10% of our profits to charities that support minorities and solve hunger issues.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Passion. Perseverance. Curiosity.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
No, I don’t think I have received and followed any bad advice so far.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
The beginning wasn’t easy, especially when I had no money or family in this country.
After coming up with initial recipes in my kitchen, I started hosting taste testings and demos all over Chicago. I remember one summer, I had to get up at 5 o’clock every morning to demo in a yoga studio for their morning class, offering everyone free oatmeal in exchange for their feedback.
People started buying my handmade products pretty soon, and new customers would find us through their friends. Then I grew in farmers’ markets and local grocery stores. In March last year, I launched a Kickstarter campaign and successfully achieved our funding goal, which enabled me to finally buy product packaging and launch them in local Whole Foods stores. We’re available in over 200 retail locations across the nation, including Whole Foods, Wegmans, Central Market, and 99 Ranch Market.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
Every day, what drives me is my passion for my venture, perseverance, and a sound support system that I have built for myself. My friends and mentors from Booth and the Polsky community are my biggest supporters. As someone who has no family in this country, they are my family. I feel genuinely fortunate every day that I have this robust support system in my journey working towards the American dream.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Same as above.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
This is a big question and will have different answers depending on the industry. First of all, I would ask them how much money they think they need to develop an MVP and if they have enough money themselves to support that or now. If they do not have the resources to bootstrap until they have developed their MVP, I would suggest looking into crowdfunding campaigns like Kickstarter or fundraising.
Past MVP, whether a company wants to grow by self-funding or using VC funding also depends on a few questions. First, is the company profitable enough to fund its own operations and growth? If the business model is to become profitable when the company scales up (like Uber), then it will need external capital to support its operations even if it doesn’t grow. Second, how fast does the founder want to extend the venture? What new initiatives do they have that will require more capital. If there are capital needs to execute further strategic campaigns to expand the company’s operations, the company will mostly need VC funding.
Ok super. Here is the central question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
1. Passion. Starting a business is hard, requires a lot of work, and can be scary. You need to be genuinely passionate about what you are doing to stay motivated during this challenging journey and discover and enjoy its fun.
2. Perseverance. As I mentioned, it’s challenging to start a venture, and after you get the business off the ground, there will be new challenges. Embarking on any venture is like a marathon with lots of obstacles throughout the course. To reach the finish line requires perseverance.
3. Product. In most industries, especially food and beverage, the number one most important factor to success is having a good product — a product that the market cares about and people are willing to pay for.
4. Team. At the very beginning, most likely you are working on the venture by yourself or with a couple of co-founders or close friends. Once you have raised funding or the business has started generating a certain amount of revenue, you will have to assemble your team to support and further drive the growth of the business.
The team composition of an early-stage startup is usually made up of athletes and specialists. The best athletes can lead and manage projects, be moved around among different parts of a project, learn new subjects, and apply what they have learned quickly. Specialists can quickly dive into a topic and provide incredible insights and expertise. A startup needs people from both lanes, and collaboration creates the optimal solution.
I am the founder who developed the vision and strategy for Yishi, but I also do a bit of everything and move myself to wherever I need to be. From the beginning, I knew that to complement my jack-of-all-trades skill set and strategic thinking, I needed an e-commerce guru, a salesperson with the right rolodex, and an operational expert to help my company grow and scale. It’s my entire team who helped Yishi grow in record time.
5. Support system. Mental wellness is extremely important for entrepreneurs. It’s very helpful to have some kind of support system that can be there for you when you are too stressed or need a hand to hold to get through a dark tunnel. If you are a sole founder, build a support system with mentors, friends, and family. If you have co-founders, make sure you give each other the support needed and grow together in the venture.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
A common mistake can be running out of cash before they make enough progress to raise their next round. Cash is king. I suggest that CEOs and founders set some tripwires on spending, e.g., downsize the team when free cash is below a certain number, or turn off paid ads when CAC increases to a certain number. I would even recommend founders to look at their Quickbooks or bank every day to remind themselves of how much actual cash they have in the bank.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
Refer to my answers on the support system. Also, do not burn out.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
Be your own advocate. One of things that helped me tremendously early on was learning to be my own advocate. I told everyone about my business and worked on being confident about my vision. I was my own marketing person. Sharing and discussing my ideas with others allowed me to gain the emotional support I needed, given the very stressful startup environment I was working in.
I found my co-founder by passionately advocating for myself and for Yishi. We received a tremendous amount of advice and expertise from mentors in the CPG industry. This in turn helped us attract early investors, with whom our vision strongly resonated.
We are blessed that some very prominent 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.
Ali Wong! Because I love all her jokes and non-jokes, and I know she will love my products!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Follow our social media @yishifoods and sign up for updates on yishifoods.com.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!