Michael Bell of Manukora: “A meaningful purpose”

Scan the marketplace to see what else is out there in the same space as your idea, where it is selling, and how it is priced. Then ask yourself, how can I differentiate? Start talking to as many people as possible to understand how you are going to bring your idea to life, in most cases […]

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Scan the marketplace to see what else is out there in the same space as your idea, where it is selling, and how it is priced. Then ask yourself, how can I differentiate? 
Start talking to as many people as possible to understand how you are going to bring your idea to life, in most cases you are much better off to talk about your ideas and gain valuable insights than to hide it from the world and hope for the best.

As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Bell.

As a proud New Zealander with an absolute passion for the natural health and wellness space, Michael Bell is driven to provide a new level of innovation and excellence to his customers around the world.

Having launched three Manuka brands across 15+ markets and directly supplying some of the world’s largest retail chains, his latest venture is introducing the U.S. to the power of Mānuka honey.

At every step of the process from hive to you, Manukora ensures that the potency, quality, purity, and pollen count of Manukora honey are all exactly as they were the day they left the hives. Manukora has a variety of honey with different amounts of Methylglyoxal (MGO), a naturally occurring compound that makes Manuka honey unique and health boosting. With a fierce dedication to sustainability, Manukora ensures their bee colonies are located only in the most remote locations which allows the bees to forage on an endless and uncontaminated supply of nectar and pollen to create the purest Mānuka.

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”?

Born and raised here in New Zealand, the first of three children in our family and I was an energetic little guy.

We lived near a few large schools, so naturally I was selling car parking and food (made by mom) during large events from a super young age.

Our house was also near a golf course and I spent my early teenage years raiding their lakes for golf balls and selling them on Trademe (NZ ebay). I probably hauled 30,000+ golf balls out of those lakes.

All of these experiences were great fun to me but the only problem was that I was under the illusion that business was easy after having access to free inventory.

I didn’t pay school much attention as there was plenty of other stuff to focus on (including a few small business ventures), however my parents wanted me to go to university and get a “proper job” for a while so I left school at the age of 16/17 and went straight to college as I knew I wanted to get my degree done quickly.

I made it through college by 20 and was very lucky to talk myself into a “proper job” at a big accounting firm — definitely not due to my grades! It was from here I made the conscious decision to leave the big corporate, go back to my entrepreneurial roots, and venture into the somewhat unknown of Manuka honey

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

One of my surfing buddies at college was a third generation beekeeper and this was the first time beekeeping / honey really registered with me. The Manuka industry hasn’t been around for that long so it was interesting to see him making a career out of beekeeping which seemed very foreign to me at the time.

Pretty quickly after starting my first job out of university, I was exposed to the industry again as the firm I was working at was advising a few of the larger Manuka brands and I was working on those projects. I was very quickly becoming utterly fascinated by this liquid gold in my own back yard.

The real moment that kicked this whole journey off was when I met Bryce Hooton through some friends of the family.

Bryce was one of the original New Zealand beekeepers and pioneered Manuka honey production on the East Cape of New Zealand, all whilst being 100% blind!! Whilst he couldn’t use his sight in his job, it meant everything was done by touch and sound and with that came a great deal of care in everything he did.

It just hit me that I had this amazing opportunity to build a brand that brings this amazing product and story to life, so Manukora was born at that moment!

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?

So many mistakes on the journey but they all lead to good learning. One I learned very quickly was that you need to be on top of everything as an early stage brand owner and you can’t sub-out responsibility.

One example was when I was just starting out with Bryce (the blind beekeeper). He was primarily a beekeeper but also did a *little bit* of packing (honey) on the side. So I got him to pack the first few batches for me which was my first mistake. I ended up with product on Amazon that had no batch codes and meant we had to pull all the product from Amazon. Not only was it costly, but it meant me spending the next few weekends labelling product to ensure they were up to scratch. Pretty funny in hindsight but the lesson learned at the time was that I had to take control of the manufacturing AND I ended up taking over the processing factory pretty shortly afterwards. (But that’s another story!).

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?

Having a sound understanding of your unit economics is really important, many people misjudge this early on and it is a hard one to navigate once underway. Make sure you are as clear as possible on the costs of selling / building a brand in your selected channels; have lots of conversations with people that are already operating successfully in these channels and make sure you over 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?

Scan the marketplace to see what else is out there in the same space as your idea, where it is selling, and how it is priced. Then ask yourself, how can I differentiate? 
Start talking to as many people as possible to understand how you are going to bring your idea to life, in most cases you are much better off to talk about your ideas and gain valuable insights than to hide it from the world and hope for the best.

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 good idea will convert into a great business if passionate people are producing a product that is meaningful to customers. There are countless hurdles to overcome and having a passion for what you are doing will give you the resilience to deal with them.

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?

Unsure specifically on invention consultants but a good consultant is a godsend, they fast track you to the answers. A bad consultant is a waste of time and money and there are lots of those out there.
Do your due diligence on any consultant, be clear on what you need from them and give it a go if all looks good!

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

Manukora is a family business and we have made a real effort to bootstrap for as long as possible as we have wanted to retain as much control of the journey as possible, and we (like most founders), continue to see a real value uplift in the future. 
We have worked hard and have been lucky to have come so far without raising VC money. It should be noted we have used and experimented with various debt models to fund parts of our business. 
I love seeing large impactful companies that have bootstrapped the whole way but I have also seen well aligned venture capital supercharge brands and businesses.

Focus on building a business that makes some margin, that way you will have more options when you are thinking all of this through!

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?

Not much experience with patents but a fair bit of digging around on the others 🙂

Developing good networks in the sector (and parallel sectors) that you are working in will fast track any searches for ingredients, manufacturers, distributors or retailers. 
Hustle hard to build those networks / connections and when they throw up potential candidates, hustle those lists hard otherwise things can take sooo long (I know from experience).

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 meaningful purpose — as mentioned above, I think a real passion for what you are doing will give you tenacity to roll with the punches and create something great — as the saying goes, “if it was easy, everyone would be doing it”.
  2. A great team — you may not have nailed this yet but be prepared to build an awesome culture and assemble a great team as you grow. This is an absolute essential.
  3. A point of difference — you don’t need to reinvent every part of a product but you need a way of doing things differently to others in your space, whether that’s in your route to market, ingredients, product positioning, or communications — it needs to be able to stand apart from your potential competitors. STORY: Bryce the blind beekeeper showed me how important care was — for the land, the bees, and the honey, this genuine care has really allowed us to stand apart from other commercial honey producers. We also implemented our unique Trust Code traceability technology in 2016 to give customers assurance around the authenticity of our Manuka, this has proven to be a great point of difference and we have really built on this as we have grown.
  4. An appetite for learning — things are changing so fast and there is information overload in many areas of life and business, this is most definitely the case in the food / wellness space. Whether dealing with changing consumer preferences or new regulations, your ability to keep up with change and learn faster than others will keep you ahead of the pack.
  5. An open-mind — Seeing things for what they are and to keep the big picture in mind. This will allow you to see opportunities when they come up, even if they’re not on your current path.

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

I’ve answered this one above, but find a point of difference from what everyone else is doing and own it.

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

We are still very much on a journey to work out how we build a large business that gives back more than it takes. As mentioned earlier, I believe the world needs this from all businesses desperately and I am super inspired by some of the companies already achieving this.

For us healthy environments support healthy bees, which in turn support healthy communities.

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.

We are living in a time that has soooo many social and environmental issues that need to be sorted out ASAP and business has to be a large part of that movement. It’s scary but it is also the opportunity of our lifetime and provides real purpose for our generation. 
I’m hugely inspired by the amazing people that have already built these large impactful brands and businesses and we have a vision to walk this path in our own way with plant powered health products. Hopefully we can inspire people in the same way we have been.

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.

Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia — one of the true pioneers of sustainable business.

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

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