Michael Lines of SimplyProtein: “There is no shortcut. Hard work wins the day — period”

Know that you and your team are more important to the success of your company in the first year or so than your product. Investors first invest behind management teams, then products. They want to see your infectious passion, commitment (time/financial). You need really smart people around you. People you can trust, listen to, and […]

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Know that you and your team are more important to the success of your company in the first year or so than your product. Investors first invest behind management teams, then products. They want to see your infectious passion, commitment (time/financial). You need really smart people around you. People you can trust, listen to, and can act quickly.

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 Lines. He brings 25 years of experience in the natural and traditional consumer-packaged-goods industries. His areas of expertise include: Global go-to-market sales, Brand strategy, Operations, Customer Marketing, and Building amazing cultures and teams (his true passion).

Currently as Founder, President & CEO of Wellness Natural Inc. (Simply Protein), Michael and his team lead all aspects of the Simply Protein business in North America and 2 international markets. Previously, Michael was General Manager, Simply Good Foods Canada Inc. including Simply Protein North America and Atkins Canada. During his time at Flow Water Inc., Michael worked alongside the founder to scale the Canadian business from 100 doors to 5,500 while negotiating initial phase of the US build out including distributor, broker, and retail contracts. Michael was Vice President, Global Sales & Marketing at Taste of Nature Foods Inc. where he led numerous branded and private label launches in the US, Europe, Asia, and Australia resulting in doubling the size of the company over 2 years. Additional experience includes Cadbury Plc and Nabisco while also spending time consulting for a global firm.

Michael sits on the Board of Directors of Plant Based Foods of Canada while Chairing the Mentorship Committee. Michael also sits on the Food Health & Consumer Products Advisory committee

Michael received his Bachelor of Commerce, Economics and Finance at the University of Guelph including an exchange at the London School of Economics. He is married with 2 boys.

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 an only child and always had a fascination with 2 things — athletics & business even at young age. I’ve lived on my own since the age of 17 so I learned survival skills early and used sports to keep me on a straight path.

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

Simply Protein launched in the US only 2 years ago (15 yrs in Canada) and after managing the business for 3 years, my ‘ah ha’ moment was the rare opportunity to put a group of investors together to buy the business.

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?

Not sure it’s funny, but an amazing learning experience. When I started my team was asking me for the new direction of the company. I said, I don’t have a new direction, we’ll create one together. The learning was moving too fast and not doing enough listening to our consumers and customers.

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?

Being too emotionally (and financially) attached to the product concept you love and not listening to consumers. It’s easy to rationalize any strategy or tactic and convince yourself it’s the right thing to do. Be ready to listen, pivot, and stop being so emotionally attached to your ideas.

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?

Start small and gain as much consumer & customer feedback as possible and prove your concept…validate, validate, validate. Second, surround yourself with 1–2 experienced folks as soon as financially possible — even part-time. The magic I find happens when the founder/visionary has a couple really solid folks around them keeping them grounded in their ideas with experience while harnessing the potential and vision.

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?

There is no shortcut. Hard work wins the day — period. Know the category and consumer you’re trying to win in really deeply. Know every competitor, ingredient, and be clear on what your point of difference is. Further, if your product isn’t solving a ‘consumer job to done’ and too niche, you’re likely to lose. And, knowing your shortcomings is crucial at all stages of the brand development.

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?

This really depends. As mentioned above, for you to win, you really need folks you trust, who are experienced, to advise you on what to do. ‘Consultants’ can be great for this. If they are highly recommended, worked with entrepreneurs, and have a proven track record, go for it.

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

Being personally invested in your success is crucial. Feeling the pressure of your business’s success every day, though daunting, is important. VC firms want to see you’re invested and tied to the successful outcome of the business. VC firms can also be amazing advisors, investors, and enable your success. Engaging them at the right time is the key.

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?

Patents are relatively straight forward to file on-line though time consuming. Ingredients and manufacturing partners are a little more difficult to navigate. Depending on your category, there are great associations, eg. Plant Based Foods of America, that have resources. For retailers and distributors, I turn to regional distributors first then graduate to national players like UNFI/KeHE. Certain brokers are effective at pioneering new brands.

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.)

Difficult to state in 5 steps. The first thing I would do is buy ‘Ramping Your Brand’ by James Richardson. In my 25 yrs in food & beverage, I’ve not found a more comprehensive ‘how to’ guide for founders in the food/beverage space. Here are a few of my thoughts:

  1. Don’t pick an idea that’s too niche and absent of solving a relevant consumer ‘dietary outcome’. Your product idea needs to be in a category consumer understand although differentiated and unique enough to be disruptive.
  2. Before you talk to investors, outside of close friends/family, you need to do your homework on the category segmentation & existing brands, your consumer, formulations, manufacturing, cost structure/financials, and pricing. A really smart marketer I worked with told me that when looking at a category entry point for your product it has to pass 1 of 3 tests minimum: is your product ‘better’, ‘different’, or ‘cheaper’. Sounds very rudimentary but a good initial test.
  3. Know that you and your team are more important to the success of your company in the first year or so than your product. Investors first invest behind management teams, then products. They want to see your infectious passion, commitment (time/financial). You need really smart people around you. People you can trust, listen to, and can act quickly.
  4. Be conservative in your growth aspirations. Investors don’t believe in ‘hockey stick’ proformas. A good principle shown in the Ramping Your Brand book is the ‘Skate Ramp’ ….doubling your revenue every year….look that up
  5. Be ready, and promote, a re-invention of your brand, products, and strategies BUT, stay true to your culture and values. Mediocrity sucks — be ruthless about having the right people on your team and be very careful hiring your friends or family. An example is when you’re a team of 5 say, 1 ineffective teammate really makes a significant difference — potential disaster. I used to manage teams of up to 200 people and 1 of 200 you can absorb. 1 of 5 or even 10 -20 you cannot.

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

I love teams and cultures — my true passion. I’m chairing a Mentorship Committee as part of the Plant Based Foods of Canada organization. We are a group of experienced small-medium sized executives who love to help others with any challenge they have in their business. I’ve also spent years chairing the marketing advisory committee for a local Toronto College helping student prepare for the business world.

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.

Food is becoming medicine. I’d love to co-lead and plant based snacking movement to help sedentary folks live a clean plant-based foods lifestyle.

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.

I’d love to meet Jay Shetty, author, former Monk, and host of the “On Purpose” podcast. He’s inspirational, a realist, and helps you find your purpose.

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

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