It’s not who you know, it’s who believes in you. The most important key to success that I’ve seen is enrolling seasoned veterans to guide you and support you along your way. Without strong advisors and a team who has been there before you can make a lot of fatal errors early on. Get strong advisors around you and understand that they may only be there for part of your journey. I can’t stress enough that having strong support on your team during deals is critical. The people you are making deals with are pros, know the types of contractual errors entrepreneurs tend to make early on. You need people just as cunning in your corner.
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 Miles Woodruff, CEO of Sophie’s Kitchen.
Miles Woodruff is the CEO of Sophie’s Kitchen, a leader in plant-based foods. Woodruff is profoundly committed to making a positive difference in the world towards food sustainability. Woodruff has a diverse background in startup culture, the food industry, entrepreneurship, and as a frontiersman. He is a fierce animal advocate and has lived in Africa among primates and worked with Dr. Jane Goodall and HELP Congo at the chimpanzee sanctuary. As CEO of Sophie’s Kitchen, he has doubled sales and headed the innovation of new plant-based products, inspired to see plant-based meat sales surpass animal-based meat sales in his lifetime.
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 was born in Hawaii, so my first memories are of sandy beaches and crashing waves. I was in the ocean before my belly button was even healed and could swim before I could walk. The ocean has always been an important and grounding force in my life. I moved six times before I finished high school. (Hawaii, SF Bay Area CA, Bakersfield CA, Evanston Wyoming, Lafayette CA and Provo Utah). I always got to meet interesting people in new and interesting places. As a result, I got a very eclectic understanding of the world and the opportunity to walk in a lot of different people shoes from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.
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?
This depends entirely on their background and their access to various resources, whether it’s human capital or money. If it’s someone like me who came from a nontraditional CPG/ food production background, then I would highly recommend they explore why they are doing this before they explore how they can do it. You really do need to understand what is going to keep you motivated 80 to 120 hours a week. Questions to ask yourself are is your food drive you to work without a salary for a year, what’s going to make you willing to put family resources behind this idea you had? If you’re not all in then I don’t know how you’ll be successful. So, after you’ve determined if you’re all in then I would start looking at how are you might do it, who might be your strategic partners, and who is already doing what you want to do. If there is no one doing what you want to do why? Is it because they tried in the market wasn’t there, is it because the idea is just never been had, or is it because it’s not the right time?
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’s a few different reasons, one of them could be that they to know too much about the industry to allow for the creativity that is required to disrupt it. The other is they don’t surround themselves with a team that supports their shortcomings. Just because you’re not an expert in the field doesn’t mean you can’t be wildly successful, in fact being oblivious can be a massive strength because you’re not limited by knowing something can’t be done and not being limited by that allows you to do it anyway.
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?
It’s all in the details of the contract, invention development consultants can be very useful or they can be very predatory. Look out for commissions duration if they are going to lock you into a contract. What are their performance indicators, and if they don’t meet them are you allowed to sell the product yourself or are you bound by their efforts?
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
Unless you are already wealthy and have an extensive money network there is going to be an early phase where you are bootstrapping while you prove your concept, build out your business plan, and build your network. Venture capital is hard to secure and very expensive without a proven concept or team. The trick is to find the cheapest, friendliest money you can along the way. Bootstrapping too long to avoid dilution can limit your growth in ways that damage your business. You don’t want to get passed up but you also don’t want to give everything away to early-stage incubators and VCs. There are good people out there but as they say, “Trust but verify” during all stages of a deal. I’ve found the saying, “If you want advice ask for money. If you want money ask for advice,” to be true. Especially if you are a first-time entrepreneur.
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?
The best way to file a patent is through a good patent lawyer, they’ll save you time, money and energy. Important moves made without a legal team will cost you 10x in the future. Legal is a cost of doing business. You will end up spending a lot of money to clean up Legal shortcuts taken in the past.
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.)
- You need to understand your “Why.” Why is your concept so important that you are willing to give up years of your life and leverage every relationship you have to make your food concept a reality?
- You need Grit. Running a business can often feel like you are trying to juggle balloons under water in a strong rip tide. Sophie’s Kitchen is an “overnight success” that took 10 years and millions of dollars to get it to this phase. Things will go wrong all the time. The people I’ve seen be successful are able to pivot, recover, learn, and adapt when they are faced with negative outcomes.
- It’s not who you know, it’s who believes in you. The most important key to success that I’ve seen is enrolling seasoned veterans to guide you and support you along your way. Without strong advisors and a team who has been there before you can make a lot of fatal errors early on. Get strong advisors around you and understand that they may only be there for part of your journey. I can’t stress enough that having strong support on your team during deals is critical. The people you are making deals with are pros, know the types of contractual errors entrepreneurs tend to make early on. You need people just as cunning in your corner.
- Surround yourself with food experts. It’s important to have people on your team who specialize in making great tasting food that looks amazing and can be mass produced. I have a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and have cooked in several restaurants across the US but that didn’t prepare me for fully automated production lines that pump out product by the truck load. There are people who specialize in all aspects of the food industry. As soon as you are clear on what you want to do find the people who are experts at making it happen.
- It’s a business. You only get to keep selling your products if your customers love them and they are making retailers money. If you are a creative be sure to surround yourself with businesspeople who love making deals, set up business plans, manage operations. You don’t have to be good at business at the start but you do need to surround yourself with people who are until you get up to speed.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Make a product you love and are really crazy about. You should be your biggest fan. Let your passion and excitement about your own products enroll others into your cause.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’ve used making the world a better place my goal and it has driven our success. If you poke around on the internet or go through our social feeds you will see we are not a quiet or passive brand.
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.
When I was working with Dr. Jane Goodall in the Congo to help protect bush meat orphaned chimpanzees and monkeys, I felt alive, passionate and knew I was doing good every day. What I realized is that bush meat is simply the meat of other cultures. I was working with eco guards who were confiscating bush bucks, monkeys, crocodiles, and pangolins from a poacher then going back to my camp and eating animal-based protein myself. At some point it clicked that I needed to create a scalable solution that would make plant-based proteins available to everyone everywhere. Nobody can become carbon neutral in this lifetime but people can choose to become plant-based in an instant. I’d love it to become culturally normal for families to eat entirely plant-based meals multiple days per week. It would be better for them, the planet and certainly the animals.
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.
Oprah. She is such an amazing person and I’ve always loved how she leverages her platform to help so many people succeed. In particular, she was instrumental in the success of one of my early mentors, the late Debbie Ford.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.