Morgan Lerner and Annie Slabotsky of GoNanas: “Product first, marketing second”

Product first, marketing second. Marketing is NOT everything. Not only were we SO heavily focused on making a good product (hence the recipe testing for 3 years), but even with our products solidified to this day, we run a VERY lean marketing operation, heavily focused on ROI. Dive into the data and make sure on […]

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Product first, marketing second. Marketing is NOT everything. Not only were we SO heavily focused on making a good product (hence the recipe testing for 3 years), but even with our products solidified to this day, we run a VERY lean marketing operation, heavily focused on ROI. Dive into the data and make sure on all business investments you’re getting the return you want and need. Start with your product and THEN, use high-return marketing methods.

As a part of our series called “My Life as a TwentySomething Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Morgan Lerner & Annie Slabotsky, the Co-founders and CEOs of GoNanas, a vegan, gluten-free, and top allergen-free banana bread company with a variety of innovative flavors. They were approached by Nordstrom Rack to carry their banana bread mixes nationwide just one month after launching the mixes. They have since expanded to over 500 stores, will debut on QVC this Spring, and are projecting to do over 1 million dollars in sales this year with the help of their booming online business.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! What is your “backstory”?

We met at the University of Michigan, where we were neighbors in the freshman dorms and quickly bonded over our shared love for healthy food and, of course, baking. We also shared a common frustration with the lack of tasty, nutritious food options on campus, especially in the baked goods arena. Given our shared love for banana bread, we set off recipe testing for three years to perfect our better-for-you banana bread. We started selling single-serve banana bread loaves around campus and throughout Michigan. After moving to Chicago shortly after graduation, we continued to build our ready-made banana bread business; however, when the pandemic hit, almost all of our retail partners were forced to close indefinitely. We had a surplus of ingredients in inventory, and we had customers who were missing our products. We knew we had to pivot, so we came out with a NEW product line of banana bread mixes. This happened just as banana bread blew up as the “official comfort food of the Coronavirus.” Soon after, we launched our mixes with Nordstrom Rack, they went viral on social media, and they’ve now been featured in Forbes, USA Today, and Buzzfeed.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company? What lessons or takeaways did you take out of that story?

Believe it or not, we completely burned our very first GoNanas loaf! One day, on a whim, we drove an hour from Ann Arbor to Annie’s parents’ house. We decided to try our hands creating a better-for-you banana bread. We wanted to “healthify” the family treat we knew and loved. After accidentally preheating the oven to 500 degrees, our first ever loaf came out charred. Even then, we were able to dig into the gooey, delicious center of the loaf, fell in love, and knew we were onto something. On the car ride home, GoNanas was born, and we set out to recipe test the perfect combination. The inception of our business came about almost accidentally. We just wanted to make a healthier treat for ourselves. It turned out to be so good, and we knew then we wanted to perfect and share it.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes our company stand out is how much we value each and every one of our customers. What we learned early on is that banana bread is meant to be shared. That being said, every customer is so important because they can spread the GoNanas love to their circles, which creates a ripple effect of growth for us. Additionally, we learned that most people who try our products become repeat customers, so we quickly realized how important every customer is for our business. We go as far as direct-messaging every one of our new followers with a personalized welcome message. We also heavily focus on text message marketing to reach each of our customers directly and in a more personal way. This also translates to our ambassador program, where we work with accounts of all sizes, from those with only a few hundred followers to influencers in the millions. At the end of the day, we are two women with a passion for this business, and we love getting to connect with our customers. Every customer, ambassador, or even just social media follower is a key part of the #GoNanasFam.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Oh, there are SO many people that we would need a whole article just to properly thank everyone who’s helped us! That being said, most recently, our financial consultant Kim Nofsinger has taken us under her wing and helped us nail down our financials, setting us up for long term success and a very profitable future. For example, we are in the process of launching with some regional distributors. There are so many fees involved, and we had no idea how to make sense of it. In came Kim, with her excel “calculator” to determine what our wholesale price should be to achieve our target margins, and we could exhale. She has become a mentor and has given us confidence and praise for our unique way of doing things, something that can be hard to get in the world of business and entrepreneurship!

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

Always! We release monthly flavors of banana bread mixes, like our limited edition Salted Caramel Banana Bread Mix in partnership with Tik Tok Celebrity @Happyhealthyhailey who inspired the flavor. We also have an exciting new product line (think: on-the-go for when our world returns to normal and we need to adapt once again!) and a TV opportunity on the horizon. The growth isn’t slowing down; that’s for sure!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Our mission is to make a healthy and tasty product that can be enjoyed by EVERYONE. That’s why we stand by being a vegan, gluten-free, and top allergen-free brand. To increase our impact, we’ve created an online community of creative, passionate foodies, who make and post amazing recipes on social media that showcase our products and educate consumers about GoNanas. Additionally, this community helps to foster human connection and joy amongst its members. Lastly, we’ve started consulting other businesses and helping THEM pursue their passions and make a difference of their own. We’re so excited to have the opportunity to do that and help others as much as we’ve been helped on our journey.

Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

Yes, and we both are going to say the same book (naturally, we’re like twins). “How to Be a Badass” by Jen Sincero has shaped a lot of our outlook on business and life. Every day we do what we call “positive business practices, or POS,” which entails spending 30+ minutes each day sharing what we are grateful for and helping each other with anything we can in the business. On Fridays we also spend additional time doing “strength spotting,” which involves telling the other three skills they are excelling at. POS is a sacred time for us to catch up, show our appreciation for each other and the business. Yes, it may sound a little corny, but we can confidently say it’s our favorite part of the business and has helped us grow in so many ways!

Can you share 5 of the most difficult and most rewarding parts of being a “TwentySomething founder”. Please share an example or story for each

  1. Managing people: We LOVE working and interacting with others but delegating tasks and managing employees is NOT easy. Humans are complex people, and handling difficult situations can get very stressful, especially when your business is on the line. When we used to manage our own commercial kitchen, we had to deal with employees messing up entire days of production, leaving unexpectedly, quality control, etc. which is hard to do while being full time students! That being said, we’ve learned so much from working with all kinds of people and managing our employees. Everyone has taught us something, and as a result, we’ve created some amazing relationships that have gotten us to where we are today. Our motto is: kindness is key!
  2. Customer Service and Logistics: While arguably our least favorite thing in the business, this is what makes our business run, and is thus, perhaps the MOST important! Carriers will mess up shipping, our manufacturer will mess up fulfillment, we’ll have delays in orders, etc. most of which are out of our control, which is the tough part. As the owners, it all falls on us. So, we use what we’ve learned, and work with each team to find the best solutions and give our customers the best customer service we can, explaining our situation and helping them get a better experience. The rewarding part? When we do it right, we get to fulfill thousands of orders and make SO many customers happy with our service and speedy shipping.
  3. Creating whitespace: This is one of the hardest yet most important parts of a business. We are a very data driven company that looks to industry leaders for inspiration and guidance, while putting our own unique spin on best practices. Whenever we are creating a new product, or planning a campaign, etc. we use this approach to continuously innovate.
  4. Open communication: Having the tough conversations as business partners, best friends, AND roommates we may add is by no means easy. It’s sometimes the hardest thing we have to do, but it’s what makes us grow and become better leaders. We never raise our voices or get heated towards one another. We’re actually very different in our backgrounds, personalities, way of thinking, etc. but that’s what makes us the perfect match. Our perspectives together give us better outcomes. Our open communication pushes us to improve and see the other’s point of view. And for that we could not be more grateful!

What are the main takeaways that you would advise a twenty year old who is looking to found a business?

  1. Follow your passion always. If you see a gap in the market and the market validates that there is a need for your idea (this step is key), then PURSUE IT with VIGOROUS PASSION.
  2. Going along with the idea of market validation, make sure you really know your customer. Do regular customer interviews, and never stop learning more about who they are, so you can better serve and cater your product or service to them! That is where the value comes in, and the money follows.
  3. Product first, marketing second. Marketing is NOT everything. Not only were we SO heavily focused on making a good product (hence the recipe testing for 3 years), but even with our products solidified to this day, we run a VERY lean marketing operation, heavily focused on ROI. Dive into the data and make sure on all business investments you’re getting the return you want and need. Start with your product and THEN, use high-return marketing methods.
  4. Do market research to learn best practices and get inspiration to continuously innovate. Know what your competitors are doing. Know what the companies you aspire to be like are doing. Learn from them, and then adapt them to your own unique value proposition. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel with everything, and this will help you grow efficiently, but always be looking for the whitespace — how to do things better or in your own unique way.
  5. Last but not least, seek and maintain mentors in your space. Entrepreneurship comes with so much trial and error and lots of learning on the spot. When you need guidance, you’re going to want people to turn to, to ask those specific questions (if Google or Youtube can’t provide an immediate answer). This comes back to our idea of building and fostering relationships in everything we do, and this step will give you a support system when you need it the most.

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 whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Sarah Blakely! She built her billion-dollar business off of 5,000 dollars and was completely bootstrapped from the start. She also created the Red Backpack fund, to help to empower other female entrepreneurs. She is an inspiration to us, as she is a scrappy, driven, and passionate entrepreneur who never gave up on her dreams despite so many people telling her she would never achieve her goals. It would be an honor to meet and learn from such a badass female in business.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Yes of course! Join the #GoNanasfam on Instagram at @Go_nanas, Tik Tok at @GoNanas, and Pinterest @GoNanas

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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