Passion & Purpose: There’s a lot of grind involved in building a business. You have to love and find meaning in what you do.
Product: Building the right product at the right time is key. Many things are important here: great taste, great positioning, and riding a great trend.
Persistence: The entrepreneurial journey is a rollercoaster ride, with the highest highs and lowest lows. You need to be able to weather the rejections, mistakes, and misfortunes, while celebrating all the wins, big and small.
Asa part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rosa Li. She is a private equity investor who is now a food entrepreneur. She’s a believer in “food as medicine” but doesn’t think you need to give up taste for health. Inspired by the herbal tonics her grandma brewed for her while growing up, she decided to make a delicious beverage wildwonder that incorporates heritage inspired herbal wisdom and gut healing ingredients. Her sparkling wellness drinks quickly became the functional beverage of Silicon Valley, stocked at 300+ companies and universities such as Google, Facebook, and Stanford University. Before Wildwonder, Rosa founded a loose leaf tea business Rosali Tea and traveled around Asia sourcing the best teas and herbs. Prior to embarking on her entrepreneurial journey, Rosa was a private equity and venture investor at Warburg Pincus. Rosa holds an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. She is also a Fulbright Scholar and published author.
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 in China, and my grandma used to brew these tonics with medicinal herbs and spices. They worked wonders from boosting my immunity to calming my stress, but they were super hard to swallow! If you never tasted eastern herbal medicine, you missed out on a character building experience. When my stressful career in finance led to digestive issues, I looked deeper into gut health. As a believer in food as medicine, I decided to make a beverage that incorporates heritage inspired herbal wisdom and gut healing ingredients. At the same time, I saw an entrenched food & beverage industry dominated by a few large conglomerates with very little female and POC brand representation. Being a food fanatic, I wanted to level the playing field while bringing innovation, mission and purpose to an industry I feel passionate about.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
I was working a pretty demanding job as a private equity investor on Wall Street and the stress often led to digestion and health issues. Looking for solutions, I started researching and was amazed to discover the importance of the gut microbiome to our overall health. Over 70% of our immune system is in our gut, and our digestive system affects so many aspects of our health, from immunity, to energy level, mood, and brain function. Looking for natural remedies, I started incorporating more fiber (prebiotics) into my diet, as well as foods with good bacteria (probiotics). Prebiotics are essentially food for our probiotics, so a healthy gut needs both to function effectively. I got my own microbiome tested and talked to several microbiome experts and began incorporating these gut-healing foods into my diet. My digestive issues cleared up and I felt an improvement in my overall wellness. This was really the “ah ha” moment for me. 7 out of 10 Americans adults have struggled with digestive issues, and 9 out of 10 Americans are lacking in fiber, and so many others could benefit from taking care of their gut health. We need both prebiotics and probiotics to support our gut health, and so I decided to make a yummy ready-to-drink beverage to make these functional ingredients more accessible to the masses.
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?
I remember feeling very proud of my very first bottle on the market, only to realize that I did the design completely wrong and no one could find it on the store shelf. My first packaging design was half clear and half black — slick & modern looking? sure, but if you think about things that stand out on the shelf at the grocery store — it was the complete antithesis. The packaging looked great on its own and digitally, but black label on a black shelf made my products impossible to find. An important learning was that different sales channels are completely different beasts, and because a product performs well online, it doesn’t mean that it’ll perform well in retail. So it’s important to approach each sales channel with a unique strategy optimized for each particular environment, whether it’s through packaging, messaging, or placement. Also, be open and adaptable to change — our packaging is one of many aspects of our business that are constantly evolving.
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?
Not building strong relationships and partnerships early on with suppliers, distributors, and manufacturing partners. Building a strong network is super helpful when you’re in a pinch, which unsurprisingly happens a lot especially in the early stages of starting a company. As a young beverage brand, it was very challenging to find a manufacturer for our drinks as they usually have large minimum volume requirements. After my persistent requests, one production facility had a last minute opening right around the holidays, so I took the opportunity and signed the contract in a heartbeat, even though I only had 3 weeks to prep and purchase all the necessary ingredients before my production date. All of my suppliers, from packaging to ingredients told me it’s impossible to make and ship everything to me in time, especially since 1 of the 3 weeks was the week of Christmas. The usual time for production prep is 2–3x the amount of time I was given. In order to make my production happen, I basically showed up at every single supplier’s factory, begged the owner or the manager until I got the answer I wanted. I even convinced one of my packaging suppliers to work on a Saturday even though my order was tiny compared to most of their regular customers. So, I guess another learning: don’t be too optimistic with getting things done around the holidays, but sometimes you just gotta be persistent and do whatever it takes!
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?
You’ll never feel ready, so I’d say to start before you’re ready. Make some samples of the product and get it into as many hands as you can. Friends, family, strangers. Don’t try and create the “perfect” product — even huge companies are constantly iterating on their recipes, labels, and descriptions. More so than a few years ago, there are so many digital tools and resources that can help you start a business and build brand awareness. From design platforms like Canva, to connecting with freelancers on Fiverr, to Instagram and TikTok, these can all help you get your idea off the ground without requiring a lot of capital.
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?
Not all great ideas can be great businesses. I would start small and focus on a few achievable goals that would be indicators of business potential. For instance, with selling our drinks, we started testing with a few offices and a few grocery stores, to get as much feedback as possible and iterate the product. Once we began receiving more demand, we also reached a point with our product formulation where we felt good about scaling.
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?
I’m of the philosophy that food companies should do product development in-house. A lot of the best products out there started in the founder’s home kitchen. I still use my kitchen at home to formulate new products and tweak our flavors. Oftentimes, it also means that the founder has a more personal connection to their product. From a practical standpoint, it’s highly beneficial for food founders to know the ins and outs of their own products before outsourcing, so they can evaluate suppliers, consultants, and manufacturers as they grow.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
Contrary to most CPG and beverage startups that raise a ton of $$$ to compete for grocery store shelves, I decided to bootstrap my business and take a completely different approach to distribution: offices instead of retail, which gave me large, stable volume, brand awareness and product trial — free marketing essentially. Quite frankly, it’s the only way I could make it work as a solo founder with 0 employees. But there are many ways to grow. It’s hard to start anything without capital, even if it’s a small amount. I would recommend either bootstrapping or starting with friends & family / angel investors. Iterate and improve the product as much as you can, before raising venture capital. Venture capital comes in handy when you have achieved product market fit and are ready to scale.
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?
It’s rare to have patents in the food & beverage industry unless you are building something technical. But it’s common to have trade secrets when it comes to proprietary formulation or processes. It’s also necessary to file for trademarks to protect your brand and product.
We found our manufacturing, retail and distribution partners by doing a ton of diligence. We scoured the internet for available resources and asked friends in the food and beverage industry for recommendations.
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.)
I’d summarize with 5 P’s:
- Passion & Purpose: There’s a lot of grind involved in building a business. You have to love and find meaning in what you do.
- Product: Building the right product at the right time is key. Many things are important here: great taste, great positioning, and riding a great trend.
- (Right) Partners: You can’t build a company alone — it’s important to find the right team and the right business partners (retail partners, distribution partners, manufacturing partners, etc.).
- Persistence: The entrepreneurial journey is a rollercoaster ride, with the highest highs and lowest lows. You need to be able to weather the rejections, mistakes, and misfortunes, while celebrating all the wins, big and small.
- Persuasion: You need to be able to persuade people to join you (recruiting), investors to capitalize you (financing), and customers to buy your products (marketing).
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
It’s always easier to create something that fills a personal need, the stronger the need, the better. If I have a need for something, then there’s probably other people like me. I would definitely test the idea by making a minimally viable product (MVP). In the world of food & beverage, it would be making samples of the product in your kitchen, and test with the target customer at farmer’s markets, local retailers and restaurants. The goal is to get as much feedback as possible from people outside your friends’ circle. If there’s strong demand from people who aren’t your friends, then you probably hit something.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
At wildwonder, we are on a mission to create everyday wonders and for those under-voiced in our communities. 5% of profits from every bottle goes to causes that empower female and marginalized communities. While we are building the next big functional beverage brand, we’re also committed to creating a more equitable food system that provides healthy and nourishing options for all. This year, we launched a 1:1 program, donating one bottle for every bottle sold to local hospitals and food shelters. We’ve donated over 9,000 bottles this year supporting frontline workers and nourishing families in need with our healthy drinks. Our company has also helped raise close to $2000 for organizations like Dine for Democracy and The Okra Project to support causes we feel passionately about including racial justice and voter engagement.
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 started out as an entrepreneur, I saw an entrenched food & beverage industry dominated by a few large conglomerates with very little female and POC brand representation — a microcosm of the larger systemic issues in our society. Female founders and especially BIPOC founders face additional barriers in so many aspects of business. Last year, only 2% of the overall VC funding went to female founders and BIPOC founders consistently receive under 1% of the overall funding every year (https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/324743). A few weeks ago, I listened to a VC fund explain the lack of diverse leaders in their portfolio — they chose their investments based on “merit”. All I have to say is if you can’t find diverse leaders to invest in, you’re not looking hard enough. I want to level the playing field while bringing innovation, mission and purpose, and diversity to an industry I feel passionate about. The Wildwonder brand was designed by a diverse female-led creative team and we intend to use our platform to uplift marginalized communities, through our messaging, our recruiting, our donations, and our partnerships.
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.
Serena Williams! She’s a trailblazer in so many ways. Not only is she an amazing tennis player, but she’s lifted up others along the way, inspiring a whole generation of young female and BIPOC athletes, fighting for pay equality and standing up for racial justice in sports and beyond. She’s also a working mom, investor, and entrepreneur, who manages to achieve excellence in everything she does while juggling myriad responsibilities. She’s a true inspiration!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.