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“Uniqueness is another major factor for a successful food line.” With Chef Vicky Colas & Miles Gotcher

Uniqueness is another major factor for a successful food line. It’s very hard to compete with the established brands if nothing sets you apart, so develop your product with a unique aspect like higher quality ingredients, original flavor combinations, lower sugar or calorie, eye-catching packaging, etc. Just make sure your unique aspect is appealing! Technically, […]

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Uniqueness is another major factor for a successful food line. It’s very hard to compete with the established brands if nothing sets you apart, so develop your product with a unique aspect like higher quality ingredients, original flavor combinations, lower sugar or calorie, eye-catching packaging, etc. Just make sure your unique aspect is appealing! Technically, orange juice and toothpaste flavored soda is unique but I don’t think it would sell very well.

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 Gotcher, founder of Soov, the Stomach Soothing Drink. Unsatisfied with the amount of sugar and lack of natural ingredients in ginger ale, Miles set out to create a better stomach settling drink to help ease his digestive issues from IBS. To do this, he teamed up with food scientists and beverage experts to bring his vision of a drink combining real ginger, aloe, mint, lemon, and chamomile to fruition. Prior to starting Soov, Miles was a beverage industry outsider and spent eight years in marketing at technology companies like PlanGrid, Autodesk, and Marketo.

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 had a great childhood growing up in the Bay Area with two wonderful parents and three younger brothers. I have always considered myself very fortunate in every way except for my stomach. Stomach issues have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My search for a cure was a long and frustrating one. Countless doctor trips, procedures, diet adjustments and more resulted in the embarrassing diagnosis of “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” (which is actually quite common and estimated to affect about 1 in 7 people). Over the years I tried a million different ways to get my stomach pain under control including prescription medications, over-the-counter Pepto and Tums, acupuncture, ginger ale, diet adjustments, meditation, herbal tea, and more. I was even prescribed opiates, which got a little scary at times. Once I took some on an empty stomach before a flight (flying was guaranteed stomach pain for me) and ended up unconsciously leaving my seat, walking down the aisle, and fainting onto another passenger. All I remember is waking up on oxygen. It was a family trip and needless to say it almost gave my mom a heart attack. Thankfully, today my IBS has become much more manageable and the plane incident is one we all laugh about. I’m no longer prescribed any medicines and don’t take any over-the-counter ones either. The key for me has been watching my diet, regulating my stress levels with techniques like meditation, and when I have a flare up knowing which natural ingredients can help calm things down. I feel very lucky to have it under control but I know there are many out there with IBS, Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, Celiac or Gluten Intolerance, and other digestive disorders who aren’t as lucky.

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

The “ah ha” moment for Soov happened on a day I was home sick from work with a stomach ache. I was sitting in my apartment about to enjoy a meal of plain white rice and two ginger ales when I took a look at the nutrition label on one of the cans. 35 grams of sugar from high fructose corn syrup and less than 2% ginger extract. I knew ginger was good for my stomach aches but was depressed to see how much sugar and how little actual ginger was in these drinks. So, I did some research to find out more about ginger and other stomach calming ingredients. I found a lot of lists of ingredients but no products. So that was my first “ah ha” moment, I wanted to try making a home remedy for myself that combined these ingredients. Over the years, my formula changed a lot and through trial and error I eventually landed on a recipe that tasted great, was low in sugar, and combined ginger, aloe, mint, lemon, and chamomile. My second “ah ha moment” came after I started sharing the drink with friends and family. They all loved it, even those without stomach issues! At this point, my girlfriend and I were drinking it almost every night after dinner regardless of whether our stomachs hurt. It was like a non-alcoholic digestif for us and we craved it whenever I ran out of ingredients. I realized that this drink was special and I wanted to share it with the world. I knew starting a business would be challenging and I was leaving a great job behind, but I knew my passion for this drink and my long history with stomach issues would motivate me to overcome the obstacles and be successful.

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?

The funniest mistake we made early happened with the first round of production samples. When canning a drink, heat is typically used to sterilize and make the finished cans shelf stable. Too much heat though can have a negative impact of flavor, so it is a bit of a balancing act. Soov is a drink with a lot of natural ingredients so if it is not heated enough you can have issues with yeast growing. While waiting to hear back from the Process Authority who determines the heat you need, we did a small sample run to see how the flavors came out in production. They came out tasting amazing! So, we decided to give them out to friends and family to try, including a friend of mine who was pregnant and experiencing bad nausea. Everyone was loving Soov and I couldn’t be happier. Then I got a call from our manufacturer who said that we didn’t heat it quite enough and while the cans are safe to drink now, they will eventually build up yeast and explode. This was shocking to hear albeit pretty funny. I then had to call everyone we had given cans to and tell them to drink it quickly because it was a ticking time bomb in their fridges. Thankfully Soov mixes well with rum or vodka so we drank all the cans quickly in cocktails before any exploded.

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?

Some common mistakes that I personally made are underestimating how long it takes to launch a food line, trying to do everything yourself, and not being open to change or critique. A food or beverage may look like a simple product in the grocery store, but there is a lot more to its development than meets the eye. Sourcing ingredients, designing labels and packaging, tons of different lab tests for safety, filing for permits and trademarks, finding a manufacturing partner, building a website and social media profiles, and much more. Some of these steps take a long time and can’t really be rushed. Soov took about a year to go from formula to finished product. Trying to take on everything yourself can also really slow you down. In many cases, working with an expert will save you an immense amount of time and even, surprisingly, money. For example, an expert may be able to source you a better ingredient supplier with lower prices since they get access to bulk discounts. Finally, being open to change and critique is critical. It’s easy to fall in love with your product and be closed to any criticism. However, you can’t forget that you spend all day thinking about the product while your potential customers will only look at it briefly and make a quick decision on whether to buy. That potential customer won’t know all the details of how great your ingredients are, or your backstory, or how healthy it is. You need to see how people who know nothing about it react to seeing and tasting your product. If they don’t get it or think it isn’t appealing, find out why and be open to potentially making changes.

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?

Try making it at home. Almost all the new food lines seem to start with the founders doing some home kitchen formulation. For Soov, I still have a notebook full of different recipes each with a flavor ranking from my girlfriend and me. Next, do a little market research by searching at stores or online to see if any similar products exist. In almost every case, something similar exists and that’s fine (in fact it could be considered good since it validates there’s a market for the product). However, you need something that makes your product unique from the competition. Are you using better ingredients? Is your product healthier? Is it cheaper?

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?

I’ve learned that the idea is the easy part. My advice would be to go with an idea you could see yourself being passionate about because there will be a ton of hurdles to overcome along the way. If it’s not an idea you like spending all your time thinking about, you probably won’t enjoy running the business.

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 know I mentioned earlier that not trying to do everything yourself and bringing in experts is important. However, I believe it is important to carve out some key responsibilities that you should push yourself to own. There are many all-encompassing invention development companies that will work on every aspect of your product from development, manufacturing, supply chain, marketing, etc. That might be the best option for you but know that they will likely charge a premium on each of those services and your company might start feeling less and less like your original vision. I would encourage you to start out by leaving your comfort zone and trying to run different aspects of the business. Over time bring on consultants to fill in the gaps where you find yourself most overwhelmed.

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

Part of my desire to take on everything myself in the early days of Soov definitely stemmed from the romanticizing of bootstrapping in the tech world. Unlike developing a new app or software, there is a considerable amount of investment in physical materials, product testing and licensing, and contract manufacturing needed for a new beverage. You might think you can test your new drink out by making just a few cases but that is very difficult to do and the costs will be exorbitant. The company bottling it likely won’t put the effort in for less than tens of thousands of cans, your ingredient suppliers will have minimum order quantities you need to reach, the can and package suppliers will have minimum order sizes to justify printing custom labels, and so on. It becomes expensive fast hence why many bring on investors. Venture capital can also offer more than just money including guidance, strategic connections, and partnerships. Food and beverage startup incubators are also worth considering for similar reasons.

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?
For trademarks and patents and anything similar my advice is to get those filed right away because they can take a very long time to go through (especially if they’re denied for some reason). The Soov trademark took about eight months to complete and we were never denied at any stage. For ingredients, always ask for samples for research and development and the suppliers will send you them free of charge or, in rare cases, they will ask you to pay for shipping. Ingredients from different suppliers can taste dramatically different. For example, ginger from China tastes significantly different than ginger from Peru so be sure you’ve tested an ingredient in your formula before running it in production. A good manufacturer is, in my experience, the most difficult to find and incredibly important to the quality of your product. If your product is complex like a carbonated beverage with natural ingredients, I would recommend working with food commercialization experts to source the right contract manufacturer. For retailers and distributors, at Soov we’ve been selling through ecommerce to this point and are just at the beginning of our journey into retail stores.

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.)

First and foremost is the obvious, taste is incredibly important. Developing a tasty formula is a long process of trial and error. Finding honest feedback on the flavor is also more difficult than you might imagine. Your friends and family are going to want to be nice. Push them for feedback and find strangers to sample it too.

Next, having a positive outcome or function can give you a competitive edge over the big brands. There are a wide range of outcomes from foods and beverages; energy, weight loss, digestive support, immunity boost, improved sleep, and more. A great example is the rapidly growing popularity of low-calorie ice cream. It’s a familiar product, ice cream, with a different outcome, it won’t destroy your low calorie diet.

Uniqueness is another major factor for a successful food line. It’s very hard to compete with the established brands if nothing sets you apart, so develop your product with a unique aspect like higher quality ingredients, original flavor combinations, lower sugar or calorie, eye-catching packaging, etc. Just make sure your unique aspect is appealing! Technically, orange juice and toothpaste flavored soda is unique but I don’t think it would sell very well.

If you’re entering the food industry as an outsider like myself, I highly recommend finding expert partners and mentors. Starting a food business may seem simple at first but there’s much more to it than meets the eye. At the very least try reaching out to people in the industry and I bet you’ll be surprised by how many agree to share their knowledge with you. I’ve learned much more from conversations with pros in the industry than I possibly could have from Google and reading books.

Finally, my last bit of advice is to expect the unexpected and be ready for some challenges you could never have anticipated. Just months after leaving my job to work on Soov the pandemic broke out. Covid-19 has caused massive delays and limited our ability to meet with potential customers. We’ve also had the exploding cans I talked about earlier and most recently some of our manufacturer’s equipment unhitched from a truck and fell into a ditch, destroying it. No one could have predicted that!

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

Similar to my last answer but I would say many of the beverages people really love excel in at least one of these criteria: taste, uniqueness, and outcomes. Taste is obvious and if a person loves the taste of your drink they’ll come back for more. A unique brand is much easier to love than a generic one. You don’t hear too many people say they really love a grocery store’s brand of knock-off cola. Outcomes and functions I discussed before but if a drink makes you feel great you may love it despite its poor taste (e.g. wheatgrass shots or apple cider vinegar which people love but probably not for the flavor).

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

We received a ton of anecdotal praise from people saying Soov has made them feel awesome and calmed their stomachs. While Soov itself hasn’t been studied, ginger, aloe, mint, lemon, and chamomile have research supporting their potential digestive benefits so I’m determined to get those ingredients to people in a beverage they can enjoy anytime and feel great. Americans are also consuming far too much sugar, much of which is coming from beverages. I want Soov to be a part of the movement to reduce sugar in beverages by being a healthier alternative to ginger ale. Finally, we’re a young company but as we grow I want to make sure Soov is doing its part to support causes and research to understand and treat digestive issues and diseases. Soov is not a medicine, but I want to support those that are searching for one.

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.

I hope Soov can inspire people to recognize how serious and incredibly prevalent stomach issues are and to treat their own wellness as a priority. The majority of Americans deal with at least occasional digestive issues and with stress levels on the rise from the pandemic, polarizing politics, and more, those digestive issues are likely going to get worse. Eating well and practicing stress management techniques did wonders for me and can help others too. Beyond minor digestive issues are the digestive diseases and disorders like Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, IBS, and more which I hope people will recognize just how debilitating these conditions can be. Removing the stigma around these conditions, acknowledging how bad they can be, and supporting those searching for new ways to treat them would be an incredible movement.

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.

Two people come to mind. On the business side, Seth Goldman the founder of Honest Tea. He’s a pioneer for low sugar and high-quality ingredients in beverages, two priorities I emulate for Soov. I just finished the book he wrote with his business partner and the early struggles they faced are very similar to my own. On the entertainment side, Guy Fieri. I’m a fan of his shows, he’s hilarious, and I’ve been impressed by how much he’s done to support restaurants and foodservice workers during the pandemic. Plus, I’m sure he would appreciate a drink that helps digestion with all the heavy meals he eats.

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

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