Michael Adams Green Mountain Mustard and Gredio

Michael Adams, Owner
Green Mountain Mustard & Gredio

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What I’d do Differently if I Launched a Food Business Again

Thank you so much for your comments from the closing of Green Mountain Mustard. It has meant a lot to me as I transition into traditional full-time-job-life again.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with many of you – in the comments, and heck, even in real life. Questions about transition, marketing, selling, and more. These questions led me to: if I were to start a food business again in the future, what would I do differently?

I’ve launched cookies, energy bars, and mustard. Each venture resulted in valuable industry lessons. The mustard company? Those were the most valuable. I learned things that would shape how I view the rest of my life.

Here’s what I’d do differently next time:

Get Great Packaging from the Start

When you can’t get your idea for your food business out of your head, it’s time to start putting some context around your brand. What’s the product name? The company name? What does the logo look like? What about packaging? What about your containers? Are there labels? Is there hot-stamped foil? Amazing packaging is crucial to success in the food business. Crappy packaging will get you nowhere except the local food coop. If you want to build a regional, national, or global brand, get serious about packaging. If you can’t design it, hire a design firm. It will be the best money you’ll ever spend.

Test market to determine the best price on the shelf

It took me six years to finally figure out that $4.99 was the magical price point. Six years. Meanwhile, here I thought $6.99 was going to help me sell to the masses. Uh, no. Just people who spend $7 on mustard. Meanwhile, I’m competing with $1.29 on the shelf. Nothing wrong with the $1.99 variety, but it was a heck of a hard time convincing someone to pay a 3.5x premium on a condiment. Do your research. Discover the price point where your product will fly off the shelf. Then, work tirelessly to make this business model work – reduce your costs, bust your butt selling. Make it move. How do you do research? Send a poll around, call some friends, ask customers at a demo, do a small focus group with strangers from Craigslist. There are tons of ways. The important thing is that you do it. Also, see my post on How to Test Market Your Food Product.

Delegate what I’m awful at

Except for the first 12 months of my business, I never manufactured my product. I’m not good at making mustard. I’m good at building relationships and up-selling people to spend more money on mustard than is probably normal. Everything else? Yuck. I know when you’re in the start-up phase, you do everything. But when you can, delegate. For example, I had designed the first three iterations of my label. Then, I said no more. I hired two designers who came up with something that propelled my brand much further than I would have ever expected. (See that first point? Yep.) Once something comes off your plate, it feels like you can do something else. You breathe. You catch hold of your life. Go on, outsource something. It will make your day.

Find a mentor

If not just for inspiration, mentors are a great sounding board for your new ideas, looking over financials, and helping you chart your growth path. And often times, mentors from another industry help the most – since they look at your business with a fresh pair of eyes. Having trouble finding a mentor? Work with your local Small Business Development Center or SCORE office.

Research the market to determine a viable product

The second research item on the list! It must be important! Well, it is. I started selling cookies, energy bars, and eventually mustard because I wanted to. I had no industry insight to back up these decisions. In hindsight, I’d actually look at the numbers next time. For example, beverages, dairy, and meat snacks are on their way up. Shelf-stable jarred products? That’s just straight-up cut-throat now.

Put more effort into retail sales

I once thought direct events like fairs and farmer’s markets were where it was at – quick money, great customers, and road trips. But, people buy groceries in the grocery store. Go where they are. Focus on moving more product in less stores vs. less product in more stores. The number of stores you’re in is a vanity metric. A friend of mine once said “We’re in 1,000 stores, but only 100 actually sell something.” Exactly.

Keep the product line small

I made too many flavors of mustard. I’d launch seasonals, small batch flavors, and other wacky projects. Sure, new products keep customers coming back, but they also cost money – to develop, produce, and promote. The advantage of a small product line is that you can lower your product costs, decrease your inventory on hand and make retailers happy that they don’t have to choose what to bring in. Remember, something that doesn’t sell is basically a pile of money you could be using to market your products and build a loyal customer base. What’s best for launch? Well, one product never hurt anyone, but if you can’t make a decision, launch with three products in the same family — don’t sell salad dressing and chicken pot pie. Why? Because that doesn’t make sense. Right?

Establish a broker network

You see, we’re in a little bubble in the northeast – it’s just a couple of states. And getting your product out of this bubble is do-or-die territory. You either make it or you don’t. That’s where food brokers come in. They represent you and your products in other parts of the country where it’s tough for you to reach. I’d factor these people in from day one, so you can allow them to come onboard as your team grows. This is how to get nationwide sales growth. Don’t hire an expensive Sales Director unless you’re in the millions for revenue. For a broker network, Google is your best friend. Call these people up and see if they’re a good fit for you.

Keep real financials from day one

I kept my financials on an elaborate set of Excel spreadsheets I updated twice a month with new numbers. Some were connected, some weren’t. All I could really see is Sales, GPM, and NPM — any other reports would need to be manually created. Don’t be silly – get QuickBooks Online, sign up for Wave, or another accounting system. The reporting is powerful and allows you to discover your business’ financial health in one glance. Plus, you can understand if you’re out of your damn mind to keep doing this or how you can improve your metrics, too (gotta stay positive!). Take your business seriously. Otherwise, it’s just a hobby.

Pat myself on the back for once

I’m serious. I never acknowledged how far I came with Green Mountain Mustard. In six years, we built the company to six figured, amassed 150 retailers, and most importantly, built a loyal customer following. I never gave myself credit for any of this success. I focused on the fires I had to put out, the sale numbers, and the profit. Meanwhile. I was building a real company. Acknowledging your success fuels even greater success. Pat yourself on the back. Give yourself a slow clap. Get a massage. You are doing it. You’re making it work. Congrats!

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26 Comments on this post

  1. AUTHORKathy Senft

    on July 14, 2017 at 12:10 am - Reply

    Hey,

    It’s Kathy from One Screw Loose in Atlanta, GA. You are going to do great things. Thanks for letting us in. I appreciate your candor and straightforward thinking. I will be reading and watching for your next endeavor. Best of luck, Kathy

    • AUTHORmichael

      on July 14, 2017 at 1:10 am - Reply

      Thank you, Kathy, for the kind words. I’ll be sure to let the list know what I’m up to!

  2. AUTHORLauren

    on July 14, 2017 at 1:23 am - Reply

    Im it sounds like your business was growing and doing well what happened why did you close it

    • AUTHORmichael

      on July 14, 2017 at 10:56 am - Reply

      Hi Lauren,

      It was going well. We closed due to increased costs and a struggle to increase distribution beyond out little corner of the world.

  3. AUTHORcody

    on July 14, 2017 at 1:34 am - Reply

    Thanks for all the info and good luck on future endeavors!!!

    • AUTHORmichael

      on July 14, 2017 at 10:56 am - Reply

      Thanks, Cody!

  4. AUTHORNeil Wernick

    on July 14, 2017 at 1:47 am - Reply

    Michael, thanks for putting this out there. My partner and I are in year 4 at Burning Bush Foods and slowly, but surely, gaining traction. We have a small line of hot sauces and seasonings and are dealing with virtually all of the issues you raised. We are even winning a few of them.

    Tangentially, are you reading Expert Secrets by Russel Brunson? Your blog would suggest the answer is “yes.”

    Lastly, having cycled between entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship throughout my career, I am confident that you will be back in private start-up mode sooner or later. All the best and thanks again for the words of wisdom.

    • AUTHORmichael

      on July 14, 2017 at 11:00 am - Reply

      Hi Neil,

      It does seem to be a similar story with everyone, doesn’t it! I haven’t read the Russell Brunson book, but I’ll add it to the list. It looks like it’d be right up my alley.

      I just checked out your site again — great little video you have there. I recognized all of your equipment! I will definitely be back in the saddle with something – just not sure what yet.

      Thanks for reading the blog and your kind words!

      Michael

  5. AUTHORTracy

    on July 14, 2017 at 2:55 am - Reply

    Michael, you have summed up the business perfectly. Your last point on giving yourself a pat on the back comes way to late in the game. Food business is challenging in so many ways with so much growth along the way. Give yourself credit everyday!

    • AUTHORmichael

      on July 14, 2017 at 11:01 am - Reply

      Hi Tracy – yes, it’s all too often entrepreneurs go years without acknowledging what they’ve accomplished. Just a simple great job goes a long way!

  6. AUTHORJune

    on July 14, 2017 at 5:00 am - Reply

    Thanks for the great insights. Very timely for me as I’m just starting a business and appreciate the benefit of someone else’s experience.

    • AUTHORmichael

      on July 14, 2017 at 11:02 am - Reply

      Hi June – glad to hear it! Best of luck with your business!

  7. AUTHORNancy Kavalieratos

    on July 14, 2017 at 10:14 am - Reply

    I am a newbie and I have learned so much at your site and with your material. It’s amazing to me that you share so much, so generously from the cutting edge of your life. Thank you, Michael. Best to you in your next adventure!

    • AUTHORmichael

      on July 14, 2017 at 11:02 am - Reply

      Thank you, Nancy! Good luck with your venture, too! So happy you’ve been able to learn from my blog.

  8. AUTHOROmar

    on July 14, 2017 at 10:15 am - Reply

    Great article Michael. I agree with you in every single word. Keep on teh hard work. Omar

    • AUTHORmichael

      on July 14, 2017 at 11:03 am - Reply

      Thanks, Omar!

  9. AUTHORSandra Nakashima

    on July 14, 2017 at 10:45 am - Reply

    Happy to see that you are still posting.
    The market place is always changing, so it’s nice to have some good advice.
    PS.
    .Ever read “Chocolate Wars: The 150-Year Rivalry Between the World’s Greatest Chocolate Makers” ? Basically it’s about Cadbury , and what they did wrong. (Being a chocolatier, I really liked the book.)

    • AUTHORmichael

      on July 14, 2017 at 11:04 am - Reply

      Hi Sandra,

      Yep – still posting when something pops into my head! Thanks for the book request – I love chocolate and business, so I’ll add it to my list!

  10. AUTHORDeb Mazzaferro

    on July 14, 2017 at 11:49 am - Reply

    Michael,
    Really great insights.
    If any of your readers want a free one-hour consult, I’d be happy to interview as Mentor. With 40 years in the specialty food business, I offer coaching, write business plans and help all level of companies to understand the principles you outline from research to pricing to brokers to long term growth.
    Deb@CoachMaz.com

  11. AUTHORRobert E Strong Jr.

    on July 14, 2017 at 4:18 pm - Reply

    Thanks Michael,

    It’s definitely a grind. My wife Kristen and I are the owners of Pretty Thai® Specialty Sauces and Spices in Austin, TX. Our products are an all-natural (not organic), and up to now, we’ve been doing everything ourselves, just as you stated.

    I am very similar in that I love and believe I am quite good at creating delicious, clean products, (there’s my pat on the back) but what I am horrible at is the business side of things, marketing, social media, accounting, and the list goes on. We’ve just started to pick up traction with co-packers, but inevitably the same problems arise with pricing. Our price point is $7.99 on the shelf, but I really want to get it to $5.99. The only way this seems a possibility is if I go into production myself, which I loath the idea of doing. How do I realistically get the price point down while maintaining the same quality of product, and without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment and a facility? Just thoughts that popped into my head as I read your most recent blog post. I too agree you’ll probably be back in the entrepreneur world very soon. Us entrepreneurs are a bit crazy and don’t like punching a time clock, among other things! Have a blessed day!

    • AUTHORmichael

      on July 14, 2017 at 9:29 pm - Reply

      Hi Robert, one of the best ways to scale without going nuts and opening a production space is to buy packaging and ingredients in bulk. That will pin your cash for a little bit, but you’ll use the stuff and have a lower COGS!

  12. AUTHORJoe Giagrande

    on July 14, 2017 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    Another great post Michael. Thank you. My wife, Lucila and I started an Alfajores business 7 years ago (premium Argentine sandwich cookies filled with Dulce de Leche caramel). We have made, and continue to make, all of these “missteps”… and probably a few more! It takes guts to start a food biz and also courage and discipline to close it down. As a part-time teacher on the side, I can tell you with confidence that you have the gift of “teaching” and communication.

    • AUTHORmichael

      on July 14, 2017 at 9:30 pm - Reply

      Hi Joe,

      I’m very familiar with alfajores – they’re delicious! Yours look AMAZING! Thank you for your comments!

  13. AUTHORRyan Shenk

    on July 14, 2017 at 5:38 pm - Reply

    Thank you for your blog! Best wishes in your next adventure.

    • AUTHORmichael

      on July 14, 2017 at 9:31 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Ryan! Glad you found it valuable!

  14. AUTHORWendy Osmundson

    on July 17, 2017 at 3:19 am - Reply

    Hi Michael,

    I just closed Granola Mama’s. I am feeling very disillusioned with the artisanal food movement. The profit margins on wholesale food are so tiny, you literally have to sell millions to make any kind of a living. I feel like we are all lying to ourselves thinking that our product will be the one to break though or be bought by someone big, but really it’s more like winning the lottery, it’s the exception, not the rule. I think it would have helped me to have a business partner because I am more of a creative person and it would have helped me to have someone who is more of a numbers/business person. I know having a parter has its problems, but I couldn’t see driving it big all by myself! I don’t feel like a failure, I didn’t lose money, I just didn’t make any. I learned a lot, met a lot of great people, had some fun along the way. I wish you the best! You are young enough to reinvent yourself a few times!

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