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    Simple Mills: Katlin Smith

    Determination, discipline, and a clear sense of priority are crucial for entrepreneurial success, even when juggling multiple commitments.

    enFebruary 15, 2021

    About this Episode

    In 2012, 22-year-old Katlin Smith was growing restless at her consulting job, so she started experimenting with grain-free, paleo-friendly muffin recipes in her Atlanta kitchen. A buyer at a nearby Whole Foods agreed to sell Katlin's muffin mixes and placed an order for twelve bags. She then hustled to expand the business: hand-mixing almond flour and coconut sugar in food-grade barrels, slinging wardrobe boxes of muffin mix into a rental car, and standing by helplessly while shoppers scarfed down more samples than anticipated. 8 years after launch, Simple Mills has expanded to include cookies and crackers and other treats; it's available in 28,000 stores and does roughly $100M in annual revenue.

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    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • Companies prioritize travel rewards, personalized services, and innovative career opportunities to enhance business travel experiences and promote personal and professional growth.
    • Technology enhancements like Atlassian Intelligence boost teamwork and productivity. Strong company cultures, such as Insparity's, foster employee engagement. Consumer trends like organic and natural products create new markets, and identifying unmet needs leads to innovative solutions.
    • Personal experiment with Paleo diet led to increased energy levels and inspired pursuit of public health degree, emphasizing the impact of food on overall health and wellbeing.
    • Shannon discovered a need for grain-free baking alternatives and started Simple Mills with a naive perspective, leading to unique baking mixes despite limited market research.
    • Starting a business involves experimentation and seizing unexpected opportunities. Prepare, but stay open to serendipitous moments and take calculated risks to grow your business.
    • Determination, resourcefulness, and a strong focus on details can help you start a business from scratch, even while working full-time and following regulations.
    • Initial sales and visibility are essential for Amazon success. Building awareness can lead to influencer mentions and sales history, boosting product recognition and ranking.
    • Founder of Whole Foods focused on both online and offline sales by managing inventory for Amazon and personally promoting products through demos, emphasizing deliciousness over health benefits, and persevering through challenges to connect with customers.
    • Effective communication, managing challenges, and utilizing tools can help build a successful brand. Caitlin learned this through her experiences with burnt muffins, managing prediabetes, and selling to various grocery stores.
    • Securing adequate working capital is crucial for business growth. Without it, production and sales can stall, potentially requiring personal sacrifices.
    • Determination, discipline, and a clear sense of priority are crucial for entrepreneurial success, even when juggling multiple commitments.
    • Winning a business school startup competition can result in substantial funding and the opportunity to hire a team and expand operations. Despite initial challenges, maintaining a positive mindset and clear vision can lead to long-term success.
    • Effective leadership is a learned skill. Recognizing weaknesses and seeking help can lead to improved team dynamics and business growth. Persistence and adaptability are essential in achieving business goals.
    • Hard work, smart decisions, and a bit of luck led a grain-free baking company to expand to over 28,000 stores, despite competition and external challenges.
    • Caitlin Smith of Simple Mills shares her experiences of making mistakes and the importance of hard work and luck in achieving success. Misha Brown explores the failed reality TV show, The Swan, as a reminder of the ethical implications of our actions.

    đź“ť Podcast Summary

    Examples of Prioritizing Personal and Professional Growth

    Finding balance between work and leisure can significantly enhance business travel experiences. This is exemplified by the Delta Sky Miles Platinum Business American Express Card, which prioritizes travel rewards. Additionally, companies like Amica prioritize empathy and personalized service in their insurance offerings. For those seeking innovation and purpose in their careers, the National Security Agency offers opportunities in cutting-edge technology fields with excellent benefits. Lastly, the importance of balance is also reflected in the growth of companies like Simple Mills, which found success through grit, determination, and teamwork. Overall, these examples demonstrate the value of prioritizing personal and professional growth, whether through travel rewards, personalized services, or innovative career opportunities.

    Embracing technology, fostering strong company cultures, and identifying consumer trends

    Technology and company culture are key drivers for business growth. Atlassian Intelligence uses AI to enhance teamwork and productivity, while Insparity helps build strong company cultures. Consumer technology trends include organic and natural products, with companies like Simple Mills finding success in the grain-free baking market. Meanwhile, individuals like Caitlin Smith, despite being junior consultants with limited resources, have also managed to make an impact by identifying unmet consumer needs and filling them with innovative products. In summary, embracing technology, fostering strong company cultures, and identifying consumer trends can lead to significant business growth.

    From Deloitte to Paleo: Discovering the Power of Food

    The food we eat can have a significant impact on our overall health and wellbeing. This was a realization for the speaker when they were working long hours at Deloitte and living off unhealthy food, leading to feelings of exhaustion. They decided to try the Paleo diet as an experiment, eliminating grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugar, and focusing on lean meat, vegetables, nuts, and eggs. The results were astonishing, with increased energy levels and a noticeable difference when returning to unhealthy foods. Inspired by this personal experience, the speaker went on to pursue a master's degree in public health and brainstorm ways to make healthy eating more convenient and accessible for others. The journey from struggling with energy levels to helping others make healthier choices highlights the power of food and the importance of making informed dietary decisions.

    From meal kits to grain-free baking

    Shannon's journey to starting Simple Mills began with exploring meal kit ideas, which led her to the baking space due to the lower barrier to entry compared to making shelf-stable sauces. She discovered a need for grain-free baking alternatives, using almond flour and coconut flour, as people were already buying these ingredients in growing numbers despite limited availability. Shannon, who was not a baker herself, experimented in her apartment on weekends, drawing inspiration from bloggers in the niche. She started Simple Mills with a naive perspective, which allowed her to innovate and create unique baking mixes. Despite limited market research, she believed she was building a product for an audience that wasn't fully formed yet. Her determination and passion for creating healthier alternatives led her to the success of Simple Mills.

    Be open to unexpected opportunities and take calculated risks

    Starting a business involves a lot of experimentation and being open to serendipitous opportunities. The founder of Simple Mills started by making grain-free muffin mixes in her kitchen, focusing on convenience and taste. She came up with the name and secured the domain name relatively inexpensively. She didn't have a clear plan on how to package the product, but she had developed a simple label that she could print off at home. When she approached a local Whole Foods store to sell her product, she brought a bag of mix and baked some muffins for the manager to taste. To her surprise, the manager liked the muffins and agreed to stock the product. The founder never intended to pitch the product to Whole Foods that day, but she seized the opportunity when it presented itself. This story illustrates the importance of being prepared, but also being open to unexpected opportunities and taking calculated risks.

    Starting a business from scratch is a challenging process

    Starting a business from scratch requires dedication, resourcefulness, and a strong focus on details. The speaker, who started a gluten-free baking mix company called Simple Mills, shared his experience of manufacturing the product in a commercial kitchen outside of Atlanta while still working full-time at Deloitte. He mixed the ingredients together manually, rolling barrels back and forth to mix them, and followed FDA rules for labeling and compliance. He saved money by living in a smaller apartment and selling the product online before getting it into Whole Foods. The process was time-consuming and challenging, but his determination paid off as he successfully grew his business.

    Creating awareness for your product is crucial on Amazon

    Building a successful business on Amazon requires initial sales and visibility. The speaker shared their experience of struggling to sell their muffin mixes on Amazon due to lack of sales history. It wasn't until an influencer wrote about their product that sales took off, leading Amazon to prioritize their listings. Without initial sales, it's challenging for Amazon to recognize a product's potential, making it difficult for new sellers to gain traction. This highlights the importance of creating awareness for your product and building sales history to increase visibility on the platform.

    Leveraging Different Promotion Strategies for Online and Offline Sales

    Effective product promotion involves both getting the product on and off the shelves. For Amazon, this meant having the company store and fulfill inventory for sales on both Amazon and the business's own website. For Whole Foods, however, the founder drove to stores herself and gave out samples, often baking thousands of muffins ahead of time for weekend demos. She learned that focusing too much on the product's unique health benefits during demos may scare people off, and instead, she should have emphasized the deliciousness of the muffins made with almond flour. Despite her introverted nature and initial discomfort with demos, she persevered, even when faced with burnt muffins or unenthusiastic tasters. Ultimately, her dedication paid off, as Whole Foods customers came to appreciate the gluten-free, grain-free, and refined sugar-free muffins.

    Every interaction matters for brand building

    Every interaction with a brand matters, no matter how small. This was a hard-learned lesson for Caitlin, the founder of Simple Mills, when she brought burnt muffins to a demo. This experience, along with other challenges, taught her the importance of managing her brand effectively, including learning about packaging and attending trade shows. Another valuable lesson came when Caitlin discovered Cygnos, a tool that helped her manage her prediabetes by providing real-time glucose insights. Similarly, Grammarly, an AI writing partner, helps businesses communicate clearly and effectively. Caitlin's early experiences growing Simple Mills involved a lot of cold calling and persistence to get her muffins into various grocery stores. She learned that some chains, like Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, allowed selling into stores individually, while others, like Walmart or Target, required selling in large quantities. These experiences underscored the importance of attention to detail and effective communication in building a successful business.

    Underestimating working capital needs can lead to financial struggles

    Securing adequate working capital is crucial for a growing business. The speaker, who was starting a food business while attending business school, underestimated the impact of working capital and found himself in a constant cycle of needing more product but not having enough money to pay for it. He attempted to secure an investment but was asked for more equity than planned, and ultimately his parents had to mortgage their house to provide the necessary funds. This experience highlighted the importance of having sufficient capital to keep up with production and sales, and the risks involved for both the business owner and their personal supporters.

    Focusing on priorities and small disciplines leads to business growth

    Focusing on priorities and practicing small disciplines every day can lead to significant business growth, even while juggling other commitments like attending business school. Caitlin, the speaker, shares how she strategically chose to dedicate most of her time and energy to her business, taking classes that directly benefited her entrepreneurial endeavors and engaging in activities that helped her build connections with potential retailers. By staying focused on her goal and maintaining a clear sense of priority, she was able to secure deals with major retailers like Earth Bear and Wegmans, despite the challenges and inconveniences that came with balancing her education and business. This story highlights the importance of determination, discipline, and a clear sense of priority in achieving entrepreneurial success.

    Winning business school startup competitions can lead to significant investments and opportunities

    Participating in business school startup competitions can lead to significant investments and opportunities for entrepreneurs. The speaker, for instance, won $35,000 in a competition and later secured $2 million in funding from investors who discovered their business at the event. This experience allowed them to hire a team, expand their operations, and focus on growing their business full-time. However, the first year was challenging, with long hours and difficult hiring decisions. Despite these challenges, the speaker's belief in people's inherent goodness helped them navigate the process. Initially, their business primarily offered muffins, but they had long-term plans to expand into other areas, such as cookies and crackers. The investors saw potential in their vision to become the next Betty Crocker, focusing on grain-free products.

    Struggling with Leadership and Expansion

    Effective leadership is a learned skill, not a natural-born ability. The founder of this food company shares her experience of initially struggling to lead her team after expanding and bringing on more senior hires. She admits to micromanaging and not trusting their expertise, which led to demotivation and friction within the team. She eventually recognized her weakness in this area and sought the help of a leadership coach to learn how to better handle the people aspects of her business. This experience underscores the importance of continuous learning and self-awareness for leaders. Additionally, the founder's determination to expand the business into retail stores, specifically Whole Foods, required innovative strategies such as traveling to regional offices and personally delivering baked goods to secure meetings with buyers. This demonstrates the value of persistence and adaptability in achieving business goals.

    From a small loan to a major player

    The success of a business, such as the grain-free baking company discussed here, is a result of a combination of hard work, smart decisions, and a bit of luck. The founder started the business with a small loan from her parents and grew it into a major player in the natural baking products market, expanding to over 28,000 stores. She faced challenges, including competition from larger companies, but made decisions that set her business apart, such as avoiding natural flavors and focusing on natural ingredients. Her success was also influenced by external factors, like the shift to more home cooking during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, her dedication and ability to adapt to the market were crucial to her company's growth.

    Combining hard work and luck for success

    Success often involves a combination of hard work and luck. This was emphasized by Caitlin Smith, the founder of Simple Mills, during her interview on the How I Built This podcast. Smith acknowledged that she had made mistakes in her business journey but also highlighted the importance of working hard and being fortunate. In a lighter moment, she discussed their unique frosting recipe made from coconut oil, palm shortening, and a combination of powdered sugar and monk fruit. Meanwhile, on a different note, Misha Brown, the host of The Big Flop podcast, explored the failed reality TV show, The Swan. The show, which involved isolating women for weeks, subjecting them to extensive physical transformations, and then making them compete in a beauty pageant, was a viewing nightmare. Despite its flop, The Swan serves as a reminder of the importance of evaluating the potential consequences and ethical implications of our actions and ideas.

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