Everything That Went Wrong In The First Six Months At Vegan Labs
Some Of My Many Mistakes From The First Six Months
Almost anywhere you look you can find a business success story. The products on the shelves of your grocery store, the shops on the street by your office, the very device you’re reading this on: all of these things began as a small kernel of an idea, deep inside someone’s brain. The illusion the world would like you to see is that the transition from idea to profit was seamless, but that is almost never the case.
Photo by: Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash
After several years helping run other people’s tech companies, my desire to help people eat healthy, nutritionally dense and plant-based foods compelled me to begin my own snack company. Along with the launch of Vegan Labs came a sizeable dose of impostor syndrome. What made me think I had any right to enter this space? I had never been in a commercial kitchen before, never sold anything direct to the consumer, and had zero experience with e-commerce. "I’m not smart enough", the voice in my head proclaimed. "I shouldn’t be doing this". That voice still follows me around constantly, though I am slowly learning how to argue back against it.
The truth is, most businesses are started by people who don’t have a lot of experience in their particular arena. Everyone has to start somewhere; that’s the nature of the beast. Our lizard brains tell us everyone else knows exactly what they’re doing, but learning curves come in all shapes and sizes. The purpose they serve is to teach us the lessons we wouldn’t learn otherwise. I am still learning all the many things that can go wrong in a new business, but here are the top five stumbling blocks that I’ve turned into stepping stones.
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1. Making Food Is Not Easy
There might be 100 ways to grow a garden, but there’s only one way to make a recipe, at least if you want a consistent product. Scaling a batch of snack bombs from 80 up to 8000 involves more than just multiplication, but I thought I had written out exactly how to do everything as I began hiring additional help in the kitchen. Every recipe documented the exact weight in grams of each ingredient, machine cleaning procedures, even the proportion of air that should go into the packaging. All that detail, but it turns out I forgot to mention how long to leave the mixer on. Suddenly a large batch of snack bombs had become a grotesque pudding; who knew that a combination of ingredients could even create such a consistency? Standard operating procedures are essential, but when you’re documenting processes, even if you think you’ve covered all the bases, be open and surrender when an unexpected one pops up. There are things you don’t know that you don’t know. And you won’t figure that out until mistakes happen: learn from them.
"How Long Do I Mix This For?"
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2. Don't Underestimate The Value Of A Generalist
As I began gathering freelancers to help launch my business, I was convinced that experts were the way to go. I found someone who manages Instagram accounts, a fantastic designer who does nothing but websites, writers who focus specifically on vegan food. I was sure that I’d get the best results by bringing together the best of the best in each specialty. By going with a large team of hyper-focused freelancers instead of just one or two generalists, however, I lost the cohesive understanding of my brand, and with that a lot of needed momentum. Working with me only occasionally, my part time team couldn’t hear me talking all day, reinforcing the reasons I am passionate about this business. This disconnect showed through in the work, and I went through a lot of different people, dropping balls along the way, before I found the right ones to work with me. What I eventually realized is that I can do a great job getting the projects to 80%, but I need a generalist to help me move my ideas across the finish line. One or two smart, motivated people who can assist me across the board are infinitely more beneficial than a heap of specialists with minimal knowledge of my brand and working style.
3. There’s a Whole Lot in a Name
I'm proud to be vegan, and I identify with this descriptor more than any religion or social movement. It's who I am. But I now realize that the word isn't quite ready to be included in a brand’s name. It might be like using the word feminist—many progressive, open minded people understand why feminism is important, but snacks specifically branded as feminist won't appeal to your average gym rat or healthy entrepreneur. The majority of people who aren’t vegan will immediately assume that “vegan snacks” are not for them, which is far from the case; my food is healthy, really tasty, and great for anyone looking for a nutritionally balanced snack. The lesson here? Lead with the benefits that can apply to anyone, instead of the potentially exclusive term “vegan”. Vegan Labs will be now be Snack Conscious and we are in the midst of a re-brand, including packaging and website.
"What's In A Name?"
Photo by: Photo by Bob Newman on Unsplash
4. If You Chase Two Rabbits, Both Will Escape
A few years ago I gave a keynote presentation on mastering your value proposition at a conference in Santiago, Chile (it’s all captured in this article). The core message of this talk was the importance of zeroing in on your company’s specific value, as well as who that value is targeted at. But guess who forgot all about his own advice when creating his website and marketing materials? I tried to communicate too many benefits all at once, making the message muddled and confusing. I also chose the wrong target (as I mentioned above), narrowing in on the vegans, when I should have been speaking to anyone looking to boost mid-morning and mid-afternoon energy. Objectively, I already knew all of these things, but when it’s your own product it’s easy to get caught up in the details and forget about the big picture. I should have read my own article and taken some pointers from the past-me. But my lesson here is, even if you are an expert in a field, when it's your own brand, have someone else take more than just a look.
5. More isn’t Always More.
I’ll be blunt and give you the figures (just let me pause for a moment to cringe on my own): I spent $75K to launch Vegan Labs, when I probably should have spent $10K at the very most. How did this happen? I really appreciate beautiful things. I wanted the website to be perfect (and beautiful), and so I got caught up in creating all kinds of extended functionality that I didn’t really need to start with. There’s something to be said for getting comfortable with building a tool that’s ok but not great, and then waiting to learn from watching how people use it. Instead of striving for perfection, I would have rather used my first group of customers as an informal focus group. In the worst case scenario, even if I had lost that entire first 50, the insights I gained from them would have been more valuable as I looked to better serve the next 50. There are plenty of changes I now need to make that are simply wasting money I’ve already spent. It’s most important to create something faster and cheaper that can be built and expanded upon, instead of trying to achieve perfection right off the bat. I'm also comfortable looking at this as
These are not my first mistakes, nor will they be my last. I share them with you in the hopes that they can help you learn from some of your own—or at the very least combat the impostor syndrome that we all seem to be struggling against in our own private worlds. You can be the most vigilant, driven, and focused entrepreneur alive, but you still have to mess up before you can succeed.