Conversation with Katie Jesionowski, Co-Founder of MySuperFoods Company
How to Build a Brand Based on Healthy Snacks & Doing Good
May 9, 2018
1. What is your business?
My business is MySuperFoods Company. We are an allergy-safe, organic snack food company for kids and families. We make on-the-go snacks using nutritious and high-quality ingredients, and our goal is to create a company with a portfolio of snacks that families can rely on.
My co-founder, Silvia, and I met because we both had twins at the same time. When those 4 children reached the 18th-month mark, we found ourselves going to the grocery store looking for snacks that were portable. We relied on organic snacks available at the time, but we found ourselves seeking more nutrient density. We are grateful for those brands because they paved the way with healthy packaged foods. We see MySuperFoods as taking the next step. We wanted to improve on their progress by adding ingredients like coconut oil, chia seeds, flax seeds or quinoa–ingredients that we look for in the foods that we purchase for ourselves. These ingredients were and are missing from food marketed to children.
We believe in clean and healthy food for all children, not for the most wealthy, so we are active in supporting food banks, and we have a partnership with Feeding America Network. We love that organization. FAN puts on a backpack fundraiser, and last year we got involved on the West Coast. We want to make sure that we’re helping to make a meaningful difference in a campaign. Throughout the year we’ll donate products if we have snacks with a few months left on their shelf-life. Next week as a company we will be volunteering at our local food bank.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
When I was pregnant with the twins, I was working in advertising. I enjoyed my work, but, even before I got pregnant, I knew it wasn’t going to be forever. My problem, though, was that I couldn’t quite see what else I would do professionally. At the same time, I had the secret urge to do something entrepreneurial.
My business partner, Silvia, came from a finance background and had returned to that work after her children were born. She was just wasn’t seeing her kids as much as she wanted to, so she left to start a business. At a playdate one day, Silvia mentioned to me how she really wanted to start a baby food company, we started brainstorming about our needs as mothers, and we had a great talk.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and that night Silvia sent me a text saying, “Do you want to do this with me?” And I said, “Do what? We were having a conversation.” The next day we met for two hours at a coffee shop to discuss it more, and the rest, as they say, is history.
3. Were there any partnerships or advice that were particularly helpful?
I often say to people I could never really see myself doing this alone, and I don’t say that out of a knock on myself or that I couldn’t handle it. It’s really more about how valuable my partnership with Silvia is to me. If I’m having a great day, I want to share that with her. When I’m having a bad day I need somebody to pull me out of that. We do that for each other all the time. We were friends when we started, and we are sisters now. We joke that my personality is similar to Silvia’s husband, and her personality is similar to my husband’s personality. Somehow we partnered up with people that we are not only drawn to but with whom we work together well.
In order to create our products, we rely on co-manufacturer or co-packer relationships. These are facilities that make and package our products because we don’t manage that in-house. It’s truly a second business and one that we didn’t seek from the outset. Finding a great co-packer is critical to success. Do they understand your vision, your ingredients, your products? Can they grow as you grow? We work with a different co-packer for each of our three product lines. That relationship needs as much care and attention as any other in the business. We’ve made trips to our co-packers just to sit around and brainstorm how and what we can do better.
4. Who did you speak to for support as you were working on the idea/launch?
We were really fortunate. I don’t know if it was a product of being in New York City or constantly asking for help, but we have been able to meet with tons of awesome food entrepreneurs. We were able to speak to a lot of really smart people who had come before us, and we have received excellent advice.
I will always remember when we talked to this one gentleman about his experiences in a failed food business. He said it is so important to grow slowly and deliberately because meteoric growth was actually what did in his company. His company had dramatic growth immediately, and that excitement led to his company’s efforts to go national really quickly. Unfortunately, the company ended up failing because of the large financial commitment for national distribution.
My big take away was that everyone wants the big exciting launch, but that happens so infrequently. For us, that feels like it’s more about our ego than the work. The big launch distracts from the important small steps of building a great company and a great culture. Silvia and I talk about this a lot, and we were focused on starting as local as possible and trying to learn as many lessons as possible on a small scale before taking bigger steps.
5. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
I love hearing from customers out of the blue. I am so grateful when people email me. We had a gentleman reach out to us recently. His daughter has a long list of allergies including nuts and dairy. She just turned 7, and he said as he was doing the birthday party circuit that he would bring along snacks to substitute for what was provided. “She gets it. She’s totally on board and it’s not a big deal to her anymore. But as a dad, it just breaks my heart when she has to walk into a party and have this little snack pack with her.”
He said they were recently at a birthday and the host had purchased MySuperCookies and had them on the table. “Like I always do, I went over and just out of curiosity was looking at the ingredients. It was the first time in her life that she could go over to the snack table and eat something that the host put out.”
When I heard this I was floored. We didn’t start this company for this reason, but I am thrilled that we are creating a solution for families where allergies are so serious. It is such a proud moment for me to feel like we helped this little kid as a birthday party by creating something from nothing.
6. What are some of your current challenges?
One of our current challenges is managing our supply chain during an incredible growth period. We remind ourselves that this is a very good problem to have! But it can still be stressful. Because we don’t use artificial ingredients, our MySuperCookies, for example, have a shelf life of 12 months instead of several years. We try to manage production runs that won’t leave us with overproduction and product that sits in a warehouse. At the same time, being mindful of cash flow. As we’ve experienced incredible Q1 2018 growth, we’ve been adding more and more production runs on the calendar. Of course, this has to work for our co-packers as well. And the ingredients and packaging has to be available. This business has always been a lot of moving parts and will continue to be that way. It’s part of the struggle and the thrill of watching something that you’ve built grow and find success.
7. What are some of the biggest positive or negative surprises in your business?
I would say that one of the biggest positive surprises is how collaborative we have found other entrepreneurs to be. When we first started MySuperFoods, we would go to the food trade shows and walk up to people at their company booths and ask questions. It is amazing the amount of advice, help, and information they would happily share with us. It still happens now. People that I’ve never met face to face, I will somehow get connected to, ask for time and the conversation will turn into pages and pages of invaluable notes.
I think what I realize is that we’re in a space where people are generally trying to do good. So, when you’re creating things that are meant to help people, those types of entrepreneurs want to help all kinds of people not just their customers.
8. What was the best and worst piece of advice you have received as you were starting your business?
The worst is a category that annoys me. I really don’t like it when someone says some version of, “The only way that you can succeed is:” Any time I ever hear anyone say that I just mentally tune out because it’s not true. It just can’t possibly be true. Otherwise, we would all do that one thing. Plus, I don’t like the spirit where that comes from. It is almost saying that you should have thought of it or you should already be doing it or know it.
An example would be as a small company there are so many ways to sell products. Some people hire a national sales director or regional sales. Others hire regional or national brokers. There are a lot of different ways that you can go about it. I spoke to someone who had a very successful business, and in retrospect, she said she would never have taken the path that she did. I think what she was ultimately saying is that it would have been more efficient to do things differently–knowing what she knows now.
But I say that part of being an entrepreneur is trial and error and seeing where the road takes you. You’re going to have hiccups and detours, and you’re going to look back and say, “Man, I really wish I didn’t spend all the time doing that.” But that’s part of what makes you better the next time.
The people who I love talking to are the ones who say, “Well, we tried this and that works for us. I don’t know if it’ll work for you. Then we did this because we kind of learned from the initial experience.”
9. Do you use social media for marketing your business?
We definitely use social media. As a small brand, social media is the easiest, least expensive and most effective way to connect with our customers. One of the things that make us interesting to consumers is our authentic story. There’s nothing more authentic than me sending you a direct message after you comment on my Instagram post and saying, “Hey that was so cool. If you ever want samples just send me your address, and I’ll get them out to you.”
Plus, it is a great way to hear what people think and find out about people’s favorite flavors or container size. Last year we put our heads down and really focused more on social media. We’re starting to pick up steam. We’re always trying different things and benefit so much from continuing to talk to our customers.
10. What are your hopes for your business for the next five years?
We have a social mission, and we work with five food banks. We feel fortunate that we had the resources to start a company like this, and we knew that we were making food that not everyone can afford because of the cost of high-quality ingredients. But one of the hardest things for me to think about is a hungry kid. We wanted to give back in some way, and helping children who suffer from food insecurity seemed like a perfect focus for a food company founded by two moms. Also many times these children are living in communities that don’t have access to great food or the financial ability to purchase the type of food, so we kind of wanted to narrow in and support access and health.
The long-term vision for 5 years from now is growing our relationship with food banks across the U.S. We continue to develop relationships like that so that we can be a resource for all families to grow super healthy kids. We want parents to see any of our products in the shelf and say “Oh I know this company, they have really high standards. I trust them.”
Date of conversation: February 15, 2018
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