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How Erica Liu Williams Launched gr8nola in 5 (Not So) Simple Steps

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Who: Erica Liu Williams

What: gr8nola

When: June 2013

Where: Danville, CA

Why: When Erica decided to sell the “clean,” healthful granola she regularly baked for family and friends, she wasn’t planning to turn her side-hustle into a full-fledged business. But just a few months after attending her first farmer’s market, Erica was selected to become an official snack vendor for Google. Suddenly, she needed to make gr8nola on a whole new scale.

How did Erica launch her business?

Step one: Assess the market, nail the product

I had to feel confident that my recipe was exceptional and that it met the needs of not just myself, friends and family but of the market. First and foremost, would people buy it? And more importantly, would they come back and buy again and again? I decided that selling gr8nola at my local farmer’s market would be the quickest way to get this feedback.

I also knew my recipe had to be consistent. I had to figure out how to scale up from baking a two-pound batch of gr8nola for us to eat at home to making 20 pounds to sell at the farmer’s market. Of course, it had to be just as delicious!

Mindset: “I launched gr8nola in just three months. I approached the process with a lean, ‘experimental’ mindset. I decided to get the product out in order to validate it, not the other way around. I thought, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’”

Step two: Decide on branding, packaging and pricing

I wasn’t inventing a new product category, so I just went to the store and researched other brands to see how they packaged and priced their granola. I used Amazon, eBay and Uline for sourcing food-grade packaging, and I asked a friend to design my label. My first versions were pretty scrappy – it was just a clear bag with a sticker on it, and they looked very homemade.

When I started out, I was a “cottage food operator.” This allowed me to bake gr8nola out of my home kitchen, and I didn’t need to provide a detailed nutrition label, but I still had to list out my ingredients and allergens. Once I started doing my second farmer’s market and selling online, I needed other certifications and of course, an official nutrition label. It took me tons and tons of phone calls and networking with other food entrepreneurs to figure it all out. There’s no step-by-step guide.

Mindset: “The moral is, ask! If you don’t get the answer you need, keep asking. Use Google, the FDA website, pick up the phone, navigate your network – do whatever it takes to find out what you need to know.”

Step three: Ready or not, scale up!

I was still working my full-time job when I got my first order from Google for 1500 pounds of gr8nola. I needed to find a contract packer or “co-packer” to outsource production fast. A co-packer is a company that manufactures and packages foods or similar products for a client. Sometimes they make their own product and work with smaller production ventures on the side. The co-packer I work with today has their own food line, and they make my gr8nola to help with their overhead costs.

I never imagined needing to work with a co-packer, let alone doing it this early-on in business. Thanks to a 6th-degree connection, I found someone who was local, willing to take me on and didn’t require a huge minimum production order.

Mindset: “As an entrepreneur, when you’re forced to solve a problem, you will. You’ll find a way to say yes to any opportunity. I did it by networking, networking, networking.”

Step four: Manage operations, address (inevitable) issues

My first co-packer handled everything from ordering raw ingredients to baking and packaging  gr8nola. Even though they manage quality control, I regularly checked the quality and consistency of my product. At one point, back in the early days, my co-packer had inconsistencies in the bake it would either be under- or overbaked. We couldn’t solve the issue, and I remember it being a real low-point because product quality and consistency was so important to me. I ended up having to find a new co-packer, which felt pretty scary since I’d only ever worked with one at that point. What if they were more expensive? What if they had even worse issues? But now, with my new co-packer, gr8nola is even better!

Mindset: “For me, the learning was about always having a backup plan. In this case, I wish I’d source other options for vendors before I needed them. I’ve also learned it’s important to give yourself a buffer when it comes to timing. Whether you’re finding a new manufacturer or supplier or you’re launching a new product, always give yourself more than you think you’ll need!”

Step five: Stay nimble and learn from others

There’s been a shift in the food industry in the last five years with consumers getting more comfortable buying groceries online, so I spend a lot of time working on my digital strategy. I’m trying to figure out how to scale growth online, so I’m focused on connecting with as many digital marketers and e-commerce brands as I can. Should I invest in paid ads? Should I start paying influencers? I’m no expert in this field, but I’ve always known the importance of networking in order to learn from others’ successes and failures. If you get enough good advice, you can make a good decision.

Mindset: “Even though I’m technically a Millennial, I didn’t know anything about using Instagram. I didn’t even know to put line breaks in my captions. I’d never had a reason to work with social media “influencers” before, either. Fortunately, I’m comfortable asking a lot of questions, learning from others and actually get my hands dirty to “do the work.”

What’s ahead?

I’ve been selling gr8nola since 2013, but I didn’t quit my full-time job until late 2017. I’m coming up on my one-year anniversary of working for myself. People ask me if I miss being in an office with other people. I don’t, because I’ve made true friends by reaching out and connecting with lots of awesome, hungry entrepreneurs and professionals in the industry.

Mindset: “I love the feeling of building something, progressing and being part of and cultivating a community. My business embodies my passion and my values. It’s super rewarding.”

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QB Community members, at what point did you ditch your side-hustle become your full-time gig? How did you decide it was the right time to make the leap?

Want to weigh in but not yet a QB Community member? Click HERE to sign up in a flash!

 

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