In 2005, Leslie teamed up with her best friend Meredith to start NutraBella, a business focused on prenatal health with a line of tasty bars and chewable vitamins created specifically for women. 10 years later, she's learned a ton about what it takes to build a business from the ground up — including how to find funding and how to emphasize the value of your product with your pricing.
Ahead of her talk at QuickBooks Connect 2015 with Julie Gordon White on "Lessons Learned from Growing a $1M Business," we sat down with Leslie to get the full scoop on how she built NutraBella into a thriving, sustainable business.
Take it away, Leslie!
Name: Leslie Barber
Business: NutraBella Bellybar Products
Started In: January of 2005
Tell us a bit more about why you and Meredith decided to start NutraBella and the Bellybar. Was there a gap in the market you were trying to fill?
Meredith and I met originally when we went to business school together. We'd both been working in technology for awhile when we started talking about launching our own businesses.
We hit our 30s, and everyone around us was having babies and they were all complaining about the "horse pill." The "horse pill" is an affectionate name for prenatal vitamins, which can be very large — especially the natural ones. We kept hearing so many horror stories about these pills from our friends. Neither of us had been pregnant, so we just thought, "What in the world?! WHY are we giving these giant horse pills to pregnant women!"
We saw an opportunity, so we started interviewing our friends to find out why they hated taking these pills so much and how we might be able to make them easier to swallow. Luna Bar had also recently launched and we thought, "Well, why isn't there also a bar for pregnant women?"
About nine months later, we gave birth to NutraBella. We started with a line of Bellybar snack bars that had all the vitamins, minerals and supplements you need when you're pregnant.
Who was your first customer?
After we made our first run of bars, we went to a trade show and we found a few small boutique shops that were interested in working with us. But our first meaningful customer was Whole Foods Market.
We really wanted to get into Whole Foods, but we had no idea how to do it. I started by going into a few local stores. Each time, I found myself talking to guys who had zero interest in prenatal nutrition. We decided to try a new angle.
My brother knew someone who worked at the Portland Whole Foods Market and his friend knew that the head of the whole body department was pregnant. So, we sent them some product to try.
What no one knows is that it was so expensive to create that first run of bars we sent to Whole Foods as a sample. It was a $1,500 investment just to get these bars to this woman at Whole Foods. We were literally paying $50 per bar to package them.
My brother was able to give our bars to his friend, who then walked them over to the woman in charge. About two weeks later, we got a call from the regional manager with the news that they loved our bars and wanted more.
The only bad feedback we got was that people had packaging rage trying to open them up — because we were still hand-gluing the packaging for each and every bar! It was a painful process, and it was hardest we ever fought for a customer, but in the end it was worth it. Once we got that first order, we could graduate to having the bars made on an assembly line and they would be much easier to open.
Whole Foods Market really kicked us off. They gave us data immediately, which allowed us to learn quickly and get other accounts. They also brought us credibility in a way that other customers wouldn't have. We were really grateful.
How did you fund your business early on?
When that first order from Whole Foods came in, we were sweating bullets because that meant we needed to find another $5,000 on top of the $1,500 it took to create the first run.
Neither of us were independently wealthy, so we realized we need to get help from the outside. We made some small investments on our own, but we also invited friends and family to contribute.
Meredith and I came up with the idea of throwing a baby shower to celebrate the birth of Bellybar. We created baby shower invitations and sent them out. We told people they didn't have to RSVP, but if they did RSVP yes, they needed to send us checks in increments of $5,000.
Believe it or not, we raised over $300,000 doing that. And this was long before Kickstarter.
Our friends and family came out of the woodwork to support us and we really didn't expect it. Later on, we took some small private equity money. In between, we funded the business in all kinds of ways including starting credit cards and taking out loans — we did anything we could just to keep our business moving forward.
What was the biggest surprise after starting your business? What did you come up against that you weren't prepared for?
Honestly, we didn't plan for anything. We had no idea what we were doing!
Sure, Meredith and I both had MBAs from top schools, but that didn't prepare us at all for starting a business. Our degrees prepared us for running a big brand, or for reading really complicated spreadsheets, but not for understanding the micro-details of what going into running a small business every day. That was by far the biggest challenge for us.
When we started, everyone was talking about three- and five-year plans. We learned quickly that we could only focus on three- and five-hour plans. What are we doing today? What are we going to do to stay solvent tomorrow?
We had a vision for what we wanted and we definitely had a strategic approach, but when it came to the day-to-day of running the business, we were just so reactive.
Part of this was due to the fact that while we were still developing the product in April of 2005, three other pregnancy bars came on the market. We were suddenly in a race! A category was built overnight and we were competing with brands like Ensure, which had come out with Ensure Healthy Mom.
In the end, how did you come out ahead of your competition?
We were racing as fast as we could to be the last one standing. As it turns out, we were the last one standing!
When other companies launch around you and a new category is built, treat it as a blessing. You can watch what they do, then do it differently. During this time period, we were very focused on our mission and what we wanted to do for women — provide them with a healthy, natural product. What else helped us win? Sheer tenacity. And sweating the details.
We experimented with shifting our product line, too. We started with a bar, but then we also tried ready-to-drink shakes. We did soft chews. Eventually, we landed on little chewable vitamins based on everything we were learning from our customers as we went along.
We took every opportunity we could to connect with our end customer and stay closely in touch with her. Sure, Walgreens and Target and Whole Foods were technically our customers, but at the end of the day we were making a product for women. When she complained to us that the bars had 180 calories and that was too many calories for a prenatal vitamin, we listened and came up with a chewable vitamin. It's now our bestseller.
When it comes down to it, I truly believe that being nimble and being willing to listen to our customer is what kept us alive.
Tell us a bit more about how you were collecting feedback from your customers. Did you have a process or a system in place?
This might not be sustainable for all businesses, but I did all of our customer service myself. It was really important to me that I was always the one answering the calls and responding to emails.
It was also fun, because no one would ever assume they were talking to one of the owners! I bet that if they did know that, they wouldn't have been so open about what they shared.
As a result, I really got to hear what their concerns were — good and bad. We had so many women who said, "Your product is the only thing I eat when I'm traveling" or "Your product was the only thing I could eat during my first trimester."
We took all feedback to heart and listened to and read every single customer service request that came in. It may not be sustainable long-term, but I considered it my most important job.
Beyond capturing feedback through our website and on Facebook, we also went out to the market. We would go and sit in OB/GYN offices and just talk to women in the waiting room. Then, while I was pregnant, I reached out to other mom groups to get feedback on our products.
Was it perfectly scientific? Nope. Was it an inexpensive way to get us what we needed? Yep!
How do you price your products?
Pricing was a huge challenge for us because our retail partners have margin requirements. They want to make a certain amount of money on their product, and the reality is that they are the ones who have the power over those decisions, not me.
I can set a price, but when a consumer sees a product at Whole Foods for $1.99, at Babies R Us for $2.49 and at a local boutique for $2.99, they think, "What the heck is going on here?!"
We tried for a long time to keep our price consistent and leave it up to our retail partners if they wanted to mark up the price. It was always a conundrum, though, and I'm still never sure what the perfect answer is.
The one thing I learned is that when you're working on your pricing, figure out the value first. In our case, we wanted to make sure we weren't viewed as just another bar. Luna bars were priced at $.99 and everyone compared us to Luna. Turns out, that $.99 really matters to people!
We decided to keep our price what it was and prove our value instead. We partnered with a Ph.D. nutritionist and she guaranteed that what was in our products was safe and effective. We added her endorsement to our packaging and also included "OB/GYN endorsed."
That tactic visibly calmed the chatter about price and it was clear to our customers why our bars were priced at $1.99 and Luna's were priced at $.99.
What do you want to learn from a community of other small business owners?
Starting NutraBella and creating Bellybar was my first child. I now have a real child, but Bellybar was my first. I learned how to be an entrepreneur the same way I learned how to be a mom — I just did it. I did it trial by fire. Some days I failed and I had to pull myself back up or figure out how to take the next step.
Here I want to share the good, the bad and the ugly with other small business owners, knowing there's a reason why we all do what we do.
I want to hear about other people's passions and I want to be inspired by them. I want to learn from their experiences because I'm only a sample size of one. I know what's worked for me and what didn't, so I'm excited to hear from other people here about what's working for them and what's not.
One of the gentleman we worked with who ran our manufacturing company said to me once, "The two best days in an entrepreneur's life are the day they make their first sale and the day they realize people come back to buy it again."
Meredith and I used to leave our offices some days just to walk over to Whole Foods and admire our products on the shelf. We would carefully crimp the packaging and make sure it looked good. It felt like we were looking at our own children on stage.
One day, a woman came around the corner and picked up two whole boxes of Bellybar and walked up to the cash register to pay for them. No joke, we started screaming and howling and jumping up and down right there in the aisle.
My baby was purchased by someone! And that's why we do what we do, because of these moments. All of the crap you have to put up with, it goes away when you have those moments.
I want to share that with other people and I want to hear stories that will keep me inspired and always learning.
Do you have a story to share with Leslie?
If you have a similar tale, or if you want to hear more from Leslie after her presentation with Julie Gordon White at QuickBooks Connect, tell us right here!
We can't wait to be inspired by your experiences. :-)
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