How to Start a Food Business

An interview with Mitra Raman
Founder, Buttermilk
Seattle, WA

You were an Amazon Engineer with a degree in Computer Science – what skills from that part of your life helped you to build your own food business? What new skills did you have to learn quickly?

The website was easy. There wasn’t much coding involved and there are so many great tools out there like Squarespace  and Shopify. Also, the branding – I’m not a designer but I know exactly what I like.

I had to learn how to create a physical product. I researched everything related to production, packaging, supply chain and making sure my products are safe.

What were the first steps you took to get started?

I started trying out my mom’s two recipes by giving them to a few friends and family with the instructions, “Just add water”, and asked them to tell me how they like it. Then, I started doing a lot of research on how you start a food business – Google has been my best friend. When it comes to setting up business documents, INCFILE was really helpful.

Food businesses are subject to FDA regulation, so how difficult is to meet all the requirements and how long did it take before you could sell your first products?

It’s not that difficult, it just takes some initial research to understand what you need. The most difficult part is that there’s so much varying information, it’s not simply laid out. When it comes to legal things, it’s very complicated, so I spent a few weeks researching and going to the Department of Health in Washington. I had to go in, talk to them, and figure it out, but they were super helpful and told me exactly what I needed to do.

What were the key lessons learned – both failures and successes – that helped you get to where you are today?

Being constantly in a problem-solving mindset. You have to react quickly and not dwell on the issue, you have to think, “How do we fix problems and what are the alternatives?” Also, thinking in terms of scale, that’s something I’m still constantly reminding myself to do. Learning from Amazon and from Y Combinator, those are the two things that they drill into you. Start with one problem (even in computer science terminology), solve it, and now do it for a hundred. How you scale is not one solution for one problem, but for everything. Those two things are important.

And yes, I’ve made tons of mistakes, and each one has taught me something, each one has made me better as a business person. After a first few hiring issues, I’ve learned to slow down and not just give an offer to the first person I want to hire, but change the questions I ask and the whole interview process. Also, training people – I don’t want to sit and build a training manual for every role that suddenly comes up. I prefer to just push someone in, start working with me and try and figure it out.

I’m definitely learning a lot continuously and I feel like all these mistakes have been really teachable moments.

Your crowdsource and profit-sharing model is fascinating – how does that work and what are the requirements for participation?

We are currently only creating Indian food products, so we are looking for Indian recipes, and they also need to be vegan. We’re not a vegan company, but our products are vegan and we do have an environmentally-minded mission so the vegan community folds into that. We see that as a product that everyone can enjoy versus a product that only some people can enjoy.

It has to be simple as all our products are just ‘add hot water’ and that’s something we want to be able to maintain so it’s super easy for a customer to make at home.

What keeps your customers engaged and loyal?

The fact that we crowdsource the recipes and you can really taste the quality and freshness. That’s what keeps people coming back. Usually they are surprised to see that such good quality food comes from something that’s so affordable and prepackaged. It’s fun to be able to dispel that myth. And loyalty, I mean authenticity is just built into our brand. I literally started this with my mom’s recipes to solve my own problem, and that I think a lot of people can relate to.

I’m also running our social media, marketing and doing a lot of the test points where the customer reacts. I read and respond to most customer emails. That also keeps people connected to us and the humans beyond the brand, and we’ve always been very focused on not letting it seem like there’s a company bot, but there’s a real person really responding to everything and we really want people to feel that.

You were was chosen to participate in Y Combinator, the well-known startup accelerator program in Silicon Valley. How did that experience help you on your journey?

The best thing is the community and the network. We’re connected now to all the alumnae, which is a large network of awesome founders and awesome companies. Having the mentors just a call away is a huge benefit. It also taught me to focus on what’s important.

What venues/books/websites/events would you recommend to a new entrepreneur to help them with product-development and access to a strong support network?

Utilize your network. I got most of my help at the beginning by posting on Facebook to my friends and family and saying, “I need a designer to work with,” and I had people that I haven’t talked to in years either saying, “Hey, I can talk to you,” or saying, “I know someone.”

Additionally there are a lot of great Facebook groups. I was just added to one for CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods). Those groups have been really helpful because people can post their questions and get answers or solutions to their needs quickly.  

And for books, I haven’t really turned to one specific one. There is one on value propositions I liked. You need to know what you’re creating and what problem you’re solving and you cannot lose focus on the exact problem you’re solving. If you do, then you don’t know who your customers are and you’re not able to target well. It’s important to always keep coming back to what problem are you solving for who and get specific. And once you’re able to write it down, you can then figure out who the customers are.



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