Creativity vs. Capital

How I started my own vegan cheese business against the odds.


In early 2011, after four years of being vegan, I suddenly realised what was missing from my life. Pizza. I tried the available vegan cheeses and realised they were all not hitting the mark.

Could I make a better one? My first inclination was to say to myself if they can’t do it, there’s no way I can, but that felt cowardly. So I started playing around in the kitchen.

Even though I had no idea what I was doing I refuesed to copy the ingredients of other vegan cheeses. They weren’t good enough, so I felt like the genre needed a fresh start. I felt inspired by some initiual ideas. Success seemed inevitable.

Luckily my confidence was backed up with some persistance. It took me six months and all of my savings to come up with the final Notzarella. I wasn’t a food scientist, but I got there eventually. The name was coined, the Facebook page was started and the accouncement was made: ‘your vegan pizza cravings will soon satisfied.’ There was quite some interest.

One of the earliest successfulish batches of Notzarell, mid-late 2011.

But now what? How would I do that? I had no money. I had no kitchen. I had no job. I had no time to even consider funding before I found myself living in a friend’s basement. One thing felt good though — I had something to work with: a product I was sure the world wanted, and I clung to this knowledge.

This part is neither about creativity or capital. It’s about luck, something which deserves it’s own heading:

Luck

I met a friend for lunch (I’ve never been averse to spending my last dollars on a good cause, such as earphones, or chips), and she had a house with a kitchen I could use for a while. For free. (thanks Mandy.)

I moved in, setup a website with ecwid, announced to Facebook that Notzarella was available. I posted the blocks out in overnight satchels — which I’m sure is not industry best practice for food distribution. People raved (most of the comments on that page are from this period), and I knew I had it.

Notzarelle brewing in Mandy’s small kitchen. Late 2011.

A few weeks later, while walking to the post office with 30kg of cheese in my backpack, I wondered how I would move Notzarella, and my life, forward. I started a business plan and hoped some financier would forgive the unquantifiable size of the vegan market. I needed money to get setup in a commercial kitchen. I hoped the business plan would secure me a loan for what I needed. I even considered starting a small pizza shop where I could also produce Notzarella in the kitchen. 50k? 100k? I wasn’t sure. One thing I am now sure of, my life would have zero flixibility — the flexibility I needed to change it — if I had borrowed.

This is me carrying cheese to the post office in a backpack.

Luck Part 2

One of the folk who came to my borrowed house pickup their internet ordered cheese wanted to help. They offered me a house sitting gig, over the border in New South Wales. I agreed it would be a good next step for me, pushing back the existential threat that loomed in the murky future.

I moved in, continued to send blocks through the nearby post office, and ploughed on with my plan. I was soon to realise though that in New South Wales, unlike Queensland, low-risk foods could be produced in home kitchens. This meant I could start making and selling a legitimate version of Notzarella immediately. That a was nice surprise.

Creativity

The reduced need for startup funds encouraged me to make it happen with the small amount of money left by customers from the initial (illegalish) launch.

I saved to buy a 50l pot, a high powered blender, a gas burner, a huge stick blender and hundreds of chese moulds (read ‘baking tins’) and converted the garage into a makeshift kitchen.

Actually I started in the kitchen and quickly moved to the garage when I realised how much damage I was doing to David and Renee’s lovely home.

I got to design a product. Working off the 10cm by 10cm size of the tins, I created prototypes for a 300g block. I’m almost as proud of the brand and packaging as I am of the actual product. It’s simple, but has great integrity.

A small sample of the iterations, and the simplified, final packaging. A simple vacuum seal and sticker, nothing anyone couldn’t do.

I got to build a website. Which I had done before so that wasn’t quite as big a deal. But here you go anyways. Of course I changed it thousands of times.

The Gruelling Part

Every second morning or so I would boil soybeans and blend them into a pulp. In the afternoons I cooked a batch, which meant stirring 40l of viscuous liquid for an hour. In the early evening I would transfer the molten cheese into the tins and stack them up in one of those glass door upright fridges.

I moved on to larger cake tins for setting after a few months. Here 72 blocks cooling enough to go in the fridge, a cost of $144 for materials, selling at $3.20 or something each. The paper is to minimise dust. It’s too late to sue.

Then, every other morning for a year I would transfer the solidified cheese into a packet, vacum, seal and sticker, and pack my pride and joy into ice boxes of 50 blocks. Distributors would drop by to pick up. The local Fastway girl came early — sometimes I’d scramble out of bed when I heard her van hit the curb.

This contraption is an experiment I tried. I wanted to automate the mixing process. It’s a dough mixer rigged with a pot and a camping burner underneath. Unfortunately, this was another wasted investment as I couldn’t make it work without burning. Back to stirring, Ali!

I have to admit at this point, I had help. Angela took the edge off the work when I struggled with motivation.

Me in 2012.

The limited distribution meant I never quite saved more than I needed for the next few orders. But it was happening. People loved it. I was living more or less on my own sweat and smarts. (Probably less, giving the amount of luck and help I recieved, but lets gloss over that.) The feeling was was new, it was needed, and it was good.

Notzarella is my greatest achievement, despite it not having made me the millions I thought it would. I’m glad I didn’t get financed because I would have bought a lot of things I eventually did without. I would never have learned to give things a go.

A year after launching, Notzarella was passed to Angela, before we went our separate ways. Infinate thanks to Angela — that wonderful, independant soul.

The biggest lesson from it all, and it was right there in the title all along, was that creativity is more important than capital. It’s more valuable, because we get stuck in this place where we go for the easiest, surest, fastest bet, thinking we’ll make up for the debt later, when things are running smoothly. I don’t think this is a good mindset, because often, there’s so much we can do with less if we get a chance to try. And after having tried we’ll be so much more cognizant of our abilites to solve problems ourselves.

What stories from your life highlight the value of creativity over capital? Link in your response.