Lessons from a food-trepreneur on keeping it simple.

Q&A with Katlin Smith, founder of Simple Mills.

Simple Mills founder, Katlin Smith

In today’s tech-trending, app-driven entrepreneurial world, it often feels like every new VC-backed company to hit the scene is trying to be “the ride-share company of X,” changing the way we drive, pay, shop, order in, travel, etc. to be simplified with a swipe of a screen or the tap of a smart-phone button. Finding ways to just make life simpler is quickly becoming the name of the game for all new tech ventures.

However, unsurprisingly, when it comes to new retail ventures, especially retail items in the grocery category where the big name players still own the game, this trend towards simplicity hasn’t reached the same level of saturation.

… Enter, Simple Mills.

Former Chicago Booth student and New Venture Challenge winner, Katlin Smith, began Simple Mills out of a common consumer problem very near and dear to her: the difficulty of finding easy and delicious food options made of natural and healthy ingredients.

Specifically for Smith, this problem was most prominent in the baking aisle, where she felt her newly-discovered dietary restrictions were most hindering — as any gluten-free person with a love of baked-goods can easily relate. She became determined to find a solution for this problem, and so the groundwork for Simple Mills was started.

Since its inception in 2013, Simple Mills has released a total of 12 different gluten-free, paleo friendly, non-GMO products, consisting of eight baking mixes and four new varieties of ready-to-eat crackers — all made primarily with almond flour and free of grain, soy, artificial flavors and fillers.

Her “simple” mission has become increasingly resonant over the past few years, as consumers become more diet-centric and health-conscious. In 2015 alone, Simple Mills more than quintupled their store distribution and sold more than 485,000 units in stores across the country.

The Polsky Center was thrilled at the chance to catch up with Smith and learn more about her journey so far.

Polsky Center: What was it like building a business out of a pain point so personal to you?

Katlin Smith: It’s so incredibly important to build your business in a space where you’re passionate. I’ve personally witnessed the difference real food can make in someone’s life — on whether or not they get sick, their ability to focus, their energy levels, and whether or not their happy or anxious. Food and nutrition is closely intertwined with what people are able to do with their lives. On darker days (which there will always be in startups!) this passion, this knowledge that what I’m doing matters… that’s what keeps me pushing.

Polsky: What was the most important preconception that you had when first starting up that you had to let go of?

Smith: “Things are going to be less busy in three months.” I can’t count the number of times that I told my advisors, friends, or family that in a few months I would have time on my hands… could go on a trip with them… could get off work at 6pm. The truth is, when your company is successful, you are super busy. There is always something more you need to be pursuing, getting ahead, staying competitive.

Polsky: What was the one sort of guiding principal or “North Star” that you’ve found true throughout your entire entrepreneurial journey?

Smith: To always keep your promise to the consumer. I started this company with a promise to consumers of providing them with delicious, nutritious, simple-ingredient real food. We’ve been successful to date not because of marketing gimmicks or a great package, but because we do everything with the goal of providing a great value to our customers.

Polsky: What was the biggest hurdle in expanding from one “aisle” to the next? Was the expansion from baking mixes to ready-to-eat products always a part of the game plan or did the inspiration evolve over time?

Smith: We’ve always wanted Simple Mills to be a broader brand that represents simple, real, delicious food across the grocery store — not just in the baking mix aisle. However, we didn’t always know that crackers would be our first target outside this section. Ultimately we decided on crackers because it is another category where you see large number of nutritionally void ingredients and we had an opportunity to bring a new and different product to the shelves (crackers made out of almond flour, sunflower seeds, and flax seeds). Like with baking mixes, it’s not easy to create a product that is so different from all the offerings out there. It takes a lot of experimentation, learning, and countless hours baking!

Polsky: How do you balance staying true to your niche market consumers (gluten-free, paleo, etc.) with trying to attract the more mainstream/general consumer?

Smith: Consumers are increasingly associating their digestive health with their overall wellness. They understand that food does more than just affect their weight; they understand that food affects their immune system and their brain health. Luckily for us, this trend and understanding is gaining mass appeal, which is why 73% of consumers are looking for ingredients they can recognize and pronounce and 2/3 of consumers are looking to reduce their sugar consumption.

The Polsky Center’s premier start-up launch program, the Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge (NVC), is designed to help student teams turn their ideas into viable businesses. Launched in 1996, the NVC is recognized as one of the most prestigious university accelerator programs in the nation and has graduated more than 100 start-up companies still in operation today. In recognition of the 20th year of the NVC, the Polsky Center is working to spread the word about all of our impressive alumni, their businesses, and the immense impact that the NVC has created across the globe. To date, NVC companies have achieved more than $3 billion in mergers and exits, includingBraintree, which was acquired by PayPal in 2013 for $800 million; Bump Technologies, which was acquired by Google in 2013; and GrubHub, which completed an IPO in April 2014.