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Josh Abady Of Manna Cooking: 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand

Don’t let your ego guide your progress. Learn from your harshest critics. If someone doesn’t agree with your vision, you likely could have done a better job communicating and convincing them.

As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Abady.

Josh Abady is the Co-founder and CEO of Manna Cooking, the first-of-its-kind recipe app that allows home cooks to find, customize, and share recipes all from one easy-to-use platform. Before founding Manna Cooking with his sister (CMO Rachel Abady) and best friend (CTO Guy Greenstein), Josh was a professional poker player and math teacher.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Ever since I was a kid, food has always been my greatest pleasure and my biggest curse. Growing up in a Jewish home, food was a core part of family life. Dinner as a family every night, Shabbat on Fridays (light on the blessings, heavy on the food), and lots of delicious meals on holidays. Unfortunately for me, I also felt nauseous almost every day. Plenty of doctors agreed that I had a problem with my stomach, but none had a concrete solution. Finally at the age of 24 I got a name for my problem: IBS. Research came out about Low FODMAP diets, and over the past 3 years I’ve been learning to eat in a way that suits me. That’s a major reason why we started the Manna Cookingapp.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

For the 3 years prior to starting Manna, I was playing poker for a living. One not so profitable day in Philadelphia, I get a call from my best friend (and now co-founder and roommate), Guy with a story about his mom in the kitchen. She’s a kosher private chef, and he found her with a battle station of recipe books with ingredients crossed out and manually replaced. He looked for an app on the App Store to help her out, and didn’t find any apps that allowed her to customize her recipes to her needs and share them with her friends and clients. So why not build one?

Fast forward a week and I’m in Prospect Park eating lunch with my sister (and co-founder), Rachel. Guy serendipitously calls again to chat about the app. I put him on speaker, and the 3 of us just started ideating. Features ideas, dreams for the business, even a brand. We wanted the app to be a single, social, useful place that gave people everything they needed in the kitchen. Rachel almost instantly thought of the name: Manna. What is Manna? It’s the food that fell from the sky and gave the Israelites everything they needed in the desert. And that’s exactly what we wanted Manna to be.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early on one of our biggest struggles was trying to get recipes in a standard format. Every website, blog, app, and individual chef writes their recipes a little differently. In order to offer customization tools to our users, we needed a consistent baseline. For about a week we kept getting the same error from our database: “Object name ‘butter’ could not be found.” It was as frustratingly vague as it was hilarious. We regularly tell this silly anecdote almost 3 years later, but it actually teaches a really practical lesson. Early on you’re inevitably going to hit a number of hurdles you don’t understand with no clear solution. The only thing you can do is laugh it off, and keep moving forward one step at a time. Ask a lot of questions and ask for help until one day you blink and you’ve become the resource other people ask.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Food is all about messaging. Food is very sensory and touches people’s hearts as much as their stomachs. Make the brand as delicious as the product and tell a compelling story!

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Start by combing through your network and get the harshest feedback possible. Go through text messages, social media DMs, and Linkedin and figure out who you know and who they know. Try and look for people who will spend some time with you giving honest feedback and won’t just be positive out of a sense of loyalty. It’s hard to concisely communicate your vision early on, and listening to what people don’t understand about your idea will help it transition from theoretical to real.

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

Good ideas are a dime a dozen, but you live and die by execution. Find someone you know who’s started a business before and ask for advice on getting started. Even if they’re familiar with a totally different industry, they’ll likely have good advice on getting started.

Beyond that, just go for it! The biggest hurdle to getting started is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Whatever you believe your proof of concept is, start working toward it. Even if you’re not exactly sure what to do, do something. Every hour spent is never an hour wasted.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

Early on it’s essential to spend as little money as possible. If there’s someone you trust personally and professionally who has experience in your space, it’s certainly worth considering trading some equity for their guidance early on. I’m a firm believer that if you want to go far, go together. That being said, hold off on any paid consultants until you’re certain you’re ready.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

The golden rule with fundraising is go as long as you can without raising money. Especially for direct to consumer products, professional investors are going to be looking for some sort of traction before committing significant capital. Go as far as you can until fundraising is essential to take the next step. Also consider other options for capital like sourcing from friends and family, equity crowdfunding, or committing whatever capital you can responsibly afford.

Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. A catchy story.

We’re a “family business”. Two families to be precise. We’re first time founders, siblings, and best friends trying our hand at making a product we all desperately need for different reasons. We have a CTO trying to help his Vegan chef of a mom, a CEO with dietary needs, and a CMO who wanted cooking at home to feel less intimidating.

2. Design software.

All people eat with their eyes first. Realistically, early on, you won’t have professional designers on staff to custom make all your social media content, decks, promotional materials and more. But tools like Canva can get you 90% of the way there with a little practice and some examples of what good quality materials look like.

3. A delicious idea.

Whether it’s pizza or an app for pizza, your idea needs to be delicious. You’re going to hear a lot of “nos” on your journey. Make sure that none of them are because your idea doesn’t at least sound intriguing at surface level. For all the “nos” we’ve received over the years, no one ever questioned the fundamental premise of: take any recipe, customize it exactly how you want, share with a community, and instantly check out.

4. An idea of who you’re serving.

Be it customers or users, you need to know who you’re serving to actually serve them. Starting a brand can feel very high level and far removed from reality. Especially early on when the people consuming your brand are theoretical. But remember at the end of the day, you’re making something for some specific group(s) of people out there to actually consume. Make sure it makes sense for them.

5. Personal attachment/passion.

Most importantly: you need passion. Being a founder can be exhausting and thankless. It’s not the type of job you clock out of. It creeps into your mind at all hours of the day, and you’ll find yourself obsessing over your company many nights. The only way for this formula to be tenable is if you absolutely love what you’re doing. You need to love and believe in what you’re doing more than anyone else. Go out and evangelize. Tell people why their lives were incomplete before they discovered your product. Passion begets passion.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

First things first: find a real person with a real problem. Anything from a mom trying to find recipes to feed a vegan kid, to a friend complaining that there’s no good healthy snacks in the local bodega. Make sure that whatever problem you identify is important to you personally. The most important part of creating a product people love is passion and personal commitment. If you don’t believe that what you’re making is great, then no one else will.

Beyond that, just iterate. Over time your product will slowly get better and better until it has that essential stickiness. Don’t let your ego guide your progress. Learn from your harshest critics. If someone doesn’t agree with your vision, you likely could have done a better job communicating and convincing them.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Manna is still new. We’ve been iterating for nearly 3 years, going from an idea, through our alpha and beta versions, and now finally to our launch (at the time of writing). Our first goal is to make the world a better place by making the kitchen easier for our users. We want to start with people like me who have dietary needs, and have struggled for years to eat food in a way that makes them feel good. But moving forward, we’re looking to partner with companies from grocers to nonprofits to help make the life of any home cook easier, while cutting down on food waste. As we grow, we strive to be true to the name, Manna, and do our part to make sure no one in our community goes hungry.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If I could inspire a movement, it would be focused on cultural connection through food. Oftentimes cultures that we aren’t familiar with can feel foreign, inaccessible, and intimidating. In college, I majored in East Asian Studies (specifically Chinese history and language). Coming into college I didn’t know a single thing about Chinese history or culture. In fact, neither did anyone I know. World history education in New York is focused almost entirely on Europe and the Western world. But as a teenager growing up outside NYC, Chinese food (or more accurately Americanized Chinese food) was my absolute favorite. Specifically, I loved General Tso’s Chicken. It got me curious: was General Tso a real person? If so, who was he?

That led me to recognize my own historical ignorance and sign up for a class. One class led to another, and next thing I knew I had a degree in Chinese history. My love of General Tso’s Chicken served as an entry point that eventually became a defining part of my life.

As our world becomes more globalized, building cultural bridges becomes more and more essential. In my mind, there is no better way to achieve this than with food. Food is a universal language that transcends ignorance and cultural barriers. It allows us to literally get a taste for each other’s cultures, and plants a seed of curiosity. No one fears someone who feeds them something delicious. And no one hates getting fed.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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