Kris Corbin Of Airly Foods: 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food
… And lastly, understand that nothing will ever be perfect. You’re going to be constantly learning, strategizing and pivoting — but if you continue to keep your goals in mind, success will follow.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kris Corbin, Co-Founder of Airly Foods and Chief Supply Chain Officer.
Kris leads all phases of manufacturing and distribution for Airly. Kris grew up working on a farm in southwestern Ohio working row crops, baling hay and raising livestock. These early farming experiences rooted him in the agriculture community and sparked his passion for making food. After completing his degree in Agriculture and Food Science at The Ohio State University, Corbin has years of experience leading food manufacturing organizations and brands through value added disruptive change innovation to meet new consumer demands, and now, with Climate change being one of the most pressing consumer needs, Kris has leveraged his long-standing ties to the agriculture community and expert knowledge of food manufacturing to bring Airly Oat Clouds to market to help reverse climate change.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of Airly Oat Clouds?
Now more than ever, we know that climate change is one of the most urgent crises facing humanity and at Airly, we believe the time to act is now. Today, roughly 25% of greenhouse gases come from the global food supply change, and the big “ah ha” moment for us really was more of a “what if?” moment. What if through carbon farming processes that remove CO2 from the air, we could provide consumers with a wholesome and delicious snack so good, that it’d inspire others to make food the same way? That was our “ah ha” moment that inspired us to create Airly.
Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and growing up working on a farm? Do you think your childhood helped lead you to your role at Airly?
I grew up working on a farm in southwestern Ohio working row crops, baling hay and raising livestock. These early farming experiences rooted me in the agriculture community and sparked my passion for making food. After completing my degree in Agriculture and Food Science at The Ohio State University, I spent years leading food manufacturing organizations and retail brands through disruptive innovation to meet changing consumer demands, and now, with climate change being one of the most pressing consumer needs, I’ve been able to leverage my long-standing standing ties to the agriculture community and expert knowledge of food manufacturing to bring Airly Oat Clouds to market and help reverse climate change.
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?
I’ve always enjoyed solving problems, and still today am eager to tackle difficult situations to find solutions. One of my first assignments right after graduating from college was to determine the proper package size for a new sausage link product. I was given a large box with several hundred sausage links in it and told that the packing machine can count out exactly 100 links, so I needed to determine the best fit for exactly 100 links. I was so eager to get going that I immediately jumped into the work and got to a size rather quickly. I actually counted out 100 links, arranged them perfectly in the tightest formation that I could, measured the space, and ta-da: I had a length, width, and depth measurement for a box to hold the product.
I quickly shared my work with my supervisor, and he was eager to share it with the broader team. It was entertaining to them all, and nothing short of an embarrassment for me. I had jumped to solving the problem so quickly, that I failed to understand the bigger picture. The new product was planned to be made on manufacturing line with a fully automatic packaging machine that could count exactly 100 links, but what I didn’t understand was that the machine could count about 20 sets of 100 links per minute.
Wait, I had to be able to stack 2,000 links a minute into boxes, how could that be possible? Well, stepping back to get a full picture of the manufacturing process provided more information, and the pieces of the puzzle started to make sense. Initially I was not given all of the information, like, after the machine counts the links, it equally divided them and put them into a bag of 25 links each, and I actually just had to fit 4 bags of 25 into a box. Moreover, this was a continuous process from start to finish, and each step must be synchronized from start to finish to ensure that everything runs efficiently and effectively. This manufacturing line was at least 200 feet long with seven different operations connected together, and just looking at one piece of this puzzle was not going to get the results I needed.
This early misstep taught me that the context of the problem is critical and the solution to the situation must be comprehensive to not fix one problem by creating another one somewhere else. I’ve always been action oriented, and I like to dig in to work on problems, but I now know that understanding the full picture will lead to the most effective solution. This approach to managing complexity is what really drew me into the work to launch Airly snacks. It gave me the opportunity to flex my creativity and problem-solving skills to not only develop a new product, but to develop one that work to improve the health and wellness of people and the planet.
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? Did you implement these lessons when starting Airly?
The most common mistake I have seen is when someone decides to launch a product that they really enjoy eating, and fail to take into account the vast range of preferences of all the other people to whom they want to sell the product. In the case of Airly, we want to inspire a movement to reverse climate change with food, and therefore, it’s critical that our product is loved by everyone vs just what the Airly teams likes to eat. We really took this to heart in the development process and sought out a wide range input to ensure we made a great product that had broad appeal for both taste and experience, so that we can tell the story of removing CO2 from the air with every box of Airly.
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?
First and foremost, you should have a passion for whatever product you’re looking to produce. Here at Airly, we are fierce advocates for the well-being of our climate and acknowledge it will take big changes across the globe to tackle climate change, but we’re also in a position to help reverse climate change through the food we eat.
Secondly, you need to do your research on the product, it’s competition, household penetration and always keep the consumer in mind. For example, when we were deciding which product to start with, we considered all of these components, and examined categories that have simple ingredients in wholesome snacks that people already loved. This research helped us decide on our first snack cracker — Airly Oat Clouds.
And lastly, understand that nothing will ever be perfect. You’re going to be constantly learning, strategizing and pivoting — but if you continue to keep your goals in mind, success will follow.
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. Based on your experience launching Airly, what would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
Being an inventor is by all measures an exercise in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. There are many tools and techniques to define the ambiguous and uncertain aspects of any endeavor, but at some point, action must be taken to implement the new idea, and then learn from that point going forward. An idea only becomes a business when you actually make the product and sell it to your customer. At this point, you can remain in the same place or improve the product, but if you never transact with a customer, you don’t have a business.
My experience has been that when inventors start seeking certainty; progress is slowed or even stopped, and that’s when the good idea ceases, and turmoil begins. This is the beginning of the end for the invention, and leads to wasted money, time, stress, and even strain on relationships of those involved with the idea.
Ultimately, successful inventors take action, make the product, observe the impact of their work, take feedback, revise the product, and launch an improved version. Specifically, with Airly Oat Clouds, when we first thought of the idea and identified all the potential hurdles, we simply put an action plan in place, and started tackling each piece of the project with the goal that we would not settle for anything less than a full product launch in 2021. We encountered many anticipated and unforeseen hurdles, but we were prepared to pivot to deal with the issues and continue forward. I’m proud that we stayed the course and have an awesome product on the market now. I’m eager to learn how consumers like the product, and what ideas will come back for improvement for our next product launch.
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?
I’m a strong believe in the power of collaboration, especially when trying to do something that others have never done. Success often is found when leveraging the varied strengths of a team in problem solving and risk mitigation. That being said, the most important part of the puzzle is a set of clear objectives that can keep the work on the invention focused.
For Airly, our team had two critical objectives:
- A laser focus on the CO2 footprint of our products and reducing every point of CO2 emission possible.
- Getting the product to market so that we can engage consumers, tell the story of Airly, and ignite a movement to reverse climate change with food.
Each invention is different, and therefore no rule of thumb can guide inventors, but I would encourage future inventors to focus their objectives, seek input from others, and stay flexible and willing to pivot when they encounter hurdles.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
Intellectual property management is critical for any new product, and Airly is no exception. We have worked hard to develop proprietary technologies on our farms which makes our mission to reverse climate change possible, but it doesn’t stop there.
Our ingredients, packaging, and manufacturing processes combined make it possible to launch a truly breakthrough innovation never before seen in North America. We use a combination of tools to manage and protect our intellectual property including patents, trade secrets, exclusivity agreements, etc. There is not a one-size fits all approach, and each tool has different benefits, so I encourage anyone developing unique technologies to seek advice from intellectual property experts who can help to assess that unique situation and recommend appropriate options.
Sourcing raw materials — At Airly we have a rigorous review and approval process for all suppliers of ingredients and packaging. This includes extensive food safety documentation review, third party audit reviews, and all suppliers must adherence to The Global Food Safety Initiative. Moreover, selection of raw materials for Airly Oat Clouds includes an in-depth review of the CO2 footprint of each material, and potential ways to lower that CO2 footprint. Additionally, we look for suppliers who are aligned with our mission to reverse climate change and are willing to partner with us to lower their CO2 footprint and ensure supply continuity during this new product launch.
Sourcing manufacturers — At Airly we conduct food safety reviews of all manufacturing sites, including baking, packaging, and warehouse locations. This includes extensive food safety documentation review, third party audit reviews, and all manufacturers must adherence to The Global Food Safety Initiative. Selection of manufacturers for Airly Oat Clouds includes an in-depth review of the CO2 footprint of each facility, and potential ways to lower that CO2 footprint. It also includes a review of operational flexibility that will allow us to respond to new consumer demands, and quickly implement improvements to our process which will directly lower our CO2 footprint.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need to Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Point of Differentiation: There are thousands of food products currently in the market, and to breakthrough with a new idea, there must be a clear benefit from the new product that currently doesn’t exist. Understanding consumer demands is key to matching up the product benefit with the unmet need. With Airly, we have been able to accomplish this with a keen understanding of consumer’s desire to make a positive impact on the climate, while making it simply for them to adopt a new product that tastes great and removes CO2 from the air.
- Great Taste: Consumers will try anything once, but if you want them to come back for more, it must taste great. This was critical for the development of Airly Oat Clouds because we want to engage people in a movement to reverse climate change, and that means getting as many people as possible trying our product, and then having them share it with others because it tastes so great you can’t put it down. I started with the artistry of food to make a signature item for Airly’s launch and first impression with the world, and then leverage food science techniques to repeat the process and deliver the same experience time and time again, so people can enjoy the product and help reverse climate change with every box.
- High Quality Raw Materials: People are more aware of what they consume than ever before. Having high quality, real ingredients is the only way to satisfy consumers. At Airly, that’s why we choose to use simple, non-GMO ingredients and to apply for product verification through the non-GMO Project. All our products proudly carry the non-GMO Project Verification logo.
- Competitive Advantage: You need to understand the competitors in your category and determine ways to deliver greater value than they do. Your product can’t just do the same thing other products do, it has to deliver more and at equal or better value than the current options. You also need to make it difficult for others to duplicate your value, otherwise, when you do capture a large interest from consumers, your competitors can just make the same product and that makes it difficult for you to retain your customers. With Airly, this was a key focus during development, and we identified several areas where we could insulate ourselves from copycat products and provide the space for us to focus our efforts on delivering an awesome snack that addresses the health and wellness of people and our planet.
- Commercial Viability: After everything is said and done, your new product must be economically viable in order to stay in the market. All costs need to be considered in the procurement, manufacturing, and distribution of the product to ensure that you end up with a profitable business proposition. Without a strong financial plan, the best idea will die because you cannot afford to market your product. Failure to understand the input costs and marketing costs during development will lead to a failure in market. Not because the product is bad or doesn’t meet expectations, but rather because you simply cannot afford to subsidize an idea that cost more to manufacture than consumers are willing to pay.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Creating a product that people crave and go crazy over is an iterative, and humbling, process. I rely on years of experience baking and mixing ingredients to create unique flavors, but then always seek input from people who will give honest feedback about how they like the product. Success lies in the area between my expertise and the reaction that I receive from people who eat the product.
When I make a product that I love, and then I get feedback about “ways to make it better,” I must accept that and incorporate that feedback in the next iteration. Taste always wins the day in food no matter what other benefits a product offers, so in the case of Airly we have a critically important story to tell about climate change, and we knew that we could not compromise the taste and experience consumers would have with this important new product, or we might miss that opportunity to inspire a movement for climate positive snacking.
Therefore, the development of the Airly Cheddar Oat Clouds took 67 iterations to find the perfect balance of ingredients to deliver a taste and texture with which we can delight anyone who eats the snack. I’m proud to share the Airly Cheddar Oat Clouds with friends and family, and look forward to more feedback, and opportunities to improve, as people across the USA get a chance to try the product this summer.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
It is truly a team effort, and of course my experiences have helped launch this brand, but together, Airly is pioneering the food-supply chain in a way that allows all of us to be part of a solution to climate change, rather than a contributor. We’re hoping to encourage everyone to take part of a colossal challenge that is much bigger than all of us. I truly believe that by taking these small, yet mighty steps together — we can all make the world a better place.
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.
Well, thank you for saying that! As I mentioned earlier, roughly 25% of greenhouse gases come from the global food supply. When we first came up with the idea for Airly, we started by asking the question, “What if?” What if instead of just trying to be “less bad,” we could actually use food to help reverse climate change? “What if that food was so wholesome and delicious, that it inspired others to want to make food the same way?
That said, I think we are already inspiring a movement that will change the world and create a brighter future for all of us. Airly Foods is on a mission to reverse climate change through food — and it’s my personal mission too. Together, we hope to inspire and spark a movement to show that it’s possible to incorporate climate friendly choices into something as simple as the snacks we select, and inspire all of us to seek out climate friendly practices in all we do. It’s only by acting together that our small steps start to add up to big change.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Warren Winiarski, because of his influence in the American and Global wine making industry and commitment to preservation of agricultural land, wildlife, forests, and water resources in the Napa Valley. Warren disrupted the entire wine industry in 1976 by winning the Judgement of Paris for his 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. Before that achievement, Warren supported the Napa Ag Preserve in 1968 and has donated 200 acres to the Napa Land Trust to preserve the character and biodiversity of the Napa Valley. Moreover, Warren was a thought leader in the area of promoting and developing the Napa Valley wine industry. He chaired the committee that established the American Viticultural Area (AVA) as a method to increase awareness of the Napa Valley as a world leader in wine production.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.