Lin Carson of BAKERpedia: 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food
Be honest — why are you doing this? Use the best food ingredients you can obtain, and don’t cut corners on the quality. Taste is paramount to your product in order to stand above the crowd. Be truthful about your journey, tell your story and share your passion and your reason why you created this food product. Everyone would love to support your journey.
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 Lin Carson, PhD, founder of BAKERPEDIA.
Dr. Lin Carson’s love affair with baking started over 25 years ago with a BSc degree in Food Science & Technology at the Ohio State University. She went on to earn her MSc, then PhD from the Department of Grain Science at Kansas State University. While working at Wendy’s and Dave’s Killer Bread, her technical teams experienced the lack of baking information on the internet. Seeing that this was not freely shared, Dr. Lin decided to launch BAKERpedia to cover this gap. With over 1.3M pages read annually, BAKERpedia is the world’s only FREE and comprehensive online technical resource for the commercial baking industry.
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”?
I’ve been surrounded by bakery ingredients for as young as I can remember. The smell of vanilla custard brings back memories of sleeping next to the 50lb sacks of Vanilla custard with my brother on the top bunk bed. We lived in a shop house on Jalan Pelikat in Singapore in the 70s. My Dads bakery ingredient office was next door, the front of our shop house was the stock room where my brother and I slept and the back was a small kitchen, bedroom, living room and bath rooms. We even had a yard in the back that was taken up by a coldroom for more of my dad’s business. My father is an entrepreneur who put us to work as soon as we could count. He had a test kitchen where his head baker, Mr. Han, would test products to showcase to their customers. I would always try to help measure out and mix, but being a kindergartener, I think I was more in his way. Mr. Han would explain to me what he was doing when he was making bread and baking cakes. In a way, hanging out with Mr. Han was what peaked my interest in Food and Baking at a very young age. Little did Mr. Han know that he created a baking monster. I came to the US to study Food Science at the Ohio State University. After that, I went to the Dept. of Grain Science to get my Masters and PhD specializing in baking and sensory. I loved baking, and I wanted to learn everything about it. When I graduated, I opened a bakery cafe in Denver, CO. It focused on a fresh baked bread-on-demand concept. A few unfortunate events happened during that business, and with the Atkin’s diet on top of that, it led to a failed business concept. So I closed the business and went back east to work for Wendy’s International New Bakery to start their bun R&D program. After 7 years in Zanesville, OH, I moved to join Dave’s Killer Bread as their Technical Service Director, running their R&D, QA, Food Safety, Sanitation and Co-manufacturing teams.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
While working at Wendy’s, I could never find credible information for ingredient and equipment usage on Google. My team would spend hours on the internet, searching for information, and still came up with nothing. That was my “ah ha” moment. I felt that something needed to be done with this gap. So I bought the domain, BAKERpedia, sold my car and my piano to pay for the development and marketing of the site, and started writing the first few pages of this baking encyclopedia. Six years later, we are the world’s largest resource for commercial baking, with over a thousand freely accessible pages, and almost 2M visitors per year. Our resource can be found regularly in Answer boxes and position #1 on Google. My goal is achieved. Now, you can find credible commercial baking information on the first page of Google!
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?
Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t find any of my mistakes funny, but I made many of them.
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?
When you own the world’s largest baking resource, you get a lot of bakers running to you to ask for help. The #1 issue with bakeries trying to scale, or start-up entrepreneurs trying to increase their channel distribution, is shelf life. This is because when they first created the product, they never thought it would be a huge success, and this success would bring them to another city or state. This meant that their product has to have a longer shelf life, and to do this, they have to optimize their product formula and process. To avoid growth snafus with your product line, hire a food scientist to control your process, or approach your local University Food Science Extension department for help.
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?
Most states would have one Agricultural University that has a Food Science Program. Please seek help with their Food Science Extension Department. They can set you up with proper control points so as to keep your food product safe to consume over a longer period of time. Does this means artificial preservatives? Not necessarily. There are natural methods like controlling water activity, thermal profiling for crumb set and bake outs, physical barriers, oxygen scavengers and packaging that can help you extend the life of your food product. If you can’t afford to hire a food technologist, get trained in Food Production courses, so that you can learn what it would take for you to scale up your food idea. Also, these places are rich in resources and could guide you to pilot plants and commissaries that would help bring your idea to fruition. In addition, food safety is an issue that many food entrepreneurs are not aware of. Bacterial contamination and making your customers sick can put you out of business immediately. So, its vital that you put a HACCP program together for the production of your food line, and any Food Science extension program should be able to help you with that.
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?
“When it comes down to it, nothing trumps execution” — Gary Vaynerchuk. Ideas are a dime a dozen. You have an idea, she has an idea, I have an idea, who has the best idea? It doesn’t matter, because it is just an idea. What matters is who executes it. I really feel that there is no such thing as a good or bad execution of an idea. Execution is the adaptor that turns the idea into currency. Don’t be intimidated by creating a large business plan. In fact, just skip that altogether, don’t write a business plan! Just create the product. See who will buy it. Sell out, then repeat with a bigger batch. Rinse and repeat. You should be able to profit after a few batches. If you’re not profiting, then maybe its not a good idea in the first place. If you’re successful, well, good for you because you are on your way to a real food business!
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?
NO. Don’t hire people like me at the beginning! I say that with love and compassion because you need your money. Every single cent of it, to prove your food concept. At the beginning of your journey, spend every single dime you have on proving out your food concept. When you scale and expand into different distribution channels, then that’s where you call in experts like me.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
VCs are usually not interested in a new food concept at the seed stage. They usually come in at a point where the food concept is proven with a regional multi distribution channel. The best is to raise an angel round with friends and family. You can also use Indigogo or Kickstarter to do this. Look at local entrepreneurial organizations to see if they have startup competitions that you can pitch at. Usually, if you don’t raise capital at these events, you would get mentorship, resources and advice on starting up your food company.
If you fail raising capital this way, don’t fret. Remember, I failed too at raising capital. I bootstrapped my company, and from the sale of my car and piano, I had enough to produce a minimal viable product, which was the website. I manage to make my first sale to a sponsor, then created more digital packages for another sponsor, then another and another. Sales was my tool to raise money to make my idea work. You can use this same tactic for a food product too.
Not many startup founders can say this, but raising capital is not the only way to fund your dream. Sales is a powerful alternative to fund your dream, and without the hassle of dealing with investors and term sheets.
Once you make sales revenues work for you, all you need to do is keep afloat and show a strong growth for a year, then depending on where you are, you may be eligible for traditional bank financing. Make sure your books are straight, and use Quickbooks to keep things straight. Don’t forget to file your taxes, as this is the only way you’re going to get a bank to loan you money for your growth.
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?
Consumer Packaged Food are difficult to patent. I do not suggest going this route, unless its for a particular ingredient or packaging technology that can be covered by a utility patent. Even so, the money and time you spend on lawyers, and filing the patent, can be spent on getting the product quickly to market.
How do you get a food product from concept to market quickly on a shoe string budget? Again, the first place I would stop at is at the University food science extension department. They have networks to help you manufacture your product, and you may be eligible for grants to improve your food production skills. You can start at places like cash and carry, Costco, US Food Service or Sysco food distributors for your ingredients, but you will learn fast enough that these places will not have consistent quality or price guarantee for your small scale food production. Be a member of your local Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) chapter to network and find ingredient providers locally.
Be a member of your local BBB or charter of business, and start networking. You need people to talk about you and your products to the local buyers at your local supermarket. Or start cold calling the buyers of these grocery stores (which is harder to do). Set up at the local farmer’s market, to build a following and start a social media following to keep them engaged. Whatever your marketing strategy is, your #1 goal should be to funnel all your customers to your local supermarkets. Have them ask for your products in their stores. This is one of the ways the buyers would call you back and ask for a sample of your product.
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.)
- Be honest — why are you doing this? Use the best food ingredients you can obtain, and don’t cut corners on the quality. Taste is paramount to your product in order to stand above the crowd. Be truthful about your journey, tell your story and share your passion and your reason why you created this food product. Everyone would love to support your journey.
- Hustle — don’t wait till the perfect moment or packaging or employee. Take a step forward everyday. Knock on doors, cold call people, get your products into the hands of influencers. Do product sampling at all farmer’s markets and any event anyone would let you have a stall. Use gorilla marketing tactics to get your product onto the desk of supermarket buyers. Whatever you do, don’t stop. If you fear the criticisms of how you hustle. Remember, there are worst things that people can call you (well, at least that’s how I console myself)
- Sell. Sell. Sell. Remember, your rent is not going to pay itself, your employees are not gonna work for free, your vendors are not going to gift you ingredients. You need money to get things done, and the best way to get money is to? Yes. Sell your products! In fact, if you have some money from sales already, the first hire for your company is not an admin or a production employee, but a sales person. Sales revenues helps generates the cashflow that you need to run your company.
- Hire the best people — Create a unique culture of honesty, accountability and team. Your leadership is key to who you attract, and if you’re not willing to create a unique culture, you will lose a lot of money on hiring, training, rehiring and retraining your employees. When you get to be the CEO of a food company, at least 50% of your time should be spent on cultivating the culture in your company. I made this big mistake in my last company and eventually, my people problems cost me so much money that it was one of the biggest reasons why I closed the company.
- Cash is King. At the end of the day, your bank account cannot be at Zero. Do your best to keep the sales velocity up (therefore why I recommend a sales person as your first hire). Get your finances straightened out so that you can get a Line of Credit at the bank. If they give you a big no, don’t worry there are a ton of financial institutions and credit card companies out there who would be willing to loan you the money at high interest rates. But please, if you decide to go this route, be disciplined and pay it back asap or you can get into financial troubles very easily. Apply for higher credit limits, because on a rainy day, trust me, you would need it, and it may save your business. I maxed out my credit cards before I could get a LOC at my bank, and during times of uncertainty, I maxed that out as well. Good news is, I made sure everything was paid back in a timely manner, and I do not need these LOC now. Another good ask from your vendors is longer repayment terms. If you can get 30 days, great. 60 days? Even better! You need this because you will realize that supermarkets aren’t the best at paying you for your products immediately. Sometimes, it may take up to 45 days till you see that check! Lastly, look into factoring services for your invoices. It might be worth to pay a percentage to get your money upfront, so that you don’t loose your business. Your cashflow will be tight for the first couple of years till you get to your economies of scale. Until then, don’t go out of business because someone didn’t pay you on time!
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
- Be honest and creative about your messaging.
- Must taste great. Create a high quality product that tastes great, and has a positive impact on people’s bodies and their environment.
- Know what’s In! Be attuned to the current food trends and create food products that fall along the lines of these trends.
- Disrupt. Does a product category look like it hasn’t changed in ages? Then it’s ripe for disruption.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I helped women locally with peer mentorship groups for startups. This eventually led to three groups of startup women across Portland, meeting every week for Peer Mentoring. This is key to every woman who needs that free support and reassurance in a business environment that is harsh and uncooperative towards feminine idealogies.
I also belong to a local philanthropic group called 99 Girlfriends. This organization learn about the needs in our community, come together, and pool our funds and resources to make a significant impact through collective gifting. This year, we granted $50,000 each to10 local charities this year.
I have reinvested a majority of our sponsorship money back into BAKERpedia in growing it’s freely accessible pages. I believe in growing a global community with shared resources. By doing this, I wish to cultivate a community of global bakers that cares about what they do, how they do it, and how we can all help solve world hunger.
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.
Share and be kind. There is plenty of food, love and wealth to go around. I would like to see every block have a corner pantry, where it is a place to share excess packaged goods like flour, sugar, rice, canned beans and non-perishables. This way, when someone has too much of one thing, they can share it. And when someone is in need of something, they can take it.
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?
Gary Vaynerchuk. Because I’ve learned so much from him on how to market and brand myself and my company with very little money to start. I’m so thankful for his podcast, the Gary Vee show, because I used to listen to him when I was feeling down about my business. And his no-shit, no excuses approaches really pulled me up and helped me face the fears of my own business. He’s not easily acciessible, but he’s free on my podcasts!!!
My handles are @lincarson on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.