I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Bonner, Jessica Hilbert, and Shannon Oliver — the three founders of Red Duck Foods. Red Duck, which started as a class project at the University of Oregon in 2013, is an artisan organic sauce & condiment company based in Portland, OR. Since launching three flavors of ketchup into 6 stores in Eugene, OR in 2013, the company has grown the product line to include 11 products (4 ketchups, 3 BBQ sauces, 3 taco sauces and a cocktail sauce) and now has distribution in nearly 3,000 stores throughout the United States and internationally to Canada, Australia, and Hong Kong. Their newest product line of organic taco sauces will be launching nationally into Whole Foods Market this August.
Jean: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory” of how you become a founder?
Shannon Oliver — Thanks for including us! With three co-founders, we all have slightly different stories. I think I always knew I wanted to start a business of some sort. The idea of being able to use my creativity to build something from the ground up has always appealed to me but I just assumed it’d happen later in my life. Red Duck’s backstory is that we started the company as graduate students working on a class project and so we all kind of dove in together. Honestly, now that we’re doing it, I can’t imagine launching a business when you’re not in business school — the network and support were unparalleled. My prior work experience was super varied with experience ranging from another food startup to working for a veterinarian to coaching rowing and teaching the GMAT/LSAT. In between I even worked odd jobs including a humbling gig at the Lane County Fair taking tickets for the Sea Dragon before going back to grad school. It’s all of these experiences, learning to adapt to different audiences, and training myself to be flexible to changing circumstances, that prepared me for startup life.
Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Jess Hilbert — There are a few things that make us stand out. As a certified B Corporation®, we’ve taken the big and very public step to shout from the mountain-top that we’re out there using business as a force for good. It’s a rigorous process to become a certified B Corp® but it was absolutely worth it for us. Secondly, the authenticity of our company shines. Not only in our B Corp® status, but also in that as a small company of just five people, there is a good chance that if you talk to someone at our company, you’re going to be talking to a founder. That’s hard to find in companies in the natural products space. But more than anything, our products speak for themselves. We’ve come up with the recipes for each and every single one of our sauces. We take a lot of pride in how delicious each sauce is and that we’ve developed these nuanced, fun, and exciting flavors — some of them in our own kitchens! A big part of the reason our products taste as delicious as they do is our tomatoes. We visited our tomato farms several years back where we saw the harvest unfold before our eyes! Our tomatoes go from field to purée in less than four hours and are being harvested during the peak summer months, when tomatoes are supposed to be harvested. Having that kind of relationship with our supply chain is a big part of why we are the way we are and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?
Jess, Shannon, Karen Bonner — Oh there are always fun projects bubbling in the Red Duck world! We’re working on new products, which we are very excited about. It’s just a bit too early to reveal what they are but they will certainly have our same commitments to clean and honest ingredients that deliver really awesome flavor experiences. This is also our first full year as a Certified B Corp® and we’re really focusing our energy as individuals and as a company on exceeding the number of hours we volunteered last year. More specifically, we’ve got some fun initiatives around reducing food waste that we are working to get off the ground with some local schools to help reinforce this idea with some of Portland’s most energetic and enthusiastic people — students!
Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
Karen Bonner — A great book that really made an impact during a pivotal point of our business is “Mission in a Bottle: The Honest Guide to Doing Business Differently — And Succeeding” by Seth Goldman, and Barry Nalebuff, the founders of Honest Tea. I read it when we were just launching Red Duck Foods and our products were only available in a handful of stores. This graphic novel literally illustrated some of the issues and challenges we would soon face. It’s a fun and entertaining read that contains many lessons for any would-be food or beverage entrepreneur!
Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a Twentysomething Founder” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Jess, Shannon, Karen –
· Fundraising is not necessarily something that you can just work harder at and find success. We have done rounds of funding that have taken several weeks and we’ve had rounds of funding that have literally taken more than a year. Simply sending out more emails, arranging more coffee meet & greets, or attending more investment fairs won’t get money into your bank account any quicker and timing really is everything in this regard.
· Your company will become your child and has the potential to consume your entire life. But every once in a while you need to switch off and clear your mind, even if just for a few hours. There have been times where each one of us has felt like we’re shouldering so much. In a company of only five people, it can be hard to share responsibility or even completely turn off when on vacation. But now that we are five years in, we really encourage one another to unplug and decompress when we’re taking time off.
· Sometimes simpler really is better. We started our company on the premise that we were a flavor company and launched foodservice packaging for all of our flavored ketchups (Smoky, Curry, Spicy) thinking that restaurants would come banging down our door wanting a special ketchup that would elevate their offerings. Turns out, for foodservice ketchup, a more inexpensive product more in line with conventional flavors is better because ketchup is given away for free. With this knowledge, we went back to the drawing board and developed our Original ketchup, which has a much simpler blend of spices than our other flavors. As a result, our foodservice business has grown nicely.
· You can’t do it all yourself and hiring people can really drive the company forward. We waited almost three years before making our first full-time hire and if we could go back and do it again, we probably would have hired more team members sooner. The truth is, if you think you can just stave off hiring and do it all yourself, by the time you realize that you need to hire someone it’s probably too late because you’ll be in over your head just trying to onboard them and still completing all your own tasks.
· Marketing a CPG is hard. It’s so darn challenging to reach consumers in a meaningful way on a shoestring budget given all the clutter out there. Moreover, our country is so big and diverse and sometimes your genesis story doesn’t always strike a chord with all markets. Sometimes just grabbing a beer with someone to jabber about ideas can lead to simple solutions to what initially appear to be complex situations — communal brain sharing is good!
Jean: 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 whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Karen– I love listening to podcasts while commuting, walking, or doing chores and two of my favorite podcast hosts are Tim Ferriss and Terry Gross — I’d love to have breakfast or lunch with either of them! It would be amazing to chat with Tim about our business and see if he had any advice on our biggest challenges. Terry Gross is an incredible interviewer, and I’d love to learn more about her process for preparing interviews, and how she chooses her questions!
Jess — I always say the more the merrier, but I think I’d just love to sit down with Jimmy Fallon and/or Ellen DeGeneres. They are both incredible entertainers and they pretty consistently leave me with tears in my eyes from laughing so hard. So in that way, I think having breakfast or lunch with them would be fun. But more than that, they use their craft and calling as a force for good. As a Certified B Corp®, that’s exactly what we’re doing with Red Duck and I like to think that, like Ellen and Jimmy, our products are also pretty darn good at bringing a smile to peoples’ faces.
Shannon — For me it would be President Barack Obama. Besides the fact that he’d be so interesting, he’s someone that built something that he knew from the get-go would be handed to someone else. We’re building a company that will likely one day be handed to someone else. I’d be curious what steps he took or would recommend to ensure that the culture/heart/brand/values (whatever you want to call it) sticks with the business regardless of ownership. Plus I assume he’d bring Michelle and we should be best friends.
— Published on June 27, 2018