“Dream Big. You’ll Never Reach A Goal You Don’t Set.”
Words of Wisdom with Katlin Smith, founder and CEO of Simple Mills
I had the pleasure of interviewing Katlin Smith, founder and CEO of Simple Mills, a pioneer in the ‘clean food’ space. In just four years in business, Simple Mills has catapulted to success with the #1 best-selling natural baking mix, #1 best-selling natural cracker, and #2 best-selling natural cookie in the market.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I’m a poster child for the positive effects of clean eating. I had suffered from chronic joint pain and frequent colds since high school, and a friend suggested I try eliminating highly processed foods and allergens like wheat to see if that helped. My pain and colds went away, I suddenly had more energy, and I decided that other people could benefit from following a whole foods diet. I realized that none of the baking mixes on the grocery shelf had the kind of clean label I was looking for — I wanted to not only be able to pronounce what I was reading on the ingredient lines but visualize them in their whole form as well. Also, I was looking to eliminate those things that my body didn’t tolerate well such as gluten, grains, soy, GMOs, excessive sugar, or anything artificial — so I decided to start there. It took me 90 tries to perfect my first three products, all in my own kitchen. I started selling them on Amazon, then baked a batch of muffins and took them to a Whole Foods Store in Atlanta to try to get retail placement. The grocery buyer tasted them and said, “Let me get this straight. This mix made these muffins?” Three months later, the first Whole Foods store started carrying those first products, and today we are sold in more than 12,000 natural and conventional grocery stores.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company
There are so many! One of the most memorable was our first production runs (and that’s a term I use loosely). I had rented a commercial kitchen by the hour in a shabby part of Atlanta. It’s all I could afford. I was still working full-time for another company, which meant I went there on weekends and stayed well into the early hours of the morning. I couldn’t afford a commercial mixer, but I figured out that if I got some large food-grade barrels, I could put the flours in them and roll them forth across the countertop to mix the baking mixes. It actually worked really well! And when I was done and had everything packaged up, I would literally run all the product to my car — because as a tiny young girl, I was scared of the neighborhood.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our country is changing the way they shop for food. Every year, sales in the center aisles of the grocery store drop to new levels as more consumers abandon the traditional packaged food they’ve been purchasing for decades. Like me, many others are realizing that the food they eat has very real impacts on how they feel and what they’re able to do on a daily basis, which has led many to think more critically about the ingredient label. They’re increasingly looking for not only ingredients that they (and their bodies) recognize, but also ingredients that work harder for them.
I remember one of the first times I witnessed this. I was in a Whole Foods store in Connecticut. I watched as a mother turned around every baking mix on the shelves to examine the ingredient label. Her husband offered up a few suggestions and she just shook her head. She left without buying anything.
For us, the combination of our ingredient deck and our taste & texture are our largest differentiators. Our products are made out of real food — ingredients that have nutrition — like almond flour, coconut flour, sunflower seeds — instead of the traditional flours that are heavy in carbohydrates like wheat or rice flour. We believe in using lower glycemic sweeteners like coconut sugar — and using a lot less of it. But our consumers would never know it based on our taste and texture.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It’s so true — one person who immediately comes to mind is Laura — she’s my leadership coach. When I first met Laura, I knew we were going to get along well — and I could tell that she had so much wisdom to share. One of the craziest things about being an entrepreneur of a high-growth company is that in a matter of four years, you go from having managed no one (ever!) to leading a team of 30 toward complex goals with limited resources. When I first started building a team, I thought leadership would just be common sense. But it is really anything but. Motivating people, keeping a team aligned to a goal, keeping your team engaged — it’s not straightforward. Laura has been my Yoda. It doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes — it simply means that I get to learn from the mistakes before making them 10 times over, which has helped me scale our team that much faster.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My ultimate goal is to change what the center of the grocery store looks like. When I started the business, the aisles were packed with long ingredient lists, sugar, and carbs. I didn’t think it should be this way — I wanted to make it easy to find delicious, convenient food with amazing ingredient lists. Over the past four years, the greatest thrill has not only been watching our distribution grow and receiving amazing letters from our customers, but watching our competitors copy our ingredient lists and drop their sugar count. I have also heard story after story of our products sitting on brand managers’ desks at Big Food brands. It’s my hope that we not only serve our customers better products, but help our competitors serve better products to their consumers. A rising tide raises all boats — and when our country eats better, we’re all better off.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my Start-Up” and why.
- Dream big. You’ll never reach a goal you don’t set. When I started the business, I didn’t have an end goal, a vision of where we would be in five years. All I knew is that I wanted to change the market. It wasn’t until one of my advisors said to me “This could be as big as Betty Crocker!!” that I thought “Wow, you’re right, let’s make this huge!”
- But while you’re dreaming big, realize it’s not about the destination — it’s about the journey. What really matters are the little moments along the way — watching the sun set from your eighth flight of the week, helping another entrepreneur get their first account, the first time you tell someone what you do and they actually recognize your brand name, hearing from one of your consumers about how she teared up in her grocery store because her son could eat bread for the first time. Enjoy the little things.
- Be prepared to never make a dime. Starting a business is a shot in the dark. I can look back now and see there is never one thing that makes a business — and it’s certainly not about a winning idea. It’s about taking a million right turns at the right time. We worked our butts off, but also got very lucky. Don’t start a business to make money. Start a business because you passionately believe the world needs a change. And the money will follow.
- Get ready to learn. Building a business and a team is one of the most humbling experiences. Four years ago, I felt like I knew it all. Today, I can see so many things I don’t know. Partner with people who you can be vulnerable with — who you can share your insecurities with — so they can help show you the way.
- Take pictures. There are so many crazy things that happen in the early days. Wheeling five bags down the sidewalk in Chicago across snow and ice because you can’t afford an Uber. Renting kitchens in unsafe locations. Printing your packaging on your home printer and repositioning the sheets every five minutes because the printer has jammed again. Hosting 10 demos in a weekend and going back to your full-time job on Monday. Assembling Ikea office furniture nonstop for 3 days. One day you’ll want proof it all happened.
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?
Brené Brown — Brené’s writing on vulnerability and shame has fundamentally changed the way I approach my personal and professional relationships. Sharing your insecurities can be one of the most difficult and simultaneously most rewarding things you can do. I’m still not perfect at it, but try to get a little better every day.