The Backstory: In 2018, I successfully sold my first business, Treat Bake Shop, to the wonderful people at Quince and Apple. And while it was luxurious to take a bit of a break, I soon became restless and ready to start something new. My daughter was seven at the time and starting to make more independent food choices, which meant way more processed foods than I was comfortable with. This evolution in her diet led me to think about doing something around healthy snacks for kids. But I soon realized that was a very hard audience to win over, since what I may consider to be healthy could be viewed as something very unhealthy by someone else, and vice versa. It seemed like a no-win situation I didn’t want to get tangled up in. But when talking with parents, what I did notice, was that, while a smaller group, those that had food allergies were definitely struggling. So I was excited to try to help.
The Product: I created a comprehensive online product catalog of allergy-safe food products. I worked directly with manufacturers to obtain the information (to verify its reliability), and users could filter the information to find specific products that met their needs (i.e. I’m looking for a brownie mix that doesn’t contain eggs, dairy, or nuts, is made in a peanut-free facility, and is available within a 5-mile radius of my house).
The Revenue Model: Instead of funding the business through advertising dollars, I charged the user for access to the information. By keeping the user as my actual customer, I could make improvements to the site and its information based on their needs and requests, vs. letting the manufacturers dictate how the information is relayed through the influence of their advertising dollars.
Well, long story short, it didn’t work. And instead of dragging out the obvious, I opted to “fail fast” and shut the business down in under a year.
Here are my biggest takeaways/lessons learned:
- People don’t want to pay for access to (curated) information online.
- Within the allergy community, there are many online groups that contain threads of people looking for a certain product (i.e. “Does anyone know of a granola bar that doesn’t contain eggs or peanuts?”). While I saw these random threads as an opportunity to organize information and make its discovery more efficient, what I fundamentally didn’t understand was that these conversations of people helping each other were essential to strengthening the allergy community’s feeling of togetherness.
- I don’t have any food allergies. Neither does anyone in my family. As there was no personal motivation behind the business (beyond genuinely wanting to help people), I was seen as an outsider merely trying to profit from others’ vulnerability. (This feedback was the most painful to hear!)
- The market segment of people interested in using the product was too niche. Those with more mild food allergies, or those just more lax about managing their food allergy, didn’t feel the need to spend money to find new products they could eat, and/or trying to find a solution wasn't even on their radar. Conversely, there are those with very severe food allergies. Out of an abundance of caution, even if presented with a “safe” product, they would still feel the need to do all the research on that product themselves. And why would anyone pay for something they were just going to have to re-do all the work for anyway?
- But the main message I didn’t hear properly was that, really, people just don’t want to have to deal with food allergies at all. What they want is a cure (or to have never developed the allergy to begin with). They aren’t necessarily looking for a solution to make managing a food allergy easier. They want a solution that eliminates having to manage the food allergy in the first place.
Starting this business, I thought I was doing everything right. I was religiously following the steps outlined in Steve Blank’s book, The Startup Owner’s Manual, I continually referenced, and tweaked, The Business Model Canvas, and was having as many “customer conversations” as I could get people to talk to me. But my biggest takeaway from this entire experience is that I now understand the dangerous, slippery slope of believing the “False Positives” generated during those customer conversations; of leading answers to your questions; of only hearing what you want to hear. Unfortunately, I read the book The Mom Test after the business was already launched, but it is now the bible by which I will start any future endeavor. It is an invaluable (and incredibly easy-to-read) reference that distinctly teachers you how to ask market research questions properly. While it would have been great for this business to have succeeded, reading "The Mom Test" has brought such clarity to my missteps I am confident any future ventures will already be starting off at a greater advantage. And for that, I am grateful.
p.s. While I couldn’t make a go of this one, there are still amazing people & companies in the food allergy community that have. I would be remiss to not give them a well-deserved shout-out: 2Betties. 88 Acres. Allergy Amulet. Amber Stroud. Bakeology. Barney Butter. Beanfields. Better Bites. Beyond the Equator. Blake's Seed Based. Whitney Morgan Block. Bobo’s. Bohana. Buddy's Allergen Free. Don't Go Nuts!. Ekoa. Emmy's Organics. Gorilly Goods. Dr. Ruchi Gupta. Just the Cheese. Kip's. Kween. LesserEvil. Mary's Gone Crackers. MySuperFoods. Dr. Kari Nadeau. Noshi. Nuttee Bean. Organic Bread of Heaven. Otto's Naturals. OuterAisle. Partake Foods. Picnik. Plant Snacks. Pretzel Pete. Qwackers. Rhythm Superfoods. Rule Breaker Snacks. Safely Delicious. Dr. Sayantani (Tina) B. Sindher. SnackSafely. Sneakz. Spokes. Spokin. Spudsy. Supernola. SuperSeedz. Swapples. That's It.. The Food Equality Initiative. The Greater Knead. The Snack Brigade. Three Bears. Tiger Butter. Undercover. Vegetarian Traveler. Veggiecraft Farms. Veggies Made Great. WOWBUTTER. Yes Bar. Zing Bars.
And if you ever need an expertly-designed revenue-driving SquareSpace site, Tori Cox is your human. She is smart, talented, fun and confidently knows her stuff!