9 Strategies We Wish Knew Before We Launched a Small Business – ProTings
Hindsight is 20/20 and while part of the thrill of being an entrepreneur is learning as you go, even the best in the biz would admit that there are a few things they wish they knew upfront or would do differently if given a second shot. We caught up with Ryan Wiltse, co-founder of popular protein snack ProTings, for his list of the top lessons learned around scaling a passion project, maintaining quality, legal issues, and building a bulletproof brand.
Strategy #1 – DON’T do it yourself.
…At least not entirely. ProTings protein chips were created in 2013 by a couple of friends who lived very active lives and were passionate about creating a fun, new alternative to protein bars and shakes. After graduating college, they moved to The Big Apple and jumped head first into their budding business. They pulled 8 hour shifts, making the product entirely by hand.
As co-founders Ryan and Krik realized, trying to do it all, especially once there is a demand for products that needs to be met, only ties up necessary time, energy and resources that would be better spent growing the business.
Ryan further explains, “One thing I wish we would’ve known was that [doing everything ourselves] definitely wasn’t scalable. It’s good in a sense that [having a demand] validated the products but you do want to build a legitimate, scalable business. It’s important to identify what parts of your business you can outsource or hire others for.”
Strategy #2 – Perfect your product, then bring it to the professionals.
Scrambling to do everything all at once also means more effort is put into churning out more and more product. According to Ryan, a better strategy would be to perfect your product, then bring it to someone who can produce at a much larger and faster scale.
Ryan states, “Another thing I wish we’d done would probably be to do a bunch more testing on the product. Basically, having 6 months of initial beta testing and running it by a co-packer would’ve been smart. I guess you can say it’s good we got our hands dirty and got to better understand the process but in terms of scaling the business, we could’ve saved some time and money by doing some testing and trying to find a co-packer sooner.”
Strategy #3 – Communication is key, so never let up.
One of the harsh realities of entrepreneurship is that sometimes, the people closest to you just aren’t as excited or receptive as you’d hope. Unfortunately, the same thing sometimes applies to your business relationships. Being ‘the little guy’ would sometimes prove difficult for Ryan and Krik but they certainly never let that deter them!
Ryan recalls a situation with a particular co-packer in the past, “Most co-packers have high minimums like 40 pallets, but this one we found was willing to try us out, so we were very excited to get up and running with them. Turns out, they ended up being very poor in communication! We had quit our jobs [by this point] so this was our full time gig, and we’d be waiting for one email back with these people in response to scheduling or materials or meetings or whatever. We’d be sitting on our couches twiddling our thumbs, waiting for an email for like a week. We’d send them follow up emails every other day, call them, hound them and they just weren’t responding. So that was the tough part.”
Strategy #4 – Find the perfect fit.
While situations like the above can happen, finally finding the the right fit is invaluable to your business. Do your research and whether it be a co-packer, retailer, distributor – anyone who has a hand in the growth of your business, really – make sure they’re The One.
ProTings is in a much better place now. As per Ryan, “Now we work with a baked goods co-packer that has the capabilities that we need. [For example] we’re gluten-free and vegan; [those are] big certifications. We’ve got all these tenets that these [types of] co-packers adhere to and there are only two or three of them in the whole country that do this so there aren’t many options either. There are plenty of plants in other industries [like for bottling beverages] but not necessarily big companies that had the certifications we needed. Now we’re with a co-packer that has plenty of experience in the field. There were definitely growing pains but it’s a way better group organization-wise and accessibility-wise.
“It’s tough because everyone says, ‘You’re going to have issues with a co-packer’ but unless you want to buy in-house machinery and pay salaried workers as a manager, it’s going to be tough to do anything that’s scalable. You’re going to have to scale production on that line every day that you’re not doing it so it’s really not feasible for a small business to own our own machinery. If you have a great relationship with them, you’re golden. There are less headaches you have to deal with.”
Strategy #5 – Find a good mentor, watch them open doors.
This applies to almost anything in life, whether you’re an entrepreneur or not. A good mentor provides an immeasurable amount of knowledge, whether that leads to open doors or they have a hand in opening those doors themselves.
Ryan cannot stress this enough, “We were able to locate and identify a mentor that we still use today. He basically guided us through the grocery channel and helped us set up important meetings, so that was a big help in getting our foot in the door to a large distributor.
“It’s very important to assemble a group of mentors or a team of people that have been there before. As you progress, that’s integral. There are a lot of terms and concepts [that will be new to you] such as the way retailers and distributors work, pricing, chargebacks – all terms that we had no idea what they meant. To this day we still communicate [with our mentor] by emails and reach out with any questions we may have. I definitely recommend it or even just watching people that have been in the industry for 15-20 years.”
Strategy #6 – Quality is everything
Quality assurance is extremely important but something that can be easily overlooked. As per Ryan, regardless of how you’re handling your particular business, the devil really is in the details.
He goes on to explain, “Lock down quality assurance, whether that means hiring a third party, or your own in-house team checking in on things in the kitchen. If you’re using a co-packer, fly down there, meet them, inspect, make them explain every small thing or word that you don’t understand. Most people have never been through this before so they don’t know. Locking down things to a T and being over-detailed is crucial. I double check everything and I read all the contracts. You don’t want to ship a retailer bad products”
Strategy #7 – Legal isn’t fun but it’s necessary.
To a small business owner, this 5-letter word can seem more than a little daunting but protecting everything from your assets to your name is, in Ryan’s words, crucial.
He states, “Locking down the legal aspect of the business, namely trademarking or any patents, those are definitely essential to maintaining security to your brand and your company. Do thorough research and hire a lawyer that’s done this before.”
Strategy #8 – Go straight to the [UPC] source.
Another factor that can somehow get swept by the wayside are UPC codes. Often times, small business owners just aren’t aware of the proper channels involved in getting them.
Ryan explains how this almost tripped up ProTings in the past, “When you buy UPCs or barcodes, there are a lot of companies out there that you can buy those from. But sometimes they will sell you barcodes that are unregistered. You’re supposed to go to this main company, GS1 which is the standard. You pay $300-$900 to get your barcode, you register with them and even have a number that represents your company. When we started our company, we knew we needed barcodes so we bought barcodes and then found out soon thereafter that there was an official source that had all these barcodes and all of the large retailers (like Walmart and Kroeger) require GS1-registered UPCs. We had to eat the cost of the initial unregistered barcodes and then looked into GS1 to get replacement barcodes. To be safe, go through GS1.”
Strategy #9 – Build awareness. Show customers they need your product.
Free samples, anyone? Don’t make the mistake of resting on your laurels! The reality is, customers won’t just come to you, you have to go to them. Leave some room in your budget for demo-ing and sampling out your product because truth be told, that’s what will create the most brand awareness.
As per Ryan, “If you’re selling a CPG brand, you absolutely need to demo the product and support it. When we first started the company we sold to a local distributor who didn’t have any sales support; they’d buy the product and put it in stores [and leave it at that]. We stupidly thought that it was such a novel product that people would pick it up and think, ‘Oh this is cool, let me buy this!’ But in reality, there are so many other chips and products on the market and in the stores that it’s more likely, if [the consumer] doesn’t know it, they wont pick it up. So it’s definitely critical to growing your brand, to demo and sample and do activations and events, just to build general awareness. If you’re demo-ing, sampling, giving people free samples to try and they like it, they’ll buy it on the spot and hopefully become repeat customers.”