How We Started A Baby Food Company: Our CEO's Interview with Project Hatch
Was it a lightbulb moment or gradual process of Square Baby?
Both. Lightbulb moment in that my experience as a mama trying to feed her babe complete, balanced nutrition -- a fire started in me when I realized I was left with 3 options:
(1) jars of homogenous, shelf-stable goo.
(2) applesauce-heavy pouches that were unbalanced, lacking protein, healthy fats & veggies, and didn’t teach my baby to eat from a spoon, OR
(3) make my own…and spend most of my “free time” with a blender instead of snuggling my babe.
A gradual process in that my dream took 9 years to launch. Doing the research, building the business model, designing and testing the “Square Meal System” of recipes, finding the perfect cofounder/partner, and raising funds. In retrospect -- absolutely worth the wait for all of the stars to align. During the nearly decade-long process, however, it felt like a lifetime. And I was so worried someone else would beat me to it.
How did you get your first three customers?
Built our website. Pressed “live”. And waited. Ha! As a bootstrapped, lean team of DIYers -- we realized very quickly that we needed to get better at targeting our customers online.
We also did every single sampling event we could. Schlepping our roadshow weekly to Baby Boot Camps, New Mom Groups, and anywhere young families gathered. We also got some early press/interviews, which helped as well. The funny thing is that Kendall and I both had kids between 6-10 years old -- all of our friends were well past the baby stage.
We heard a lot of ‘wish I’d had this when my kids were learning to eat!’
How did you validate the idea?
Our first 1000 families were incredibly helpful. Kendall and I both did customer service and social media responses ourselves. We were laser-focused on ensuring our families were happy. And we were small and nimble enough as a bootstrapped company to be able to make recipe and shipping adjustments as needed. We planned for so long -- almost too long? -- and were so thoughtful of every touchpoint of the brand.
“From the website experience, to the shipping and unboxing experience, to the ingredient and meal quality, and to the level of customer service -- we made every decision as if we were the customer and this was our baby. It was our goal to solve for every pain point we felt when introducing solids and looking for baby food options.” - Katie Thomson, MS, RDN, cofounder Square Baby
Did you have any experience/expertise in the area?
First and foremost, we’re both moms. We’ve been in our customers’ shoes. We understand the struggles, stresses, and opportunities for improvement in the category.
I’m a Registered Dietitian with a Masters in Nutrition. Kendall is a Certified Genetic Counselor with a Masters in Biophysics and Molecular Genetics. We’ve both been in business for almost 20 years.
My experience as the first Nutritionist for Starbucks gave me insights on how to bring a product to market (working with R&D and Marketing), how to see whitespace and opportunity in the category (working on the Strategy & Innovation teams), how to make sure products are safe and properly marketed (working on the QA & Regulatory Affairs team), and how to tell a story (working as a spokesperson with PR/Comms teams).
Kendall is a rockstar who took her experience as a leader in genetic counseling and healthcare management and built/opened the first private Perinatal practice in San Francisco. Kendall is a born leader and executor. She’s wicked smart and has a good head for business and brand, but she also thrives on “running the ship” -- the operations, the details. I thank my lucky stars for her!
Have you raised any money? How much?
We’ve raised 2 small Friends & Family rounds of investment. We are proud to have focused on a capital-efficient model vs growing for growth’s sake. We have been very strategic and thoughtful in how we have gone to market. We’re taking these learnings as well as a respect for a lean machine and scaling our company to meet demand nationally. We’re currently raising our next equity round to fuel this expansion and brand awareness.
What regulatory approvals did you have to go through?
As an infant nutrition brand, and two cofounders who are seriously committed to food safety and quality, we spent several months becoming an FDA-approved food manufacturer.
We are closely monitored by the health department (getting 100% food safety scores!). We also do a ton of paperwork and tracking to be CCOF Organic Certified.
Who is your target demographic?
- Health-conscious parents looking for fresh, organic, healthy meals without spending hours in the kitchen.
- Busy parents (aren’t we all?!) looking for the best nutrition -- delivered to their doorstep.
- Parents looking for premium proteins like chicken bone broth, egg, sustainably-caught salmon -- ingredients that are impossible to find in other fresh baby food brands.
- Parents looking for allergen introduction options like peanut, almonds, soy, fish, shellfish, milk -- as recent research shows that introducing allergens early and often may help prevent food allergies from developing.
What is the funniest/most strange customer request you’ve had?
Request to ship to Japan. A family who moved to Japan was planning to buy as many Square Baby meals as they could -- and fly them, in a cooler box with dry ice, as luggage to Japan. We have many East Coast parents paying an extra $100 shipping cost per shipment just to ship our meals outside of our current shipping zone. This is why we are SO excited to be expanding nationally --- so we can ship to all Continental US doorsteps at no extra charge.
How did you fund the idea initially?
Friends & family. We are so grateful for a supportive small group that has funded Square Baby to date. Most have reinvested more than once -- which feels so amazing as we know our original investors are excited and see the opportunity for growth and ROI. It’s also so beneficial to have patient investors that will allow founders to make the decisions that are right for the company -- not just grow at any cost to the brand, product quality, or customer service. They see the long term potential and trust us to guide the ship towards growing a sustainable, well-built company and brand.
Where did you meet your cofounder/founding team?
When I moved to Orinda after 4 years on the East Coast (NY and VA), I joined the local mom’s group and was so thoughtfully introduced to Kendall and a few other moms that also had kiddos entering Kindergarten at our school.
Kendall and I really got to know each other when we volunteered at our childrens’ elementary school (starting a nutrition education program and revamping the School Lunch program) and in our community. Getting to know someone on a “work level” really shows how they operate, what makes them thrive, and what kind of partner they would be. I knew right away that Kendall would be the perfect partner when she showed up to our school’s Wellness Day that we co-led with about 12 spreadsheets, a megaphone, and the best energy. She’s also passionate and knowledgeable about infant health and childhood nutrition. She’s a go-getter -- leading everything she touches and inspires me daily, still. An incredible mother, friend, partner, leader, and crusher.
Any tips for finding first employees?
All of our first employees have been customers! We absolutely didn’t expect that, but have had several moms (and dads!) reach out expressing their love for our product, brand, customer service, and mission. We have been incredibly lucky to have filled roles in Customer Service and Social Media management with enthusiastic Square Baby families. Your customers know your product and service better than anyone. They can relate to your customer, which is so important.
Did you run any companies prior?
I haven’t run any companies, but had a great learning experience at Starbucks. Even though Starbucks is a large, global company, it is innovative and entrepreneurial in many ways.
Kendall, however, has launched and run a company. At ~30 years old, she and 5 physicians launched the first-ever Perinatal Private Practice in SF. Kendall was the practice administrator and led the financing and facility build out in addition to creating practice policy and building and managing a team of 50.
What motivates you to start your own business?
Solving for every pain point we felt with feeding our own babies. Fed up by the misleadingly marketed pouches and the mountains of applesauce, we knew we could create a better solution for parents.
What were your family and friends’ first thoughts on your company?
If I had a nickel for every time I heard “I wish I’d had Square Baby as an option when I had a baby!” -- I wouldn’t need to fundraise. Ha! Our family and friends have been incredibly supportive every step along the way.
What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?
Being an entrepreneur -- especially a bootstrapped, scrappy one -- is an absolute rollercoaster, but well worth it if you can stick it out.
Just knowing we are solving a need for parents, raising the bar in infant nutrition, and changing the landscape of the baby food industry is what keeps us going every day.
Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?
Listen to your gut. It’s always right. Reach out and network like crazy. There are so many amazing people willing and genuinely happy to help entrepreneurs -- especially first-time entrepreneurs with a solid product and mission.
And, it goes without saying, that being gracious, eager to listen and learn, and thankful goes a long way.
What has driven the most sales?
Digital ads on Facebook/Instagram have been helpful in reaching our target customers throughout the country.
However, we’ve found the most impactful and authentic way to acquire a customer is by word-of-mouth (a mom’s recommendation goes a long way!) and in-person sampling (when you taste our fresh meals, you can’t believe it’s “baby food”!).
We’re so lucky to have very passionate families that either utilize our Refer-A-Friend program (Give 3 Meals, Get 3 Meals) or share their experience with our meals and service on social media.
Nothing is more powerful than a parent’s authentic and enthusiastic referral.
What is stopping you being 3x the size you are now?
We have focused on building a capital-efficient model since launch. This means that instead of raising millions right out of the gate to launch nationally with custom packaging and meals produced at a co-manufacturer, we launched regionally and started producing our small-batch meals in a commercial kitchen with “off the shelf” containers that we could buy in smaller quantities.
This limited our growth as we could only make 800 meals/day in our small facility, but it allowed us to be nimble and make our mistakes on a much smaller scale. We didn’t have to invest hundreds of thousands on packaging, tooling, etc. We could make smaller bets - in a capital-efficient way - as to not burn through crazy amounts of cash in our earliest days. This has helped us build a scalable model on a lean budget and retain equity, which puts us in a strong position in these next growth phases.
Do you have any trademarks/IP/patents?
We invested early on trademarks and protecting IP. We own several trademarks in US and internationally to protect our brand. For example, the “A”, “B”, and “C” symbols on our meals protect our proprietary A-B-C Meal System. We’ve also trademarked logos, marks, brand names, and tag-lines.
What are your favorite books?
“Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voss (a great book on negotiation) and “Separating the Con Man from the Co Man: How to Source a Contract Manufacturer” by William Madden (essential for any food/beverage entrepreneur to understand how co-manufacturers work, what questions to ask, how to find the perfect partner, and pitfalls to avoid).
What are your favorite podcasts?
What are the next products you’re working on?
We currently have 23 delicious purees on our menu -- a comprehensive, customizable meal system for babies.
But, we’re also excited to introduce meals and snacks that grow with our customer. Our families are begging for toddler and kid-friendly foods!
What is current revenue? If you don’t mind sharing...
We are so excited to be working on our National Expansion/Launch. We’ve been a regional brand (only shipping to 8 West Coast states) since 2018, and we’re working our fannies off to expand distribution to the lower 48 states in the coming months.
Because our growth has been limited due to our small commercial kitchen facility, we have done almost zero advertising to date. We couldn’t keep up with the organic demand! A good problem to have, for sure, but also frustrating for 2 entrepreneurs who are ready to go out and kill it. With this National Expansion, and our increased production capabilities, we’ll see at least 10x in revenue in 2022.
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