It feels as if every time I talk with Joshua Tabin, co-founder of Wild Zora Foods, he is on the move.
An early chat took place as he was loading up his custom Wild Zora-branded Airstream camper getting ready to head out to Natural Products Expo West. This interview was conducted on his morning drive into work. I kept hearing the throaty acceleration of his car.
I mentioned that it sounded as if he were at a racetrack. “No, it’s just my regular commute. I live in the mountains, it’s a nice ride,” he said with a slight chuckle.
The inspiration behind Wild Zora was his own family. Joshua and his wife, Zora, struggled with the snacks that were available. “We just didn’t feel good about feeding the typical sugary, grain-filled, snacks on the market to our kids.”
In 2013, they started dehydrating 100% grass-fed beef they bought from a local rancher along with vegetables from their own garden. Quickly, they realized they had something special. What I found particularly unique about their route to market was that they made an early investment in manufacturing, and today produce the product in their own USDA-certified facility just outside of Fort Collins, Colo.
Wild Zora is Joshua’s 20th business. That gives him a unique view of entrepreneurialism. I was thrilled when he agreed to be a part of this interview series. I hope you enjoy it.
Why are you doing this?
“Well, I guess I got roped into it because my wife decided that she wanted to make a product for our family,” he said, wryly.
“It was really a personal need more than anything else, and we couldn’t find anything that fit that need. So, Zora started to create the product and put together the business. I advised her, very strongly, that she needed a business partner, that she shouldn’t do it alone. In my experience, a business is generally much more likely to succeed if there are multiple partners, founding partners. She did find one, and that guy, at the last minute, kind of flaked out and decided not to join her after she had already quit her job. So, I stepped in to help.”
What’s it like running a business together?
“We have very complementary skills. She handles the production and the production staff. I handle the business issues, banking, legal, accounting and sales. It’s a very functional partnership.”
“I think that working on a project together is actually helpful for a relationship, as long as that relationship is healthy.”
What’s your vision for Wild Zora?
“One of the first questions that a VC will ask you is, ‘What is your exit strategy?’ And, the huge difference between us and the vast majority of companies, is that they are venture funded and we are not. Our exit strategy is to be in a box in the ground.”
“When we are old.” He added.
“If our kids decide not to take the business, then, obviously at some point, we’ll get tired of running it, and we’ll sell it. But, if the kids decide they want it, then it will just pass to them, and it will be a family business.”
What has been the biggest obstacle?
“I think there’s always challenges, it just depends on when you ask.”
One challenge that he did share was market fit.
“We had to figure out product-market fit. We had to make sure that we were making something that people would like, and that they would buy, and that they would buy again.”
Tabin went on to explain, “We did a lot of, I guess you could say, grassroots market testing, mostly at farmers’ markets. And lots of changes were made: changes to the packaging, changes to the formulation of the ingredients, changes to the process.”
What lessons have you learned?
“Well, I suppose that my big learning is that a lot of food businesses believe that retail is the only way to go, and I now know that’s not true.”
“We got some advice from a seasoned industry professional, who suggested that we really strip everything away, and just focus on distribution to retailers. They thought that retail would be the best strategy for us.”
“So, we just did it, we tried it. And at that point, we were at about 80 stores, and a year later we were in nearly a thousand stores. We really grew by focusing on that one thing. It really worked.”
Tabin paused and then added, “However, I don’t think it was the right answer. Or, at least, it wasn’t the whole answer. Because retail was hugely expensive, and we started sucking up our cash reserve. We weren’t seeing profits, even though the sales were jumping up dramatically.”
That was an inflection point for Tabin. He began working on a direct-to-consumer strategy, listening to his consumers about their thoughts on the brand. He used that insight to develop the messaging and strategy to sell directly to them online.
“That was the pivot point. And I told Zora that I was going to give it a try.”
He then offered this statement, “There’s an infinite difference between doing nothing and doing something.”
Today, direct-to-consumer is the fastest growing and most profitable channel for Wild Zora.
What advice would you give to future entrepreneurs?
Tabin offered a few suggestions; however, the one that stood out to me was the need to truly understand the economics.
“You have to really understand your costs, and if you have not been in the food industry before, then you must find out from someone who has. You need to know exactly what the costs need to be and will be in terms of marketing, spoilage, shrinkage, MCBs, free fills, slotting fees, mandatory ad spend, promos, deal discounts, coupons, demos and … Oh my god, I can’t even think of them all. There are just so many.”
If you had the opportunity to do this all over again, would you?
“Oh yeah, I’m loving it. It’s a great time. Of course, my journey is a lot more than this food business. This is my 20th business, so it’s not quite fair to say that I just figured this out. It has been many, many years of painful learning experiences in several industries, including food, that led me down this path.”
I asked him if this has been the hardest business.
“No, I wouldn’t say that. I think all business is hard. I think some businesses are harder than others, depending on the time and place. There’s something to be said about starting a natural food business in Northern Colorado, near Boulder, which is sort of the epicenter of natural food. I wouldn’t want to open a surf shop in Kansas, right?”
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Elliot Begoun is the principal of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on accelerating the growth of emerging food and beverage brands. He helps clients gain distribution and win share of stomach. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and Food Dive.