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Mamma Chia CEO Janie Hoffman on saying no, not drinking your own kool aid, and managing explosive growth

By Elaine WATSON , 15-Apr-2014
Last updated the 29-Apr-2014 at 22:11 GMT

Mamma Chia founder & CEO Janie Hoffman: 'We’ve grown pretty explosively. But we’ve been disciplined about it.'
Mamma Chia founder & CEO Janie Hoffman: 'We’ve grown pretty explosively. But we’ve been disciplined about it.'

Managing explosive growth is not a problem most entrepreneurs have to worry about. Most of them are too busy burning money, and wondering what on earth motivated them to give up the day job to compete for shelf-space with the likes of PepsiCo and Kellogg in the first place. 

Not so for Mamma Chia founder and CEO Janie Hoffman, who was in the enviable position of having come up with something so genuinely new and appealing when she first pitched her organic chia seed beverages to buyers in late 2010 that her phone was ringing off the hook almost from day one.

Within 30-60 days they were asking me to go national

And very soon, the challenge became how to manage growth such that no one ended up disappointed, Hoffman told FoodNavigator-USA.

“I got my big break in October 2010 in 50 Whole Foods stores, and within 30-60 days they were asking me to go national, and all these other retailers were knocking on my door wanting to stock the product.

“We did go national at Whole Foods within the year, we’re now national at mainstream retailers such as Kroger, Safeway and Costco, and we’re rolling out at 800 Target stores this summer, but to start with, we had to turn a lot of people down because we didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves.

“You hear all these horror stories of people agreeing to national distribution and not having the infrastructure to support their growth. If we’d have said Yes immediately to everyone that wanted our product, we’d be in a very different place now.

“Our Q1 sales in 2014 were three times higher than they were in Q1 2013, so we’ve grown pretty explosively. But we’ve been disciplined about it. We’re also in the black, which not everyone that’s seen the kind of growth we’ve generated can say this early on in a business.”

Chia Squeeze snacks "took off like a rocket ship", says Mamma Chia founder & CEO Janie Hoffman

You hear all these horror stories of people going national and not having the infrastructure to support their growth

But what impressed buyers so much in the first place?

While nothing sells itself, Hoffman had a head-start over most budding entrepreneurs when she first started pitching Mamma Chia in 2010 simply because it looked so unusual, and there was nothing else like it on the market.

Janie Hoffman: Several new products are in the pipeline over the next 12 months or so

Buyers and consumers alike were intrigued. What will it taste like? What is the texture? Why are the ‘bits’ suspended (the organic chia seeds are pre-hydrated in water and form a gel), says Hoffman, who experimented with scores of chia-based products in her kitchen in 2009 before coming up with the winning formula for her first commercial products: Chia-seed beverages with fruit juices, agave for sweetness, natural colors and flavors.

 “I could have started with another product, or made another chia smoothie, but I thought the beverages were really disruptive,” said Hoffman.

“They looked magical and beautiful, which makes people pick them up, and once they turn over the bottle to see what’s in the product -  omega-3s, protein, fiber, and antioxidants, you’ve got them. It’s so nutrient dense.”

They just took off like a rocket ship

Chia Squeeze ambient vitality snacks in a pouch - which were launched in 2013 - were another instant success (they are targeted at adults but are proving equally popular with teens and younger children as a lunchbox snack), said Hoffman.

“They just took off like a rocket ship. They’re in natural, mainstream and club stores now and we’re also doing really well online.”

But there is no room for complacency, says Hoffman, who has a chia-based cookbook coming out in the fall and still adds chia to “anything and everything” in her kitchen at home.

“We’ve got a million things going on in R&D and about half a dozen really delightful things at various stages of development, so we’ll roll out several new products in the next 12 months or so.”

An element of luck

So what’s her advice for other aspiring food and beverage entrepreneurs?

There is always an element of luck, says Hoffman, who by a stroke of good fortune found herself sitting next to Odwalla founder Greg Steltenpohl at dinner in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2009, at the inaugural meeting of Slow Money, a movement to organize investors to steer new sources of capital to small food enterprises, organic farms, and local food systems.

Hoffman, who “didn’t know a soul in the beverage industry” at this point, “ended up taking 10 pages of notes” during dinner, and was advised that going to the Natural Products Expo East trade show was a good place to make new contacts.

So she headed to Baltimore, found some contacts, and a year later, was on shelf at Whole Foods Market.  

Believe in yourself, but don’t drink your own Kool-aid

The latest addition to the Mamma Chia product line is chia seeds

But once you’ve got a business up and running, what then?

Her best advice, says Hoffman, is to “listen and learn from people that have experience, and keep an open mind, but hire people that share your vision and know the heart and soul of your product.

“Believe in yourself, and make the final decisions, but don’t drink your own Kool-aid.”

From a financing perspective meanwhile, sometimes beggars can’t be choosers, but remember that the “type of money you bring in can determine the type of company you build”, she adds.

“I was very lucky as I was able to find angel investors from the Slow Money community that shared my goals.”

Hoffman's first book, Chia Vitality: 30 Days to Better Health, Greater Vibrancy, and a More Meaningful and Purposeful Life , was published this month by Harmony Books.

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