Indeed, the only thing that distinguishes many of the winners from the losers in the early days of building a new brand is the refusal to throw in the towel and go back to the day job, says San Francisco-based Oscamou, who started to attract some serious attention when he secured financial backing for his bite-sized fruit & nut snacks from Linkedin CEO Jeff Weiner, among others.
I wanted to finish what we started
A civil engineer by trade, Oscamou had to deal with a personal tragedy just as the business he and his brother Nate dreamed up in 2011 was starting to take shape.
“Five months after we started working on Frontier Snacks – we’d developed fruit and nut bites with fewer than 10 ingredients and no soy, dairy or gluten - Nate died in a river rafting accident, and overnight I lost my brother, my best friend and my business partner.
“But I wanted to finish what we started together and go out and make a difference, so I finished a big [engineering] project I was working on and a week after that I quit my job.”
In the early days, it was tough, acknowledges Oscamou, "But you just have to have the drive to pick yourself up, and keep going. This business is all about perseverance.”
I’d rather go an inch wide and a mile deep
While getting your product on shelf and keeping it there proved more challenging than any engineering job he’d ever worked on, not to mention “wildly expensive”, Oscamou knew he was onto something when Jeff Weiner came in as his lead investor, and he is now doing a healthy trade in almost 1,000 stores nationwide from Sprouts and Whole Foods to Costco, as well as a series of independent retailers, health clubs, cycling stores and online channels.
“In the two years after Nate died I did everything myself from packaging design to manufacturing. 2014 was when we really launched, I brought on a couple of employees and that’s when we got going, and in 2015, things took off, and we grew 500%.”
But he’s not about to embark on a landgrab, says Oscamou. “We could get into 6-8,000 stores, but I’d rather go an inch wide and a mile deep, than a mile wide and an inch deep.”
Investors, he says, are interested in store numbers, but they are “more interested in velocity, margin structure, can we sustain continuous growth without having to have repeated infusions of cash? Are we sustainable, environmentally as well as financially, what’s our philosophy, what’s in the innovation pipeline?”
We’re seeing retailers put better-for-you snacks together in a smart snacking set
As for the products – bite sized fruit and nut snacks with 100-110-calories per serving (about five bites) - the recipes haven’t reallychanged at all since he and Nate first developed them, says Oscamou.
The packaging, by contrast, has been through several iterations: “In the early days, I didn’t have $25-40,000 to spend on graphic design; I felt like I’d rather put $25,000 worth of product in people’s hands, so I taught myself how to use Adobe Illustrator and did it myself.”
Retailers, meanwhile, love the product but don’t always know where to put it, he says.
“One of the first comments I got from a regional Whole Foods buyer was, ‘Where do I put it?’ Some people want to put us by snack bars, nuts or dried fruit, others with salty snacks, although it works best next to energy bars and better for you snack bars, as we’re targeting active people looking for healthy on the go nutrition.”
That said, most retailers are rethinking the layout of their stores to try to accommodate growth in healthier snack options, which create new opportunities, he adds.
“Instead of having shoppers wade through the main chips or the crackers aisle to find something healthier, we’re seeing retailers start to put all these better-for-you snacks together in a smart snacking set, a place where people can go and grab a handful of things that will last them the week.”
With a lot of distributed grocery it’s kind of a black box
So how long do you have to prove yourself on shelf?
Retailers aren’t always clear on how long your window of opportunity will last, or what their hurdle rates are, says Oscamou.
“It’s different for every retailer and every store. You get very little data from distributors about how well you’re doing at individual stores or chains, but some retailers do provide good data, particularly Whole Foods Market, which we look at on a weekly basis.
“We pay a little bit for some data from UNFI, but with a lot of distributed grocery it’s kind of a black box, we see the orders from the distributor, but we don’t know which stores are driving that.”
Demos, coupons, on-shelf promotions
As for supporting new products on shelf, coupons, on-shelf promotions or demos are all critical to driving trial and raising awareness, he says.
“I don’t know of any product that just arrived on shelf and started selling without any support. Those are like the unicorns in the industry. No matter how great the product and the branding you need to hold the hand of the consumer and bring them to your product. Sometimes it pays off very quickly, sometimes you need to sustain it for a while.”
So what’s next?
In future, he says, the Frontier brand could stretch beyond bites: “We want to put out innovative new products that are clean, sustainable, and push the envelope, and we have some really neat stuff coming down the pipeline.”