Upscaling a small business takes resilience, strong relationships, and humility. Here’s what I learned on the path to selling healthy seasonings across the country in a national supermarket chain.
Mingle’s story started five years ago when I struggled to find healthy seasonings in the supermarket. Most commonly, I found they contained lots of added sugar, unnatural ingredients, unnecessary fillers (hello, flour), and high amounts of sodium. I wanted a healthier option that had all the flavour without the nasties. So, at 25 years of age, I sold my car, moved back home and put my life’s savings into creating a flavoursome brand we all could trust and love.
We are trying our best to shake things up and provide better options for Australians. What once was a brand that just sold seasonings (bottled and filled in my parents’ kitchen), has turned into a brand that creates a range of more than 30 products, including tasty recipe bases, seasonings, and sauces across more than 2000 stockists (and online) in Australia. We are really passionate about making healthy food accessible to everyone, no matter your budget.
It has been a journey, with many curveballs in scaling this business. I am going to share three of the problems we have faced, and how we have overcome them.
Problem 1: Our business grew quicker than our team did
I started this business as a jack of all trades and a master of none. I often tell myself that I can do anything I put my mind to and can teach myself if I don’t know what to do. From bookkeeping, to editing videos, to creating packaging, to speaking to manufacturers (with no manufacturing experience), this ‘wing it’ approach worked for a two-person team but when we started scaling into supermarkets, these ways of working created bottlenecks from an efficiency, operational, and health perspective – I burnt out trying to do everything. I often have had to ‘check myself before I wreck myself’ and I know this journey is one I can’t do alone – the right people have to be in the right seats.
“For anyone who is early on in their start-up journey, incubators and accelerator programs are an incredible vehicle to scale your business.”
As the business has grown, there have been new demands that have pushed us to upskill to fulfill what the business has needed. Often, we’ve filled the gaps internally, sometimes we haven’t. In those moments when we haven’t, we have had to seek external resources, as the opportunity cost is too great. As Mingle has scaled, I’ve brought on business partners who are experts in retail, additional employees who are great at operations, unlike me, and marketing agencies that live and breathe data. My ego and scarcity/start-up mindset – thinking, “I can do it” – sometimes has got in the way when it comes to outsourcing resources, but it gets to a point where you just can’t do everything and the quality of your work can be compromised. In these moments, I remind myself that Mingle’s mission is greater than me, and sometimes I have to put myself to the side. We are constantly growing and implementing new structures to keep up with the demands of food retail. Communication across different functions of the business has also been really important when scaling, to ensure team alignment. Working with a bunch of resilient warriors who challenge themselves every day to be better, improve, and optimise is pretty damn special and something for which I am very grateful.
Problem 2: Hearing lots of “No” and “You can’t” and not giving up
People often think scaling is an overnight success but it certainly wasn’t for Mingle. Our Woolworths deal was three years in the making, with many “Nos” throughout. Something that held us in good stead was the Chobani Incubator program – an incredible six months that helped us get retail-ready to pitch to the supermarkets. For anyone who is early on in their start-up journey, incubators and accelerator programs are an incredible vehicle to scale your business, not only for the information shared but also for the priceless community and connections that you make. Chobani were the first people to introduce me to Woolworths. I’ll never forget my first meeting with Woolworths. Mingle was in its infancy and in hindsight, I am appreciative that the buyer said, “Not now, come back next year.” I knew this was an opportunity to continue to grow our following and community outside of the store and come back next year with an even bigger brand footprint. The year after, I got another no and at this point money was tight in the business. Pre-COVID, all Woolworths meetings were up in Sydney and flying from Melbourne to Sydney as a cash-strapped business owner was an expensive exercise to get a no. I didn’t want to give up, though, and six months later was lucky enough to get our foot in the door with a trial in 20 Victorian Woolworths stores. All these stores had to be delivered to directly, which was certainly not efficient. It was too expensive to pay a courier. So, my incredible team and I did the weekend delivery rounds, with a vision that one day we would get the runs on the scoreboard to scale to more stores. Sometimes, you have to humbly start small and scale from there. Twenty stores turned into 40 stores and three years after getting that no, we were finally given the opportunity to stock 15 products into Woolies across the country. Resilience and being OK with rejection have been a key part of Mingle’s journey and something the team continues to embody every day. Now, when we get a no, it becomes a challenge – how long will it take to turn that around to a yes? This is the fun part of business and makes the wins just that much sweeter.
Problem 3: You don’t know what you don’t know, but you can focus on who you know – the power of building a tribe
We have been able to achieve some pretty remarkable results when scaling, because of who we have partnered with and the tribe of people around us. Our customers and our suppliers continue to grow with us and support Mingle throughout the journey. When scaling this business, we often haven’t had the human resources to go into specific stores to check the Mingle range, so we have reached out to die-hard customers who don’t want to get paid but want to support us, simply for their love of the product. This has blown us away. Then, there are our suppliers. Adam, Mingle’s CEO, has been fundamental in building relationships with our suppliers, where they become an extension of our team. The trust and camaraderie that has been built have allowed us to turn around products quicker than normal and get extended payment terms that have fundamentally shifted the cashflow position of our business. This has allowed us to continue to scale without external investment. Our suppliers want to back Mingle’s vision and the fact we are the underdogs giving it a good hard crack. But more importantly, we do what we say, and we say what we do, and that allows for trust, respect and solid partnerships.
This article first appeared in issue 35 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine