In tandem with the launch of the Food+Tech Job Board, we are thrilled to launch the Food Startup Growth Series. This series will give you an inside look at the strategies, challenges and best practices of fast-growing food startups.
Meet Lisa Curtis, founder and CEO of Kuli Kuli, a rapidly growing CPG startup with a social mission to support women in developing countries. The startup sells healthy products made with moringa, a West African superfood crop, which is sustainably sourced from women-run cooperatives in Ghana and Haiti.
Launched in 2011, Kuli Kuli has doubled in size every year since launch and is now sold in 3,000 stores, including Whole Foods and Safeway. In January 2017, the startup announced it had raised $4.25 million in a Series A round of funding from Kellogg’s venture fund Eighteen94 Capital, S2G Ventures and InvestEco, as well as angel investors. With the new investment, the small team of seven is now hiring directors of sales and marketing to help grow the company.
I spoke with Curtis about Kuli Kuli’s growth strategy, company culture and talent management. She also shared some insight into the impressive fellowship program she created to train talented people with little experience in food across sales, marketing and operations.
Lisa Curtis: We are focused on getting our moringa products into more retailers and ensuring that they fly off the shelf. Specifically, our distribution has been largely concentrated on the West Coast and we’re deepening our nationwide presence in natural and crossover retailers across the country.
Our company has more than doubled in size every year since we launched. We want to continue that growth trajectory through a focused and aggressive sales strategy; compelling marketing that communicates what moringa is and why Kuli Kuli’s moringa is the highest quality; and a stellar operations team that keeps us always in-stock. To help keep up with all of our U.S. growth, our operations team is working closely with our moringa farmers and are focused on enabling sustainable growth. We’ll also be launching an exciting new product this summer.
LC: Our strategy has been to focus on a small regional area, hit the ground hard with demos, events and earned media and then expand from there. We’ve built up a great sales story as we’ve grown that has made other retailers take notice. Recently, we’ve even started to have major retailers reaching out to us who have heard of moringa and of our success.
LC: Our team comes from many different backgrounds, religions and races. We celebrate our differences and are united in our mission to use moringa to improve nutrition and livelihoods worldwide. We’re currently a relatively young team and are excited to learn from new, more experienced hires.
LC: We’re a values-driven company and those values are embedded into our team culture. Our company values are Discipline, Optimism, Gratitude & Respect and Learn & Innovate. We are optimistic about the potential within ourselves and our company but temper that optimism with discipline to make sure that we think critically about all the goals that we set. After every meeting, we take a few minutes to do “shout-outs” where we express gratitude for each other’s hard work. In all of our work, we aim to show the utmost respect to all people and planet, hence why we’re now a full-fledged Benefit Corporation. Lastly, we regularly host Lunch & Learns with advisors and other outside experts. We push each other to constantly be learning and we see failure as an opportunity to learn, not something to be punished. We look forward to finding more people who share these values.
LC: I actually believe that our company culture will continue to change and get even better as we grow and have more resources. We spend a lot of time listening to the viewpoints of everyone in our company and so I think every new person we bring on will help our culture grow and evolve.
LC: We’re looking for two experienced people who can help lead our company to the next level: a National Sales Director and a Marketing Director. The National Sales Director will lead our sales team, working with our brokers, distributors and retailers to grow our retail presence and ensure that we see a positive ROI from every promo dollar. We want someone who is hungry and willing to travel all over all the country to open new accounts and build relationships. Specifically, I’d love to find someone with strong East Coast experience in both natural and conventional.
In terms of a Marketing Director, I’d love to find someone who has worked in both big CPG and at a startup. This person has got to be scrappy enough to pass out samples and set-up a tradeshow booth but strategic enough to oversee our budget and lead our strategy. They’ve got to help us get our name out there in a big way and pull people into stores to look for our products. And they need to be collaborative and like to juggle many different things as they’ll be collaborating on everything from new product development to helping our sales team perfect their pitch materials.
We’re also always looking for Fellows, less experienced people who want to work with us for 3-6 months and really build up their resume. We also hire quite a bit out of our Fellowship program.
LC: The best part about working at a startup is that you get to do a little bit of everything. Particularly at Kuli Kuli, you’ll have full insight into all aspects of our business and get a clear understanding of how to effectively manage growth. We’ve seen this firsthand through people who have gone through our fellowship (paid, long-term internship) program — it’s honestly hard to fit all your new skills into one resume. You will be very hirable but then again, you won’t want to leave.
LC: We offer quite a bit of hands-on training through our Fellowship program, primarily in the fields of sales and marketing. We set both personal and professional development goals with each fellow before he/she arrives and we make sure that he/she has learned everything they set out to learn and more by the time they leave.
LC: We have 2-3 people in the program at any given time. I manage it — I actually managed a similar program in my former life at a cleantech startup called Mosaic. Our new hr/systems person is also helping out as I get busier.
We structure it as an on-the-job training program where we hire people with very little experience in food but who are very talented and we give them hands on experience across one of three verticals of their choice: sales, marketing and operations. At the end of the program, we either hire them or we help them find a job elsewhere within the natural food industry. We’ve had 11 Fellows to date and all of them have gotten great jobs afterwards, with the majority of them staying within the CPG industry.
LC: I like to catch people off guard with questions like “what’s your spirit animal?” Although since I’m writing this one here I’m going to have to think of a new one… I am always seeking to understand how people perform when they’re surprised since there are going to be a lot of balls thrown your way in working at any startup. We need people who can think on their feet and catch whatever we throw them.
LC: So many things! One of the biggest lessons that I try to convey to other entrepreneurs is that CPG is hard and that most people will not want to invest in you or lend you money until you’re over $1M in sales. Raising our seed round was like pulling teeth but, once we’d gained real market traction, our Series A was oversubscribed to the tune of a few million dollars. You’ve got to be scrappy in your early days and find people who are willing to do whatever it takes to make the business successful. Working in food is not glamorous — I’ve personally done hundreds of demos — but it is the most rewarding thing that I’ve ever done. Everyone needs to eat. If you can shape what they eat into something that makes them healthier and makes our world a little bit better then, wow, that’s worth devoting your life towards.
LC: It truly feels like a historic time to be in food. Never before have we seen consumer preferences shift so suddenly towards healthy and transparently sourced food. I started my career as an activist and I still am one. Working in natural food feels like the most powerful way to make change right now.