These Loving Parents Went Into Debt to Build a Seaweed Snack Company That's on Track to Do $10 Million in Sales This Year
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
In this ongoing column, The Digest, Entrepreneur.com News Director Stephen J. Bronner speaks with food entrepreneurs and executives to see what it took to get their products into the mouths of customers.
Jin Jun says her daughter, who was 3 years old at the time in 2009, "started devouring seaweed like it was candy." But she says that all the packaged seaweed brands available were high in sodium and included unhealthy corn oil.
"I decided that I wanted to create a seaweed snack with less salt and something that I felt good about feeding her every day," she says. "It was born out of love for our daughter."
After some tinkering in the kitchen, Jun's daughter approved of the combination of seaweed and olive oil. Jun moved quickly on the creation. The first-time entrepreneur, who had just gotten licensed in Chinese medicine that year, found a manufacturing facility that could make seaweed snacks and had to "twist their arms" to make it the way she wanted, with olive oil and minimal sea salt.
"They really thought we were crazy and that we were wasting our time and money," Jun says, adding that she and her husband maxed out their credit card to pay for those first orders.
The bet paid off: About four months later, their crispy seaweed snack, SeaSnax, was sold at the local Whole Foods after Jun showed up without an appointment. She continued to sell door to door, and during SeaSnax's first year in business, it got into 600 stores nationwide, according to Jun. Now it's in 6,000 stores around the world, including Sprouts, Albertsons and Fairway, and has expanded to include flavors like chipotle, toasty onion, wasabi and lime. SeaSnax has also introduced seaweed flakes and a salad mix, along with Chomperz, crunchy seaweed chips similar to potato chips. The company is on track to do $10 million in sales this year, a year-over-year growth rate of 45 percent.
"We started the business with no money, no business plan, at the height of the recession," Jun says. "We actually started the business in debt, and after two years it became profitable."
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A post shared by SeaSnax (@seasnax) on Sep 2, 2017 at 10:05am PDT
Seaweed has been part of the diets of Asian peoples, including Japanese, Koreans and Chinese, for thousands of years. Many see a lot of growth potential in this market, considering the steady rise of consumer interest in seaweed -- mostly due to the health benefits. (It is high in protein, fiber and vitamins.)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you know SeaSnax was actually a business?
It was our first year in business; my husband and I were at our headquarters in Los Angeles and saw a ridiculous rise of online orders coming in, around 790. We thought that our computer malfunctioned. A friend called us later that evening and told us that we were on the front page of Yahoo and listed as one of the 10 healthiest snacks. That's when we knew we had a business, because my husband and I spent three days in the warehouse packing and shipping orders ourselves.
Why do you think you got into Whole Foods so quickly?
We were rejected from all the farmers' markets in Los Angeles. They said there was a two-to-three-year waiting list. We thought we were going to have to peddle this on the street and sell it until one day perhaps three to 10 years later a supermarket chain would actually consider bringing us into their store. We had no ambition, no vision, to have this go out into the mainstream United States. But it was because we were rejected that I went door to door to stores.
I literally was on the phone for six hours a day and only sleeping three hours a day for the past eight years, while being a mom. It was totally guerrilla marketing -- no budget for marketing or sales. It was just out of my desire to share something with the Western world that has always been sacred to our Korean culture. Seaweed has a deep and profound connection to life. It's a sacred food.
We won stores over with our story, ingredients and the authenticity of our brand and mission.
What marketing tactic has been the most effective for the brand?
I don't really know if I would call it a marketing tactic, but what has worked for our brand is our sincerity and our willingness to share and give. We don't spend a whole lot of money on fancy shows or websites or paying for Facebook likes. Everything we've ever done is not advertised, it's done quietly and humbly.
We've donated to schools; I don't think we've ever said no to a school donation. People have told us that we have the most earned media of any brand. Our second year of business, the producers of Dr. Oz contacted us, and on that segment before talking about SeaSnax, he said it's "my absolute favorite." Sarah Jessica Parker told US Weekly she carries it in her bag.
We're just sticking to our guns and being sincere. One of my most highly regarded role models is the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard. He talks about how he built his company from the ground up without compromise with sincerity.
Is there a story behind your packaging?
We had two options that were designed by my husband and an art student. One was this beautiful aesthetic, perfectly designed seaweed strands, and it was like the color of mint green and pistachio and the ocean. Then we had this quirky shark in a tiki hut. We asked my daughter and friends, and everyone liked the shark. His name is Socrates, and he's a vegan shark that believes in peaceful coexistence. We've been approached by so many people who want to work on our packaging, but we just kept it that way. Maybe it is time for packaging research.
A post shared by SeaSnax (@seasnax) on Sep 15, 2016 at 9:19am PDT
What's the most unusual thing about working in food niche?
In the beginning, I thought that it was the best, most wonderful place to be. We're all about improving the food system. That is still true, but things are changing. The food industry now is about rapid growth and now so much money is being poured into it. It's a different landscape already. I hope that companies will invest in sustainable growth vs. hyper growth and continue to act responsibly and from the heart.
What's your goal for the business for the next three years?
I can give you the standard cookie cutter response, which is to build our infrastructure and increase our customer base. But really it's to remain the leading innovators in our category and continue to disrupt -- whether it's about coming out with new products that excite or coming up with better ways of doing business. We want to start a foundation and deepen our mission. We want to get children to trade in their potato chips for SeaSnax.