This Entrepreneur Quickly Grew His Chickpea Pasta Company by Being Scrappy and Bold and Borrowing Tech Company Tactics
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.
Brian Rudolph said he had a pretty simple realization about four years ago: The 23-year-old didn't have to launch a technology company. Instead, he figured that he could create a company around a homemade pasta he had been making out of chickpeas, since regular pasta hurt his stomach. So in 2014 he partnered with his brother Scott and launched Banza, where he had the chance to employ many of the tactics used in the tech industry.
Banza, which says its products have "double the protein, four times the fiber and nearly half the net carbs" compared to typical pasta, has proven to be a success. A year after its launch, the product landed on store shelves, and it was named one of 2015's best inventions by Time Magazine. The brand can now be found in 10,000 U.S. stores, including Target, Walmart and Whole Foods. Its products also include boxed mac and cheese. The company raised $7.5 million in 2017 during a Series A round.
"We were pretty naive about what it takes to start a food business, and we moved pretty fast," Rudolph said. "It presented its own challenges, but we did a lot of things that other food companies would probably never do."
For example, the brothers sent a prototype of its spaghetti to a food buyer in a Pringles can, instead of waiting months for the product to be iterated further and its packaging to be finished.
"Our buyer absolutely loved it and thought it was hilarious," Rudolph said. "That willingness to be scrappy and maybe move a little bit faster has probably given us some opportunities."
The brothers started borrowing tactics from the tech industry right from the start of the company. They raised more than $17,000 on the former crowdfunding site RocketHub to fund their first production run of Banza. That success snowballed. First, it led the young company to be featured on the CNBC show Restaurant Startup. The appearance on the show forced the Rudolphs to find a manufacturer to make their product, a challenge that used up a lot of their money. With the show behind them, Banza participated in pitch competitions, where a judge introduced the brothers to their first retail buyer.
"We were just doing anything we could to get the word out," Rudolph said. "Whether it was the pitch competition or the crowdfunding campaign, people saw it and we were lucky enough that they found it interesting."
Of course, being bold helps. Rudolph landed Banza on the shelves of Target with a cold pitch.
"I must have sent at least five or six emails, left a ton of voicemails and finally just happened to send one of my emails at the right time when they were about to do a category review," he said.
What did he take away from that experience? "It's OK to be rejected or not even to be rejected," Rudolph said. "If you don't hear back, that doesn't mean that they are ignoring you. It just means they're busy and you might not have the right timing. Be polite and always provide helpful updates. When the timing is right, your products might be relevant to them."
It also helps that Rudolph is a firm believer in his own product. Much like how Chobani shook up the yogurt world and tilted people's preference toward Greek yogurt, Rudolph's grand ambition is for healthier pastas such as Banza to own at least half of the market.
"Our mission as a company is to make nutritious food more accessible," he said. "Even though it is gluten-free and allergen-friendly, the core ingredient of chickpeas is time-tested. … What we're building is a product that probably should have been around for a long time, but now is even more relevant because people recognize they're not eating enough of a well-rounded diet."