How These Food Entrepreneurs Went From Barely Staying Afloat to Having Hour-Long Lines
Irvin Gunawan, founder and CEO of IRVINS, discusses the launch and explosive growth of his family's snack brand.
In this ongoing series, we are sharing advice, tips and insights from real entrepreneurs who are out there doing business battle on a daily basis. (Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Who are you and what's your business?
I'm Irvin Gunawan, founder and CEO of IRVINS, an award-winning gourmet Singaporean salted egg snack brand. We specialize in chef-crafted gourmet chips and crispy upcycled salmon skin snacks made in small batches using real whole food ingredients commonly found in Southeast Asian culinary dishes. Often referred to as "the parmesan of Asia," salted egg is a savory umami-flavored seasoning that has been a staple in Asian cuisine since the sixth century. To make our famous (and proprietary) salted egg sauce, our in-house chefs salt-brine duck egg yolks for 30 days and then steam them before baking them into each bite. The result is explosive umami flavor and irresistible crunch.
Since launching in 2016 as the world's original salted egg snack brand, we have gone from having a dedicated, cult-like following in Singapore to being one of the most popular snack brands in Asia and, more recently, have expanded into new global markets including Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the U.S.
What inspired you to create this business?
We have been doing the food business for a long time, dating back from 2008 when I first opened the first Irvins seafood restaurant in Singapore. The Irvins salted egg snacks business was born almost by accident but also by necessity: Around 2014, we had to move the restaurant because our landlord increased the rent by 50%. We were doing very poorly in the new location because it was in a residential area. We really had to scramble to keep it afloat. We made many attempts to pivot, one of which was to make a packaged product out of our most popular salted egg dishes on the menu, including the salted egg fish skin and salted egg potato chips. The product flew off the shelves and due to demand, we decided to do some pop-ups around town. There would be a one-hour line for the snacks and they would sell out within two hours of opening the pop-up. That was our aha moment. We knew we had created something that really connected with people and were pretty confident it had the potential to scale far beyond Singapore.
What was your biggest business challenge and how did you pivot to overcome it?
The last two years of the pandemic was a challenging time for us because our snacks were mainly sold in our mall stores and pop-ups. When COVID hit and the malls had to close suddenly we lost the majority of our revenue. That forced us to distribute our products more widely through different channels, including supermarkets, convenience stores and online. This method allowed us to grow our distribution to 12 countries, which made the brand — because of our distribution pivot — more diversified and resilient.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs looking for funding?
We personally have not raised external funding because our profits have been enough to fund our growth. We have always been adamant on growing sustainably and at a manageable pace, which has made this arrangement suitable for us. I think it's important for entrepreneurs to know it's not impossible to take this route. And if you want or need external funds, such as from VCs, it's also important to know they will have their own agenda that might differ greatly from yours. Therefore, being clear on what you want from the funding and exactly how you'll use it before you start fundraising — and staying the course as much as possible — is crucial. For instance, outside parties may push for top-line growth targets so that the business can be sold at a high valuation in 5-7 years time, whereas owners usually are more keen on sustainable long-term bottom-line growth. While this route can also present a big upside for all parties, if you don't know what your goals are 5-7 years from now you could lose control of your vision and it could end up working against you.
What does the word "entrepreneur" mean to you?
To me, being an entrepreneur means creating things and taking risks that are born out of passion or even obsession. The entrepreneur always thinks about ideas, products, and customers first before profits and loss.
What is something many aspiring business owners think they need that they really don't?
Many people think 'external' things, such as how grand a restaurant seems, how nicely furnished and equipped an office looks, or how well dressed and rich the founders are, matters a lot. But, in fact, I can attest from my 15 years doing business that they don't. IRVINS snacks were originally sold in red plastic tubs (yes, it was as bad as it sounds) from 40-square-foot pop ups that me and my brother made out of Ikea tables and racks. But the products sold out within two hours of opening each day because the concept and offering -- and of course the taste -- not the fancy branding or how we dressed, was what connected with people. Back then we also had no cash. In fact, most of my previous failed projects are the ones where we spent too much to make the store/restaurant too big, too grand, too lavish, too unnecessary.
What is it like running a company with your two brothers?
It's been a great growing lesson. We are nowhere near perfect individually and as a team but through a long process of running and managing this business together, we have learned to be more compassionate, more understanding, and to put a line where we are accountable to the company. We have learned how to demand and reprimand each other in order to achieve that in a way that resonates instead of divides.
Right now our bond is as strong as ever and it is really great (especially in difficult periods) to have the unquestionable backing of my two brothers whom I know have my well-being in mind before anything else. This is a privilege that not every business owner has.
What has been the response to your snacks in the US market and what is your strategy for growth here?
We were very surprised by how well IRVINS has been accepted here in the US, because salted egg is not a traditionally known or consumed food there. But it goes to show that people have connected with what we have to offer. Even people like Cardi B, David Chang and Andrew Zimmern love our products!
We are currently serving our customers thru supermarkets such as Hmart and Ranch 99, at Costco, and online thru our own website (eatirvins.com), Weee! and Yamibuy. We have really great distribution and retail partners in the US who are as excited about our products as much as we are. We plan to continue to educate and excite people about salted egg, tell our stories, and get our products closer to the customers through interesting partnerships, wider mainstream distribution, and in-person demos — like pop-ups. We won't rest until salted egg is as ubiquitous in the U.S. as Kimchi or Mochi. That is when we'll know we've made it.
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