How Frost Popsicles Has Gone From Startup To Successful Retail Brand
Natasha Fagri and Jon-Marc De Carvalho didn't draw a salary for two years while they self-funded their startup. They've learnt tough lessons and pivoted their operational models, but it's all been worth it. Here are their top startup lessons.
- Players: Natasha Fagri and Jon-Marc De Carvalho
- Company: Frost Popsicles
- Established: 2016
- Visit: Frostpopsicles.com
On the 1st of September 2016, Natasha Fagri and Jon-Marc De Carvalho launched their alcoholic popsicle range, Frost Popsicles, with two flavours: Pierre Jourdan Tranquille and a Brut Cape Classique. Over the past two years, the range has grown to a current total of seven alcoholic popsicle flavours and the entrepreneurs have recently launched a premium non-alcoholic range as well in response to consumer trends and demands.
The business has enjoyed growth of 25% per annum since launch, and things look set to continue growing as they aggressively pursue strong overseas and local opportunities.
Natasha and Jon-Marc's success has been inspirational – but the journey hasn't been without significant bumps in the road.
Here are the startup lessons that two entrepreneurs have learnt the hard way, from experimenting with flavours in Natasha's kitchen to spending R1 million on freezer trucks after repeatedly being let down by cold-chain distribution operators:
1. From Idea to Launch Will Always Take Longer Than Expected
Natasha and Jon-Marc developed the original Popsicles on Natasha's stove at home, experimenting until they had what they believed was a winning flavour profile. But that was just the beginning of the journey. It took a further 13 months to find a food science lab to commercially stabilise the formulation, and to source and import a specialist machine.
Once this was in place, packaging needed to be designed and produced, which brought the next set of challenges: Special linings are required for alcoholic beverages, and this also took a year of research and development, particularly because the entrepreneurs wanted their perfect packaging to be fully recyclable.
"The next step was getting the correct licensing as well as other legalities in place," says Natasha. "We also needed to understand how the cold chain logistics and storage process works and we needed to secure retail distribution channels, which wasn't easy when you consider that this is a completely unique product and no-one had come before to pave the way."
All in all, it was a long, expensive process entirely self-funded by Jon-Marc and Natasha who also didn't draw a salary for two years.
"You need to be prepared for the fact that nothing is going to happen overnight," says Jon-Marc. "Take the time you expect to get to market and double it. That's a more realistic projection, and might still not be enough time."
2. When Things Go Wrong (And They Will), Roll Up Your Sleeves And Make A Plan
Today, Frost Popsicles can be found in just under 60 liquor retail outlets in three provinces (Pick n Pay, Spar Tops! and independent retailers), and the non-alcoholic lines are available in select Wellness Warehouse and Dischem stores in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town.
Natasha and Jon-Marc have also exported to Botswana, Mauritius and Singapore, with further exciting international growth plans in the pipeline, and have launched a full-service eCommerce store on the Frost website to cater for direct to customer demand.
However, with success comes challenges, and Natasha and Jon-Marc are the first to admit that they were almost victims of their own success.
"We had huge – and unforeseen – problems with third party cold-chain distribution operators," says Jon-Marc. "Even though we really did our due diligence and planned well ahead of launch, screening third party suppliers over a period of months before trusting them, we were let down.
"Not only did this cost our fledgling business a lot of money, but it put us under quite a bit of pressure unnecessarily."
To get the business back on track, Natasha and Jon-Marc did deliveries themselves with poly boxes of dry ice to maintain the cold chain, sometimes delivering to the same stores twice in one day to keep up with the rate of sale and demand. They even pulled family members in to help them get their deliveries done on time (and on ice).
"We weren't only let down by our cold-chain suppliers," says Natasha. "We initially hired third party merchandisers for the stores and this also proved to be a challenge. No one will care about your product as much as you do – even if they promise you the world. The merchandisers didn't do their jobs properly, which lead to below-par store displays and poorly kept stock within their freezer assets."
"Particularly as a startup, you need to be as involved as possible in every aspect of your business while you build the brand, customer expectations and relationships with your suppliers and customers."
3. Figure Out Your Key Points Of Failure And Take Control Of Them
The cold-chain supply issues eventually led Natasha and Jon-Marc to the decision to purchase their own freezer truck, an investment that added R1 million to their startup costs – an unexpected expense that was nevertheless essential to the business's overall success.
"When you face unexpected challenges, you learn what you're willing to put into the business to make it a success," says Jon-Marc. "We're wholly committed to controlling the end-to-end quality of our products for the consumer."
"We thought we'd found partners that valued our business. They worked with big brands and clearly wanted to impress us, but the reality wasn't what we were promised."
"We learnt that other companies will never care about our products and processes as much as we do, and so we needed to carefully evaluate where our key points of failure were and how we could mitigate them. In many cases, it meant investing into the problem and taking control of it ourselves."
4. The Road Is Long And Hard But It's All Worth It
One of the biggest lessons Natasha and Jon-Marc learnt soon after they started their business was how little sleep they would get. "We survived on three to four hours of sleep a night for months post launch," says Natasha.
"There are days when you feel like you're going to lose your mind, but then you remind yourself why you started, what you created and what this business means to you and despite innumerable hours of hard work, you wouldn't give it up for the world."
"Looking at where we are now and how we operate versus when we first started, we've learnt a number of tough lessons, but we also know that we needed to learn them," adds Jon-Marc.
"We're glad we learnt them right in the beginning. We also wouldn't change anything from those early days. When you're creating and launching something that no one has ever done before, you always feel like more time can be spent on certain things, especially when large portions of the process have never been done before, but there are only so many hours in a day."
"We think the key here is to strive for excellence, but not to get overly obsessed with perfection. Nothing is ever going to be totally perfect and if you try to make it that way, you run the risk of your idea and vision never leaving incubation phase, because you're never going to believe it's ready. We also needed to be burnt to adjust some perceptions and areas of our operational model, and the result has been growth."
5. Make Sure You're Cut Out For Entrepreneurship
Owning a business is often glamourized, but the truth tends to be long days (and nights), failures and disappointments. "If you're afraid of hard work and you want overnight success, the entrepreneurial life is not for you," says Natasha.
"Being an entrepreneur has been glamourized through social media, movies and the media, and that's frustrating to see."
"You need to go down this road with both eyes wide open and a clear understanding that it's going to be the toughest, scariest thing you've ever done, but also the most exhilarating and rewarding. Thrilled fear is how we describe it best – you're terrified but completely and totally excited most of the time. Anything can happen, no two days are the same, and it definitely won't be boring."
Natasha and Jon-Marc's Top 3 Startup Lessons
Don't be afraid to be a little tough when needed. There's a difference between being firm and being rude. You have to be fiercely protective of your "business baby' and if there's something or someone who is putting that under threat, know when and how to remove that risk.
It's not a sign of weakness to ask for help and advice – it's a sign of strength. You are never, ever going to know everything and that's okay. You don't always need to have all the answers yourself; you just need to know where to go and who to ask when you're unable to solve something alone.
Things will go wrong, it's an unavoidable fact of life. You're never going to be able to completely avoid that. Things are going to go wrong, plans are going to change and you need to learn to roll with the punches. Fix what needs to be fixed, always look for areas of improvement and try not to automatically associate a mistake or a change with failure. Plot twists are inevitable and the ultimate success of your business rests in how you handle the situation and where you go from that point.