How a Box of Girl Scout Cookies Inspired a Business Dedicated to Helping Food Allergy Sufferers Stay Safe While Snacking The founder of food allergy resource Spokin explains the launch and growth of her website and app.
Who are you and what's your business?
I'm Susie Hultquist, a food allergy mom and the founder and CEO of Spokin. I left my multi-decade career as an investor on Wall Street to start a modern lifestyle platform for the 32 million people with food allergies.
Spokin helps consumers discover allergy-friendly resources including food, restaurants, bakeries, hotels—even baseball stadiums. We are also uniquely positioned to help brands market directly to this large consumer base to raise awareness, trust, and sales. Food allergies are one of the most common chronic conditions. If you're lucky enough to not have food allergies, chances are you know someone who does.
What inspired you to create this business?
My assistant asked me to buy Girl Scout cookies. I needed to figure out if they were safe because we don't bring any food into our home that isn't safe for my daughter. With limited information on the package, I checked their website for facility information and texted a few trusted friends. This process took 15 minutes. I could rent a villa in Tuscany on Airbnb faster than I could figure out if cookies are safe for my daughter. If everyone in the food allergy community did the same thing, not only are we reinventing the wheel, we all just spent 8 million hours on a cookie! My next thought was as my daughter entered her teen years that this burden would soon become hers—those 15 minutes a day would add up to a full year of her life. I couldn't cure her food allergies, but I could make it easier and give her that time back — enough to at least call me every day!
What advice would you give entrepreneurs looking for funding?
As a first time entrepreneur, it's more about the founder than the idea and you're asking people to bet on you. Turn to people who you already know professionally and have seen what you've accomplished in another field.
In preparing to pitch an institutional advisor, it's critical to do your homework and know your audience. For example, research their portfolio companies ahead of time and be prepared to explain how your company could work with or help one of their current investments.
How did it feel the first day you opened for business?
It felt like giving birth — Spokin is my fourth child! I vividly remember when our team hit send to submit our first app version to the App Store. We started with our first user in our hometown of Chicago and we were national within the month. We've grown to 50,000 reviews in 79 countries which is remarkable but we always feel like we are at the starting line and every day feels like the first day.
Have you had any correspondences with users of your app that were especially meaningful to you?
We launched direct messaging almost a year ago. The first thing I do every morning and the last thing I do every night is to check my Spokin app DMs. Startups are hard and as a founder, it's natural to question: is this working, are we going to make it? Receiving these heartfelt messages from parents whose children got to have ice cream or a bagel for the first time because of Spokin—that tells me this is already working! Hearing that a family took their first trip because of Spokin…It's the most rewarding part of my job. We even have a couple who are dating in part thanks to Spokin!
What was your toughest challenge and how did you overcome it?
Like most startups, fundraising is challenging and we believe being based in Chicago has been a factor. The funds on the West Coast understand our business instantly but are not active investors in the Midwest and Chicago-based funds focus primarily on B2B or companies that make a sell a product. Spokin is building a direct-to-consumer network and the data on our platform is where the value is, so we are outside the sweet spot of our local market.
With the challenges of fundraising, we decided to launch a paid partnership program earlier than planned for the food industry called Verified Brands. In this case, our location is an advantage as so many food companies are based in our own backyard. These companies are quickly understanding our unique positioning and we can hardly keep up with onboarding brands. These aren't just allergy-focused brands, it's also some of the fastest-growing companies who are committed to label transparency, like Oatly, Sweet Loren's and Chomps.
What does the word "entrepreneur" mean to you?
I think it's a title you have to earn your way into and I'm frankly not that comfortable with the term. I'm not an entrepreneur simply because I started a company. Being an entrepreneur means being so passionate about seeing an idea come to life and believing so strongly that the world will be a better place for it that it's all-consuming. I'm not an entrepreneur for the sake of the term, I'm the Founder of Spokin.
Is there a particular quote that you use as personal motivation?
"Winners get up faster," is my favorite quote from Olympian Bonnie St. John's TED Talk. A startup is a rollercoaster: you have the lowest lows and highest highs each and every day. You need to be comfortable with falling and accept that failure is part of the ride. The key is to get back up and do it fast.