Subscribe to Entrepreneur for $5

How the Co-Founder of Noosa Went From Office Drone to $220 Million in Sales

Koel Thomae took her love of Australian yogurt and created a business that retails in more than 25,000 U.S. stores.


In this ongoing column, The Digest, 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.

About 10 years ago, Koel Thomae said she was "having the soul sucked" out of her working in a cubicle for an IT company in Boulder, Colo. Something had to give. After a bit of deliberation, she determined she needed to work in food -- something she says she's always been passionate about.

Despite not having any qualifications in the space, Thomae applied for every local job in food she believed she was reasonably qualified for. "It was pretty much crickets," she says. Finally, after a year of trying, she landed a job at Izze, the sparkling beverage company.

Related: The Founders of RXBar, Acquired by Kellogg for $600 Million, Built the Company by 'Having a Bias Toward Action'

But her entrepreneurial leanings didn't have an outlet until she returned to her home country of Australia and tried a local yogurt.

"It literally was the best thing that I'd ever eaten in my life," says Thomae, who licensed the recipe from the family who created it. "Selfishly, I wanted to eat it more than once a year, and the only way I could figure out how to do that was to start a yogurt company."

Image credit: Noosa

That company is Noosa Yoghurt, which, according to Thomae, brought in $220 million in sales last year. The company's products, which include 30 flavors of yogurt, along with Mates, a breakfast product with yogurt and add-ins like chocolate and granola, are sold in more than 25,000 stores nationwide. Some of its bigger retail customers are Target, Whole Foods, Kroger and Walmart.

We spoke with Thomae to get her insights about building the company, choosing the right partners and her $100,000 mistake.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Once you set your sights on building a yogurt company, how did you go about doing it?

I was at a local coffee shop and spotted a flyer for this family farm up in northern Colorado. I cold called and connected with farmer Rob Graves. At the first meeting, I did not actually have yogurt samples [with me]. I think he thought I was certifiably crazy.

I don't know how my mum shipped the samples from Australia, but we managed to get them through customs. I went back to the farm a few weeks later, and we tasted the yogurt. Essentially, he was like this is the most amazing thing I've ever eaten, let's make some yogurt. So, two complete strangers went into business together bonding over delicious whole milk yogurt, and the rest is history.

How did you go from creating the product, getting it into a package and into your first store?

That was the great thing about partnering with the dairy farm in the early days. They were already selling their bottled milk in Whole Foods in Colorado. They had that connection with the dairy buyer, and back in 2010, Whole Foods was still very autonomous regionally.

I remember Whole Foods told us that they hated the packaging because it was large, transparent and unlike anything else in the yogurt aisle. It's [still] the same packaging.

I diverted them to tasting the product where the magic was, and they were still giving us push back on the packaging. I said, “It's too late; we've already bought the equipment.”

Ironically, it has been sort of a game changer for us in the category where a lot of people have told us that's why they first picked us up. It was disruptive. Not much else was transparent in 2010.

Related: The Founder of Panera Bread: 'I Wish I'd Fired More People'

Was Whole Foods your first national retail partner?

Interestingly enough, it was Target. That came about in 2012, the first time that we exhibited at Expo West (a large conference for the food industry), and they found the product there. What gave me the conviction that it was the right time and the right partner was from my experience at Izze. I had operational experience with Target, and I also understood the backend logistics. If you don't understand the supply chain of working with a retailer like Target, you're going to fail. They started us out like a lot of brands in their Super Target format, which is about 250 stores.

Image credit: Noosa

About three months later Target actually came back and asked if we expand into 1,500 stores. I had to call Rob and have a serious conversation. He said we can do it, but you're going to have to put a little bit of a pause on selling to other retailers until we can build out and get more capacity. That was hard, but on the other hand, it created pent up demand from other retailers.

What can entrepreneurs learn from your experience with Target?

My biggest piece of advice is understanding who your core customer is. You have to find that bullseye and work with retail partners that have that core consumer, and it also has to be a retail partner that is going to partner with you.

Understand the supply chain and the backend logistics of working with a retail partner, because if you fail at that, you're not going to get your product to shelf. Getting the “yes” is just the first step, but there's a lot of different things that come. Then have a plan of how you're going to get it off the shelf.

It sounds like you once had a bad experience.

In 2011 we got an opportunity to have a sales meeting with an East Coast retailer. I had some apprehension, but I was convinced that it would be a good idea, and what's the worst thing that can happen? They actually said “yes,” and we decided to go for it.

We didn't get that level of partnership that we needed to have the time to get off the ground, and we had zero brand awareness in New York and no budget. There were all of these different pieces of the puzzle that made it completely fail, and we ended up taking an almost $100,000 hit financially. We ended up pulling out of the business, which was a hard thing, but we were hemorrhaging money.

Image credit: Noosa

It forced us to sit down and talk about having a strategy, because we never wrote a business plan. It set us up to be smarter about how we expanded the business. It was an expensive mistake but a good mistake to happen earlier on and learn from it. It didn't kill us, but it still pains me.

Related: How Yogurt Brand Noosa Thrived By Cancelling Its Biggest Retail Deal

Is there anything interesting about yourself that you think helped you launch and grow the business?

I've always had a strong curiosity and sort of adventurous spirit. That really comes from my mother, who used to dare me to do the most ridiculous things. She was always pushing me out of my comfort zone to do funny things, and it taught me not to be too serious or take life too seriously. That's really important when you're starting a business, because there have been some very serious moments, and I have had the ability to take a step back and realize that the world is not going to end over yogurt.


Top 3 Little-Known Productivity Mistakes

Are you struggling to stay on task? Well these three little-known mistakes might be tanking your productivity without you even knowing.

How One Startup Is Trying to Revolutionize the Low-Code/No-Code Industry

The CEO and co-founder of Zenity shares how his company is dedicated to governance and security for low-code/no-code applications.

4 Things to Do When You're in a Negotiation

The executive director and CEO of WIN Summit shares her advice for entrepreneurs looking to elevate their negotiation skills.

Matt Horn on Finding Purpose in Family and Flames

In-depth interview with CEO, pitmaster, and James Beard Award Nominee Matt Horn about growing his global food brand with social media, operating multiple restaurant concepts, and why he decided to "burn the boats."

This Entrepreneur Believes the 9-to-5 Work Week Is Dead. So She Created a Platform That Matches Talent With Project-Based Work.

The founder of NuuWork shares how her company will help people navigate the future of project-based employment.

How This Company Is Helping Ecommerce Brands Scale and Grow

The co-founder of 8fig shares how his platform is helping online sellers plan and execute their growth around their supply-chain needs.

Eitan Bernath on Becoming a Teenage Food Entrepreneur and Social Media Star

In-depth interview with cookbook author, food personality, and content creator Eitan Bernath about starting an entertainment career as a child, teaming up with Drew Barrymore, and building an inspirational business empire before his 20th birthday.

Ask Marc: Netflix Co-Founder Marc Randolph on Facing Challenges, Bringing on Co-Founders and Growth

In this episode of our new series 'Ask Marc,' the serial entrepreneur and mentor offers advice on how to get started.

3 Science-Backed Ways to Break Bad Habits

Become powerfully productive with these three patterns.

Meet the Co-Founders Making Conscious Shopping Easier

Goodbuy's Cara Oppenheimer and Cary Telander Fortin share how their browser extension helps consumers buy products with both their wallets and values front of mind.

Nina Manchev of Forte Tapas on Engaging Customers with Social Video

Interview with Forte Tapas owner and entrepreneur Nina Manchev about connecting with social media, learning to be confident on video, and appearing on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.

This CEO Believes We Need More Women In Crypto

Jaime Leverton, head of NASDAQ-listed Hut 8 Mining Corp., talks the future of digital currency with 'Entrepreneur.'

How to Create Your Path to Profit

Financial expert and author Michelle Jacobik is on a mission to help people be profitable, so she created the EnVision + Thrive Academy. She shares her journey to success, business tips and what you'll learn in her new book.

Toast CEO Chris Comparato on Why Restaurants Need a Tech Partner That Cares

Interview with Toast CEO Chris Comparato about leading with the customer in mind, having a digital-first mentality, and how technology like Toast is helping restaurants thrive.

The Science of Visualization: Maximizing Your Brain's Potential

In this video, we discuss why visualization is so effective and offer four tips to harness it.

Discover Entrepreneur Series

Whether you need advice on how to get your business off the ground or you’re just looking for inspiration, our video series have something for everyone. Browse our library below to find a series that speaks to you and your interests.

  • An original series streaming weekly where you can Click-to-Invest while you watch. THEIR JOURNEY. Your decision.
  • Your favorite pitch show is back with new entrepreneurs pitching Entrepreneur's investors.
  • Host Nicole Walters interviews small business founders to discuss their unique challenges and experiences running and growing a business. 
  • How many times have you been told “that will never work”? Probably not as often as Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph. The veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur provides a healthy dose of humor, and actionable advice that will benefit founders - and would-be founders - at every stage of their business journey.
  • Jessica Abo covers the causes people care about, the powerful work they do and how they got to where they are in the first place.
  • Bestselling author, Ben Angel, takes his audience on a journey into the entrepreneurial mind to uncover why we do what we do through his powerful short films and educational videos so you can unleash your ideas and potential.