Koel Thomae | Crain's San Francisco

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Koel Thomae

Background:  

Australian ex-pat Koel Thomae co-founded Noosa Yoghurt with Colorado dairy farmer Rob Graves in 2010. She loved the yogurt she ate at a small corner shop in Australia so much that she persuaded the family to share their recipe so she could bring it to the United States. Noosa Yoghurt is now sold in most major grocery chains across the country.

The Mistake:

Rob and I were complete strangers going into business together. We never wrote a business plan, we never really talked about strategy. We just wanted to make delicious yogurt. We were really just focused on our backyard in 2010 when we launched. Then we got a meeting in 2011 with a retailer out east. That turned into a very expensive mistake, and ultimately pulling ourselves off the shelves.

There were a myriad of factors as to why it didn’t work. We had zero brand awareness at the time when we looked at our supply chain. We still had a very short shelf life. We were shipping our products halfway across the country to a retailer that was not super focused on supporting emerging brands. So it was all these factors that made us pull out.

It was a $100,000 mistake, which is a lot of money no matter what, but [especially] for an emerging brand. We hadn’t taken any outside investments; we still weren’t paying ourselves any salary. We [also] hit that roadblock of still getting to know your business partner. There were just a lot of moving parts. Fortunately, it was an early lesson. A very expensive lesson, but it didn’t sink us financially.

It made us stop and think, “Maybe we do actually need to have a strategy. How do we do this and move forward?”  If we had stepped back a few years earlier when we were starting the business and actually sat down and said, “OK, if this has legs outside of being a Colorado brand, what would that look like?” We just never had that conversation.

For me personally, it was my life savings going into this business.

The Lesson:

Don’t always say yes to every opportunity. Very quickly we realized that not every opportunity is the right opportunity based on where you are in the life cycle of your business. We [decided] that we were going to grow this business in more of a regional way. [We realized that] if we did get the opportunity to work with a national retailer, we had to be really smart about whether we had the capacity.

I don’t kid myself, I know that so many businesses are not successful the first time around. Not to discount how much hard work Rob and I put into our business, but for us it feels like a home run. We have created this national brand that really has resonated with consumers on such a passionate level. We both mentor other people and other emerging businesses and realized that [it’s hard]. There’s personal investments and your own time.

For me personally, it was my life savings going into this business. It’s interesting, there are some entrepreneurs that want to raise money and get paid a salary. And I sure wouldn’t invest in that entrepreneur because I want to see somebody that’s willing to take that risk, who’s willing to put their blood, sweat and tears into it because that’s what I did. I just don’t think everybody has that level of drive, passion and risk. ... You have to have that grit, as an entrepreneur, to see it through.

Follow Noosa Yoghurt on Twitter at @noosayoghurt

Photo courtesy of Koel Thomae

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