2020 In Review: 10 Lessons Learned from a Specialty Food Entrepreneur

I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a long year. Many unforeseen challenges and stresses have been thrown into our paths, leaving us feeling a bit rattled coming into the new year. For me, as co-founder of ChipMonk, I've experienced some of my highest highs and lowest lows. Our 2nd year as a company has seen some amazing accomplishments as well as some kicks in the butt that made it tough to get up to face the day.

 

All-in-all, I've learned a great deal and feel like our team is ready to jump into the year ahead with the vigor and knowledge needed to further our goal of sharing better-for-you desserts with others. As a way of forced self-reflection, I wanted to share my top 10 takeaways from the year. Hopefully there will be some nuggets of wisdom you can apply to your own business or personal life. So here we go!

Takeaway 1: Always Be Reading

Every experience, every emotion, every situation has likely been faced before in the past by someone else. Books distill those experiences down into words of wisdom to be learned from. By constantly reading, you open yourself to new ideas while also finding comfort in the shared experiences you have with others. The team at ChipMonk has made it a goal to read one book a month, which we then discuss with each other. This practice alone has led to several impactful projects changing the course of our business. 

To run a business (or a life) without reading is like going through a maze wearing a blindfold when there are signs on the walls showing you the way.

Takeaway 2: Packaging is Key

For a consumer product like our cookies and bites, packaging is absolutely essential for getting Customers to discover and try your product. Earlier in 2020, we said "Hey, we're just an e-commerce company. Packaging isn't a big deal." While there is some truth in that, we quickly found out that if we wanted to be on any kind of retail shelf (FYI - Amazon is the world's largest digital "shelf"), we needed to have engaging, thoughtful packaging.

The key to doing this is to understand why people buy your product in the first place. What attributes or outcomes does your product provide that your target customer wants? You need to find these out asap. You can do this by talking to your customers directly. Call them, email them, use surveys, talk to them at markets or shops. Distill their desires down into packaging that clearly shows what the product is and how it can help the consumer achieve their goals. 

While you may be able to get away with sub-par packaging early on, at this stage in our business this is something we absolutely must invest in.

Takeaway 3: Take The Long View

When a company is less than two years old, it's logical to try to measure everything month-by-month. In the first half of 2020, we saw regular monthly growth and were incredibly encouraged by it. With the full advent of coronavirus, however, we saw those trends reverse and ended up fighting to stem the bleeding throughout the rest of the year instead of growing further.

This was a mind killer. Our team went from visions of grandeur to nightmares of failure. You know what our problem was? Not taking the long view. As more months passed, it became clear that sometimes there are going to be major obstructions to your journey. It's easy to give up when that happens, when the wind is no longer at your back. What makes the difference, what can really set you apart, is to simply persist. As Winston Churchill says, "If you're going through hell, keep going." 

Accept that you're playing the long-game and that setbacks are inevitable. Instead of being discouraged by them, reframe the situation and view them as opportunities to learn. Without challenges, the rewards simply wouldn't be worth it anyways. 

This is a cautionary tale for would-be entrepreneurs as well. Do not do this unless you're in it for the long haul. Trust me, major success will not come overnight, and the only consistent strategy to obtain it is to stick it out.

Takeaway 4: Use LinkedIn

Social media seems like a plague these days. One that sucks our time and often seems to be polarizing us as society. One haven in 2020, however, was LinkedIn.

LinkedIn is an amazing place to watch, connect with, and learn from those in your industry (or the industry you want to be in). I've learned so much from other CPG entrepreneurs on the platform. Amazingly, people are so open to connecting there too. I've sent plenty direct messages which have led to sincere conversations filled with insights and advice. It's also a great place to broadcast your own vision and values as an entrepreneur and startup. You'll find that by putting your (sincere) voice out there, you'll attract others who want to help along the way.

Takeaway 5: Experiment

By mid-2020, we quickly realized that many of the tools, tactics, and strategies we had been using simply weren't cutting it any more. Our digital advertising results tanked, and we saw our e-commerce channels start to shrink.

When faced with processes that no longer work, it's key to try something else. So that's what we did. A lot of research, experimentation, and learning. Each month we've tested out new apps (e.g., ReConvert Post Purchase Upsell, Referral Candy, Postscript Text Message Marketing, Free Shipping Popup), new marketing channels (text messaging, direct mail, affiliate marketing), and even new sales channels (direct wholesale, Walmart.com). While some tests didn't really move the needle, others have opened up new worlds of opportunity giving us optimism for the future. 

The key is to keep an open mind and be on the look out for new things to try out. Learn what you can, launch, and see the results. In this age of constant change, if you aren't trying out new things regularly, you'll likely be left behind in the dust.

Takeaway 6: Be Human

At ChipMonk, we try to add a personal touch to everything we do. Every single order we ship includes a personal, hand-written note. My co-founder Jose and I also personally handle all customer service inquiries and gladly offer 100% satisfaction guarantees. We're focused on understanding things from the perspective of others. Of course we can get frustrated, but, by being sincere and kind in the way we communicate and deal with our partners and customers, we build memorability for our brand and what we stand for. 

Many times we make mistakes (e.g., packing the wrong thing in someone's order), but, by being honest, apologetic, and fixing the problem the right way, we have turned someone's bad experience into a positive one countless times (often captured in a 5-star review online as well).

Takeaway 7: Add Value

The world is filled with bright screens and talking heads constantly trying to get our attention. Stealing our attention trying to get us to spend our time or money on whatever they're offering. There's just so much noise.

How do you stand out? Offer real value. We've implemented this strategy with all of our email marketing. Instead of simply throwing sales and promotions out in spammy emails, we've created things like recipe books and special exclusive bite flavors for our followers. This will be a core part of our focus for 2021. We are going to create products and content that give value to our fans and customers. This is far more effective for building sales and brand equity than discounts and paid ads.

Takeaway 8: Set Goals

If you don't set a goal, you've got very little chance of reaching it. At ChipMonk, we've made it a process for everyone on the team to set monthly goals. Every month, I sit down with each team member one-on-one to review their goals, discuss how last month's goals went, and to make sure we're all challenging ourselves while moving the company in the right direction.

I think it's good to have long-term and short-term goals. Write them down. Share them. Hold yourself accountable. Each goal is like a step in a ladder for you to climb to your ultimate destination. 

Writing down your goals also helps filter out the noise. You can choose to ignore things (e.g., constant emails) to zero in on accomplishing your goal for the day, week, or month. Focus is key, and goals are a great way to build focus.

Takeaway 9: Invest in Culture

This was not something I ever thought I'd have to worry about, but, as ChipMonk has grown, we have built a team of nearly 10 full-time employees and contractors. With so many personalities, ideas, and work styles, it's critical as a leader to determine the kind of culture you want to have and to set the tone and activities for developing it.

For example, I want our team to have a growth mindset. To always be learning. That's why we have our monthly book club sessions, and we do after-action reports after production runs to learn what we could do better. 

I also encourage ownership, giving team members more responsibility and pushing them to build processes and plans without my direct guidance. Eventually (when we can afford the legal fees) this will expand into offering equity in the company to all our team members.

Culture doesn't just happen. It requires regular conversations with your team and the individuals on it. It also requires you to hold yourself accountable to the ideals you want your company to stand for. While I'm no means a culture guru, I've learned this year that small investments here can have meaningful differences for the optimism, energy, and focus of your team.

Takeaway 10: Disconnect

Anyone working at a startup (or really any job) can understand how easy it is to burn out when we're overworked. There's constantly something critical to be taken care of. Something that needs your attention. If you keep running on that hamster wheel, you will eventually one day wake up exhausted, unmotivated, and ready to quit.

To avoid this, you need to schedule in time to disconnect. Take a small road trip for the weekend with your partner or friends. Turn off your phone at a set time in the evening and instead read a calming book or watch a fun show. Call your family and friends regularly. Maybe wake up early in the mornings and do something for 30 minutes that's completely unrelated to work (exercise, reading, meditation).

Whatever it is - make sure to schedule in time to cut off from work. As your team grows, it's important that you build up each other's roles to help support that as well (e.g., make sure if you're gone that someone else can take up the slack and visa versa). While work is important, you can't let it be all consuming.

Honestly, by disconnecting you'll likely find yourself inspired and have new ideas that will ultimately help your business in the long run as well. By taking time to mentally vacation, you're doing yourself, your business, and your friends and family a huge favor.

 

That's all I've got! I hope this list helps others coming into 2021. May next year be one filled with new challenges, new successes, and new opportunities for growth for us all.

p.s. Want to know what I learned in 2019? Check out my post from last year: Lessons Learned from Year One

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