My name is Isabelle Steichen, I’m the co-founder and CEO of Lupii. We make lupini based snacks that are good for humans and the planet. Our first product range is Lupii bars, which currently come in four different delicious flavors, and our vision, in the long run, is to build out a larger platform for this incredible ingredient. We launched in January of this year and had to quickly shift our focus from retail to D2C when the pandemic hit. We were able to make a lot of progress over the last few months and are particularly excited about our high repeat purchase rates, which show that we are starting to build a dedicated fan base of customers who come back for more every month.
My name is Alexandra Dempster and I am co-founder and CMO of Lupii. Given the conditions we have faced over the first few months of the year, we are incredibly proud of the growth we have been able to achieve on DTC. From May - when we started investing in marketing through Q3 - we saw 394% growth. Our early adopter customers are what we like to call the Modern Plantivist, which is someone who understands the power of incorporating plants into their diet and are looking for ways to do this with minimally processed whole foods. These early customers are very important to us and it is a relationship we are continually thinking about how to best nurture because they will ultimately be the brand evangelists that will be critical in helping us build this business.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
I am not someone who always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. However, over the last 6-7 years, what became clear to me was my deep passion for health and well-being, which has been informed by my personal journey dealing with health challenges and delving into self-discovery. Over the years, I have developed a deep belief we can change the world through what we put in our bodies from a multitude of perspectives. The more passionate I became about that, the more clear it became to me that I wanted to find something I could do that would give me as much congruity as possible between my values and the work I do in the world. It wasn’t until the last few years when I truly started contemplating going down the entrepreneurial path in some capacity. Coincidentally, I have spent the bulk of my career working across the food and beverage industry in marketing, and when Isabelle and I met each other, it was so clear that the work we want to do in the world is incredibly aligned and we would be able to bring our complementary skills together to build Lupii.
Perfection doesn’t exist, and moving quickly and learning from the market holds a great amount of value as well.
When Isabelle and I met each other, I was working on the Global Foods Group Transformation Innovation team at PepsiCo with incredible colleagues from who I learned so much. My time at Pepsi was a formative part of my career path. Meeting Isabelle and having the opportunity to build something from the ground up with someone who has such shared values, but also their unique perspective and view of the world, was a dream that I knew doesn’t show up in one's life every day. I left PepsiCo in May of 2019.
It felt (and still does) extremely fortuitous that Isabelle and I were connected at moments in our lives when we were both so ready to dig into the hard work that is required of one to build and grow a business. I am incredibly fortunate to be doing work that I love and deeply believe in. Making your passion your work is not an option for everyone, but if and when you find something you care about, make sure you nurture it because these are types of passions that always feed us in big and small ways.
I grew up in Luxembourg, a tiny country in the heart of Europe, and went to undergrad and grad school in Paris. Having grown up in a small city, I had always wanted to live abroad. I studied urban planning in grad school and specialized in North American cities, which was one of the reasons I moved to New York. The moment I moved here, I felt at home. I also fell in love with the energy of the city and the desire to always create and innovate. The entrepreneurial atmosphere attracted me to the startup space and over my career, I worked for various early-stage companies, mostly in tech. In parallel, I have been immersing myself in the plant-based space. I took a nutrition certification with e-cornell and started a podcast, The Plantiful, with my husband, where we interview plant-based change-makers across different industries to inspire others on their journeys.
Over time, I developed a deep desire to combine my passion for the plant-based space with my startup background. During this time, I got very hung up on one question I kept getting from my friends and family in the states when I was telling them I was vegan: ‘where was I getting my protein from?’ I looked at the market and did tons of consumer research and realized that the worry around protein, more specifically that plants don’t deliver in the same way as animals, was the number one hurdle for consumers to overcome when trying to eat plant-based. I also realized how processed the plant-based protein market is and knew I had the answer for the next generation of plant-based protein: wholesome, nutritious, and minimally processed, which can all be embodied by our amazing hero ingredient, the lupini bean. When I left my last job in 2018, I didn’t really have a plan. I had been researching lupini beans for a while but didn’t know where to go with them. Coincidentally, a month after I left my role at Sawyer, I was approached by Human Ventures, an NYC based startup studio, and they were interested in the plant-based space. When the opportunity arose, I took it as a sign and jumped on board. We explored different concepts and ideas and ended up coming back to the lupini bean and this vision to build a brand around it and to help lay the foundation for this next generation of minimally processed plant-based foods.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
After moving to New York, I worked for various early-stage tech companies. I then began following my passion for the plant-based space and immersed myself in learning more. After discovering consumers were worried about plant-based protein, I knew I wanted to change their perception. Working with Human Ventures allowed me to hone in on the lupini bean and harness its potential into something for consumers. I wanted to create a generation of plant-based foods that are made with wholesome, nutritious, and minimally processed ingredients and ultimately give a larger platform to the lupini bean.
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Isabelle and I started building Lupii together in May 2019 (at that time we didn’t have a brand name), starting from the early conceptualization stage she had gotten to with Human Ventures. There was only a product prototype and insights to substantiate the business idea. From there, she and I had to start to think about the holistic business model, building the brand, and scaling our recipe with our co-manufacturing partner. What were we going to call it? What was the brand going to stand for? What was our voice in the world going to be? Our first ideation sessions started around finding a brand name, which is both a fun and daunting process. We then conducted some additional qualitative insight groups and started to layout strategic frameworks for the brand and business.
Armed with the brand name, brand strategy, and consumer insights, we were able to brief our design agency and kick off work with them in June, so we were moving quickly. From there we continued to flush out our GTM strategy, built our detailed business model, and also got to work with our co-man to do a first trial run to scale our prototype to manufacturing equipment. By August, we had conducted a 2nd successful trial run and our brand was beginning to take shape. It was during Q3 that we started to have very early retail conversations, and were starting to build our assets and develop the website for our January launch with a retail-first strategy. It was very full 2019, but we got out to an amazing start in January, only to have it completely upended by the pandemic.
March and April for us were all about literal and psychological nimbleness and adaptation to be smart about our next move. Starting in May, we were able to begin to invest in marketing, focused on selling through our website, and that has been our fairly singular focus through today. We are currently thinking about retail again for 2021 and we're excited about strategically and thoughtfully expanding our retail distribution footprint in the New Year, while still leveraging the momentum we have built-in 2020 to grow the e-commerce side of the business.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are still a very small team. Our team consists of Allie, myself, and one full-time employee, Megan, who is wearing numerous hats. We onboarded with a 3PL (third-party logistics) in late Spring of 2020 to support our online growth and we have a wonderful production partner. In the short run, we are focused on getting people to discover Lupii and learn about the benefits of the incredible hero ingredient, the lupini bean. We want to build a company with and for our customers both healthily and sustainably. We are also looking at expanding our retail footprint into regional retail and we have some new flavors in the pipeline.
We are an incredibly young business. Since our first launch strategy was built around retail, we had to pivot. This meant that we didn’t start to invest in marketing in earnest until May of this year, and are still very much in the experimental phase of our marketing efforts. However, from May through Q3 we saw 394% growth through our website. We will close the year with revenue in the six figures, 90% of which is coming from DTC. We are gearing up to continue that e-commerce growth in 2021, while also expanding strategically into key natural retail accounts next year.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Launching a business is equal parts exciting and scary. Putting something into the world that you have worked hard to build can feel so significant and there can often be a strong desire to get it just “right.” However, launching a business in 2020 has reinforced just how much is out of one’s control. Building plans and having a strategic vision is essential and we went out of the gate with a strong idea of how we wanted to execute in the market this first year. Nevertheless, what has served us well as founders and entrepreneurs is the ability to adapt to change and what is out of our control. This year has been the biggest test of that in every way. Psychologists talk about the importance of neural plasticity in staying open-minded, growing, and evolving, and not getting stuck in rigidity. I think about that a lot both for myself, for Lupii, and the plasticity of our business. Being able to tack and change course when needed, not resist change, or to survey the landscape when you’ve taken a beat has never been more vital.
I learned how valuable it is to have a co-founder who shares the same passion but also has a different and complementary background that can challenge my ideas. I think diversity in decision-making is key and I’m thankful that Allie and I can bounce ideas off each other and we can bring different perspectives to the table. We made some good decisions around influencer partnerships and are very grateful we have been lucky to work with some great creators on that front. I’m also very proud of getting into the Nosh Pitch Slam Finals early in the pandemic when working from home just started and we had no experience with Zoom pitching. I also think it was the right call to think about our margins from day one. We want to build this business in a scalable and sustainable way and having healthy margins are key for that from day one.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We launched our business in January of this year and were laser-focused on retail. Due to the pandemic, we pivoted our focus to DTC, so the tools that are the most valuable to our business right now are the ones that enable us to successfully grow that channel. If we can consider Shopify a tool, it’s the most important one we use, because it is the platform on which the entire DTC side of our business is built. Klaviyo’s email marketing platform is also an essential tool for our business growth and customer outreach. Finally, our post-purchase survey third-party app, Enquire, which we recently implemented, is so useful for us to better understand where our customers are hearing about us and how to better attribute credit to different marketing channels.
Our website is built on Shopify, which is super user friendly both on the front and back end. We recently moved to Dropbox to manage our folders and are SO happy about that move. Google Drive was just not working for us. We mostly use slack to communicate as a team internally.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
One podcast related to the entrepreneurial journey that I love and is very on the nose is How I Built This. It is very helpful, often emotionally, especially when the entrepreneurs really open up and are vulnerable with trials and tribulations that come with building something out of nothing. It helps me remember that other people have and are going through the same highs and lows, which can certainly feel isolating at times.
Another podcast that is so helpful for us as food entrepreneurs are BevNet’s Taste Radio. It inspires us both tactically and strategically from fellow food and beverage entrepreneurs at various stages of company development.
Finally, the podcast that has had the most significant impact on me as an individual is On Being. Host Krista Tippet explores the big questions of life with incredible guests that range from spiritual teachers to scientists, really exploring the idea of what it means to be human. She has had some truly amazing conversations and quite a few have made a significant impact on me.
I recently finished Ramp your Brand by James Richardson and loved it. It felt like a refreshingly realistic depiction of how small CPG businesses evolve and a useful toolkit on how to make it happen. I also enjoy listening to Taste Radio, How I Built This, and Freakonomics.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Make plans, be intentional, and be thoughtful about anything you want to put out into the world. However, remember that perfection doesn’t exist, and moving quickly and learning from the market holds a great amount of value as well. Isabelle and I are great compliments to each other in that we can counterbalance each other in different situations.
Staying open-minded. Understanding what you know and what you don’t know. Find smarter people to ask for advice and help. Leave your ego at home. And find the right balance between scrappiness and established business practices.
Where can we go to learn more?
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