Sometimes, a buzzworthy food brand is the result of a perfect storm of circumstances: an up-and-coming ingredient, a hot market, and founders with passion and savvy. AKUA, a New-York based kelp jerky startup, is one such example.
Co-founder Courtney Boyd Myers was a veteran of the startup and technology world, but it was an unexpected passion for sustainable food systems that catalyzed her emerging business. “No one else is going to start a kelp company like AKUA,” she told Foodboro. Luckily, with drive and boundless energy, Myers is the woman for the job.
You’ve written about startups as a journalist before. Did you feel like an entrepreneurial person?
More hustler than entrepreneurial. I’m a real “get sh*t done” person. I love the beginning stages of companies, because there’s so much to do. I ran an agency for a long time, I had employees, I balanced a P&L, and that worked, but it was really simple. An agency business is cash-in, cash-out.
With a CPG business, you’re focused on your cost of goods changing all the time, based on how much packaging you can buy, or which sales outlets are taking a cut of what, and there’s so many inputs and outputs. It’s overwhelming. I wouldn’t say that I have the type of business skills to handle those kinds of fluctuations and modeling but I have a co-founder who handles a lot of that. At the end of the day, I love selling something I believe in. That’s the fun part for me.
How did AKUA come to be?
I knew I wanted to start a business in health and wellness. At the same time, one of my best friends helped start a non-profit called GreenWave with a fisherman who told him about a new form of agriculture to the U.S., which is growing kelp without the use of freshwater, food, or fertilizer. It can be grown abundantly, and it sequesters carbon and nitrogen from the sea. It sounded amazing, and I was helping with fundraisers to support the farmers, but I wanted to get more involved. They said they’d love help creating a consumer market for kelp in the U.S., so I started shipping frozen bags of kelp to chefs and food scientists. We came up with everything from kelp noodles to kelp Doritos, until we worked with one NYC-based chef to come up with Kelp Jerky.
At the same time, we saw Krave Jerky company sell to Hershey’s for $300 million, so we thought, hmm! Maybe we could do a vegan jerky company since more people are wanting to eat plant-based foods. We saw that there wasn’t a high-protein, soy-free vegan jerky available, and so that’s where we went. We wanted to make a healthy snack, while raising awareness around ocean health, climate change, and sustainability. It is both a brand play and a product play, and it still is.
In 2018, we finalized our first iteration of Kelp Jerky as a product in a kitchen, launched a Kickstarter, and then took just over 6 months learning to scale Kelp Jerky from kitchen to co-packer. Finally, on April 22, 2019, we launched three our three first flavors of Kelp Jerky to the world!
How does the food industry compare to other industries you’ve worked in?
It’s all about the attitude you bring to conversations. There’s a lot more money in tech, and a tech company can fetch a 10x valuation on its revenue, where a food company is more like 4-5x if you have a really strong brand. It’s just harder to scale consumer products. So there’s a sense of, ‘oh my god this is so hard,’ amongst food founders that you don’t hear as much in tech. Tech can be a little more smoke and mirrors too. There’s more of an earthiness and grounded-ness to the food industry that I love. Tech is exciting, I still advise a few companies, and I love startups, but food is a great industry to be in. Everyone is super homey, grounded, and sweet.
How did you build your supply chain?
Building the supply chain and forming relationships with our ocean farmers was an on-going process during the first year and a half of our business. As the ocean farming industry grows in step with AKUA so too does our positive impact on the planet. If we were making a soy-based product, with a big supply chain, it would’ve been a lot easier to startup. But making a soy-based product wouldn’t be exciting to me.
So over the years, we’ve built close relationships with all of our suppliers and farmers, and our processor partners. 95% of the kelp we source is from Maine and 5% is from Rhode Island. Our processing company in Portland is called SeaGreen farms. They receive the raw kelp that has been pulled out of the ocean by the farmers, and then they blanche it, cut it, freeze-pack it, and send it to us. Investors have asked us a lot about whether we can scale with the current supply chain, and the answer is yes. Maybe not only using Maine kelp, but Alaska has a huge kelp production too.
What’s a challenge AKUA is dealing with right now?
We put out a really healthy product (10g of fiber, 10g of protein, 2g of sugar, etc.), and thought everyone would be super excited to eat kelp, but we have some more work to do to make more mainstream flavors. For example, we came out with a Spicy Thai & Spirulina flavor, with turmeric, and it was a little out there. Our Sesame + Nori Sea Salt people love, and the Rosemary & Maple Barbecue people love, but next up will be a more mainstream Teriyaki (maybe with some goji berries, because life is short!).
Also, we use organic maple sugar from Vermont, just a little bit, but it’s all the rage right now to have zero added sugar. So, if we sub out the organic maple sugar for an apricot or date base, we can have the same amount of sugar (if not more), but we will be able to show a zero added sugar label. Like every food company, it’s a serious game of labeling.
AKUA has a strong PR game. Some of that is from your background in journalism. Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs for getting press?
You just have to firespray everywhere in an upward direction. We created massive Airtable sheets for our Kickstarter, and for our product launch. In terms of a conversion rate, we probably got 10% of the journalists or influencers who wrote us back and said yes, send us product. Maybe a quarter of those wrote a story. So it’s a volume game, emailing hundreds of people, and putting together a really tight pitch. And you iterate – every time you make your outreach better and more targeted.
Your husband also has a food business. How do you both support each other’s business endeavors?
We talk about work for probably 75% of our conversations, and we love it, because we’re both in growth mode. I am proud to be Unframed’s biggest (and only) investor (to date), and I’ve helped him with marketing and sales along the way. We’re also long distance. He’s in Cape Town, and I’m in New York, so we meet in Europe for 2-3 weeks to be together every 3-4 weeks and work on our businesses remotely. This allows for intense periods of team-focused work when we’re apart and high level strategic, contemplative work when we’re together. He is so supportive of kelp jerky, he’s tasted thousands of batches, and he’s really tough on me in terms of product and business. He’s a finance and ops guy, so we balance each other’s skill sets.
Are you trying to develop any skill sets as an entrepreneur? Or do you just outsource the things you’re less good at?
I think it’s more a question of, do you enjoy the task? If you enjoy it but you have to learn a new skill, that is awesome. But if you don’t enjoy it, it will take you 10 times longer to do it, so if should delegate or outsource it if you can. For example, I have a part-time assistant who handles my admin because I hate admin. She doesn’t mind it, so I pay her $600/month to help out on all the 1-800 calls and flight bookings.
In terms of developing my leadership skills, I’m working with a performance psychology coach to help me define what my specific form of leadership is going to look like. Because I haven’t ever really had a traditional boss but have always worked with friends, I tend to, when I have employees, just befriend them. Maybe that’s not the smartest strategy as we scale. So leadership and management skills are two areas I’m excited to work on.
You run the #OMGCPG Facebook group, which is a great community. What resources do you use when you have questions?
I use the #OMGCPG group if there’s a question where I think others will benefit from the answer. If it’s a specific question to AKUA, I reach out to other food founders. For example, my friend Seth who runs Cocoburg Jerky and my all-time BFF Ross Deutsch who helps run sales for KIN, have been really helpful peer mentors.
What’s your typical day like?
Today, I woke up early, walked to a coffee shop at 8am and starting working on email marketing that needed to go out at 9am. Whenever I have time between calls or marketing/sales work, I get about 200 emails a day, so I plowed through those. I also work out every day, even if all I can fit in is just a 30-minute yoga stretch. Staying healthy in body and mind is so important for founders.
So after crushing a few emails, I snuck in 30-minute swim before meeting my team for a check-in. Then Matt and I went to an investor meeting, because we’re starting early conversations for our bridge round this autumn. Tonight I’m hosting a dinner to showcase the kelp as a culinary ingredient to select media, fellow founders, and investors.
What tools and services do you use to run the business?
I love tools and services! Obviously Google’s tools, but I use Superhuman, which is a Gmail skin that allows you to utilize keyboard shortcuts to the max, which allows me to move through emails quickly. I organize all of our tasks on Trello and I organize our CRMs on AirTable for sales, marketing, and fundraising. For comms, I use Franz, which is a desktop app that pulls in Slack, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger, and Skype.
What keeps you going on the bad days?
I got offered a really sweet job the other day, and it was tough, because I haven’t paid myself in a year. But what keeps me going is our early investors, our early customers, and how much faith they put in us. So delivering a successful business to them and the world keeps me going, and knowing that if I have this business under my belt and can sell it in 5 years, it’ll set me up to do everything I want, which is invest in other founders and be a mentor. And if it fails, I’ll at least have given it my best shot. And lastly, no one else is going to start a kelp company like AKUA! I feel uniquely skilled and obsessively passionate to do this, and there’s been a lot of support because of that. Support to follow your dreams – that’s the most amazing feeling ever. So gratitude for that is what keeps me going the most.