How does a CPG industry veteran approach building a brand as a first-time entrepreneur? When Ibraheem Basir launched A Dozen Cousins last year, he knew plenty about how to operate and scale natural foods brands. But he still experienced unexpected challenges, and he’s learning as much as any new entrepreneur. A Dozen Cousins is a line of ready-to-eat beans using delicious recipes from Black and Latino cultures, filling a much-needed space in the natural product category. Ibraheem is a thoughtful entrepreneur with extensive industry experience, and his approach to growing his business is valuable for anyone to learn from.
What’s the origin story of A Dozen Cousins?
I grew up in Brooklyn originally, in a big family. I have 9 siblings, and when my daughter was born, she had 11 cousins. And food was always really special to us. It’s how we connected at the end of the day, how we celebrated holidays, and how we marked milestones. I always knew I wanted to work in the food industry.
I started my career in a traditional CPG setting and I worked on a variety of brands, both conventional and natural/organic. As I moved into the natural product space, one of the things that stood out to me was that the brands didn’t quite feel like home. I grew up in Brooklyn, in a predominantly Black and Latino community, where food was all about culture and joy and taste. But a lot of the natural brands I was working for, or observed, felt so nutrition and environment focused. None of them had the same kind of culture-first, taste-first, joyful feeling that I always feel when I think about food.
That was really the whole idea behind A Dozen Cousins: to bring together the culture and emotion of food that I was used to, and pair it with everything I had learned about natural food sourcing, better ingredients, and less processing. I started with beans because it was the perfect combination of taste, heath and culture. They’re really healthy, high in protein, high in fiber, and they taste good if you cook them well. There’s also a real emotional connection to beans, particularly the beans in the regions that we deal with, which is Southern U.S., down to the Caribbean and into Latin America.
What was the leap into entrepreneurship like, coming from a CPG background?
Some things translate very closely from working at a larger food company to what I’m doing today. For example, packaging design. There are some technical aspects to that, like what you’re trying to communicate, the hierarchy that you want to deliver on, and the emotions you want shoppers to feel when they see your packaging. That stuff is the same. So is managing P&L statements, ingredient costs, marketing spend, margins, etc.
What’s very different is the level of resources that we have access to. When you work for a large food company, most of the people that you speak with, you’re their largest customer or supplier, so you have a level of authority and priority. They answer your phone calls immediately, and help you with whatever questions you have.
As an entrepreneur, you don’t have much cash or a proven track record. As a result, you really have to pitch everyone that you work with and prove yourself with every interaction. That was an adjustment to get used to. However, on the positive side, I think that has lead to much stronger partnerships. The people that work with us genuinely believe in our products and what we are trying to build. Hopefully that will lead to much stronger and mutually-beneficial relationships over time.
The second thing, which I’m sure would be familiar to most founders, is the mood management. A lot of being an entrepreneur is learning to keep your emotions in check, both positive and negative. It’s not really good for the business to get super excited at every potential prospect, because you need to realize that some of them won’t pan out and to plan accordingly. But then likewise, how do you prevent yourself from getting too down when something doesn’t go your way? You have to switch quickly from feeling sorry for yourself to coming up with solutions to implementing those solutions. That has been a bit of an adjustment, because the ups and downs are plentiful. Much more so than at a large company.
How did you choose the three recipes and iterate?
There was a list of maybe 10 bean recipes that we could’ve pulled from in the regions that we focus on. We were trying to get a good mix of the most popular beans. Black and pinto beans are well-known, and chickpeas are familiar. There are some other beans we may go to eventually that deliver in terms of taste and authenticity, but they aren’t as widely known.
In terms of formulations, the benefit we have is that these things are very well known. The Cuban black bean is not an abstraction. A Cuban grandmother would walk you through it. We had a really clear base, and then the challenge was to deliver the same homemade experience in a large setting. For us, for example, we wanted to use real onions and real garlic and real bell peppers. We didn’t use dehydrated powders, which would be easy to mass produce, but we felt like we would lose something.
We did find a couple places in the recipe to elevate the ingredients even further. For example, we use avocado oil as opposed to a canola oil or vegetable oil. We felt there was an opportunity to have a better source of fat. In that same vein, Cuban black beans are traditionally cooked with white vinegar and white sugar. We instead use apple cider vinegar and a tomato paste to get the same balance of sweet and bitter, without having to actually add any sugar. We did little things like that in each recipe, but we still wanted to deliver a traditional taste.
Year 1 is an experiment for A Dozen Cousins. What have you learned so far, and what metrics are you using to prove the concept?
In CPG, it all comes down to velocity and repeat. Velocity is how much you’re selling in a given store in a given period of time. If we’re not in the top of the bean category, we know we’re not delivering value above and beyond what people can buy from another brand. The second thing is repeat. Will people who buy the product go back and buy it again? In the food space, that’s the top metric of quality. It tastes good, people enjoy it, and they’ll buy it again so you’re not constantly having to go out and find people to try the product.
In full candor, we’re still learning. It would be disingenuous to say that we know the answer. There’s some areas where we have more confidence than others. I feel pretty confident about the product. On our Amazon reviews, every flavor has 4.5 stars or above. We have very minimal complaints in terms of anything product or flavor related, so I feel pretty good that we’ve delivered in terms of product experience.
The things we still need to learn: can we continuously turn at the top of the category, do people understand the key benefits, and is the packaging communicating what it’s supposed to? Because to date, we’ve mostly been a e-commerce business, where the packaging isn’t quite as important as in a retail setting because you have the advantage of product description and photos. In the supermarket, you have a couple seconds.
We’re still learning, and we’ll hopefully get a lot more exposure. We just launched into brick and mortar in March.
Are you working with a team right now or doing this solo?
I don’t have any full-time employees but I do have a great team that surrounds me. We have a part-time social media manager, a sales broker that manages our sales into natural channels, an e-commerce management team that manages our Amazon sales, and we have packaging and graphic design agencies. But in terms of employees in the business on payroll, it’s just myself to date.
We started on that model out of necessity. We couldn’t hire people to do everything. As we got into it, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of service providers in the space. We went from being super lean out of necessity, to actually having really good partners that we could build this business up to the next stage with.
What’s the big picture plan for A Dozen Cousins?
Fast forward 10 years, the goal is to create a really versatile meals brand. Dinner is one of the most emotionally relevant meals in America and probably in many cultures. It’s a time when families come together, when people want to share their cultures and express love to others by preparing a meal for them.
At the same time, people are busy. If you only have 20 or 30 minutes to prepare dinner on a weeknight, it limits the types of things you can prepare, and the types of products you’re looking for. So that’s where we want to hone in. To create a suite of products that make it easy to prepare, authentic, healthy and convenient foods that are rooted in the traditional cuisines that we talked about.
What’s a challenge that you’re dealing with right now? How are you tackling it?
It takes a lot of time, effort, and energy to continuously have the best people working on your brand at all times. In our case, that means I am continuously vetting the freelancers and agencies that we work with. They are a super important investment, so it ends up taking a fair amount of mind space. I feel like I’m entering a bit of a relationship, or a marriage, with anyone who I do business with.
Obviously in some cases, the commitment is not quite as strong as a marriage, but I’m sharing this baby I made with other people. I want to make sure that they value it, understand it, and respect it as much as I do. That takes a lot of time and emotional energy. It’s not a “the factory is on fire” type of problem, but it is still really important.