Our Founder Spotlight series is here. In this episode, we chat with James Tjan who is the founder of Mindful Snacks. Tune into our chat with James to learn more what’s it like to build a successful startup.
What inspired you to create this startup?
1. I saw an opportunity in the marketplace which had little competition and a lack of attention to service.
2. I reflected on personal struggles that I had overcome in my early 20’s that resulted in a change of eating habits.
Back in 2011, I was at crossroads while working at one of the most successful healthy food chains in Canada called Freshii. I had a career choice to make – to continue and see how far I could go in the rapidly growing company or move on. Coincidently, at Freshii, I was responsible for creating and implementing a healthy snack retail program at each store level. I was fascinated by the consumer buying patterns. The very same customers who came and ate at a Freshii whether for breakfast or lunch came back during mid-afternoon for a snack. For one, we created an amazing loyal customer base which helped, but even so, we were seeing new and existing customers willing to walk 1-2 blocks or more to pick up a healthy snack. During my travels to the US and further abroad, I would visit other concepts and source new products. At the same time, I was beginning to see a number of healthy snack companies emerge. Many of them had a subscription-based model or e-commerce-based platform and the product offerings were product category focused on either fresh fruit delivery service or dried snacks, but few were a combination of both. Then there were the coffee providers, who went beyond coffee and offered snacks, but focused more on traditional junk food. Those that did offer healthy options were not actually snacks made with real food. Food made with real ingredients were important to me if I was going to launch a healthy snack service. I wanted to make sure that the snacks I was going to offer were made with ‘better for you ingredients” and ingredients that you could actually read and comprehend.
Thus, this leads to my #2 point of personal struggles. At age 21, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, but was lucky to find a cure in the US. It was a long, tough battle that I had to fight, both mentally and physically, which required really changing the way I ate. Everything I consumed had to be carefully analyzed and approved before consuming. I drastically cut down on some of my favorite junk food snacks that I grew up with as a kid and pop was almost non-existent during my fight.
I took a step back and absorbed everything I learned and went through, and knew what I had to do. No regrets. Freshii was a great experience, but it was time to move on. I would set out to create a healthy snack company for corporate offices that emphasized on service foremost, product variety and convenience. Mindful Snacks is a full service provider that manages the restocking of company kitchens, tidies and organizes the kitchen space, tracks inventory and consumption rates, and manages all reorders. Today we carry over 240 products ranging from fresh fruit to trail mix, bars and beverages and it continues to grow.
How did you go about validating this business idea and land those early customers?
Data was key. During my first six months of registering the company, I set out and contacted companies that may be interested in implementing a healthy snack program. The snacks were provided at cost, and in some instances, absolutely free. This was in exchange for data collection. I wanted to gather as much information as possible, whether or not companies saw a value in offering healthy snacks. I also wanted to get a better understanding of what made employees tick, in making them shift from what they would normally consume (i.e pop, chips chocolate), to grabbing that nutritious healthy snack.
I looked at various factors from packaging, presentation, ingredient composition, dietary restrictions all the way to different snack pairings on how that could affect consumer behaviour. I conducted a number of trials over the course of six months until I felt there was a market and opportunity in providing healthy snacks to corporate offices. I knew which companies I wanted to target – that being the tech industry, who are known to be the innovators and early adopters of all things new. Companies like Google and Yahoo set the bar in offering free snacks, let alone free food all day for their staff. Through a network of supplier relationships I developed over the years, I was very fortunate to land LinkedIn’s Canadian Head Office as our first client. Even then, we started with only 10 products, and focused on service and perfecting the system for 3 months before moving on to our next customer. Ebay and Google came next as clients, and from there on, rapid word of mouth spread our name.
What is the story behind the name of Mindful Snacks?
I wanted to choose a name that people could instantly relate to, where the majority of people would understand what the concept entailed. I knew I wanted the word “snacks” in the name, and something to describe it as being healthy. I was walking down the aisle of Indigo Bookstore one day and was in the Yoga & Meditation section, to get inspiration for my name brainstorming. The first book I picked up was about mindfulness meditation. The word mindfulness caught my attention, and right there and then, I penned it in my notebook Mindful Snacks. What did “mindful” mean to me? It is being mindful of what you eat, being self aware of what’s around you that can affect how you eat and live, being mindful that it’s ok to indulge in your favorite snacks from time to time as long as there’s a balance, and being mindful that the foods we choose can help fuel the body and mind.
What advice do you have for founders when it comes to building their team and culture?
– Hire people that are better than you.
– Be hands on, but don’t get so consumed about every small task. Delegate.
– Empower each team member. Mistakes will occur, but learn from it.
– Measure your employees against your core values and beliefs.
– Block out time each week to meet with your team. Time is precious, but a good culture can only be built if you have a strong team to support it.
What characteristics do you look for in your new hires?
Often times, I will skim through a resume to confirm the individual has the basic skills sets related to the job position. Personality is top of mind. How well does the individual hold up in a conversation? Are they engaged and seem interested in the role they are applying for? In speaking with the individual, are they humble, and most importantly, do they have a sense of integrity? Certifications, degrees, awards and titles can be impressive, but they aren’t necessarily going to net your best hire. I want to know how much drive they have to attain what they want to accomplish.
What are some trends you see on wellness and productivity at work?
Wellness is becoming top of mind for more companies, needing to retain and attract top talent and ensure productivity remains high. The tech industry continues to be leading the way in providing amazing benefits and creative perks, from in-house gyms or free memberships, onsite medical professionals, fitness and nutrition challenges and wellness programs that really focus on the well-being of their employees. However, other sectors are rising and increasing their investment in wellness initiatives. Industries that once strayed away from any sort of partial or fully subsidized programs are beginning to emerge and are more willing to make the investment in order to remain competitive in the industry. We are hearing the theme “employee experience” and “employee engagement” which relate to culture. A new certification called “Well” is going to become the new standard for companies to attain which involves not only a healthy food component, but also looks at a company’s sustainability initiatives, workplace space and design, and how these can impact the health and wellbeing of employees at work.
We know startups take massive amount of effort and persistence. What tips do you have for solo founders out there working on the startup?
– Be positive. Be persistent. If you truly believe in what you are doing, go for it. There were countless times when people doubted the ideas I had for my business. Mindful Snacks was a crazy idea to many, and to several companies being pitched in the early days. Though those instances of negativity may weigh you down, deflect it and move forward but know when to also accept the need to change and adapt to become better.
– Utilize your network of friends, family and colleagues to help you. I relied heavily on a close inner circle of friends and contacts I made throughout my career. It’s a small world out there and you’d surprised by how many new connections can be made.
– Rejection can hurt, but you can learn from it and be better. As a Founder, you wear many hats, one of them being sales. Sales is tough and it’s not for everyone. Accepting rejection is one thing, but truly identifying what you will do differently and why, in order to close the deal is critical.
For more information on Mindful Snacks visit: mindfulsnacks.com