Raising the Protein Bar
Episode 66
August 10, 2021

Raising the Protein Bar

with Isabelle Steichen, Co-Founder and CEO of Lupii

Isabelle Steichen is the Co-Founder and CEO of Lupii. Women owned and Brooklyn based, Lupii makes delicious, nutritious, and sustainable Lupini bean powered foods, starting with Lupii bars that currently come in four different flavors, packed with over nine grams of protein and only using five to six ingredients in each bar. In this episode, Isabelle shares with us her journey from growing up in Luxembourg, to studying abroad at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, to working with a few startups, which led to a consulting gig with Human Ventures, where she became an entrepreneur in residence and developed a concept for Lupii. She talks with us about how she met with over 70 people in her search for the perfect Co-Founder before meeting her business partner, Alexandra, why they decided to fundraise on the Republic platform, and how the pandemic forced them to shift their focus from retail to selling direct to consumer.

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this episode sponsored by

In This Episode You’ll Hear About:

  • What got Isabelle so interested in the plant based food space and how she has spent her time learning so much about it and seeing the opportunities present in it
  • How she came to realize the incredible benefits of Lupini beans and the huge opportunity there was to build a platform and a brand around this bean that many people did not know about yet
  • What brought her to the US for one year during her undergrad, took her to grad school in Europe, and got her into the startup space once back in the US
  • What valuable lessons she learned from the startups she worked with and how those lessons translate now into how she leads her company and how she values the people on her team
  • How the opportunity to run with her idea for Lupii came about and what it took for her to find the perfect Co-Founder
  • What the fundraising process has been like and what conventional and unconventional ways they are raising funds to grow the company
  • How they changed their strategy once COVID put a pause on their retail relationships and why selling on Amazon has been helpful to them in the early stages of their business
  • What advice Isabelle has for getting through the hard times, being a good leader, a good Co-Founder, and also building something bigger than just a business
  • What is next for Lupii and where you can find them around the US and online

To Find Out More:

https://getlupii.com/ 

Quotes:

“We are using the whole bean, which means that you're getting all the protein and all the fiber and all the minerals without any of the added junk. So that's pretty innovative in this space.”

“It's great to want to take the playbook and tear it apart and throw it out the window. But it's also really important to even know how the playbook was written and you need experienced people for that.”

“I think the trust piece is so essential, especially if you start something new and nobody knows you, and you have to build your reputation, it's important that you create trust and you can only create trust if you listen.”

“It's important to listen and take in information and then make decisions from there, versus thinking you know it all because you don't.”

“Surrounding yourself with a team, with a Co-Founder, that has complementary views is not easy because you tend to want to hire people that are like you. Get people on board that are different, that operate differently, that have different backgrounds, so that you can make informed decisions…”

“Really, the job of the leader is to set everyone else up for success.”

“You need to be open minded and self reflect and understand why am I behaving this way and why is this person behaving that way and how can we find a middle ground and do the best out of both? Because I think that's a great way to build a successful business with complementary skill sets and ways of doing things.”

“What we love about Amazon is the fact that we get exposure to customers who would otherwise not find out about us. And we have had really honest, direct feedback, which is so important for us in the early stages of the business.”

“Lupii is a platform for the Lupini bean. We're not a bar company. We're a Lupini bean company. We really see the bars as the first product range that we launched with.”

“What I've learned is really there are hurdles that will feel tough at times, but then things will always work out if you just continue being committed to it and working at it.”



Lee: [00:00:03] Welcome to Episode 66 of the Stairway to CEO podcast. I'm your host, Lee Greene. And today I spoke with Isabelle Steichen, the Co-Founder and CEO of LUPii. Women owned and Brooklyn based, LUPii makes delicious, nutritious, and sustainable Lupini bean powered foods, starting with LUPii bars that currently come in four different flavors, packed with over nine grams of protein and only using five to six ingredients in each bar. In this episode, Isabelle shares with us her journey from growing up in Luxembourg, to studying abroad at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, to working with a few startups, which led to a consulting gig with Human Ventures, where she became an entrepreneur in residence and developed a concept for LUPii. She talks with us about how she met with over 70 people in her search for the perfect Co-Founder before meeting her business partner, Alexandra, why they decided to fundraise on the Republic platform, and how the pandemic forced them to shift their focus from retail to selling direct to consumer. Tune in to hear all of this and more. If you like what you hear, please don't forget to subscribe to the show and leave us an awesome review. We hope you enjoy this episode.

Lee: [00:02:06] Hi Isabelle, thank you so much being on the show today. I'm super excited to hear your story in building LUPii. Thanks for joining us.

Isabelle: [00:02:12] Thank you. I'm really excited to be here and share more about the business and everything concerning LUPii.

Lee: [00:02:19] Awesome. Yeah, absolutely. I'm super excited. I'm sitting here with your box of LUPii bars. We've got three different flavors. And like I was saying before we got started, they're all gone except for three. I tried to save one of each flavor for the show so I could at least read them and enjoy them after. These are pretty cool bars. They're super high in protein. They taste delicious. They're made from Lupini beans. Why did you choose the Lupini bean?

Isabelle: [00:02:50] Yeah, totally. I can take a step back and kind of give you a quick reason of why we got to even build LUPii. And that will answer the Lupini bean question as well. So both my Co-Founder Alexandra and I are what we like to say or call passionate plant eaters. And we've been for a while. I actually transitioned into a vegan diet in 2013 when I moved from Europe to the United States and worked professionally in startups, but mostly in tech companies. So not really food related, but I have developed this huge passion for a plant based food space and spend a lot of time in my free time immersing myself in the space and started a podcast and completed a plant based nutrition certification. And as I was learning more and more about the space, I also started reflecting more on what I heard from friends and family, mostly up the beginning. And a lot of that was around the worry that plants would not deliver on the protein side in the same way as animals would. And I realized quickly that that was a real hurdle for consumers to overcome. In one hand, you have this massive trend, this macro trend, towards eating more plant based, and I think it's something that's here to stay, but at the same time you have consumers really struggling with kind of understanding what they need to eat, and especially when it comes to macronutrients, just worried that they don't get enough protein in their diet or high quality protein.

Lee: [00:04:12] Yeah.

Isabelle: [00:04:12] So took that inside, started studying the market and also started researching ingredients. And I knew Lupini beans because I grew up in Luxembourg and there's a very large Italian and Portuguese community and they eat them in a pickled format and they've eaten them for literally centuries. And so I knew them. I had seen them. And as I was researching ingredients, I kind of came back to them and started digging into the nutritional profile and the environmental impact. And I was blown away. I literally became obsessed with this ingredient and started talking to European growers and farmers and other entrepreneurs that were using the ingredient. And the few things that I would highlight are the high concentration of plant based protein, the fact that it's the bean with the highest concentration of plant based protein by far. It's complete protein, which is pretty rare in the plant based space. So it has a full chain of amino acids, which means your body can easily absorb it. And often when people think of complete proteins they think of soy, which consumers are moving away from here in the United States, and then it has all these amazing environmental benefits as well. So as I was uncovering this kind of gem that nobody knows in the United States, yet, I saw a vision to build a brand and a platform for the ingredients around Lupini beans. And so that's kind of how LUPii was born and how we started thinking about the first product range that we would launch in.

Lee: [00:05:42] Really interesting. I mean, you think about beans here in the US and you're like black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans. There's so many different types of beans, but I've never heard of a Lupini bean. When was the first time you ever experienced or tasted the Lupini bean?

Isabelle: [00:06:00] So I'm pretty sure I remember trying it when I lived in Europe, like the pickled version of it. It's often consumed as like a snack that you'd have as a street food in Italy or Greece. But it also is consumed interchangeably with olives. If you get drinks, you'll have like a little plate of Lupini beans, especially in southern Europe. And so I had tried it there, but then I retried it probably in 2017. And I started, whenever I would go home to visit family in Europe, I started going to all the natural grocery stores, which actually I had already been doing. But I started looking for Lupini bean based products, and I started seeing a lot of different applications. I saw them in snacks and baked goods and meat and dairy replacement. So I've been trying all kinds of Lupini bean based ingredients. And it's a really interesting little bean. It was grown for human consumption because of its nutritional profile, and it has this incredible environmental impact. It's a rotational crop, so it's a nitrogen fixer. And it's used in regenerative soil health in agriculture, which is really great and important, and  a topic that is actually essential here in the United States, where a lot of soils are depleted of nutrients. It's this full circle. It's nourishing humans and it's nourishing the soil and it's all linked. And it's just a phenomenal ingredient.

Lee: [00:07:33] That's cool. And each bar has between 10 to nine grams of protein. That's pretty big. And they're actually small bars. But you've got three different flavors. The Peanut Butter Cocoa Nib, Tahini Lemon Cranberry, and Almond Butter Cinnamon Raisin. I don't know which one I like better. The Peanut Butter or the Almond Butter Cinnamon Raisin. Which one's your favorite?

Isabelle: [00:07:53] It's like asking me who's my favorite child. It's really difficult to respond to that, but I'm very seasonal as an eater, so I like the Tahini very much in summer. I find it so refreshing with lemon in it. But I also have really grown to love peanuts since I moved to the United States and have been eating way more...

Lee: [00:08:13] Peanut butter everything?

Isabelle: [00:08:15] Peanut butter everything. Exactly. I love all of them. And we actually also have a seasonal flavor, the Cashew Ginger Pumpkin Seed, which launched last fall. Definitely, definitely a seasonal flavor, but that has been doing really well. But yeah, it's hard to decide. But what you mentioned before, just to go back for a second, around the protein content. What's really unique is not just the fact that it's high in protein, but also we use the whole bean in our bar, which if you don't know much about protein bars, you might not realize why that is important. But most of the protein bars are using protein isolates and isolates are really processed. You basically extract the protein out of everything else so you don't have any fiber left. You don't have any minerals and vitamins left. And you also, during the processing, you add a lot of chemicals and other things to it. So you actually end up with a highly processed food that your body doesn't really know what to do with. Whereas [00:09:10] we are using the whole bean, which means that you're getting all the protein and all the fiber and all the minerals without any of the added junk. So that's pretty innovative in this space. [00:09:20]

Lee: [00:09:20] It is. And it even says on your packaging, "Lupini beans have three times more protein than eggs." That's a lot. "Three times more fiber than oats and are also a complete protein." I love that they're gluten free because my husband has a gluten allergy. So it's nice that he can enjoy them too. And I love that the ingredients, there's only six ingredients in here. So in the cinnamon one, it's just dates, Lupini beans, almond butter, raisins, almonds and cinnamon. I mean, it's so simple. Right. And it should be that way. But it's shocking that it's so hard to find good quality food, packaged, you know?

Isabelle: [00:09:57] Yeah. Yeah. I [00:09:57] think there's a movement towards going back to whole food and eating more real unprocessed foods. So we definitely want to be a part of that. [00:10:05]

Lee: [00:10:06] Right. It's like you want a protein bar, and then you look at the ingredients and you can't pronounce like half of the things in there. Like what kind of chemicals in my eating right now? I just want some freaking protein. {laughter} Can I have some real food. I love dates, though, so thank you so much. These bars have been awesome. I love the cinnamon one in the morning. That's my favorite if I have to choose one. But let's start, let's hear your story. Where are you from originally? What was your childhood like? Were you kind of like an entrepreneurial kid or what? What was it like?

Isabelle: [00:10:34] Yeah, so I grew up in Luxembourg, tiny little country in Europe, surrounded by big neighbors, France and Germany and Belgium. So I grew up there. I lived there until I was nineteen. We actually go to college at nineteen. So I moved out and moved to France and went to undergrad and grad school there. Growing up, you know, my parents... My dad is a chemist. My mom is a biologist. They had government jobs. So they were not directly super entrepreneurial, but they were always super encouraging about kind of following your path and following your passions and following the things that you're interested in. And I had a lot of entrepreneurial family members, though. My uncle had moved to the United States when he was in his twenties and became a doctor in New York. And then I had my grandfather, who owned one of the most famous pastry shops in Luxembourg, like everyone will still recognize his name today, which is pretty cool. So there was there was definitely entrepreneurship in my family. And there was really this mentality that my parents gave me, which was, you know, you should learn the basics. You need to go to school. You need to go and get a college degree. But after that, you really have to do things that you're interested in and passionate about. So they definitely encouraged that kind of mindset. But my education was pretty traditional, and I went to grad school right after undergrad. Studied urban planning, so city planning in grad school. You know, in Europe, it's often people go to grad school, oftentimes right after undergrad. So having very little work experience. It was very interesting when I moved to the States at twenty three and I had a master's degree but had barely any work experience, just a few internships. And people were just like, 'What is this? What are you doing?" So, so it's really here where I decided to kind of drop all of that and move into the startup space. And that's kind of what been let me just starting my own business.

Lee: [00:12:41] Where in the U.S. did you move to first?

Isabelle: [00:12:44] So I moved to New York and my husband, who I had met in college... I actually was studying abroad in the United States for one year during undergrad. I did like an exchange program. And so I ended up at Hamilton College, which is a really small liberal arts school. I can tell you when I found out that that was my assigned school to go to for a year, I was devastated because it's like five hours north of New York in the middle of nowhere.

Lee: [00:13:07] Oh, boy.

Isabelle: [00:13:08] Dark and cold winters. And I was like, oh, my God, what have I done? I really wanted to be in New York.

Lee: [00:13:15] A little far.

Isabelle: [00:13:15] Yeah. But it was an incredible environment. And it was so different than my European education. It was so much more, again, encouraging towards entrepreneurship. And I took these amazing classes that had nothing to do with my undergrad degree, which was econ and political science. So it really broadened my horizon. And I met my husband. So we started dating and I moved back to Europe for two years to go to grad school. We did long distance, and I had specialized on North American cities in my urban planning studies. So I wanted to move to New York to work here in urban planning. So that's kind of what I did in January of 2013. I moved here full time.

Lee: [00:13:56] Long distance for two years? That's a long time.

Isabelle: [00:13:59] Yeah, especially when we're so young.

Lee: [00:14:01] Yeah.

Isabelle: [00:14:01] I mean, it's kind of like looking back at it, I'm like, wow, good for us for sticking through that. But I think we always have this plan of being together in the long term. And I knew I wanted to move to New York, and he had started working here and he would come and visit me during his vacations in Paris, which was pretty nice.

Lee: [00:14:20] Yeah. Not bad. Not too shabby.

Isabelle: [00:14:22] Not too shabby. So yeah, we made it work, and we've been happily married for a few years now. So it definitely worked out.

Lee: [00:14:33] So you kind of settled down in New York City in what, 2013?

Isabelle: [00:14:36] Yeah, that's right.

Lee: [00:14:38] And so where did you start working? Because here you have all this education. And so the US was like,

"Now what do you want to do?"

Isabelle: [00:14:45] Yeah, exactly. And also, like, "That's great. But you're way overqualified and unexperienced for your age range." So I worked for a nonprofit called Bryant Park Corporation. They are a local nonprofit, small, relatively small company, 50 or 60 employees. And they manage Bryant Park in New York City and Bryant Park... I want to go down the urban flying rabbit hole, but has a really incredible transformational story. That neighborhood and that park used to be really problematic, very dangerous. A lot of homeless people and drug addicts used to live there. And so Dan Biederman, who is the founder of the corporation, kind of took it on as a project in the late eighties and rehabilitated the entire park and the area. Now it's one of the most expensive estate locations in the city. It was pretty amazing. So I worked for them and loved working there. It was a really great team and very hands on. And I spent a lot of time kind of helping them out with events and doing a lot of research and interviews with park attendees and things like that, which was great. But I will say it was a little bit slow paced, and I just didn't see myself staying there in the long run. And in parallel, I had a bunch of friends, American friends, who had worked or had started working for startups. And I was like, wow, that's so interesting, because like I mentioned before, a little bit, you know, entrepreneurship is not encouraged in the same way in the European education system. And I wasn't really exposed to it at all in Europe. But I really love the idea of being part of something really small, early stage and taking ideas and concepts and turning them into reality and then growing them. That really excited me. And so I decided to leave Bryan Park and apply for a startup job that I found interesting at a company called Kitchen Surfing. They ended up raising twenty million dollars three months after I started working there. And it was just like on demand chef service that was cooking in people's homes. And so I was part of that team. I was like employee number six or seven, and then the company grew to over 30. And so [00:16:58] that was my first kind of foot in the startup world. And I absolutely loved it. It was wild. It was unpredictable. Things were thrown at me that I had no experience with. I had to just figure it out and learn on the job. But that excited me. And so that really confirmed that I wanted to work in that environment. [00:17:16]

Lee: [00:17:16] How long were you there?

Isabelle: [00:17:17] So was there for over two years and left for another job that was a UK based startup that actually reached out to me and they wanted somebody European to help them build their presence in the United States. And that was more urban planning related what they did. Was a software company for freight traffic management, very random, specific, but kind of related to what I studied. So I ended up leaving Kitchen Surfing. And sadly, the company doesn't exist anymore today. But it was crazy to be part of it in their early days.

Lee: [00:17:50] So with these two startups, what were some of the key takeaways that you kind of took from those experiences that kind of helped you to get to where you are now?

Isabelle: [00:17:59] Yeah, totally. I would say, you know, one big thing was at Kitchen Surfing what made it so exciting was it was a lot of young people. Like the oldest person, I think was probably 30, so it was like anywhere between 22 and 30. And it was exciting because it was really a lot of energy. And people just wanting to get things done. However, I feel like in hindsight what was missing was experience and wisdom from people who worked in an industry and have lived through an industry and can take a step back and kind of advise. So it was one big thing that I learned was [00:18:41] it's great to want to take the playbook and tear it apart and throw it out the window. But it's also really important to even know how the playbook was written and you need experienced people for that. [00:18:52] So that was a big learning that I got. And then, you know, the team was another thing that I learned over time how important it is to work with people that you love and trust. And after the software company in freight management, I actually joined my last full time job, which was a women owned software company and children's education called Sawyer. It was started by two incredible women and they are fantastic. They worked for Rent the Runway previously, so they had a lot of startup experience, but they also kind of gave me just confidence that you can build an amazing business, a women owned business, and move fast and be entrepreneurial, but also care about balance and building a culture that is sustainable. And that was my favorite time there. I loved working for them and I'm still very close to them. And so that was my last full time job before I started LUPii.

Lee: [00:19:51] What have you learned about leadership and being a CEO in these experiences?

Isabelle: [00:19:59] Yeah, [00:19:59] I think the trust piece is so essential, especially if you start something new and nobody knows you, and you have to build your reputation, it's important that you create trust and you can only create trust if you listen. [00:20:17] And I think that that's the number one takeaway that I have gotten. Listen to your employees, listen to your advisors, listen to your customers. That is important. Because it's one thing wanting to be entrepreneurial and starting a business, and it takes courage to do that. But that doesn't mean that you have it all figured out or have the answers at all. And it really takes a village and it takes taking advice and filtering through some of that advice because not everything people tell you is valuable or helpful or relevant necessarily. But [00:20:47] it's important to listen and take in information and then make decisions from there, versus thinking you know it all because you don't. [00:20:55] So that's a huge learning I think I've gotten over the last few years.

Lee: [00:20:59] It's a tough balance to try to have that filter of, you know, what to chase and what not to chase when an advisor or someone you trust is trying to help. And they think they're being helpful, but they might actually just be sending you down a rabbit hole. Very distracting and actually not... You know, I think as a Founder, too, there's so many things that we want to get done. It's very easy to get distracted and for one influential person, especially an investor, to say, "Hey, you know, I think you should try to do something like this," and then you just run off and go do it just to satisfy that one person. Then next thing you know, you're off track. And the next investors like, "Well, why did you do that?" {laughter} You know? And then you're like, "What do you mean? I thought you all think like, no?"

Isabelle: [00:21:42] I think you're you're totally right about that. I think it helps a lot with that is having a Co-Founder and having a Co-Founder that has different perspectives. So Alli and I share the same vision. We both are passionate about the plant based food space, but she comes from Big CPG. She's worked for Pepsi. She really understands the industry. She's worked for large established companies. And so when we make decisions or let's say an advisor comes to us and says, "You guys really should be doing that," again, we will listen and then we'll take that information, we'll digest it, we'll do our own research, and we'll discuss together what the pros and cons are. And so I think [00:22:18] surrounding yourself with a team, with a Co-Founder, that has complementary views is not easy because you tend to want to hire people that are like you. So it's making sure you get people on board that are different, that operate differently, that have different backgrounds, so that you can make informed decisions and don't get distracted by a comment that an investor might make. Because you're right, sometimes they don't know every part of your business. They actually probably don't know the day to day as well as you do as a Founder. So it's important to be able to evaluate and discuss these things with somebody who has a different perspective. [00:22:55]

Lee: [00:22:55] Right. And even with a team... Having team members that speak up... I find a lot of times people don't really want to speak up. Sometimes they're afraid or they don't want to get fired if they say the wrong thing or whatever their fears are, and so then they end up being quiet and then that ends up hurting the business because they're not speaking up when they probably should be. But I think also as a Founder, a lot of personalities are so bold that it may create that fear. I've just kind of seeing that. I think it's interesting how, like, you know, you can have this bold personality yet that might attract more of, like a team player that doesn't want to speak up. Maybe they're afraid because the boldness may be intimidating.

Isabelle: [00:23:39] Right. Right. Yeah. I think, again, there's a fine line between boldness and courage and ego. Right? I think that we have thought about leadership in a very one sided way for a really long time. That it's like the leaders being right. They started it, so they must have the answers and they are going to make all the decisions.

Lee: [00:24:01] Right.

Isabelle: [00:24:01]  [00:24:01]Really, the job of the leader is to set everyone else up for success. I [00:24:05] took a bunch of improv classes, and I love one piece and improv that we learn, and it's called Yes, And. When you have a scene with someone together, it's not about making yourself look good. It's about making your partner look good. And I think about building a business as the exact same way. I think calling people out and making them feel bad. It's actually ultimately reflecting badly on you as a leader.

Lee: [00:24:29] Totally.

Isabelle: [00:24:29] Because one, it's embarrassing. And two, it's like, why would you hire people that you think are incompetent? So, I think we need to kind of reframe how are we leading businesses? And I love the idea of what can I do as a leader today to set up my team for success or set my Co-Founder up for success to really grow this business? And how can I make sure I leave my ego at the door when I do that? That's just the way I think about it.

Lee: [00:24:54] You know, it reminds me, I was on LinkedIn yesterday and I saw this Founder kind of post, almost like publicly shaming this poor sales guy who was just sending a sales email, doing his job, forgot to fill in the blank somewhere in the template. So, of course, he gets this email and I can see how that's annoying. You know, it's like you should maybe have a better eye of detail, attention to detail here, but to publicly post this person's name, like their full name, on LinkedIn and publicly shame this person... I mean, to me, that just says so much about the culture of this guy's company and how I would never work there.

Isabelle: [00:25:37] I would wonder what's the goal?

Lee: [00:25:39] Yes!

Isabelle: [00:25:39] Are trying to make the sales guy a better sales guy? Then feedback should probably be...

Lee: [00:25:45] Private.

Isabelle: [00:25:45] Transmitted in a different way and not like that. Or are you making this about yourself? I agree with you. And I'm also like, I don't have time to do that kind of stuff.

Lee: [00:25:54] I know.

Isabelle: [00:25:56] Yeah.

Lee: [00:25:58] I mean, is he going to publicly shame team members too, when they mess up? I mean, that's insane. So anyways. Yeah, it's definitely right. How you display yourself really shows, you know, I guess how you treat your team and says a lot about who you are. So anyway, so you were also an EIR Entrepreneur In Residence, at Human Ventures. How did that come about?

Isabelle: [00:26:23] Yeah, so between two of my startup jobs, I had done some consulting and I had met Heather Hartnett from Human Ventures. She's their CEO and I had done some work for her and some of their early businesses that they were working for. So I did some market research for her and she knew me and we stayed in touch. And when I was working at Sawyer, I had reached a point where I loved working for that company. But I also felt like I really want to spend my time building a business in the plant based space, because I share that passion so deeply and I want to invest all of my efforts and energy into that. So I left Sawyer not really having a plan, which is very much unlike me. Typically, I like to know where things are going.

Lee: [00:27:07] That's very European I think, isn't it?

Isabelle: [00:27:12] Yeah, exactly.

Lee: [00:27:13] I'm married to a German, so I'm allowed to say that.

Isabelle: [00:27:16] Right. So, you know. I mean, you know then how it is. Very organized and structured.

Lee: [00:27:21] Plan. There's got to be a plan.

Isabelle: [00:27:23] For sure. Right. And so, yeah I really I left, and I didn't have a game plan. And that's also when the best things happen, I feel like, in life, which I've also learned in various occasions. But, you know, Human Ventures reached out to me two weeks after I had left my job. And it was kind of figuring... I said to my husband, I'm going to take like six months to figure out the next thing. Maybe I'll do some consulting, then maybe I'll apply for some jobs. Maybe I'll think about my business idea a little bit more because I had this idea for LUPii in the back of my mind and had done a lot of research on it. And so Human Ventures reaches out to me and they say, "We're looking for somebody to help us work on assessing opportunities in the plant based food space."

Lee: [00:28:05] {laughter} What?

Isabelle: [00:28:05] And it was like... I mean, I don't know. I don't believe in like destiny and things like that necessarily, but it was like, "This is crazy. Is this real?" So I joined initially very much as a consultant to do some market research. And then they quickly they knew that I was really interested in the plant based food space, actually, because of my podcast The Plantiful. And so they knew that that was something I was passionate about. But as I was working with them as a consultant, they started really realizing how much I cared about it and had been thinking about the space. And then I pitched them the concept for LUPii and they were super excited and interested. And their whole thing is they invest in Founders early on, often pre product and market at the concept stage. So they are huge believers in the early phases of the business and in the founding team. And we had kind of come to the conclusion that they wanted to support me. But we also talked a lot about who's going to build this business and how can we make sure to de risk it? And the big piece was, how can I find somebody to join the team as a Co-Founder potentially who can offer some food and beverage experience? And so I went out and in an organized fashion, had a spreadsheet going, met like 70 plus people for coffee as I was starting to look for a Co-Founder.

Lee: [00:29:34] You're like speed dating. That's like really intimidating to do that.

Isabelle: [00:29:38] It was crazy. And it was also like I was meeting these random people that I didn't know that were introduced to me by a connection trying to sell them on a business that didn't exist yet. But I had a concept for it and a plan and telling them about this ingredient that they had never heard of, and asking them to leave their job and join me. So it was just like, you know...

Lee: [00:29:59] Right. And not get paid, and... {laughter}

Isabelle: [00:30:01] So I had gotten to the point where I was like, wow, it's just going to take me a long time to find someone. And then I got lucky again. I was introduced to Alli, who's now my Co-Founder, by a common connection and a former coworker of hers, and we really hit it off. I remember the first time for coffee after her yoga class on a random Saturday morning. And we just we share a real passion for plant based eating, but also a lot of personal stuff. She's married to a European. I'm married to an American. She spent time in Europe. I obviously have now lived in the United States for a while. So there were a lot of things that we could relate to. And we started talking and she seemed super interested. And coincidentally, she had been thinking about leaving her job at Pepsi for a little bit. And she had just told a coworker about that a few weeks before she met me. So it was kind of all meant to be. So she ended up leaving and joining LUPii in May of 2019. And that's when we then raised money from Human Ventures, our first investor, and started working on the first product range.

Lee: [00:31:10] Oh my God, that's such a cool story. How long did it take and how many people did you meet with in order to find your Co-Founder?

Isabelle: [00:31:17] I'm pretty sure between calls and actual in-person meetings because at the time we were still meeting people in person for coffee. It probably was around 60, 70 people.

Lee: [00:31:28] You met with 70 people?

Isabelle: [00:31:30] I was so dedicated to finding this person, and I really tapped into my network. Anyone who I had met from my startup experiences, anyone who I had met in the food space... Human Ventures was very helpful as well. They made introductions. And so, yeah, I met with a ton of people and talked to a ton of people about it. Just was very focused on finding this person.

Lee: [00:31:57] Yeah, I mean, on meeting number fifty, were you like, "I don't know if this is ever going to happen? What am I doing?"

Isabelle: [00:32:03] Yeah. I definitely... Because, you know, I had given myself a pretty aggressive timeline. So in December of 2018, Human Ventures said, "We are really interested in working with you, but we would like you to have a team." So they were really... They have a strong thesis around Co-Founders They think it's due to business, which I think it does as well. And they also said, "You have a lot of startup experience, but you have no experience in food and beverage. So you need somebody to be complimentary," which I again totally agreed with. So I had given myself until April. So I said the four months because at that time I had a business idea, I had a plan, I had some prototypes for the bars. So I had all of these pieces. So I said, OK, I'm going to spend four months meeting everyone I can and telling people about this, which also felt a little bit scary because I did't want anyone to hear about my idea and then go and do it themselves.

Lee: [00:33:00] Steal it.

Isabelle: [00:33:01] You know, it's I mean, now, having started this business, I'm like, nobody's just going to do that overnight. Believe me.

Lee: [00:33:08] Yes. Yes.

Isabelle: [00:33:08] So, yeah, so after meeting 50, probably I thought "I need more time, and I cannot find this person that easily. I need to meet more people." Yeah.

Lee: [00:33:18] I mean, I think a lot of people would have been like, "I don't know if this is going to work. I'm just not going to find this person maybe. Maybe I never find this person." Did you ever think that you may not find like a match in this might not happen?

Isabelle: [00:33:31] You know, I had been thinking about this ingredient and business idea for a while. Like I told you, I kind of started researching it when I was at my last job. And, my God, I had done so many... I had talked to all these European growers already. And I had done this like food extrusion cause at Texas A&M in my free time, where there were only people from like Pepsi and Morris that were attending that. They were all like, "What are you doing?" Because I wanted to learn about extrusion, which is one way of processing foods. So I had put a lot of time and effort and thinking around this, and I am so bullish on this ingredient. Like I really think that it's the best hidden secret and has such a huge potential in the US that even though I felt a little bit discouraged as I was searching for a Co-Founder, I thought, I've come so far. I've taken this from just an idea and a concept to having investors interested in it, to having their support. I will find a Co-Founder. I just thought it might take longer and I thought maybe Human Ventures is not going to invest because they don't have the patience to wait until I find a team. But then I'll bootstrap it. I'll find another way to make it happen. So [00:34:46] I was very much dedicated to finding a way to make it happen. [00:34:49]

Lee: [00:34:49] Right. Right. So your plan B was if I don't find someone in the four months, then I'm just going to go off and do it myself.

Isabelle: [00:34:56] Just going to do it myself, still looking for somebody to join me. But I realized I was like, maybe people aren't willing to take that risk. How could they not? It's such a good idea. But seriously, I thought I need to get it further along. Because that was a lot of the feedback that I heard. A lot of people are super interested, but they had been working for stable jobs and they were like, "What? I mean, like what can you offer?" You know, like, "You don't even have a product yet in market." So it was really about finding that right person that was willing to take that risk and that was looking to take that risk.

Lee: [00:35:28] Yeah. And you found her, which is awesome. And so what were the next steps after that coffee meeting? You're like, oh my gosh, I think I found my Co-Founder.

Lee: [00:35:38] Yeah.

Isabelle: [00:35:38] What happened from there? And what were kind of the first steps in launching the business?

Isabelle: [00:35:46] Yeah. So from there I know now that Alli felt the exact same way. She always likes to say how she on her way home, she called her husband and she said, "I just met someone. I think I'm going to get married to her." Literally said that. So we felt very similarly. And we started talking in and I think it was February of 2019. We decided let's have more in-depth meetings, so I can tell her more about the plan and the business idea. Let's have her meet Human Ventures. We did this personality test. I don't know if you know the Big Five, but it's a personality test. It is basically assessing your strengths and weaknesses and Human Ventures actually used to have this guy on their team called the Shrink for Entrepreneurs, and he would do a lot of work with the individual entrepreneurs and founding teams to kind of identify what were the strengths and weaknesses and how can they communicate efficiently with each other. So I had taken that test before I met Alli. So I also in the back of my head, I knew kind of what I was looking for in terms of like personality. As I was talking to her, I was like, wow, I'm sure she will rank, like, really highly on these certain pieces where I ranked more on the lower end, so we could be really complementary. So she ended up coming in and taking that test and having a really long conversation with the Human team. And turned out she indeed ranked like very complementary to what I had gotten to.

Lee: [00:37:13] Interesting. What was your personality test like? What were your strengths?

Isabelle: [00:37:18] I ranked like something like 99th percentile in conscientiousness, which the guy at Human, he was like, "Wow," he's like, "I never met anyone at high."

Lee: [00:37:31] What does that even mean?

Isabelle: [00:37:32] It means that when I start something I will finish it. I will finish it on time. I will work at it until it's done. I will not stop. If there is a there's a hurdle, I'll continue and find a different way to make it happen because I want to deliver the results that I promise. So I would say that and I kind of know that about myself, but seeing it like that was really interesting. You know, I'm very I would say very organized and oftentimes very much like want to follow the rules and which is interesting for an entrepreneur, but I kind of want to know, like what are the rules? How do we get there? I want to understand processes and things like that. Alli is more of a risk taker in some ways. And she's a very creative thinker. She's running our marketing and branding, which is phenomenal. She's so talented in that area, which I wouldn't have been able to do. I'm an operations person. Like I love understanding how things function. I love being in a factory and learning all the details about the equipment. And so, see, those were some of the things that we ranked very differently in. I'm trying to think what were some other things. I like things like punctuality, like I'm like such a stickler for. It's horrible. Like I've already worked on... I mean, you have a German husband, so he might be similar in that way.

Lee: [00:38:58] Yeah. You guys sound very similar.

Isabelle: [00:39:01] If I get there five minutes early, I still think I'm late and I need to let people know. So those are some of my character traits. And I think it's great to have somebody who operates differently. And actually, I [00:39:14] I've been thinking a lot about the fact my husband is very similar to my Co-Founder and his personality and way of operating. And so I think that works really well having a complementary team both in your personal life but also in your job. Having it can create friction, but you need to be open minded and self reflect and understand why am I behaving this way and why is this person behaving that way and how can we find a middle ground and do the best out of both? Because I think that's a great way to build a successful business with complementary skill sets and ways of doing things. [00:39:49]

Lee: [00:39:49] Yeah, absolutely. And so what kind of metrics did you use to measure success, especially in the early days, trying to find product market fit? I know you guys are still in the early stage, but when did you really realize this is something that not only I want, but also consumers really like?

Isabelle: [00:40:07] Yeah, we have done a lot of consumer insights work. So, Alli, as I mentioned, has a background in marketing and branding. She's done a lot of consumer insights. She has actually worked for an innovation agency and a food innovation agency in the States. So she has a lot of experience with that. We've done focus groups and surveys, and even before Alli joined with Human, I did a lot of interviews and looking at data, but also talking to consumers, sampling, getting people's opinions on the taste and flavor of the first prototypes that we created. So a lot of that was very much driven by insights, work, and then you don't know until you launch a product, really, because you're still operating very much and a little bit of a bubble in the real world. And again, I would say if you launch a product in a global pandemic and your category happens to be impacted negatively by it, which is what happened with bars, because the sales of bars went down massively last year because all this reduction in foot traffic, which is crazy because bars have been an ever growing category, and it was one of the only categories in the food space last year that was hard hit. So I will say last year was also not the most insightful year to be in business because consumer behavior wasn't normal. That being said, because of our shift to direct to consumer, we got a ton of feedback really quickly, which doesn't happen in retail in the same way. So we send out post purchase surveys, we ask for feedback, for reviews. We get tons of emails all the time. We sell on Amazon. There's no way for us to even control Amazon feedback because people can just leave reviews automatically. So it's very transparent and it's really insightful. So we have very strong repurchase rates, which is a sign that there is a demand for our product. We have really great 4.5 Star average reviews across different channels, which again is a great sign that there is a consumer. And now we have retailers who are starting to take the product as well and distributors. So it's an ever, it's an ongoing learning experience, I would say. When you ask about product market fit, I think that it takes time, especially in food to kind of assess that. But we've taken a lot of the feedback that we've gotten last year already and tweaked some of the things around the recipe and the packaging to make some of these changes that were direct response to what our customers have been telling us.

Lee: [00:42:38] And you have a round going on, Republic, which I think is really interesting. You guys have raised 1.6 million dollars so far.

Isabelle: [00:42:46] Yeah, that's right. That's right. So, yeah, we have, as I mentioned, we raised money from Human Ventures. We have some other established VCs on board. We have some angel, some industry angels that have invested in the business. But because of the shift to direct to consumer last year, we started looking at some other fundraising opportunities and actually we were approached by Republic. And I know a few Founders in the food and beverage space who had successfully raised on there and started diving deeper into and really loved the concept of bringing your consumer onto your business. And they are the people who buy your product and love it. Why can't they also benefit from it? And I love the idea of also making the fundraising process more democratic. Fundraising, even in early stages, usually the check sizes, the minimum check sizes, are pretty high for the average person.

Lee: [00:43:41] Twenty five thousand dollars for seed round.

Isabelle: [00:43:43] Yeah, exactly. And with Republic, it's one hundred and fifty dollars, which is still a lot of money for some people, but it also is way more accessible and it gives people the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is and invest in a business that they believe in and grow with that business and then get a return ultimately on their investment. So that's why we decided to launch this campaign withe Republic. And we've been really thrilled about the return. We had very little expectations. We set our goal to twenty five thousand, and we are now at almost a hundred and sixty.

Lee: [00:44:19] That's incredible. Well, how does that happen? Have you guys done a lot of marketing around it? Have they done it? Like, how did you get to that number?

Isabelle: [00:44:27] Both. Republic has a really great community now. They've been around, I want to say, for four or five years. Don't quote me on that. But it's been a while and they've been doing more and more food and beverage or sponsoring more and more food and beverage companies to raise on there, which is really interesting. So they have a large community that is interested in this space. We have our community, our customers that we have access to through the email addresses that they share with us and them subscribing to our newsletters. We have a social presence. We have actually two of our investors are also social media influencers. So they have a really large reach on Instagram and YouTube. And we've gotten some really great press. We actually landed a piece in The New York Times back in May in the business section, in the physical paper, which was so thrilling.

Lee: [00:45:15] That's cool. Put it in a frame and hang it on the wall

Isabelle: [00:45:18] Basically. It's not framed. It's in my apartment. And I put it away because I want to keep it. So exciting. So that also helped with creating awareness around LUPii, the brand, but also our Republic campaign.

Lee: [00:45:34] And really quick about Republic, just for the people out there that are tuning in and let's say I want to invest a thousand bucks, what does that mean in terms of equity?

Isabelle: [00:45:41] So it's a tricky question because I don't want to bore people here with details, but on Republic we are raising on a safe note, which is technically a debt instrument, which means you're not really getting equity quite yet. You are basically lending the company money. The idea is that investors don't want their money back. They want you to grow the money and raise a price round, which is when your investment will convert into equity. So that's kind of how you have to think about it. And then exact amount is very hard to determine because it will depend on the valuation you get in the future.

Lee: [00:46:16] Right. And there's a discount, I'm sure, on the safe as well. So when it goes into the next round, you're actually getting a discounted rate off of that round that you raised at that price.

Isabelle: [00:46:26] Yes. Correct. A 20 percent discount. Exactly. And, you know, I was just talking to someone earlier about it, the way to think about it is you're taking a really high risk, obviously, investing in an early stage company. Right? We know how hard it is to build businesses and make them successful. But your upside potential is huge as well because you're taking that risk. You are getting really great terms early on at a stage where the company's valuation or cap is still pretty low. You're getting a discount. So, again, you're getting preferred treatment at this early stage. And so that hopefully makes up for the risk that you're taking.

Lee: [00:47:00] Absolutely. And you guys have been on Amazon. I think a lot of DTC brands are like either completely scared of going on Amazon. There's also a lot of fear of being copied by Amazon. But I think that's kind of funny because you're going to get copied by, not you specifically, but brands run that risk of being kind of copied by every single retailer there is. I mean, Target, Whole Foods, Costco, they all have their own brands.

Lee: [00:47:30] Totally.

Isabelle: [00:47:32] 365, Kirkland, whatever, you name it. So it's not just Amazon, but for some reason Amazon is maybe the first that did it. And now everybody thinks it's like this big scary machine that's going to copy everyone. What were your thoughts about that, or your reasons for selling on Amazon and how has it gone so far?

Isabelle: [00:47:48] Yeah, totally. So we are actually not really a DTC brand. We were DTC by...

Lee: [00:47:56] Default. Because of COVID?

Isabelle: [00:48:02] Yeah. By context because of what happened to the pandemic. All of our retail relationships kind of froze temporarily. Thank God now we're back and we are expanding our retail footprint. But last year, we kind of had no choice other than to address direct to consumer. And, you know, people don't really shop for bars online. People don't really shop for bars that contain an ingredient that they've never heard about online. It's very hard to make that sale. It's way easier to do it in retail where you sell single bars and you demo and sample the products. So there's a way for people to try to product at a lower risk. We can't be selling single fast direct through our website.

Lee: [00:48:45] Right. Shipping is more than the bar. Yeah.

Isabelle: [00:48:48] Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So we did DTC, but we always felt very strongly about other online retail platforms. So that's how we think about Amazon. Consumers already shop on Amazon. Consumers don't already shop on LUPii. It costs us money to bring consumers to our website and to convert them. And on Amazon, especially if you're Prime member and LUPii is Prime approved. So it's an easy way to add this to your shopping cart. You already go there. You're discovering the product. It's a trusted site. And so we decided to try it out, and we've seen really exciting organic growth. [00:49:24] Amazon is a beast and it's a huge corporation. We all know that. But so is Facebook, who we pay money to run ads to direct to our website. So let's not kid ourselves. That's the same, actually. But what we love about Amazon is the fact that we get exposure to customers who would otherwise not find out about us. And we have had really honest, direct feedback, which is so important for us in the early stages of the business. So we're excited. We see a lot of traction on Amazon. And definitely we think that that will be part of our strategy in the long run along with retail. [00:50:01]

Lee: [00:50:02] So what's the future kind of vision for the brand? What's next?

Isabelle: [00:50:06] Yeah, totally. So [00:50:08] LUPii is a platform for the Lupini bean. We're not a bar company. We're a Lupini bean company. So we really see the bars as the first product range that we launched with. Launching [00:50:20] in a category that consumers already understand means you don't have to educate on the category the usage occasions. People already know what bars are. We only have to educate on the benefits of the Lupini bean. But we have a vision to go into other categories, snacks and plate applications. The ingredient is extremely versatile, as I talked about earlier. Can be used for a lot of different food applications and add a ton of nutritional value when it comes to protein and fiber and carbs to a lot of categories. So we are working on some other categories right now. We're also working on expanding our bar range, working on some new flavors, some chocolaty stuff on the horizon.

Lee: [00:51:01] Yes. Good. I'm so excited for these chocolaty flavors.

Isabelle: [00:51:04] Yeah, so that's kind of, yeah, that's kind of what we're thinking in the short run, really staying focused on the bars, but then also starting to think about what other categories are that we can go into. Really want to build the brand around this ingredient. We picked LUPii as a name. It is a nudge to the ingredient, and we want to be associated directly with this incredible little bean. So, yeah, that's the vision for the brand.

Lee: [00:51:31] I'm excited to try some new flavors. I love the variety pack because I like to have a bunch of different flavors. I hate just buying one box and it's all the same bar.

Isabelle: [00:51:38] Right.

Lee: [00:51:38] It's like the variety is definitely necessary, you know. So you've been on this journey building this company. What are some of the biggest challenges you faced and how have you overcome them?

Isabelle: [00:51:52] I mean, it's so fresh in mind thinking about the pandemic. That was obviously crazy. I think there's a lot of silver linings, as I mentioned, in terms of adjusting our strategy to DTC temporarily. Now we have data and consumer insights that we can take to retailers, which is amazing because we can say, "Look, there's people who love the product, bring it in, or they request a product in your area." So that's great. I think I'm eternally grateful for having had Alli as a Co-Founder last year. We were literally like holding hands through it all together and learning together and adjusting to the times. And we're both so extremely committed to this business. So that was essential to have during that crazy time because it felt very traumatic to have just launched this new business and then kind of figuring out what are we going to do now? Yeah, I think that is just like top of mind. And then there's a million things that go wrong all the time. I think it's almost like I have the expectation that things will go wrong. So I'm just planning for all the possible scenarios at all times, but also learning that it's all cyclical. Like we had last year, we started fundraising and it was difficult because people had never fundraised on Zoom, but we ended up getting some incredible advisors on board, especially earlier this year. So it took time to build that trust, to build these relationships that might be easier to build in person, but it ended up working out. So [00:53:30] what I've learned is really there are hurdles that will feel tough at times, but then things will always work out if you just continue being committed to it and working at it. [00:53:42]

Lee: [00:53:42] Yeah. What advice do you have for going into a Co-Founder relationship from not having known that person at all and just diving into business together? What advice do you have around kind of filtering for the right partner or even just conflict resolution in general, like strategy or tips around communication?

Isabelle: [00:54:04] Yeah, I mean, communication is key, right? And a lot of us think we're great communicators, but communication really means bringing things up when they happen, expressing how you feel about something, why certain things don't work for you, and just being really disciplined about doing that. So like Alli and I, we have like monthly check ins that are really just about talking about how we're working together, not really talking about the content of the work. Just so we continue doing that and make sure that none of us is doing things that are really bothering the other person. And we just kind of forget about addressing that because it's important that we develop the right patterns and ways of working together and not just, you know, focusing on the business, but also on the way we communicate and interact with each other. We are both really open at taking feedback. It's not always easy, obviously, especially when it's your business and both of you want to do the best. That doesn't always mean that you're doing it right or that you can't learn and grow. But we both, I would say, have strong growth mindsets and take each other's feedback. So I think that that's important. Goes back to what I said earlier, leaving your ego at the door. It's very difficult because it's a human thing to do and take things personally, but really always reframing it and thinking like, how can I grow from this experience and with this Co-Founder? And, you know, I've learned so much from Alli, the way she's working. Obviously, her experience in the industry. I'm extremely grateful for that. And so I respect her. I fundamentally respect her and trust her. And I think that that's really important. And then, you know, spending time with each other outside of work is essential. I know Alli's husband really well. She knows my husband. So there's more than just a business. And Alli just had a baby. She's on maternity leave right now. So making sure to spend time and check in with her and talk about things that are not LUPii related, the things that are happening in her life right now that are really important because we want to build a business that combines our work passion with also the opportunity to have a life that is full and crafted in the way that we individually want to craft it. So sorry for the long winded answer, but it's kind of how I'm thinking about it.

Lee: [00:56:21] And so before we wrap up here, what kind of final advice do you have for entrepreneurs tuning in that are thinking about maybe starting their own business, thinking about maybe jumping in with a Co-Founder or, you know, just all the things that you've kind of learned? What are some of the biggest insights or advice you can share?

Isabelle: [00:56:38] I think, you know, passion is obviously important, but validating that there's a market for your idea, which is very difficult to do because you have an inherent bias towards it. So getting some outside eyes on it. I got advisers on board, informal ones, really, really early on. People who work in the industry to bounce off ideas, you know, again, making sure you don't ask everyone for advice, but kind of find a few people, three or four that you respect, that have the credentials and then check in with them, bounce off ideas, talk to consumers. So really make sure that you validate that there is a market for what you're trying to do. I could not recommend more to have a Co-Founder because it's really lonely, even with a Co-Founder, to do this by yourself. So finding someone you can trust. But I also wouldn't jump into it without doing research and spending time with that person and making sure that it's a fit. And then the other thing is really you get very attached as a Founder to certain things and you think certain ideas are great, but being willing to take a step back and just throwing them out if they don't work... Don't attach an ego to it. Just move on and try something else because you don't have all the answers.

Lee: [00:57:57] And if you want to try out a LUPii bar, they can just go to getLUPii.com. Or Amazon. Where else can they find LUPii?

Isabelle: [00:58:08] So we are in about 60 or 70 national retailers now in New York, mostly in the New York City area. We just launched in our first chain account in Seattle. The Pacific Northwest is a region that we're looking at because LUPii is a particularly great fit. So we have metropolitan market over there. We also just launched on FastAF, which is a platform that is available in New York, Miami, LA, and San Francisco, and that lets you order single bars. And they are delivered right to your door, which is a great way to order our product and try a single bar. So there's a lot of other products on there that are really cool and a lot of cool up and coming startups in the food and beverage space. But it's a fantastic way for people who live in these cities to just try one or two flavors before having to commit to a 12 pack if you can't find them in your local grocery store yet.

Lee: [00:59:02] Great. Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Isabelle, for being on the show today. It was awesome hearing your story and speaking with you. Thanks for joining us.

Isabelle: [00:59:09] Thank you. It was great to be here.

Lee: [00:59:14] Thank you so much for listening to the Stairway to CEO podcast. Once again, I'm your host, Lee Green. And if you have any burning business questions, please feel free to reach us at w w w StairwaytoCEO.com. We'd love to hear from you. And if you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe to the show, tell your friends, leave us a review, and follow us on Instagram @StairwaytoCEO. Until next time, guys, keep on climbing.

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