Rolling in the DEUX
Episode 70
September 7, 2021

Rolling in the DEUX

with Sabeena Ladha, Founder and CEO of DEUX

Sabeena Ladha is the Founder and CEO of DEUX, a functional foods brand that believes good-for-you products should taste good. Made with high quality ingredients and enhanced with added boosts of supplements, their products are all vegan, gluten free, and taste delicious. In this episode, Sabeena shares with us her journey from growing up in Texas as a first generation American, to building the venture studio known as Launch Pad at M13 in Los Angeles, to starting her own company DEUX on Instagram by taking orders via direct message and accepting payments over Venmo. If you're interested in trying out some of the amazing DEUX products you will hear about here on the show, we have a very special promo code for you. Just go to eatDEUX.com, and use the code CEO20 to get 20% off.

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this episode sponsored by

In This Episode You’ll Hear About:

  • What brought her family to the States from South Asia and what life was like with an entrepreneurial father
  • When she realized that she needed to leave the big company world and become an entrepreneur herself
  • What her time at M13 was like and what valuable lessons Sabeena learned there about building a business well and getting started 
  • How DEUX launched what became a powerful test market via Instagram and why they knew early on that this was going to work
  • How she has learned to stay healthy mentally and keep herself as focused as possible, even with ADHD
  • Why fundraising for her was actually a lot of fun and what advice she has for Founders who are fundraising
  • Why DEUX is on track to hit one million in sales during their first year and what advice Sabeena has for others trying to get that mark, including some of the unique ways she got her delicious product into people’s hands
  • What’s next for DEUX and why you should just start when you have a great concept that you are wanting to move forward with

To Find Out More:

eatDEUX.com

Quotes:

“It was just in my nature to be entrepreneurial. It was almost like I tried to fit into a box and tried to fit around the red tape, and it just wasn't working because it felt so forced.”


“We didn't really have branding yet. We launched an Instagram, and we essentially said, "DM us to place an order, and Venmo us.’"


“So there was, of course, the quantitative metrics that you look at of sales and follower counts and engagement on our social posts. But then there's also this quantitative, almost like feeling that you get, it's almost like this like magic sauce that you can kind of feel like, yeah, this is going to work.”


“I don't think that doubt ever really goes away. You just figure out how to manage it and do your little mental health hacks to get over it. But it's kind of just like always living in there a little bit.”


“Raising when you're a few months in versus raising just on a deck, a presentation, I think those are two very, very different things.”


“It's disrupted what is so hard to disrupt, which is social media. And so that sort of relationship, I would say, has been kind of integral.”


“That's the thing that I think is just such a core value to us is sure it can be healthy, but if it tastes like cardboard or kale, nobody wants to eat that if it's a dessert. So kind of marrying the two of, I call it, hedonistic health. But it's healthy and clean, but it's delicious. And I think that's kind of the fundamental I would say the core value of our product strategy.”


“I think it takes practice and it takes reps to be able to have all of those high highs and have the low lows. And you have to go through them to kind of then even out and stay even-keeled.”


“I need to do what a coach does to motivate my team to kind of have that energy and build that culture.”


“Just start. We want everything to be perfect. We want to have the perfect brand and the best website. And we want everything to be pristine. And I think there is advice that I received that was if you're not embarrassed of your first product, then you're not doing it right.”


Lee: [00:00:03] Welcome to Episode 70 of the Stairway to CEO podcast. I'm your host, Lee Greene, and today I spoke with Sabeena Ladha, the Founder and CEO of DEUX. DEUX is a functional foods brand that believes good-for-you products should taste good. Made with high quality ingredients and enhanced with added boosts of supplements, their products are all vegan, gluten free, and taste delicious. In this episode, Sabeena shares with us her journey from growing up in Texas as a first generation American, to building the venture studio known as Launch Pad at M13 in Los Angeles, to starting her own company DEUX on Instagram by taking orders via direct message and accepting payments over Venmo. If you're interested in trying out some of the amazing DEUX products you will hear about here on the show, we have a very special promo code for you. Just go to eatDEUX.com, and use the code CEO20 to get 20 percent off. If you like what you're hearing on the Stairway to CEO podcast, don't forget to click subscribe to get updates on our new episode releases happening every Tuesday morning. Until then, we hope you enjoy this episode.

Lee: [00:02:05] Hi Sabeena, thanks so much for being on the show today. I'm really excited to hear your story in building DEUX. Thanks so much for joining us.

Sabeena: [00:02:12] I'm so excited to be here.

Lee: [00:02:15] So let's hear about your background. I know we met at an event in LA for M13, way back. I don't even know what year that was, but I'm excited to learn more about you and hear your background. Where are you from originally?

Sabeena: [00:02:28] I'm from a small town in Texas. You probably haven't heard of it. There's pretty much just football in that town. I mean, like have you seen Friday Night Lights?

Lee: [00:02:41] No.

Sabeena: [00:02:43] Yeah, it's pretty much football and that's it, because it's population is call it forty thousand, maybe.

Lee: [00:02:51] Wow. So what did your parents do? Did you have siblings? What was it like growing up?

Sabeena: [00:02:57] Yeah, my parents are... So I'm a first generation American. My parents are immigrants. So my dad moved here in the 70s, and he was kind of an entrepreneur by force, not because he wanted to be, but because he didn't know what else to do and didn't have an American education. So when he first moved here, he moved to Chicago and was a taxi driver. And my mom moved here for nursing school. So she also moved here in the 70s. They actually met in the states, which is a little nontraditional for South Asian couples. But she also moved to Chicago, went to nursing school, and was a nurse and is retired now.

Lee: [00:03:45] Wow. And so did you kind of see your dad as an entrepreneur? And did you want to be an entrepreneur as a kid or what did you want to be when you grew up?

Sabeena: [00:03:54] Yeah, it's funny. He was an entrepreneur because he had to be, and I am an entrepreneur because I get to be. And so it's kind of a different situation that we're in. So he was a taxi driver. And then he worked in delis, he worked at gas stations, and then finally, like the pinnacle of his career was getting to own a gas station. I remember that being the biggest deal of that was his and that was his kind of first real, if you want to call it a Founder experience. And I never saw like the glamorous parts of entrepreneurship. So I think now we see a lot of, you know, the glamorized Founders and raising capital and venture capital. And it's kind of glorified a little bit, which it is. It's an exciting experience. That's why I say I get to be an entrepreneur. I love it. But the way I grew up, it wasn't, it just wasn't stable. So I didn't originally think I would ever be an entrepreneur. I thought, you know, that's what you do when you kind of don't have something else to do. You don't have a great education or you don't have kind of a "professional career." It was only when I worked in big companies and I was kind of a misfit at big companies when I realized, like, OK, maybe I have this same entrepreneurial spirit that my dad had.

Lee: [00:05:25] Do you remember a specific moment where you're working and realizing looking around the room? Wait a minute. I don't know if I fit in here.

Sabeena: [00:05:31] So I grew up on the standard American diet, and I ate Kraft Mac and Cheese for dinner and Oreos for breakfast. And I didn't grow up, my parents were immigrants, so we weren't super educated on what healthy food was and why we needed to eat healthy. We're much more aware now, I think. But as I mentioned, there's we didn't you know, we weren't eating kale. That wasn't a part of my upbringing. And so I was pretty self taught, I would say, in nutrition. And I didn't start kind of caring or learning about it until college. So, you know, my first job at Frito-Lay, I had a sales goal. I mean, I was on the marketing team, but I had a sales goal of selling more pounds of potato chips per person in the United States. At the same time, I was learning about nutrition, and I was learning about wellness. I had a blog before blogs were full called Skinny Lately, where I would try a bunch of new health and wellness trends, and I would tell all my friends about it. So whether that was like cryotherapy or, you know, juice cleanses back when juice cleanses were a thing. It just was completely at odds with what I was doing at work. So I was trying to increase the number of pounds of potato chips sold per person at work...

Lee: [00:06:54] Meanwhile going on uice cleanses.

Sabeena: [00:06:55] Mm hmm.

Lee: [00:06:56] Hey everybody, eat more chips, but I'm going to be over here with my green juice.

Sabeena: [00:07:00] No, exactly. And so I think that was the first time I realized. It wasn't necessarily about entrepreneurship, but it was more so realizing like, OK, I don't necessarily fit in this world. And that was just the health and wellness aspect of it. But I was pretty fortunate to work for people, and this is mentors, this is managers. Even my VP, my first VP at Frito-Lay, who I still talk to this day that are very entrepreneurial in nature. So they weren't entrepreneurs because obviously they were in the big PepsiCo system or even at McKinsey, who had plenty of partners at McKinsey, who I worked for, that were very entrepreneurial. But they figured out how to almost like rally the misfits. So like I got a lot of encouragement when I would have an idea. So I did this thing called the Millennial Minute, where within the company I would tell the older folks that worked at Frito-Lay and PepsiCo what the millennial trends were and what apps we were using. This was back when Snapchat was launching.

Lee: [00:08:06] I think this is probably happening with Gen Z. It's like, what's the Gen Z minute?

Sabeena: [00:08:10] Yes. {laughter} Well, I have to get my, you know, one of my interns and then my first full time hire on the social design side. They're both Gen Z. And I have to ask like, "What is this tick tock trend?"

Lee: [00:08:24] {laughter} You're the one asking for the minute meeting?

Sabeena: [00:08:26] Yeah, like I was "Is cheugy a cool word?

Lee: [00:08:32] I was literally asking my team that at Future Commerce. They run the show for me here. I was like, "Guys, what is this joke on Slack about cheugy? Like, what does that mean?" And they're both like, "Oh, you don't know what that means?"

Sabeena: [00:08:46] It's so funny. Well, even like the influencers that we give to, I tend to like go to the millennial route and I have to ask them, I'm like, "Hey, are these Tik Tok-ers cool?"

Lee: [00:08:59] Maybe we have to explain, because I'm sure if they're anything like me not knowing what cheugy means, they're like, "Hello? Lee, can you just tell us what it means?"

Sabeena: [00:09:08] Yes. So they don't have to look it up on Urban Dictionary.

Lee: [00:09:09] I'll leave it up to you because I just learned. So I don't want to screw it up.

Sabeena: [00:09:13] No, I mean, I think of it as like a form of basic. Like if you think of... My favorite example is like a Live, Laugh, Love sign. You know, like people have those and in their houses. Yeah, I like that is like the ultimate version of cheugy.

Lee: [00:09:29] Which means it's just not cool anymore. Right? Like cheugy is you think it's cool, but it's actually not. So it's cheugy.

Sabeena: [00:09:37] Yeah. Well, and it's almost like trying too hard. There's a really fun, I think he's a Tik Tok-er and Instagram personality, that the other day was explaining things to millennials. And he said that Friends is cheugy. And I was like Friends? That's a great show.

Lee: [00:09:58] Does that mean Sex in the City is cheugy?

Speaker4: [00:10:00] Probably. One hundred percent.

Sabeena: [00:10:01] Anything with a reboot or like a comeback is cheugy. Yeah.

Lee: [00:10:06] Wow. Wow. Anything we grew up with basically, were too old and it's like, oh, you're all cheugy.

Sabeena: [00:10:11] Because we try too hard. We try too hard with our filters and our pastel grids, and we just aren't cool anymore.

Lee: [00:10:19] Wow. Pastel grids are out too? What is happening? So where's the website for everything not cheugy?

Sabeena: [00:10:27] I know. I think it's like Tik Tok.

Lee: [00:10:33] Yeah. All right. Well, that's interesting. So anyway, go on.

Speaker4: [00:10:38] So I just thought I had a lot of I would say like mentors and supporters that kind of let me do whatever the hell I wanted to do. So though I was a misfit, I kind of made it work because I had people who would... And I try to do this to my team, too. But like I had people who when I had a crazy idea or when I wanted to be entrepreneurial, they would kind of push me towards that and let me do it. But it was I mean, it was at McKinsey when I was working on the digital practice, which is a fairly new practice that McKinsey, and I was working on a very big client. And the work we were doing was entrepreneurial because digital was so new at the firm. But the client with the red tape and the like, going through approvals and, you know, micromanaging like the tiniest copy that we wanted to put out there. That's truly where there's one client where I was like, "All right, I need to go. I need to figure out if I fit into the startup world, because me by nature," and [00:11:41] you kind of meet those people and you kind of can tell who is entrepreneurial by nature. I think it was just in my nature to be entrepreneurial. And it was almost like I tried to fit into a box and tried to kind of fit around the red tape, and it just wasn't working and it felt so forced.  [00:11:56]And when I went to M13 after McKinsey, which is a venture capital firm here in LA, that's when I truly felt almost like liberated. Like I was like, "Oh, this is what good feels like, like this is what I'm supposed to be doing."

Lee: [00:12:09] Interesting. I felt the same way when I was at Launch Pad. It was like, "Wow, look at all these Founders. This is what I'm supposed to be doing."

Sabeena: [00:12:19] Yeah,

Lee: [00:12:19] I've always been a little on the crazy side, like trying to do the impossible things all the time. But these people are like me, you know, they're cold calling and getting in front of people that other people are like, what are you doing?

Sabeena: [00:12:35] They're like scrappy, and they don't take no for an answer.

Lee: [00:12:37] Exactly. They don't take no. You're like, wow, these people are pretty bold. And that's exactly what I want to do. That's interesting. So you were inspired basically by your experience. It sounds like you had like a Startup 101 kind of education there as well, I'm sure. What were some of the takeaways that you learned at M13 about building a company?

Sabeena: [00:12:58] Yeah, so I interestingly essentially built our venture studio there. So we had one side of the house that was kind of a traditional venture capital investment fund. And then the second side of the house is what we actually called Launch Pad. So it's funny that where you were was Launch Pad, but we ended up... It was a space theme at M13. So we called it the Launch Pad, and that's where we actually launched brands from within. So the first brand that we launched was a women's nutrition brand, and that went through the entire kind of four phase process that we built. So it sounds kind of structured, but it's actually what every startup kind of goes through. So phase one was ideation. So that's when you do a lot of the research. You look at Google Trends, you read reports, you see what is going on in the culture and then what the future looks like. That's the ideation phase. And then the second phase is the testing phase. So that's where I think I had the most learning. And the learning there was just put something out there. Like just try it. It doesn't have to be perfect. And I think with consumer brands, you get caught up in this pristine, perfect brand...

Lee: [00:14:24] "Don't tell anyone. You don't want anyone to steal your idea." {with sarcasm}

Sabeena: [00:14:26] Yeah, exactly.

Lee: [00:14:28] "Perfect it first."

Sabeena: [00:14:28] Yeah. And you want to have this like big launch. You're like, "Oh, I want to build it up, and I want to spend millions of dollars on this insane launch. And everyone's going to be talking about it."

Lee: [00:14:40] "Launch this website and everyone's going to flock to it."

Sabeena: [00:14:44] Yeah. There's a wait list. There's like a twenty thousand person wait list. So I think what I learned out of M13 in that testing phase is just put something out there. And if people want it, they're going to want it. Like that's what product market fit is. It doesn't matter if it's kind of ugly or if the logo isn't perfect or the packaging is imperfect, like if they want it, they want it. And then the third phase is the accelerate phase or sorry, the launch phase. So that's when you actually you've gotten proof of concept in phase two. And the launch phase is where you actually kind of put your money, where your mouth is. You make some investments, you hire a team, you need your product to be a little bit more, I would say, perfected, still not perfect, but that's when you launch. And then the fourth phase is the accelerate phase. And that's kind of where you go from seed to Series A. And that that process is the exact process, not in the same kind of format and with the same budgets. But the exact process I used to launch DEUX. And it's kind of what every company, I'm sure he talks to anyone, it's kind of a similar playbook. But that's essentially I think the testing part is the most important part of it. But that's essentially the process that we learned.

Lee: [00:15:54] For sure, I've had lots of interviews on here with lots of Founders, and it's very similar playbook. When you say testing, what are some things that you've done or that you would suggest to do to test an idea?

Sabeena: [00:16:07] Yeah, so what we did was probably highly illegal. But what we did was we launched on Instagram first. So [00:16:16] we didn't have a website because websites cost money. I didn't invest in any of that yet. We didn't really have branding yet. We launched an Instagram, and we essentially said, "DM us to place an order, and Venmo us." [00:16:33] We changed her name to DEUX Foods because there wasn't a business Venmo account yet. And we changed a little photo to DEUX logo that we just created internally. That was pretty janky looking. And people would Venmo us twenty dollars and place an order via direct message on Instagram. And it was like unintentionally I think it became cool because it was like hard to get and was kind of like an if "you know, you know," kind of thing. So to initially get the word out, we seeded to a bunch of influencers by literally just cold reaching out, so we cold reached out to... And there were, I mean, there are so many that didn't respond, but there were so many kind ones that were like, "This looks cool, it's cookie dough. It sounds delicious, it's healthy. Sure, I'll try it." And so we seeded to these influencers. They were obsessed with it. That was kind of a test point one.

Lee: [00:17:23] How many influencers did you seed the product with? And I assume you mean just like gifted them maybe the product in exchange for them talking about it on Instagram.

Sabeena: [00:17:33] Yeah. So at the beginning, it must have been like ten to fifteen. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough to start the organic flywheel almost. I hate that word. Flywheel. It's such a buzz word, but it kind of is true, right?

Lee: [00:17:48] How cheugy of you.

Sabeena: [00:17:48] {laughter} It's so cheugy. They would post about it. But they would post about it. Their followers would start following us, place an order, send it to a friend being like, "You love cookies..." "You love cookie dough..." Or "You're super into functional foods or wellness," or whatever it is. "Check out this brand." And so that kind of got us going. By our third drop, we call them drops, which is very like Supreme of us. By our third drop, we were selling out in 30 minutes. It was wild. And [00:18:20] so there was kind of, of course, the quantitative metrics that you look at of sales and follower counts and engagement on our social posts. But then there's also this quantitative, almost like feeling that you get, it's almost like this like magic sauce that you can kind of feel like, yeah, this is going to work. [00:18:40]

Lee: [00:18:41] So you're saying there's not really a number, it's a feeling product market fit.

Sabeena: [00:18:46] I think it's a little bit of both. So that was, I call it, phase one of our testing. Then we launched the website and they were pretty strict numbers. So there was a conversion rate that I wanted to get to. I can tell you it was five percent, so that if the conversion rate is five percent, which is very high if you are saying eCommerce person. But we know that people are kind of dying for this product and we've got this initial set of cult consumers. We had a revenue goal that we wanted a hit by December. There's also I read once in... Do you know what Superhuman is? The email app.

Lee: [00:19:28] Yes.

Sabeena: [00:19:28] So I believe it was a Superhuman guys, that said, "If you do a survey afterwards and the only question you ask is, "Would you be disappointed," and I'll probably butcher this, but "Would you be disappointed if this product didn't exist?'"

Lee: [00:19:45] Yeah.

Sabeena: [00:19:46] And if the answer is overwhelmingly yes, then that's the actual question you need to ask versus, you know, "Would you recommend this to a friend?" Like that's not actually the question you should ask. So there are methods like that when you send emails post purchase and kind of understanding the feedback where that's quantitative and qualitative. But you can kind of get a sense of like, OK, there's buzz here. But there are definitely I mean, when it comes to like the typical D2C eCommerce metrics, like there were conversion rates and click through rates when we'd run ads. There was all of that.

Lee: [00:20:24] Yeah, I think that there's probably a video listed. I'm just trying to help some of the listeners if they actually want to try to find this, because it's actually a great presentation. I saw him present. The Founder of Superhuman presented at a launch festival, I think, of his Launch Scale by Jason Calacanis. And part of that presentation was him talking about this process. And it's a great, great insight and video. And I think it's probably online. If they just Google Founder of Superhuman and Launch or Jason Calacanis, I'm sure they'll find it. Because yeah, you're right. That's a really... Exactly. It's a really awesome presentation. And like you said, that's how you should evaluate product market fit by asking that question. So you ask that question to your customers and what'd they say?

Sabeena: [00:21:12] Yeah. I mean, it was overwhelmingly... I think the number that he gave, the Founder of Superhuman, was over 40 percent, and ours was like in the 70s to 80s.

Lee: [00:21:23] Wow.

Sabeena: [00:21:23] And so we were like, OK, at least with this initial cult following... You know, and it's always easier, everyone will tell you this, it's always easier to acquire customers at the beginning than it is later on, because you get your kind of cult niche community. So I think what's funny is I still thought of it as like a side thing. So like even when we launched this in October of 2020, there was still something in the back of my head of like, you know, I can go back to consulting. Like just in case this doesn't work...

Lee: [00:21:55] Yeah.

Sabeena: [00:21:55] There was, I think a little bit of it, and I mean, this is a little bit, I think, coming from being a female Founder and other female Founders I've chatted with. But it's almost this like imposter syndrome that happens where things are going well. It's going well. You can see the product market fit. You can see it's working, yet you're still kind of like, "Oh, what if it's not?" And then December was really the months where, and it's a big gifting month, so our product did really well in December. But that's when it kind of like it snapped for me where I was like... I almost had to shake myself like, "You are experiencing imposter syndrome. It is going extremely well. You can see it in your revenue." We were producing commercial kitchens. We were maxing out the commercial kitchens. I was producing until 3:00 in the morning. Like myself. We had bakers assistants. We needed to get into a co-packer and a manufacturer asap. I think that's when I was like, OK, this is real. I think he just took a second for me to almost like not doubt myself in that, even though, you know, the numbers, both quantitative and qualitative, were they're telling me like, "This is it. We're doing this."

Lee: [00:23:04] I think it's totally normal, especially starting your company for the first time, there's a lot of self-doubt. What were some of those thoughts of self-doubt that you've had to overcome and how did you overcome them? I know the business did well. That's a great sign. But, you know, from a personal perspective.

Sabeena: [00:23:21] Yeah. There was a really big kind of cloud with Covid where I had this fear that people were just looking for something during Covid. And so we would just be like this Covid novelty, like how tie dye sweatshirts were. Everyone wear the tie dye sweatsuits. I have two of them, I think. And I was worried that it was just this Covid novelty. And I think I had to get over that hump, which was step one, which obviously now that things are back open and our sales are better than ever is one. And then I think there was a little bit of doubt in, because I'm a first time Founder, I think there was a little bit of doubt of, you know, I come from big company. I have had my experience at M13. Can I really build this team and do this on my own? And so it is a test of almost like a lack of resources. And I think it'll always happen. I think that's kind of part of the mental health struggle of being a Founder of you almost feel like even when you achieve something... Like we had our biggest day ever on June 29th, and the team was freaking out. It was wild what Shopify looked like that day. Yet all I could think about was how am I going to talk this? Like shit, we're doing so well. How am I going to top this? And I think there's this kind of like innate like achievement value that Founders have, and you automatically go on to the next thing. So [00:25:05] I don't think that doubt ever really goes away. You kind of just figure out how to manage it and do your little mental health hacks to get over it. But it's kind of just like always living in there a little bit. [00:25:19]

Lee: [00:25:20] So what are some of your mental health hacks?

Sabeena: [00:25:23] So I started meditating, and that for me... I was diagnosed with ADHD in my 20s, which is kind of unique. So from what my doctor told me is women often get diagnosed later. So often men get or, you know, boys, young boys get diagnosed in grade school because they act out or they kind of like show signs of it. And women tend to in grade schools tend to be a little bit more well-behaved or follow the rules and aren't kind of like the rowdy boys. And so we kind of suppress that almost that feeling or need to be hyperactive or have kind of the attention disorder. And I did really well in school, like I was ranked number five in my high school. Like I did really well. So there wasn't... No one would ever think like, oh, yeah that girl has ADD.

Lee: [00:26:23] Well, but then isn't there a difference with ADHD?

Sabeena: [00:26:27] Sorry, ADHD, right? Yeah. There is a difference. And there are other ways it comes out. So like I always had to work out, or I always had to do something active or I felt like I was like bursting out of my skin. And so there were signs like that or I would fall asleep if I had to focus for long periods of time, I would fall asleep and I would need to have some sort of movement, like even right now when I'm talking to you, I'm like walking around everywhere. And so that's all to say, it's... What was the original question? I don't know how we got to the topic of ADHD.

Lee: [00:27:06] We were talking about mental health hacks.

Sabeena: [00:27:08] Oh, mental health. Right. So meditation for someone like me is really important. And it's not even like a formal way of doing it. It's even like turning everything off and trying to focus like in your mind. And, you know, I kind of like replay Headspace. I don't use Headspace anymore, but I replay kind of the guy on Headspace telling you to flick your thoughts away. And then working out is also, like I said, like I have this almost like I crawl out of my skin or almost like can't focus or function if I don't get that initial energy out. So it's kind of a non-negotiable for me to work out, you know, call it five times a week. And it's purely for like, sure, I feel great physically, but it's purely for mental health. I haven't picked up... There are a couple folks on my team who journal, and I haven't picked that up yet. I don't know that it's my way or my form, but it's one that I am, you know, the five minute journal. It's one that I'm kind of looking at that's around the corner, I think.

Lee: [00:28:13] Interesting. You'll have to try it out, and let me know how it goes.

Sabeena: [00:28:16] Yeah.

Lee: [00:28:16] I'm still trying to figure out a hack. Haven't really settled on one yet. {laughter} So I know that you raised a million dollars seed round recently. You had a really awesome article on Forbes, and you have some incredible investors that a lot of them are Founders, like the Founder of Movement Watches, Jake, Liquid IV, Brandin, and even the CEO of Erewhon. So can you talk about what it was like to raise that seed round and some of the challenges that you faced along the way?

Sabeena: [00:28:48] Yeah, so it's interesting because, I said this to someone the other day, and I think I had a unique experience fundraising, because my experience was that it was really fun and like kind of seamless, which is not usually the Founder experience, from what I hear, when it comes to fundraising.

Lee: [00:29:07] Yeah.

Sabeena: [00:29:08] But I think the reason that happened is because we already had proof of concept. So often you'll, and you know this from being in that world, often people fundraise on just a deck. I was actually giving advice to someone the other day who has a food concept, and she was asking me, she was like, "Oh, my gosh, you fundraised in like a week. How did you do that?" I was like, [00:29:32] "Well, I had already launched the company four or five months before I even had my first conversation." And so they saw the numbers that it was already working. It was so much more de-risked for anyone that came in, because we had the sales, we had the followers, we had the influencers and celebrities. We had even retail by then. We were in stores. And so I could tell them what the sales were like in the stores and what the repeat was. And so raising when you're a few months in versus raising just on a deck, a presentation, I think those are two very, very different things.  [00:30:13]

Lee: [00:30:14] Absolutely. Yeah, it's interesting. I think a way maybe to frame it for those listening is, you know, investors really want to invest in the gas that you're going to put in your gas tank to keep you going and to accelerate things. But you have to build the car yourself. And if you can't afford to build it yourself, then you got to ask your parents, your friends, family, fools or, you know, whatever angel investors you can get your hands on to help you get by the wheels in the engine and the doors, because otherwise, you know, it's really tough to just get any type of money for anything. If you don't have something. You have to put skin in the game and be very, very resourceful and scrappy to a certain point and to you absolutely can't take it any further, and then you can start asking for money. But this whole idea, I don't know where this comes from, of people thinking, I have an idea, I'm going to put together a pitch deck and then I'm going to get investors. It's like that is not the process here.

Sabeena: [00:31:18] {laughter} No. And I think a lot of people are starting to say no to that. And I think that's when... Like I joke that VCs are getting later and later stage. So like those VCs that were investing in seed or pre seed rounds are now only doing Series A and Series B rounds. And that is true. But they also are just realizing giving someone a million dollars on a deck is probably not the best uses of their capital. Yeah. No, I'm totally with you. You have to have the proof points. And then, of course, like when it comes to like the Jakes and the Brandins of the world, it was a lot of the money that they're putting into is in to me as a human being and as a Founder. Jake is obsessed with the products like he eats at every single day. And so they obviously love the product. But at the end of the day, if we have to for some reason pivot from our core product to something else, they're believing that I can do that. So I think, you know, obviously having the sound business to start and showing that you have product market fit, but then pairing that with a person who has the right experience is the right personality. Like what we were talking about being super resourceful and scrappy and just like not taking no for an answer. That's also the other part of it.

Lee: [00:32:40] I just go back real quick on that investing on a pitch deck situation. I feel like that literally maybe happened over 10 years ago. Very specific types of Founders who had track records. I mean, obviously, if you sold your company, you did great, whatever, you can go to your current network of investors who will probably want to back you again off of a pitch deck then a second time. But as a first time Founder, it's so hard, don't even try. Why try it? The barrier to building a company is so low now that it's expected that you just can take it so much farther by yourself.

Sabeena: [00:33:17] Yup.

Lee: [00:33:17] And that's the expectation now. So anyway, so you raised this amount of money. You've got these awesome investors. You're expecting to hit, what, a million dollars in sales in your first year? That's insane.

Sabeena: [00:33:30] It's insane.

Lee: [00:33:31] That's insane.

Sabeena: [00:33:33] I get nervous even like saying that. But that's what we're on track to do.

Lee: [00:33:36] Can't be nervous. You got to be like we're going to hit two million, actually.

Sabeena: [00:33:39] Yeah I gotta manifest that shit, right?

Lee: [00:33:41] "I'm being conservative, Lee." So as far as getting to one million in sales, like what are some tips and tricks? I mean, I know you started on Instagram. What is part of that strategy to hitting a million?

Sabeena: [00:33:56] Yeah, Instagram is our home base. So though people might think it's cheugy now. It is where a lot of our consumer lives, I would say our consumers probably split between Instagram and Tik Tok. We actually don't invest a ton in ads, in Facebook and Instagram ads. We use them a lot for retargeting. But I would say that's kind of the old guard, just because it's... And you have to do it. It's kind of a requirement as a marketing channel, but it's so expensive to run ads on Facebook and Instagram. And you're competing with so many more brands for this screen time that we've just had to get a little more creative. I would say the number one driver of our revenue has been relationships with influencers, personalities, celebrities, whatever you want to call them, and them genuinely loving the product. So the perfect example of that is I don't know if you're familiar with Amanda Hirsch from Not Skinny, But Not Fat?

Lee: [00:35:09] Ok.

Sabeena: [00:35:10] She's a podcaster. Huge podcast. She's also got a ton of Instagram followers and just has a very engaged community. We gifted the product to her. She has an insatiable sweet tooth. So she tried the product, was obsessed with it. Sent me an email and said, "Can we do something?" Like she didn't know what it was. She just knew that she wanted to be involved. "I just want to be involved in the brand. Like, I don't know what we'd do. I just want to do something." So I outlined a couple of options for her. I was like, "Well, if you want to go real extreme, you could invest."

Lee: [00:35:50] "I have an idea..."

Sabeena: [00:35:51] Yeah, exactly. We could sponsor your podcast. We could do some sort of campaign. We could do a giveaway. There's a million things. And then there's one that I was hoping that she would latch on to, and that was a collab flavor. [00:36:04] And so we launched this flavor with her. First launched it in April, sold out in one hour, and then we launched it again with six X amount. Launched it again in June, sold out in five hours. And the reason is because there's such an authentic relationship, like she genuinely loves the brand and the product. And she and I have built such a good relationship. And it's interesting to consumers, right? Like it's a unique flavor. It's a unique function. She has a really great audience. The packaging is beautiful. And it's disrupted what is so hard to disrupt, which is social media. And so that sort of relationship, I would say, has been kind of integral. That's one example. But having those relationships with these folks has been just super integral to our growth. [00:37:02] And then, of course, there's the retail component. So you're familiar with Erewhon. I don't know if your listeners are familiar with Erewhon in Los Angeles, but it is a very good discovery platform. So often I'll see people posting on Instagram or even doing a Tik Tok, a person that is a personality. And I'm like, "How do they find us?" Because I know everyone that we gift to. Like I see it in our gifting log. And I figure out that they picked this up at Erewhon because that is just like such a spot for people who are into wellness and who are trying to discover something new. So that has actually been a really good, I would say, marketing driver, if you will. It's obviously a retail sales channel, so we make money off of it. But it's also a really good way to kind of get into people's hands.

Lee: [00:37:55] Yeah, it's definitely a store to discover awesome product. I'm there all the time. Really love that place. But speaking of your product, it is amazing. And I have it here actually right in front of me. I have the chocolate hazelnut. It's the nut butter, enhanced nut butter. And it literally tastes like Nutella.

Sabeena: [00:38:13] Right?

Lee: [00:38:14] I have to hide it from my husband because he's from Germany and literally loves Nutella. Like the original.

Sabeena: [00:38:20] Yeah.

Lee: [00:38:20] Yeah. But this is gluten free and it's so good for you. But it doesn't even taste healthy whatsoever. It tastes like so legit. And even the enhanced cookie dough tastes like real cookie dough. It's like in this container and you don't think it's going to taste like the real thing. And it really does.

Sabeena: [00:38:39] It's kind of wild. Right?

Lee: [00:38:40] Yeah, it's really so shocking.

Sabeena: [00:38:42] It's funny because so one of my mentors who invested in DEUX is the VP of Innovation at Kind Bar. And we were chatting when I was first concepting it. And what he said just stuck with me. And it was, "People eat Kind bars because they taste really delicious." Like, sure, they're healthy. Right? They're made with nuts. They're better for you. They're cleaner, but they're kind of a better for you candy bar. They've got chocolate, they've got glaze, they've got sea salt. Like they're delicious. And [00:39:17] that's the thing that I think is just such a core value to us is sure it can be healthy, but if it tastes like cardboard or kale, like nobody wants to eat that if it's a dessert. So kind of marrying the two of, I call it, hedonistic health. But it's healthy and clean, but it's delicious. And I think that's kind of the fundamental I would say the core value of our product strategy. [00:39:45]

Lee: [00:39:45] And the packaging is really cute. And you even send a golden spoon, which really makes me want to have gold silverware, for some reason.

Sabeena: [00:39:54] Oh, my God. Right?

Lee: [00:39:55] It's pretty cool looking. Gold spoon. I'm like, I wish I had the rest of my... You know, maybe just start getting into silverware and just like have all gold...

Sabeena: [00:40:03] And just sell that? {laughter}

Lee: [00:40:05] Yeah. Have things you can eat with forks and knives. Just send the whole set. No, but it's a really amazing product. So how long did you spend in R&D to come up with these amazing flavors? Like how much perfecting did you have to do?

Sabeena: [00:40:19] Yeah, so we originally I would say we were in May, June of Covid, we were playing around with the idea, and then we were like, OK, let's just start formulating. And by the way, I'm horrible in the kitchen. My husband cooks. I like chop his onions, like I'm not good in the kitchen at all.

Lee: [00:40:41] I'm the same way.

Sabeena: [00:40:42] So it's wild, but I was like making this product myself early on. I also don't follow instructions. And so following recipes is very hard for me. So, yeah, it's wild that we got through that phase, but essentially we would create a version of it. And then we had kind of these like attributes that we would like, like taste, texture, sweetness. There's just a number of attributes that we would kind of rate it on and we would keep iterating on it until we got to, we went through the whole alphabet. So it was like A, B, C, D, and then we were all the way through. We were at AA, AB, AC. So we went through the whole alphabet and then I think a half, and then finally we were like, OK, this is it. And we started with chocolate chip because we knew that was going to be the number one flavor. So we started with chocolate chip, we built this base, and we can then expand it to others and it won't be that difficult. And so we then actually did this Google form survey of people in LA and we just sent it to friends and friends of friends, and they forwarded along and we said, put in your address, we're going to drop off free cookie dough samples to you as long as you fill out this survey for us. And so then we dropped off that iteration of product. We got all the feedback, incorporated the feedback, and then we did it again. So that was kind of the initial, it was very, and we were in the middle of Covid, So we couldn't see each other, see anyone in person. So we would just like do these little drop offs to people's apartments or houses. And that was how we got our initial feedback and kind of started with that chocolate chip flavor.

Lee: [00:42:19] Amazing. I just tried a little dip of the peanut butter chocolate chip cookie dough here. It's hilarious. But I put myself on mute, so I can eat cookie dough. So good. Thank you so much for sending these.

Sabeena: [00:42:33] Oh my gosh, of course.

Lee: [00:42:34] It's really amazing. So I want to hear more about like hiring. How big is your team now and what has it been like kind of creating your team?

Sabeena: [00:42:42] Well, we're stacked now. We were a lot of part timers when we first started. So I actually just brought on a Director of Product Ops who does everything from helping with product development to kind of the supply chain op side. I've got a Director of Sales who's part time. So she comes from Banza, actually, Banza Pasta. So she's got a lot of experience in retail sales and grocery and the natural channel. And she's just going to be part time with us. And then I've got a Director of Marketing who I've worked with previously, who was also part time and just brought him on full time. But he will help with everything, eCommerce and growth related. And then I've got an intern, she's the Gen Z intern that I told you about. She's the one that's really cool and makes our Tik Toks. And then I've got Cameron, who is the heart and soul of the brand, and she's all things social and design. And she and I early on, she was in school at the time, so she was at UCLA in undergrad, and she and I kind of hit it off right away. But we also kind of understood each other and kind of riff off of each other for the brand. So she's truly like the brand voice. She's the brand aesthetic, like she just gets it. She's kind of like witty and funny and is, I would say, like the heart and soul of the design and the copy.

Lee: [00:44:15] Nice. So tell us about one of your most challenging moments in building the company. I know you're still in the very early phases. I think you're only like 10 months old here. But what has been one of the most challenging things so far?

Sabeena: [00:44:28] Yeah, so I would say the first major challenge was when... So you only have a certain number of hours a day. Right? So I was spending so many of those hours making the actual product, which a lot of food and beverage Founders, maybe less beverage, but a lot of food Founders will tell you that's what you do. You start in your kitchen and then you go to a commercial kitchen and then you max out the commercial kitchen. You may add on another one. And then and only then do you go to a co-packer because the minimum quantities for a co-packer are so high that unless you have the demand, you can't quite possibly meet those MLQs. So the biggest struggle early on, this was probably when we hit like December was the debate on running the business versus making the product. So you spend six to eight hours a day making the product. And then after that is when you can actually like answer customer emails, figure out what to post on Instagram. You know, fix the website. Do all of those things that it requires to run a DTC business. And so I think that maxing out of that capacity was a real struggle. And then when we first got into our co-packer, there's a huge learning curve when you get into one of those, like we had a lot of wasted product. We had to throw out batches of our brownie batter. We had to throw out batches of our ginger doodle product. Well, not throw out. We donated it. But it hurts to do that because you're like, "Well, this product isn't like that bad. Like will it be OK?"

Lee: [00:46:10] "Why don't we just try to sell it anyway?"

Sabeena: [00:46:13] Yes. Why don't we just try to sell it? Right. Because it will sell. As people are finding out about the brand, they would have bought it, but they just wouldn't have repeated. And we were selling it actually for a few weeks, both of those products. And I had this come to Jesus... I'm not even religious, but come to Jesus. And I was like, I wouldn't repeat if I tasted this. I would not repeat buy this product if I tried this. And I knew that's when we had to make the call and it was thousands of dollars. We had to make the call to donate this product. And so it hurt initially, especially because we hadn't fundraised yet. And so we didn't have that cushion. And it was like my own money. And it hurt. But I think in the long run for the business, we have a really strong repeat rate. And if I know after tasting something, someone's not going to repeat that there is no way in hell I should be selling it. And those are just the, I would say, the problems that come with starting up production. And you kind of have to just allocate spend to that kind of waste almost.

Lee: [00:47:17] Yeah, absolutely. What's something you wish you would have known before you started your business?

Sabeena: [00:47:23] It's funny because at the beginning of it, I was so doe-eyed when, you know, when things went like a celebrity would post. I would get so excited over the moon, like my job here is done. This is amazing. And then when things would go wrong, like a la the throwing out product or donating the product, I would have these kind of like very low lows. And I think I knew this because I came from venture, almost like to have a sense of stoicism, to manage those high highs and manage the low lows. But [00:47:57] I think it takes practice and it takes reps to be able to have all of those high highs and have the low lows. And you have to go through them to kind of then even out and stay even keeled. So I just wish I had more reps of that, because then the journey wouldn't have been as almost like emotional as it was or as it is still. [00:48:20]

Lee: [00:48:20] Absolutely. I think resilience is a muscle that we need to build, work to build. It's not a natural thing. I think resilience is something that takes time to learn and adjust to and over time, build. So, yeah, it's interesting that you've experienced that and you kind of saw and knew that from like an intellectual perspective because when you're in it, it's totally different.

Sabeena: [00:48:46] Yeah. You logically know. It's like when you have a toxic ex, you know you should break up with them, but you just don't.

Lee: [00:48:56] Oh no. No. That's another podcast we have to have.

Sabeena: [00:48:58] {laughter}

Lee: [00:49:03] So in terms of being a leader, starting and growing a business involves a lot of professional and personal growth. How have you grown? I guess, personally as a leader?

Sabeena: [00:49:12] Yeah, I think in bigger organizations, the energy and kind of the almost, this is very LA of me, but the vibe that you set for the organization is not dependent on one person. Because it's so big. You're at a five year person company or even at M13. You know, you're at a 50 person company, and you can kind of slack off a little bit on the culture front and it's OK. I think what I had to teach myself over the last couple of months is like the energy of DEUX comes from me. Right? So like if I am not in a good mood, then my team is not going to be in a good mood and they're going to be less motivated. So it's almost like training yourself to be a coach versus a player. And you can be in leadership positions at bigger companies, but you're still kind of a player because it all kind of works together. But when you kind of think of yourself as a coach and Yanni, actually Yanni from Lemon Perfect, who is the Founder of Lemon Perfect. He kind of taught me this early on. He invested in DEUX, but he is a coach. So he coached Harvard basketball and my first conversation with him, it was the most motivating conversation I had ever had. I was like, holy shit, I'm like on top of the world after talking to that guy, and that coach mentality, I think that's when the flip switched of, oh, I need to be this for my team. Like I need to do what he does. [00:50:39] I need to do what a coach does to motivate my team to kind of have that energy and build that culture. [00:50:46] And so I think that that kind of mindset shift, it's been a stretch for me. So like, you know, when I have an off day, I have to kind of put it to the side and still coach and still realize that my team needs that motivation and that energy. And so I've kind of like stretched myself, I would say, in that way.

Lee: [00:51:08] Yeah, that's really great advice to think of leadership as a coach versus a player and to be that coach for your team. That's really important. So what's next? What can we expect?

Sabeena: [00:51:23] Well, hopefully conquering retail. I'm super excited. I mean, that's part of the reason we fundraised is to expand retail. So we're 80 percent direct to consumer right now, 20 percent retail. I think by the end of year two, that will be completely flipped. So I'm hoping, I don't want to jinx anything, or I guess we can call it manifesting. I'm hoping we'll have a tentpole retailer. So call it a a Whole Foods or a Sprouts or one of the tent poles by the end of this year. And then we'll go from there. So I'm hoping we'll expand retail quickly so people can go. It's almost like ice cream where ice creams and impulse purchase. You know, you get your eggs, you get your milk, you get your staples, and then you might grab that kind of ice cream on your way out. I think cookie dough is similar. So I think once we're in retail, it'll just take off.

Lee: [00:52:19] Yeah, definitely. And so before you wrap up here, what kind of final advice do you have for those who are tuning in? I mean, there's a lot of listeners that are thinking of starting their first company, maybe taking a leap into entrepreneurship, what would you say to them?

Sabeena: [00:52:36] I don't know if this is helpful advice, but I would say just start. It doesn't...

Lee: [00:52:41] Proceed with caution.

Sabeena: [00:52:42] Yeah, exactly. Don't do it. No, I'm just kidding. {laughter} I would say [00:52:48] just start. We want everything to be perfect. We want to have the perfect brand and the best website. And we want everything to be pristine. And I think there is advice that I received that was if you're not embarrassed of your first product, then you're not doing it right. [00:53:06] I am fully embarrassed. We were in peanut butter jars and we had a sticker on the top that said DEUX. It was the jankiest thing ever. It looked like it would have never been sold in retail. So if you're not embarrassed of it, then you're not doing it right. Just put it out there and just start, because I think we build up this inertia of a concept of an idea that we sit on for months and years and we sit on this concept and we never really do it. And it's like, just go start. It doesn't have to be perfect.

Lee: [00:53:37] Or at least test

Sabeena: [00:53:40] Yes. At least test.

Lee: [00:53:41] Yeah. Get the idea to phase two and then figure it out from there.

Sabeena: [00:53:44] Yeah, exactly.

Lee: [00:53:46] Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Sabeena, for being on this show today. It was so fun talking to you and best of luck with everything. And thanks for joining us.

Sabeena: [00:53:54] Oh, thank you, Lee. Have a good one.

Lee: [00:53:59] Thank you so much for listening to the Stairway to CEO podcast. Once again, I'm your host, Lee Greene. And if you have any burning business questions, please feel free to reach us at 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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