Slow Up for Fast Growth
Episode 71
September 14, 2021

Slow Up for Fast Growth

with Leland Whitehouse, Co-Founder and CEO of Slow Up

Leland Whitehouse is the Co-Founder and CEO of Slow Up. Based in Brooklyn, Slow Up is the first chef-crafted fresh food bar made with healthy whole food ingredients and delicious spices. In this episode, Leland shares with us his journey from growing up as a kid being able to identify spices by their scent at just three years old, to studying at Yale, to working as a buyer for Fresh Direct, to moving to Alaska, where he worked at a salmon fishery, to working at a food startup where he got the entrepreneur bug to venture off and start his own company. Leland talks with us about how he debated getting an MBA, how the pandemic changed the direction of his business, and how he's creating a new category in the refrigerated food bar space.

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this episode sponsored by

In This Episode You’ll Hear About:

  • What it was like to grow up in a great family that valued homegrown food and home cooking
  • How he found his way into a passion for sustainable food while at Yale and had opportunities to not only be a part of farming but also part of helping others enjoy good food
  • How he got a lot of experience and education working as a buyer for Fresh Direct and had a few light bulb moments noticing some gaps in the industry, and then came back to the Northeast to work for Happy Valley Meat
  • How his roommate had been learning a lot about the food industry as well and became the perfect person to co-create a solution to the healthy snack options conundrum
  • What the product development process was like and how it all came together in a unique way with a final product that provides the answer to the problem they set out to solve
  • How they went to market and how they dealt with COVID coming at about the time they were set to fully launch 
  • What challenges Leland and his team have overcome and continue to work through What advice he has for aspiring entrepreneurs and what’s next for Slow Up in both retail and in the DTC space

To Find Out More:

SlowUp.co

Quotes:

“There was a real live and interesting tension between staying completely committed to like really strict set of rules and values and ethics and growing quickly.”

“We thought about what is the deal with the distance between how satisfying and exciting meals are and what we're living on in between meals?” 


“We heard over and over again that options that were healthy weren't tasty, and that options that were tasty weren't particularly healthy, and that everything had too much sugar. A lot of dissatisfaction and the nature of the dissatisfaction was pretty clear. So that smelled like a business to us.”


“We just turned Chef Caroline loose and said, "Make something healthy and delicious that feels like a recipe, not a formula, and feels like it came to you from a chef.’”


“The nucleus is that breaking that healthy/tasty compromise, using fresh ingredients like you would at a restaurant or in your own kitchen and coming up with a product that felt like a recipe, not like an extruded lab product.”


“This has been an education for me in not saying, here's a delicious thing, how do we take it to market? But instead, like, here's a market, how do we make something to address it?”


“We really think of ourselves, despite riding on the refrigerated bar coattails, as creating a new category. It's an unfamiliar product that really only resembles a bar in its shape, really not in its experience.”


“Getting creative around where we belong in the grocery store, who the right buyer is, and who the right distributors are is part of the project.”


“We like to say good food goes bad.”


“Get a handle on the business first and then get a handle on what you think you can deliver, then take that and make the slide deck.”


“You just got to jump in the cold water. I think that's the big advice. Hard to feel prepared, and with a little bit of the benefit of hindsight, pretty impossible to be prepared unless you've done it before. So just send it.” 


“There's always another hill to climb. Another problem to solve. Problems shift or grow or shrink, but they don't disappear. So once you've jumped in, recognizing that you just got to get comfortable in that. There's always another hill to climb.”


Lee: [00:00:03] Welcome to Episode 71 of The Stairway to CEO podcast. I'm your host, Lee Greene. And today I spoke with Leland Whitehouse, the Co-Founder and CEO of Slow Up. Based in Brooklyn, Slow Up is the first chef crafted fresh food bar made with healthy whole food ingredients and delicious spices. In this episode, Leland shares with us his journey from growing up as a kid being able to identify spices by their scent at just three years old, to studying at Yale, to working as a buyer for Fresh Direct, to moving to Alaska, where he worked at a salmon fishery, to working at a food startup where he got the entrepreneur bug to venture off and start his own company. Leland talks with us about how he debated getting an MBA, how the pandemic changed the direction of his business, and how he's creating a new category in the refrigerated food bar space. 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: [00:01:57] Leland, thank you so much for joining us on the show today. I'm really excited to hear your story in building Slow Up. Thanks for joining us.

Leland: [00:02:04] Thanks for having me.

Lee: [00:02:06] So let's start with where are you from originally?

Leland: [00:02:09] I'm from Ohio. I grew up in what I think of as the rural suburbs. So like 15 minutes from subdivisions, 15 minutes from cornfields and apple orchards. Kind of that little borderline zone.

Lee: [00:02:25] Cool. And what was it like growing up? Did you have siblings or did your parents do? Paint us the picture of your childhood.

Leland: [00:02:31] The picture, yeah. So I have a little brother and two parents. That's the fam. It was a very outdoorsy childhood. So I grew up in the woods with a big backyard and a big pond...

Lee: [00:02:48] Climbing trees?

Leland: [00:02:50] Climbing trees. Still a tree climber. Still got it.

Lee: [00:02:52] Nice. I lost my skull a long time ago. I'm not trying to climb any trees these days.

Leland: [00:02:57] Yeah. I don't get a lot of action out of it in Brooklyn where I am now. But if the call comes through.

Lee: [00:03:00] {laughter} It would look funny. What's that guy doing up there?

Leland: [00:03:03] Yeah. The cops come when you climb trees in Brooklyn. Yeah, just a lot of time outside. My brother and I burned a lot of hours trying to find snakes, which was for many years, a favorite activity. But both my folks had a big garden, so I spent a lot of time with them as a kid, like holding a trowel, thinking it was a big shovel. Plucking peas off the vine. In the kitchen from the house I grew up in around like the ceiling my parents had painted this phrase from a country song. "There's only two things that money can't buy. True love and homegrown tomatoes." So a lot of that energy.

Lee: [00:03:50] Nice.

Leland: [00:03:50] And both my parents were big cooks. So where food comes from, the growing cycle and cooking were really central to the upbringing.

Lee: [00:04:01] Yeah, and it sounds like tomatoes, too. Sounds like you guys really like tomatoes or is that just?

Leland: [00:04:05] I love tomatoes. I'm sticking with the family philosophy. We have tomatoes growing here in the backyard in Brooklyn.

Lee: [00:04:11] Wow, you took that to Brooklyn. You're like still tomato-ing up in Brooklyn. {laughter}

Leland: [00:04:15] Tree climbing and homegrown tomatoes. Yeah. Making it work. Yeah. And so my dad to this day, like makes himself three meals a day, maybe twice a month eats outside of the house. So a lot of hours. My dad's like a good, I say this loving like plumber level cook, like, you know, efficient, healthy, making it happen. My mom was like a much more talented, fancy pastry, elaborate dinner type of chef, so it was like a real treat when mom made dinner.

Lee: [00:04:48] Nice mix, though. Got that nice balance. You know?

Leland: [00:04:51] A lot of coverage. Yeah. And yes, a lot of time in the kitchen. I will digress one more time with a fun story. One of my favorite games as a little kid was standing on the counter, and my dad would pull... I was like three, four or five years old, before I could read, and my dad would pull spices out of the cabinet and have me smell them. And I would be like, "Oregano," "Paprika..."

Lee: [00:05:17] You could name them by the scent of them?

Leland: [00:05:20] I think after a lot of, you know, heavy training.

Lee: [00:05:24] Right. Of course. But still, that's kind of impressive.

Leland: [00:05:28] Yes. A lot of time outside. A lot of time in the kitchen. And both my folks have like a real do-it-yourself spirit. They've had very few bosses between the two of them, started like multiple small businesses. And when the pipe breaks, we fix it. When the stairs need paint, we paint them.

Lee: [00:05:56] Right. Getting the hands dirty.

Leland: [00:05:58] Getting the hands dirty. That's right.

Lee: [00:06:00] Yeah, that's awesome. And so what about, you know, what did you want to be when you grew up? Like, did you kind of see that or when did you realize you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Leland: [00:06:09] Yeah, I don't think I had like a real clear picture from a kid. A lot of flash in the pan ideas. No firefighter, no astronaut. I wanted to be like a zoologist. I'm very into animals. The snakes were like the most readily accessible one. But it's just, you know, stoked on the animals. So there's a little bit of that. But yeah, didn't have a real clear picture of what I wanted to do, but did absorb from my folks a want to run my own show, whatever that show looks like.

Lee: [00:06:46] Right. So tell me how you started. Tell me your journey for your career journey up until when you decided to start Slow Up. What were you doing before?

Leland: [00:06:56] Yeah. Totally. So it's been despite not having like a real clear picture as a kid, it's turned out that pretty much every job I've had has been in the food industry. So it's kind of just taken on some momentum of its own. I went to Yale and arrived really without a clear picture of what I wanted to do. But shortly after arriving, connected with the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which is this awesome organization with a teaching, learning farm, and like a steady drip of visitors from all over the food industry giving talks and hosting dinners. And I just found a real sort of passion for that world. Loved being on the farm. I worked all through college, and one of my first jobs was being a pizza chef. And we had like a wood fired oven on the farm. So we'd reward volunteers for cleaning up the farm or picking tomatoes by giving them a big yummy pizza dinner. So got the food bug there.

Lee: [00:08:05] Yeah, well, even earlier than that, right? I feel like you were smelling spices as like a three year old with your dad. I mean, I think that you had food in your blood for a very long time.

Leland: [00:08:16] Maybe "nourished the food bug" maybe is a better way of putting it.

Lee: [00:08:20] There you go. Yeah.

Leland: [00:08:20] Or discovered that there was actually maybe some work to be done with this whole spice smelling right talent of mine.

Lee: [00:08:27] Put that to work.

Leland: [00:08:28] That's right. So [00:08:30] in the summers I worked on a farm, worked on a ranch, helped run some farmer's markets in DC and just was slowly and steadily building both an interest and an understanding of how the food system was put together. [00:08:43] My first job out of college was at Fresh Direct, which is a big, well, I think really the first mover in the eCommerce Grocery biz.

Lee: [00:08:55] Yeah. Definitely.

Leland: [00:08:57] And I hooked up with them in a really exciting time where they were... They'd been around for maybe 10 years, but people were just starting to get used to ordering things online and specifically, ordering food online really was a novel idea, but they were growing like crazy. And so I was the local and organic produce buyer at Fresh Direct, which was a pretty cool gig.

Lee: [00:09:23] Yeah, that sounds pretty cool. So what is it like to be a buyer? So you were on the other end basically of where you are in a way, like on the other side of the table?

Leland: [00:09:32] Totally. Yeah, it's a helpful, helpful background. You know, I've got to kind of speak the lingo. Yeah, I mean, it was cool, I was like twenty two. Didn't know anything, But had a lot of control over what was for sale on Fresh Direct, which is like really exciting for me at the time. And it's now sort of informative as we think about who the decision makers are at the places we are trying to sell into. It's like probably a 22 year old who just one good phone call might unlock a pretty big new account. So, yeah, to the good I could tune in to a local farm that I was really excited about and work the system and get them set up as a vendor and put them for sale on Fresh Direct and really kind of like transform the zucchini sales for a New Jersey zucchini farm or bring in some spinach that I thought was like the most delicious spinach I'd ever tried from some little place in western Mass or something like that. So, yeah, that was like a really exciting part of the job. And it also made it clear that the incentives to a buyer in that position are intentioned with exciting projects, like launching a new small farm on a site like Fresh Direct. So what made my job was like everything arrives on time. Everything's super well documented. Every zucchini is the same size that we don't have to scrap any of it, because it's all totally uniform. That's just not how it works to run a small farm. And so you kind of take on some risk and some complexity by gambling on a little farm you're excited about instead of buying by the pallet load from a huge commodity farm in California. So that was like a little light bulb. Parked that in the in the memory bank, like there's some structural stuff here working against small players and small farms.

Lee: [00:11:52] Interesting. Yeah. So what happened after Fresh Direct? Where were you? What did you do next?

Leland: [00:11:58] Yeah. So the first thing that happened after Fresh Direct was I decided that I really didn't like living in the big city. So I drove to Alaska and worked out Salmon Boat for a while.

Lee: [00:12:08] Wow. Alaska.

Leland: [00:12:11] Alaska. Yeah.

Lee: [00:12:12] Sounds very cold. So what was it like being in Alaska? I mean, I don't even think I've met or talked to anybody who's even ever been there, to be honest.

Leland: [00:12:21] Well, it's big place. So I'm going to bungle this and do not have the data in front of me. But it's something like it's like most of the eastern US or at least the north, it's like as big as the northeast, at least, possibly bigger. So super northern Alaska is frozen all the time. I was in very southeast Alaska. So it's like basically like a cold rain forest.

Lee: [00:12:47] Wow. Was it literally like snowing all the time? I feel like it's like a sheets of ice everywhere. You see polar bears walking around.

Leland: [00:12:56] No it's more like a... Picture really, really middle of frickin nowhere Seattle. Like it's more like the Pacific Northwest where I was. So I was like a four hour boat ride from like a grocery store. We'll keep it tight here on the Alaska portion. But it's one of the few truly sustainable fisheries in the world. Really heavily regulated it. And also lots and lots of very small producers, or fishermen, you know, that are reliant on the commodity market. So you could go out in your little skiff and you catch a thousand pounds of salmon. The buyer is like Trident Seafood, which is playing this big commodity market. So if both like really cool kind of adventuresome... I grew like a crazy beard.

Lee: [00:13:47] You know, you got into character. Like full on. You're on the boat... Sounds so cold.

Leland: [00:13:52] I was doing the whole thing, just shaking Brooklyn off of my skin. But it was another like little small light bulb. These fishermen are working so hard, doing a really complicated, tricky job to harvest these salmon, and one summer, the price per pound of Coho salmon might drop to like 15 percent of what it was last year because there's some glut in the market in China. Some of these, like global forces really hit home in a small fishery. So anyway, I got my yayas out, got out of Brooklyn, grew my beard, shaved it off, got a nice little education in another corner of the food system, and then came back to Brooklyn, just came back.

Lee: [00:14:45] What made you come back? You're like, this beard's not working for me anymore. Maybe it's a little cold.

Leland: [00:14:50] I came back and everybody had a beard. I should have just stuck with it.

Lee: [00:14:54] Right, you fit right in. The hipster movement was there.

Leland: [00:14:58] Yeah, it was up and honkin big time.

Lee: [00:15:00] What year is this?

Leland: [00:15:02] 2015.

Lee: [00:15:04] Yeah, that's like prime hipster time.

Leland: [00:15:08] Prime. They were taken over. The real answer is, is kind of twofold. One was having been that isolated in remote in Alaska, I got this really deep appreciation for being close to the people that I loved, and so many of them were in the Northeast. So I just wanted to be around my people. But also, I had developed a pretty good network, having worked at Fresh Direct, of people in the food industry, and so it was just where the job opportunities that I was excited about were happening. So I came back and joined what was at the time a tiny company called Happy Valley Meat, which is the sustainable, super ethical, transparent meat wholesaler. So we'd buy cattle from just beautiful, great little farms in Pennsylvania and sell them to the fanciest restaurants in the city. So there had been two co-founders. One of them had quit. So it was just me and the Founder for a couple of years after that.

Lee: [00:16:21] Yeah, felt like a Co-Founder, huh?

Leland: [00:16:23] Yeah. Felt like a Co-Founder. My sweet little company. It was just like, from a values perspective, a completely unimpeachable business, just the meat was unbelievable, we were paying well above market. Like I mentioned with the salmon fisherman, same deal with with cattle. Like you're really kind of riding the market price of the cattle you raise. They spend two years raising a cow. Turns out it's worth half as much as you thought when you got it started. And we could pay a consistent rate here every year above market price and really like encourage these farmers to keep doing the good things they were doing to keep the cattle happy and the meat tasty.

Lee: [00:17:12] But they're still killing them at like two years old basically? That's like the lifespan.

Leland: [00:17:17] That's what they do.

Lee: [00:17:18] Yeah, I think it's funny because a lot of people think like, oh, yeah, they just kill the cows when they're like old and gray. It's like, no they're kind of babies.

Leland: [00:17:25] Yeah, they're big babies. They're like a thousand pound babies.

Lee: [00:17:32] Right. They look big. Yeah. That's like when they just, I guess, hit their stride and how big they're going to get. And they just hit that mark. And it's like, all right, time to get you.

Leland: [00:17:42] Time to eat you. Yeah.

Lee: [00:17:43] Time to get it.

Leland: [00:17:44] But, it was a cool... I got a lot of thoughts about the meat industry.

Lee: [00:17:49] So do I.

Leland: [00:17:49] But it was very cool to be like that intimately involved in a scrappy early business that was really values driven. That was a quick education in, on a team that small, everybody does a little bit of everything, which I really dug. And every day was a little different. I was officially the sales guy. So did a lot of like, you know, sneaking into the service door in restaurants, trying to get a sous chef to stand still long enough to find a new meat vendor. But also, you know, you kind of touch every little part of the business. So that was really exciting. And then another little kind of like park it in the back of my mind for when it's ultimately time to start my own thing. [00:18:33].. There was a really like live and interesting tension between staying completely committed to like really strict set of rules and values and ethics and growing quickly.  [00:18:48]

Lee: [00:18:48] In the meat industry? I mean, with the meat company?

Leland: [00:18:52] Yeah, with the meat company. But I think in general, the Happy Valley Meat in sense scaled quite a bit, but not compromising on extremely rigorous vetting process for a new farm, for instance. Really just made for like slow, incremental year over year growth, which was one way to run a business, but I found myself kind of like impatient for this to really scale and get big and grow, and for some portion of the values that were the fundamentals for that business to have some weight and leverage that could up the variety that you really only get once it's a bigger company.

Lee: [00:19:47] Take aways and learnings along the way. Super important. Yeah. And so what happened? I mean, that sounds like an incredible insight. You know, you're kind of like the right hand man there to the Co-Founder. And that's really incredible insights in building a company. You get to see a lot and do a lot. Is that kind of where you got the bug to start your own thing, like, hey, I want to do this, too?

Leland: [00:20:06] Yeah, I think, you know, I had the from the Spice filing days, a little bit of like, eventually I'm going to get my own thing off the ground. But yeah, that experience really did make me feel both like, oh I see how this works. I see how somebody can put together a real functioning, grown up business. And also if I'm going to do this, it's much more exciting to do it according to my own appetites and disposition and ambition for scale and growth. So, yeah, got the bug. And also got the kind of confidence from that role to say like, all right, I can handle something like that. Yeah.

Lee: [00:20:54] For some people, including myself, it really is so helpful to kind of see how it looks first and then be like, oh yeah, I can do that too. I mean, I have a similar story with starting my company WearAway. I had the idea and I was like, I really want to do this, but I actually don't know if I can pull this off. Like I've never even... I don't even know any entrepreneurs, you know. And so I ended up, you know, getting an associate role in an accelerator here in Los Angeles, like basically begging for the job and telling the guy, like, "Listen, I'll show up on Monday. If you hate me, you can send me home. I'm going to work for free. Just let me in here. I'm going to do as much as I can to help out. And I just want to learn and provide value."

Leland: [00:21:33] I love it. That's some good hustle.

Lee: [00:21:34] Oh yeah. I'm full of freakin hustle stories over here. But you know, this is your time, not mine. But anyways. Yeah, but so I got the job, you know, after proving myself quite a bit. But I got to see other entrepreneurs in this accelerator and I was like, wow, these are amazing Founders. They're cold calling. They're doing all this stuff I've done like 10 years ago. This is amazing. This is who I am. I'm an entrepreneur. Wow. I'm going to go start this now. You know? So it's just that little boost of confidence, I think, that putting yourself in the right environment can provide. That's crucial. And it really can move the needle. So actually, to anybody listening, if you're nervous or if you're thinking about starting a company or doing something, get a job at a startup super early, get into an environment where you can see other entrepreneurs or join communities where you can talk to other Founders and start understanding and getting that insight. And you'll build that confidence, I think, fairly quickly.

Leland: [00:22:27] Definitely. And there was a moment there where I'm like, do I need to go to business school?

Lee: [00:22:31] I think everybody asked that? Right? Because you think you have to.

Leland: [00:22:34] Totally.

Lee: [00:22:34] It's like I must need some kind of prerequisite, you know, certification here to run a company and an MBA sounds like a good thing. Did you end up doing that or what path did you take?

Leland: [00:22:47] No, I did not do that.

Lee: [00:22:49] Yeah, I mean, I dropped out of college and my bachelors, I didn't even finish that, but definitely not needed. Not needed.

Leland: [00:22:56] No, not needed. Yeah. I mean, that's where I shook out was like I left that neat job, I was like, alright, I'm game for something. Where do I put this drive? And for me, luckily... Well, I guess I'll say two things. One was by the time I sort of gotten my teeth into an idea for a business, the decision between like, should I go to business school first or just jump in the cold water here and figure it out. Felt in that moment like, well, I could pay a bunch of money to write, learn some indeterminate thing, or I could just get my ass in the cold water and not go into debt and get a crazy education in the meantime, whether this achieves liftoff or not.

Lee: [00:23:47] Oh my gosh. Yeah, I have to say, I'm very strongly opinionated about this. I think that starting a company is enormously valuable. I mean, obviously, I can't compare it to an MBA because I haven't gone to get that yet. But I definitely think that you learn so much through the experience that I can't imagine how you can be taught that in school. I really don't know, because the experiencing it yourself is just so different than reading it in a book.

Leland: [00:24:12] Totally. And I mean, this maybe putting the cart in front of the horse, but the among the central experiences of running Slow Up for me has been this like constant context switching all day long. Like you're a marketer in the morning, and then you're balancing the books and then you're a sales guy and then you're like trying to build a management structure. Are we using the right platform to handle our task? Is very hard to imagine getting and building that muscle in business school.

Lee: [00:24:45] Yeah, it's a muscle, you're right. That's a really interesting way to put it. It's definitely a muscle. And you don't really get the exercise that. It's like reading about the muscle. It's like reading about going to the gym and the benefits or just get your ass in the gym.

Leland: [00:24:57] I wish that shit would work. Read about the gym.

Lee: [00:25:01] Can I just lose weight reading about working out instead of just doing it?

Leland: [00:25:05] Yeah. So the other thing that really was helpful and we'll hit the Slow Up chapter here now.

Lee: [00:25:16] Yeah.

Leland: [00:25:17] My college roommate, while I had been meandering around the food system, he had been a consultant working for some of the biggest food companies in the country. So he worked on projects for Pepsi, Kraft, and some of these other huge CPG companies and was in a similar moment in his life, kind of ready to get something off the ground. Getting curious. Getting kind of fired up about starting his own thing. And having his background made me feel a lot more confident that where I was thin around, like no idea how fundraising works... Consumer strategy... What is that? Had not really touched brand before. So finding a Co-Founder who really was thick where I was thin...

Lee: [00:26:14] And he was your roommate from Yale?

Leland: [00:26:15] Yeah, he was. We met each other like a week into Yale and had been buddies, you know, have been buddies ever since. But yeah, first, maybe five days. And he's a big dog. He's a seven foot tall vegetarian with big hair and a beard. He's very easy to spot. And yes, old friend. But had traveled down a path that wound up being a really good kind of yen to my yang in that moment.

Lee: [00:26:44] Complementary skills. That's great.

Leland: [00:26:48] Totally.

Lee: [00:26:48] Yeah, that definitely helps. When you can fill holes early on in the process of building a company, it definitely builds confidence just in general.

Leland: [00:26:57] Yeah. Big time.

Lee: [00:26:57] So how did you come up with the idea?

Leland: [00:27:01] The first idea was like, I want to start something here.

Lee: [00:27:04] Right.

Leland: [00:27:04] And then the second idea really started from some conversations with Jeremiah, my Co-Founder. We were excited about starting a food company and kind of batting around smelling for an opportunity, and both of us really felt like there's something in snacking, like there's some room in that category to improve. And that really came from this conviction we both had that we were really excited about what we could make or buy at meal time. Like healthy... We're both like not fitness freaks, but just try to live past 60.

Lee: [00:27:54] But close. Yeah. {laughter}

Leland: [00:27:58] And you can get like a really delicious, thoughtfully prepared, healthy lunch and both living in Brooklyn, like just fall out the front door, and there's some great options there. But in between meals I was living on fistfuls of almonds and hummus, and he's like, you know, enormous vegetarian. So it's hard to feed that engine, period, but, protein bars and eggs that only go so far.

Lee: [00:28:28] That's funny. I'm vegetarian, by the way.

Leland: [00:28:31] Nice. Yeah. Well, so you know some of the struggle. Imagine if you were twice as big as you are.

Lee: [00:28:36] Yeah, I got to pack in the calories.

Leland: [00:28:37] You gotta think about food all day long. Yeah. For sure.

Lee: [00:28:40] Yeah. Yeah.

Leland: [00:28:42] And so [00:28:42] we thought about what is the deal with the distance between how satisfying and exciting meals are and what we're living on in between meals? That's kind of like the initial inkling and then true to kind of consultant form, we went out and interviewed, I think, 200 people about their snacking habits. So had a list of seven or eight questions and got this really validating signal that we were not alone in our dissatisfaction with what was happening between meals. And specifically, we heard over and over again that options that were healthy weren't  tasty, and that options that were tasty weren't particularly healthy, and that everything had too much sugar. A lot of dissatisfaction and the nature of the dissatisfaction was pretty clear. So that smelled like a business to us. [00:29:46]

Lee: [00:29:47] You're like, is this oregano or is this a business? This is a business idea. {laughter}

Leland: [00:29:53] {laughter}

Lee: [00:29:53] Sniffing around.

Leland: [00:29:54] No, this is not oregano. This is the real deal. And so then we quickly got a chef involved, somebody I've known from my kind of previous few days, Caroline. She'd been a restaurant chef for about 10 years. And we started poking around for like how can we break this healthy, tasty compromise in between meals? And one of the... So this is, again, my classic consultant process of like what's the idea? Is there a market opportunity? Like is there a problem we can solve? Yes. Why has this problem not been solved yet? So the answer to that question we found after digging around a little bit was was shelf-life. It's kind of like this is a big theme of what's happening at Slow Up, but a huge amount, like 90-95 percent, of what people are traditionally snacking on is reverse engineered from, if not shelf stability, something very close to shelf stability. So we can maybe dig into this, but this actually ties back into that one of those insights from Fresh Direct that like the incentives for a buyer are uniformity and ease and...

Lee: [00:31:19] Shelf life. All these things that are really...

Leland: [00:31:24] Yeah, right. That aren't about like, is this delicious? Is this healthy? Is this good for the planet? Is this good for somebody's body? It's like, how does this not turn into a headache?

Lee: [00:31:36] Right.

Leland: [00:31:37] And we're like, you know, we're kind of game for that headache. Let's bite off that headache and see if we can create something that's closer to the experience that we get when we sit down with a knife and fork and have a meal. So with with that like, why hasn't it been solved? Shelf-life. We've really felt like we had a business there. And then [00:32:00] we just turned Chef Caroline loose and said, "Make something healthy and delicious that feels like a recipe, not a formula, and feels like it came to you from a chef." [00:32:15] Real food. Yeah. And you can eat a an apple and that's real food in between meals. But for something that's like thoughtfully prepared. It's got some some balance flavors. You do kind of need a chef involved. So that's [00:32:32] the nucleus is that breaking that healthy/tasty compromise, using fresh ingredients like you would at a restaurant or in your own kitchen and coming up with a product that felt like a recipe, not like an extruded lab product. [00:32:51]

Lee: [00:32:51] It really is, too. I mean, so how do you describe it? It's kind of like a quinoa bowl in a bar, basically. Right? It's like a very healthy...

Leland: [00:32:58] Yeah. Nailed it. Nailed it. {laughter}

Lee: [00:32:58] {laughter} No, it is. It's like real food. It's like you don't have... I mean, who has time to make quinoa anyways? And all these important, nutritious veggies? It takes a lot of time to make that. I mean, I certainly don't have time into skipping the meal instead. But this is such a great way to just grab the bar. And there you go. You've got all of these healthy, nutritious vegetables in one thing. And the flavors, you have a pretty interesting. Tell us about the product development process? What was it like trying to come up with those specific flavors that you launched with? And how many iterations did you go through to get to the right recipe?

Leland: [00:33:39] A million is probably an overstatement, but a whole lot. So hopefully we started [00:33:48]... This has been an education for me in not saying like, here's a delicious thing, how do we take it to market? But instead, like, here's a market, how do we make something to address it? [00:33:58] And so we started with that. It's got to be healthy. It's got to be delicious. And you got to be able to eat it like with one hand without spending 45 minutes making quinoa.

Lee: [00:34:07] Right.

Leland: [00:34:08] And that's kind of premise one, and then where we started was like the base, so that all of our bars now, we have eight flavors with a couple more coming down the pike, but they all start with chickpeas, quinoa, nuts, and egg, which is a really nice, neutral, naturally nutrient rich, satisfying, healthy, fat, slow burn carbs, lot of protein in there. But you can take that base and we have sweet flavors and savory flavors. You can start with that and kind of go anywhere. So that was the next stage gate was how do we build a foundation on top of which we can build a lot of beautiful flavors? So we played around with a handful of different formulations, but landed on that that base. And then the quick version is like in the kitchen, had our friends try it. They spit out the first four versions, then they stopped spitting it out. We said, OK, maybe we're in the neighborhood here, and then we got to a place where Caroline really could just turn loose and say, like, here's a dish that I love and I think I can adapt it on top of this base? So maybe it would be helpful to get some flavors in mind. So some of our most popular flavors are Red Pepper Pesto, Poblano Black Bean, and Calabrian Chili Lemon. Those are, of the savory flavors, the ones that people connect most with. So that's like if you take the base and then add fresh basil and roasted red peppers and oregano and rosemary and sea salt and olive oil and things that you would pull out of your pantry and make like a quick, healthy, delicious meal with. That was the initial process.

Lee: [00:36:08] So what happened after that? So you guys realized, ok, we've got these amazing flavors... We're ready to roll... Talk to me about your strategy for going to market. I know you sell online. I know you're also in retailers. You want to tell us a little bit about how all of that kind of came together?

Leland: [00:36:25] Yeah, go to market strategy wise has been a kind of interesting ride. So our the first big bright idea was like the moment in which this problem is the most acute for the consumer who are solving it for is it's like 2:00 pm, you're at your desk and your options are like leave the building, go to Sweet Green, pay 15 bucks, have a salad, come back. Or go raid the office commissary and live on what you find.

Lee: [00:36:59] Just have a bunch of potato chips.

Leland: [00:37:00] Yeah. Yeah. Just yeah. Right. And inhale three Kind bars and then move on to back to a spreadsheet. So we did a couple of like test run trials in offices, and that was I was a big plant, like we're going to launch exclusively in offices, we're going to corner this market, we're going to like really build out the machinery to sell it effectively to offices...

Lee: [00:37:29] And then COVID hit. {laughter}

Leland: [00:37:32] And then effin COVID hit. Yeah. So we got some really good... We'd had about four months in what we now think of as like a trial period. So we were in Facebook and about 50 other big offices in Manhattan, Brooklyn. We were the fastest moving with like no brand awareness, just like park these things in the fridge. See what people do with them. Fasted moving stack at Facebook, fastest moving stack at a bunch of other... Like we're in the top three at all... These people really were clearly connecting.

Lee: [00:38:00] Oh, man. So you like totally proved concept in the workplace.

Leland: [00:38:05] Oh, and I can't tell... We're getting back into this channel. As soon as people start going back to work, which seems like they're trickling in, but the number of bars that get eaten at Facebook in a week is like all the Whole Foods in the northeast. It's like, crazy, crazy volume.

Lee: [00:38:26] Wow.

Leland: [00:38:27] So we're like, oh, my God. We're like, this rocket ship is taking off, baby. And then the pandemic hit. So we're like, OK. {deflated sound}

Lee: [00:38:37] Oh, no.

Leland: [00:38:37] Luckily, we had enough... We had done a round of fundraising to like allow us to take the product to market, had enough flexibility from a cash perspective to like take a breath, throw a tarp over the company, see what happens next.

Lee: [00:38:51] {laughter} Let the storm come through.

Leland: [00:38:55] We'd take a nap. You know, try to figure out whether... Anyway. You know, like April 2020 was a heady month.

Lee: [00:39:04] Yeah.

Leland: [00:39:05] And then where we landed was the problem is that, I like to say like same problem, different fridge. That's where we landed. So people weren't going to work anymore. But still, there were like three weeks there where everybody is making quinoa every day and like cooking salmon out of a cookbook for lunch and totally living on this, making sourdough...

Lee: [00:39:27] But I imagine with everybody... Right. Right. People are like cooking at home. But I also think that there must have been, and I'm sure you discovered this, that people working from home and watching their kids at the same time, they actually don't have any time to cook anything. There's definitely a segment for that.

Leland: [00:39:44] Yeah, we got this great, a few months in to having launched, the quick version is that we launched DTC. That was the channel strategy switch. We got this great email from one of our customers who said, like, "I barely have time to pee, let alone make lunch. So this is a godsend." So, you know, we found like, yeah, people are still sick of doing dishes, don't have enough time to make something healthy and tasty and are raiding their home pantry instead of the office commissary. And still like it's cold leftovers or potato chips. So we pivoted to direct to consumer. Took us through the summer into the early fall of last year to just get that stood up. You know, same product, same problems and consumer. Completely different business.

Lee: [00:40:39] Yeah. Distribution. Yeah.

Leland: [00:40:40] In every other way. Distribution and instead of trying to sell to an office manager, we're now running digital ads. How do we optimize our digital advertising? We switched to a new manufacturer. So a lot of big switches there, officially launched the company, Slow Up as it exists now, last October. So having done the switch, set up the DTC business, figured out how to run an online food company, launched in October, and since then have been focused on DTC, but in the last couple of months, we really think that the future for us is in retail.

Lee: [00:41:27] Right.

Leland: [00:41:27] Which again, is like a pretty brand new supply chain. We've had to kind of rebuild the machine again.

Lee: [00:41:35] Absolutely. And I know you guys are in 50 independent retailers, mostly in the New York area you mentioned, and also in Fairway. What was it like? Now you're really at the other side of the table. You're trying to sell into these grocery stores. What has your experience been and any insights you have now that you're the Founder?

Leland: [00:41:53] Yeah. I've kind of cheated and hired a killer sales guy, so we spent a lot of effort laying the sort of operational groundwork to be ready to serve retail. But you just can't... I have found the speed to scale is just way quicker with somebody with relationships. So his name is Dave, and he's the killer. He's a sweetheart, but he had worked and been in the food industry for like 20 years, had run sales for another refrigerated bar company, which is like...

Lee: [00:42:42] Wow, there's another one?

Leland: [00:42:44] There's like five of them in the world, so it's a total unicorn snag.

Lee: [00:42:48] Wow. Unicorn snag. That's good. What is it like selling in the refrigerator department as a bar? You know, are retailers like, "Where do we put you in the store?"

Leland: [00:43:07] There are two answers there. One is that Perfect Bar has done us a big service by kind of establishing the fact of a refrigerated bar, so super quick shorthand is like wherever you put the Perfect Bar, that's where we belong.

Lee: [00:43:24] Oh, that's nice. They paved the way for you. It's funny because it sometimes really pays a lot of dividends to not be first to market, because then you get to ride the tail of what was before you.

Leland: [00:43:37] Yeah, totally. Honestly, I have not yet like called the Perfect Bar people to thank them.

Lee: [00:43:45] Give them a shout out right now.

Leland: [00:43:47] There you go. If you're listening, Perfect Bar. Thank you so much. Because they're both... They established the category, so buyers have some familiarity with like, OK, it's a refrigerated bar. We've got some data on velocity. We've got some understanding of where it goes in the store. Also Perfect Bar got bought for an enormous amount of money, which has helped us on the fundraising side to say like, some people made this work big time.

Lee: [00:44:12] Yeah, it worked. Look.

Leland: [00:44:14] Totally. But, you know, so again, like going back to my kind of buyer days, the dual incentives are like, what can we do to make this refrigerator more exciting? Like what can we do to delight our customers with something they've never seen before, solving a problem that is as yet unsolved? That's a big part of the mandate. And then the other part is like, how do I avoid the headache? So what we're working on and logging some big wins is how do we make it like the most exciting, delightful opportunity and kind of shrink the headache? It's early days in retail, so we're still figuring out exactly what's clicking and connecting. But running a bunch of these independent retailers are like a really cool test for us to say over here we're in the produce section and we're at $3.99, and we've got this kind of shelf hanging around over here...

Lee: [00:45:16] So you guys are in different places in different grocery stores? Is that we were saying that the bar kind of fits in multiple places?

Leland: [00:45:23] Yeah. So, you know, home base is, like I say, right next to the Perfect Bar, which is like they grab and go cooler where there are some beverages and there's some bars. And maybe like in the bottom there's cut sandwiches and chicken salad and that kind of thing. But  [00:45:41]we really think of ourselves, despite riding on the refrigerated bar coattails, as creating a new category. It's an unfamiliar product that really only resembles a bar in its shape, really not in its experience. And so getting creative around where we belong in the grocery store and who the right buyer is and who the right distributors are is part of the project. [00:46:12] And so we're really excited about the produce section actually. There's, you know, no bars in there now, but it really does feel like a more natural home for us. This is what the bars are made of is what they're like surrounded by in the produce section.

Lee: [00:46:28] And once it's in the produce section, it's like full circle for you. Right? {laughter}

Leland: [00:46:32] Right back. That's right. Right back where I belong. Totally.

Lee: [00:46:36] That's great. So what has been one of the biggest challenges that you faced in building this company and how have you overcome it?

Leland: [00:46:45] Yeah, there's a couple. The ongoing biggest challenge is our shelf life. So we're a, it's fresh. And like I say, a lot of the industry is structured as there's a real headwind against...

Lee: [00:46:58] Right. What is the shelf life?

Leland: [00:47:01] Two and a half weeks.

Lee: [00:47:03] Oh, wow. Yeah, that's pretty tough. Well, then it makes sense and then produce, right?

Leland: [00:47:06] That's the plan. Yeah, that's it. You know, we're doing all we can to move that. You know, every day matters, so we're working on that, but  [00:47:22]we like to say good food goes bad. [00:47:25]

Lee: [00:47:25] Yeah. It's true.

Leland: [00:47:26] It's just the truth if you think about the stuff that naturally lasts months and months in the fridge or out of the fridge, it's really either a nut or something dry. Spaghetti. Or it's packed full of nonsense that makes it artificially last that long.

Lee: [00:47:42] Right.

Leland: [00:47:43] So it both has as unlocked Chef Caroline to say, like just make it delicious. Use whole fresh ingredients. You know, think about the produce section, not the middle of the store, but at each turn, there's a lot of downstream consequences of having a perishable product. So we've overcome it in a dozen little ways and will continue to overcome it in dozens more will always at each turn, whether it's like getting out of the grab and go cooler and focusing on the produce section or finding ways to in a margin positive way deliver these to somebody's house.

Lee: [00:48:33] What advice do you have in terms of fundraising? You know, I think there's so many entrepreneurs that want to start a food company or CPG, and they're like, "I need money. I've got this idea." What advice do you have about the journey and fundraising for an early stage food company?

Leland: [00:48:54] Well, somewhere I heard Peter, the founder of RxBar, tell the story of his really early days. And he went to his dad. He's like, "I got this idea. I'm going to fundraise." And his dad said like, "Sell thousand bars and then come talk to me."

Lee: [00:49:12] Exactly.

Leland: [00:49:12] And that feels really resonate. Like go out there, hustle a little bit, get some of these things made, get your hands dirty, route around in the process. Don't just like call up your 20 richest friends and see if you can shake them down for a little bit of cash.

Lee: [00:49:31] Try to prove it out before you lose everyone's money, you know?

Leland: [00:49:34] Yeah, that's right.

Lee: [00:49:35] Or just I always say do everything you can by yourself or with your Co-Founders until you absolutely need money and you can't move any further because there's so much you can do. Doing a pitch deck is a very small kind of thing you can do on a weekend. You got to like get your hands dirty, like you said, invest your time, invest whatever money you can and just prove it out. Get people to even, you know, like you said, you interview two hundred people. I mean, that's like proving... It's de risking. There's got to be a process of de risking your startup before you ask for money.

Leland: [00:50:07] Totally. And then I think like in dovetailing into that, I will say that my Co-Founder, we raised a couple rounds of capital now. This is a separate story, but he kind of ran the first rounds. And now I've just in the last couple of months have done my my first kind of run around the Mulberry Bush fundraising and something that I've been really grateful for is we have this network of investors that really are excited about the product, get the mission, are understanding that we're trying something really ambitious and new, but I like sleep a lot better at night having made commitments that I really feel like I can keep. And so I like to, in the fundraising department, it's really attractive to say, "We're going to be a hundred billion dollar company in 15 minutes."

Lee: [00:51:07] Tomorrow.

Leland: [00:51:07] Tomorrow. Yeah. And so the like [00:51:09] just not writing a check that your butt can't cash feels like a gift that keeps on giving, both in the kinds of investors that you can attract and in just the middle of the night, wake up anxiety [00:51:24] like "This growth. The hockey stick is not steep enough."

Lee: [00:51:28] "I have this on my investor update this month. What the hell am I going to say?"

Leland: [00:51:32] Yeah, totally.

Lee: [00:51:33] Yeah. Kind of own how you want to grow your business, you're saying, and kind of stick to it. And that will help you attract the right investors that are the right fit instead of trying to compromise and try to attract investors that probably aren't the right fit just for the sake of getting a check.

Leland: [00:51:49] Right. Yeah. Like [00:51:49] get a handle on the business first and then get a handle on what you think you can deliver, and then take that and make the slide deck. [00:51:58]

Lee: [00:52:00] The deck should be like the last thing, maybe almost. Or you going to making it as you go along I feel like. You're learning along the way and then you kind of can put real numbers down a little bit instead of complete assumptions.

Leland: [00:52:12] Totally. One other quick thing that has been like a continually constructive for us is like starting the conversation really early with potential investors and asking like, "What do you want to see? What would make this feel like a really...?" I love the Daily Harvest story about like, "What do you need to see in this slide deck that would make you chase me out into the parking lot and give me a check in my car?" You know, that like feedback collection from the audience you're going to be courting has been really orienting for us and helps establish... I guess maybe not everybody's listened to every episode here, but that...

Lee: [00:52:53] Of my podcast?

Leland: [00:52:55] Yeah, well, hopefully.

Lee: [00:52:56] Well now they have to. Now they're going to have to go tune in.

Leland: [00:52:59] Dig back through.

Lee: [00:53:01] Dig back through to the Daily Harvest episode with the Founder and CEO. Yes, she's had some amazing advice. So thanks for bringing that up. But yeah, that's exactly what you need to do if your fundraising is ask what they want to see, because it is really kind of different for every business. And it definitely helps guide you as a Founder.

Leland: [00:53:23] And these investors have seen so many more businesses than I have seen. And the reason they want to see these benchmarks hit or these proof points addressed is not arbitrary. It's like these are indicators. These are like whatever the opposite of the canary in the coal mine is.

Lee: [00:53:44] These are indicators of it's working. So come back when you can show us those metrics. Yeah, absolutely. And building that relationship, like you mentioned, is extremely important before you need to ask for a check to start building that relationship and making sure it's a good fit for yourself as well as them. Because you don't ever really meet someone for the first time and you're like, "Hey, you want to write a check like today? Right now?" You know, and that's not really works.

Leland: [00:54:09] Yeah, I haven't met one yet. I'm looking for them. I'm ready for that person to wander into my life.

Lee: [00:54:15] Yeah. But I think that's almost kind of the misconception of fundraising in a lot of ways, is that especially in the early days, it's just all they're investing in you as a Founder, more so than a lot of other aspects of your business. And so, yeah, they have to get to know you and you have to build that credibility with them and that trust. And that really comes with time. And it comes with sending updates about the business and what you've been able to accomplish so that they're like, "Wow, I really want to back this person. I think they're going somewhere. And I really like what they're doing. I like market size. I like all these other aspects." But it really starts with you as the Co-Founder or Founder. Well, so do you have any, before we wrap up here, what's next for Slow Up? What can we expect to see coming out next?

Leland: [00:54:58] Yeah, well, intergalactic domination. that's what's next.

Lee: [00:55:03] Nice. I love the ambition.

Leland: [00:55:04] Ok, we're really like kind of neck deep in learning about retail right now. So we're very focused on learning and growing in our backyard. So we're Brooklyn based. It's really valuable for me to be able to like roll out the front door and go check on the bars in a store and talk to people who are buying them.

Lee: [00:55:27] How cool is it to see your bar in a store, though?

Leland: [00:55:30] It's so cool. It's so cool. It's like I invented a sports team and people are now wearing the jersey.

Lee: [00:55:44] Right. That's a funny way of putting it.

Leland: [00:55:44] But it's so cool and so fun. So really what's next is in the New York metro market, we're going to be on more and more and more shelves. We're also launching some new exciting... The DTC business continues to rock and grow. And so we're really like working on buzz building in the New York metro market and just adding doors and adding shelves. We're launching at Fairway, which for people who live in the city is a familiar name, big win for us. We've got a big kind of multi pronged promotional thing. We're doing our first like out of... This will also feel really cool in real life to go see like a poster on the sidewalk. Doing a bunch of marketing and promotion around that launch. So that's the most immediate one. And then we also have some exciting, to be announced. chef collaborations. One of the cool things that we can do with our product that I think is really unique is we can take like a restaurant dish, like an iconic favorite dish at a familiar restaurant, and turn it into a bar because, you know, we can treat like a recipe, not like a formula.

Lee: [00:57:08] Right. That's pretty cool.

Leland: [00:57:08] So some of those are rolling out.

Lee: [00:57:12] That's awesome. So what final advice, I guess, do you have for any entrepreneurs kind of tuning in, thinking about starting a business?

Leland: [00:57:22]  [00:57:22]You just got to jump in the cold water. I think that's the big advice. Hard to feel prepared, and with a little bit of the benefit of hindsight, pretty impossible to be prepared unless you've done it before. So just send it. And then the other thing that I think is really helping me stay sturdy and joyful and connected to the rest of the team is recognizing that like there's always another hill to climb. Another problem to solve. Problems shift or grow or shrink, but they don't disappear. So once you've jumped in, recognizing that you just got to get comfortable in that, like there's always another hill to climb. [00:58:13]

Leland: [00:58:13] I think if you love the game Whack a Mole, you'll be a really great entrepreneur.

Leland: [00:58:18] Totally. Or if you've got a real like, stick your fingers in the dike. Keep the flood at bay inclination.

Lee: [00:58:25] Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Leland, for being on the show today. I really appreciate your time in sharing your story.

Leland: [00:58:32] Yeah, thanks for having me.

Lee: [00:58:36] 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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