When you’ve achieved product market fit, it’s easy to assume similar growth will follow in other countries. That’s not always the case according to Entrepreneur Shelby Taylor, who saw an opportunity to expand her Collingwood, Ontario-based business Chickapea Pasta into the US in 2017. “I don't think entering the US so early, or even at all, is the right move for some brands, especially given the cost, but it was the right time for Chickapea—we had to execute,” said Taylor.
While under the cohort III program with District Ventures in 2017, Chickapea Pasta—made of organic chickpeas and lentils—increased sales, expanded distribution in the US, and launched a second pasta product, which is currently sold in about 2,600 stores across North America. In a recent conversation, Taylor told us why she knew it was the right time to expand the business, the challenges she still faces every day, and why continually making your product the best keeps a business competitive:
Why did you think it was necessary to break into the US?
Market timing and the competitive landscape. Pulse-based pasta was a new category, if you could even call it a category at the time, and we had a huge opportunity for accelerated growth. If we had have waited, it would have been much more difficult to get the placement we have today. I don't think entering the US so early, or even at all, is the right move for some brands, especially given the cost, but it was the right time for Chickapea—we had to execute.
How did you test whether the U.S. could be a growth market?
We should have done more testing than we did. All we did was a ton of market research, tracked the growth of the couple of young competitors, and presented the concept to a handful of industry experts for their feedback.
We also sold on Amazon for some time before launching into retail, and we saw a great need and positive response. What works for Chickapea is that it's a familiar food: pasta. It's made from different, healthier ingredients—all research points to people looking for healthier alternatives to the foods they already enjoy. We believed it would be accepted more easily and for the most part, we were right.
What challenges do you face?
We face challenges every week, if not every day. One of our biggest challenges in the US is the lengthy timelines of many retailers. Sometimes we have to wait for a category review for a retailer to consider our product and even if they decide to list it, it may not get on the shelves for many months. This makes it challenging to forecast sales and plan inventory, which always impacts cash flow.
The US is enormous with many markets, so it can be challenging to focus marketing spend and support in the right places, especially when getting started. If it makes sense for a brand, it would be smart to expand by region rather than going national out of the gate.
We’ve been able to navigate the market by partnering with the right sales teams nationally and regionally - people who know the industry and have the necessary relationships with buyers to make it happen. We work closely with these teams to understand what's happening with each account; we set targets, provide support, and help each other grow.
In 2015, non-GMO food and beverages generated $200B in sales in the US; at this time Chickapea’s business was quickly growing. What keeps your company competitive in such an active market?
I've never understood creating something without the desire to make it the best. Have you been to a breakfast restaurant and had poorly cooked eggs? This blows my mind. From day one I knew I wanted to offer a product that only had real, simple ingredients. I knew it would always be organic and serve the people that spend their hard-earned dollars on it. We haven't had to change our product, and we'll continue to look for ways to be better.
We recently became a Certified B Corporation and we donate three cents from the sale of every package to feed nutritious lunches to children in need. This is what keeps us competitive; we're in it with our customers, and they can count on us to bring them the best.