In this new series from CloudAdvisors, we explore culture and strategy from the point of view of small business leaders in Canada. You can watch the entire series here.
Today we sat down with Navita Verma, the founder and CEO of Nuleena Foods, an Ontario-based customizable spice subscription service. Nuleena Foods focuses on sustainability, and with 60% sustainable packaging, the company aims to reduce food waste while helping consumers pack more flavour into their meals. You can learn more about Nuleena Foods at their website here.
Founder and CEO of Nuleena Foods, Navita Verma, CAPM, CSM, Introduces her Background and Business Model:
Tell us more about your past experience, and what your business is about.
I’ll start with myself, my name is Navita. My background is in market research and project management. I had the opportunity to work at some of the larger corporations and I think some of those experiences have actually led me to jump into kind of where I am today. So I was at a place where I was kind of evaluating what I wanted to do, why I wanted to to it and kind of the reasoning behind it. Not sure how the company truly came to be, but it happened and it happened at a moment. I think part of it for me was kind of this self awakening where I was trying to buy an item and I couldn’t find it.
By ethnicity I am Indian and there are a lot of condiments available online but very few that make cooking really easy and I find condiments are sometimes very daunting for people. You go in the condiment aisle, there’s a bunch of stuff, and often what happens is people either don’t know how to use it or don’t know how much to buy, or don’t know what the usage will be like and a similar experience applies in the online space. The prices are quite high, there’s a limited number of offerings, you pick some stuff up, you finally get it, but you still feel lost in the dark and don’t know what to do.
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That's kind of how the company started - being on amazon one day, not being able to find anything, and for me it really got me to think about the larger problem. So in the condiment space what happens is you've purchased, lets say, Rahul wants to make donuts one day, and you need nutmeg base, and four or five different ingredients, and now he's got a stock of these ingredients. Or, at most what he could do is maybe he's going to order a meal kit. And even meal kits are not very effective because you don't get to truly decide what you want right. You get pre prepped orders and you can choose from those pre prepped orders and Rahul can go out and purchase what’s on the shelves and he can get a large stock of ingredients, and I don't really think that's a solution.
For us I think the solution is that we want to have some kind of food customization to help stop food waste and part of it is really getting people to acknowledge what you need and what you are going to use, and hopefully not throw away. What we're doing in the condiment space and what we're working on in the subscription space, is if you can give us some inputs on what you want to use, your frequency of what you're going to be consuming, we basically do an output and tell you the products that of what products you're going to need. You tell us dishes, for example, and we’ll customize those quantities and kind of pump out this little output from this input that you’ve given us.
So that’s our subscription model and that’s what the company is looking to do. So in short and simple, we want to create a system for food customization where people are purchasing only what they need. This on one hand reduces food waste, and two you're not going to have stale products sitting in your pantry. And pantries are often very tricky - when you have an apple on your shelf, you know [when] that [apple is] rotten, [and] hopefully you're not going to eat it. But it's not so simple when it comes to condiment products. What happens is either the oils have died out, or have become very still. And very few people can actually evaluate that. And that's why I think it's actually just as important to evaluate fresh products in this case, which maybe we don't truly acknowledge just by looking at the product itself.
So right now what we're doing is we've launched our retail line, we’re focusing on expansion and growing that and getting that across different retail shelves across Canada right now. On that side, we're really working on that subscription build which is our key piece. Currently starting with condiments, we're looking to get into sauces and then also exploring a few different avenues which we’re currently evaluating right now but that's really for us the high level. So with our products we typically will touch on the three big pieces, one being small batch production, so products are produced in small batches which means you’re getting a fresher product, two being the eco friendly component and piece of it. That means from an operations standpoint and packaging standpoint, we're making sure we’re finding the most eco friendly options. We also, at the end of the year, invest an amount to offset our emissions that we may have produced in that year. And then the last piece of it really for us is product focus, so that means we want to be catering to everybody’s flavours and their different pallets, so we're focusing on ready to use products and also just a variation of products. Especially when we're in this multicultural world, I think it's very important to cover those different palettes and what those peoples' needs are.
Listen to Navita Discuss Nuleena Foods' Approach to Sustainability, Culture, and Upcoming Strategy:
Why is sustainability important to you?
I think for me a big fundamental to how we built this business model is this component that we don’t want food waste, it’s not just about providing this ultimate product. What they say in the food space is that at the end of the day the consumer is just purchasing the product, so in short and simple in our case the consumer wants condiments, they’re looking for tumeric or what not, so you can’t deter away from the idea that the consumer wants the product.
For us you know, sustainability is important and it’s part of the business model and the product itself is a sustainability piece. For me it’s something that matters to me personally and that’s why it’s part of the organization more so organically, but is something everybody should be working towards. We can only play our part, and you can see some movement and you can see some change from some of the larger companies as well and I think that’s the right mindset. For example, our packaging is currently about 60% eco-friendly and we’re working towards increasing that number more and more. It’s all a process.
Who is vital to helping you achieve your company vision?
Not directly answering your question, but I will say when it comes to a vision, sometimes as an entrepreneur you go about exploring what that vision is for you. Sometimes it’s not so set and clear. You know what you want to know and you know how you want to do it, but sometimes you don’t really get that vision statement down on paper.
To be honest for me it was something that was very very challenging. It took different attempts working on the value proposition and saying, what am I really trying to do? I think that’s probably the hardest piece of it all. You can figure out as many logistics, as many pieces as you want in the CPG space for us, but understanding what your real vision is or what your real purpose is is very very challenging.
So in terms of how this came to be, I’m very fortunate to have, one of the first things I had done was gone and looked for support. So starting some basic workshops through different programs, going and looking for mentorship and getting support, I think these are things that are very important and often get underrated.
We don’t want to bug people or annoy them or whatnot and that’s definitely not the right mindset. There’s so many people that want to help us and we just need to ask. I think that ask piece is so important. Some of the programs that have been very helpful, you know giving shoutouts, the first program I started with was Axis community capital. That was the first ever program that really got me to think about the business, you know what am I doing here?
After that, we’re currently part of Y space and then we’re currently part of Edge and IQ, but all have been a really really important role for us to really understand, what is this vision, how are we going to do it, and so on. Honestly the vision statement is the hard one, I rethink it all the time. Not because we’re changing what we are and what we want to achieve at the end, but understanding that your means may change and that mission statement may be changing frequently sometimes.
How do you think creating company culture drives an organization’s success?
I think culture’s quite an important piece because, going back to what I kind of just said before, what frequently I find happens is that we get so caught up in our work, but never really understand. I think culture is that one piece that really holds people together. And it holds people not only for the values of the company, but holds people together in the elements of who we are, what are we looking to do, and how are we going to do it. I think that culture piece really comes together and really holds that community of people together.
That’s kind of my thought process around it, and actually I think culture building is something we’re actually currently working on right now. Because we’re just a small team, we’re only four right now, we’re continuously working on, well what is our culture and how do we build it? If that’s something we need to do, or potentially is our culture something that’s going to come out on its own and give our team some sort of direction for what we want to do and how we stand? That’s definitely one piece that we’re still working on but I think [culture] hopefully needs to be your vision, your values, your mission, driving that culture and how your team is going to work together as a group.
what are your goals for the next two quarters?
Right now we’re a business that’s heavily driven by sales, so pretty aggressive in terms of expansion, so that piece is really important. We’re also working on growing our sales team as well. We’re also working on our subscription offering which would probably come out by the end of the year, and then we’re also launching another product that we’re planning to take to shelf which is basically mini subscription kits that you can actually purchase at a grocery store right now. So although you’ll not get a fully customized piece, you can get a partially customized option at the grocery store so you’re not overpurchasing. I guess those are the goals for the year, not even the next two quarters.
how do you plan to attract new hires with similar company values?
Yeah so we’ve got our core company values that I think are very important and matter to us. That piece is very important to me but I still have a very interesting way of evaluating candidates. I simply don’t look at resumes to be honest. I look at the first batch of candidates that have gone through some sort of approval from our HR person right now, and it’s just about having a conversation really and understanding them as a fit because I truly believe anyone can do anything.
Everybody initially is going to be having a point where they’ve never done something before and in fairness you go through this everyday learning curve where you need to pick up something new. Aside from our values, we evaluate just beyond someone’s actual potential and their actual drive and hunger for what they want to achieve.
what advice do you have for entrepreneurs entering the sustainability space?
Actually when we were looking into our packaging it was so challenging evaluating it because there’s no clear cut answer to packaging that is sustainable for example. We had quite a tough time doing that evaluation for us, so I would say really start by doing your own research then hopefully connect with an expert that can help you evaluate that. I think that’s probably my best idea. I spent a lot of time watching videos and workshops as well that have helped me get an understanding of that, and I think that space itself is evolving so much. So I can only speak for the food sector in particular but a lot of information is coming out and you just need to get a hold of it at that point.
Rahul: I think there’s some good bits of wisdom there. When you were doing your evaluation – are you talking about being able to audit the supply chain?
We have somebody externally that actually does that for us, so not sure particularly how that takes place but that’s definitely one way you can approach it. With offsetting our carbon emissions for example, we actually have somebody externally who does that so that may be your best bet sometimes. It may be important to get an expert involved and not only from a sustainability piece, but in general I think in a lot of businesses what happens is you waste so much time doing these tedious small things, where maybe it’s worthwhile bringing in an expert to take that piece over and get it done right the first time.
Since CloudAdvisors values food too, what is your favourite food?
It just turns out my favourite food does not have that many spices and I’m actually not sure how it is made. So my favourite food is poutine somehow. I don’t know why, I’m not sure why I’m fond of it but I guess I really like the concept of cheese, potatoes and gravy. How do you make poutine? To be honest it’s not an item I’ve made at home. You’ve challenged me, I need to go look this up and then let you know what those products are but that’s my favourite dish.