AMA Recap: Joyce Guan, founder of Buyer's Best Friend

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.36.26 AM.png

At Local Food Lab, we've officially declared 2014 the year to Start Something Local. As food and farm entrepreneurs and instructors ourselves we know that launching a new startup or career isn't easy, so we're sponsoring a AMA or "Ask Me Anything" series to help out. During these two-hour online chats with a food or farm industry expert on our discussion platform Food Lab News, anyone, anywhere can get answers to their tough questions about the food system.

Last Thursday, February 6th, 2014 we hosted Joyce Guan, Founder and VP of Sales at Buyer's Best Friend, the world’s largest catalog of wholesale specialty and natural products. Buyer's Best Friend has over 10,000 wholesale buyers nationwide, and helps everyone from Whole Foods, Virgin America and Google source the hottest and newest specialty products.

Joyce's AMA explored a wide range of questions from the importance of branding, the GMO debate, how to get your food product onto the shelf by partnering with Buyer's Best Friend as well as her personal tips for entrepreneurs. 

To learn more, see Buyer's Best Friend's Local Food Lab portfolio.


We've pulled out some of our favorite answers from the AMA in the recap below. You can also see the full AMA thread here

MARKETING AND BRANDING

I am a freelance marketer, newly working with a local food startup out of Seattle. In your opinion, what influence does social media have on a buyer in term’s of creating awareness of a brand? I’m curious if you ever discover new brands through social media and/or if seeing their online presence tips the scales in terms of your decision to buy. Lastly, do you think a brand’s presence online can ever hurt its chances with buyers?

While social media can’t be the only thing you do, more and more buyers are getting onto Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and the old adage of “you have to see something 3 times or more to take action” still seems to apply.

I oversee buying for our 3 retail locations, and in researching new products we usually check out the company’s website, Facebook page, as well as Twitter. Of course we taste the products as well, but seeing how much excitement there is for the particular brand as well as its product category is really valuable. Many buyers are influenced by buzz and social pressure, so while you don’t have to post 3 times a day, having some presence does matter.

For our own stores, our social media guy emailed me the other day about a vegan bacon coconut product that Anthony Bourdain had tweeted about. We had been talking to the brand for a while, but that extra piece of info compelled me to ask my team to bring the product in – so that’s an example of how it just influenced me!

In your opinion, where do you think the main focus of a food startup’s social media presence should be: industry/trade? Local customers? National? Do you have some examples of food startups that are blowing it out of the water?

It depends on your strategy – generally speaking, newer brands should focus on local customers and local stories, then industry/trade, then national. The social media should follow where the products are available, if you’re only in local stores then focus on local social media. If you have a direct to consumer model where the product is being shipped nationwide, then once you’ve cornered your local area, you should expand to other goes that make sense. For instance, Tonx Coffee (www.tonx.org) is only available direct to consumer, and so both local and national social media makes sense.

One more unsolicited tip for social media: don’t just promote your products and services, but figure out who your target customers are, and what kind of info they would find useful, relevant, and interesting. That’s how to get retweets and to earn respect and engagement from your customers. Also, if you follow people in your target demographic, they will usually follow you.We find that Facebook is a great way to publish long form content and photos that go more into depth, and Twitter is great for announcements, posting links to news articles, etc.

(Question also answered by a BBF social media staff member who helps their suppliers with online outreach below!)

Really there are a few great examples of groups who are using social media as a connector with many different groups, B2B, and B2C.

Toffee Talk is really great at using twitter to insert themselves into many conversations relating to artisan foods and their product while also recognizing how great Twitter is at events like the Fancy Food Show.

Dang Foods is blowing it up on Facebook using it for story telling and spreading collateral like video stories and images.

Hot Cakes (and https://www.facebook.com/getyourhotcakes) have been great on a number of platforms and part of this is that they have a great eye for imagery and describe their mouthwatering, delicious chocolate treats in a way that the audience can almost literally taste them.

Part of the process of social advertising is understanding who you want to reach, who currently likes your product and what are the best tools for conveying those awesome selling points to create more touch points. Remember that it is a conversation where your story telling is key.

What are the best things for small producers on your platform to invest in, marketing-wise, when on a tight budget? And what are the worst things for the same producers to spend their time and resources on?

This is a great question! Sadly, the food business segments quickly by product category, “class of trade” (aka what kinds of customers you want) and of course the particulars of your product (price-in-category, shelf life, etc.) – for example, demos are terrific for certain kinds of grocery but obviously don’t make sense for convenience stores.So this won’t be super helpful, but going only on “small producer” I’d generally say:

  • Tend to work: focusing on the product development (packaging, pricing, production: make sure it’s a winner), farmer’s markets, online-direct / PR / social media (if your product can be easily shipped, visually appealing and has a nice story), local markets/groceries and demos, shared trade show booths, free advice and inexpensive consulting, selected “famous accounts” that know how to buy from small producers, inexpensive samples. Carefully identify who your best customers are going to be, and heavily support them with demos, samples, signage, and by sending customers. A passionate broker who ‘gets’ your product can be wonderful.
  • Wait until you’re ready: higher end dedicated consulting esp. firms, full-sized trade show booths esp. outside your home town, large chains & distributors, dedicated in-house salespeople.
  • Requires widespread penetration: mass market retailers, mass media / advertising, coupons.
  • Depends on the category: co-packers.
IMG_5428-Edit.jpg

Do you have any advice for artisan food products that are just entering the marketplace? Any tips on standing out from the crowd? I own a gourmet filet mignon beef jerky company.

Filet mignon beef jerky is definitely unique — when you have a product that is a different/better version of what’s currently available, using language like “We’re the first” or “We’re the only” are great for getting the attention of consumers and buyers. You also want backup data:

a) how is filet mignon jerky different from others? b) how is it better or really different? (it is more tender, more flavorful, higher grade, etc.) c) why should people care? d) how is this going to make people’s lives/food experience better?

Also, having a tagline that summarizes your value proposition and why people should love it and care is important.

With regards to pricing, if your product is more expensive, you can be successful but you’ll need to make it look distinctly different from other products, and also have a few key points re: why wholesale buyers and consumers should pay more.

If you’re just entering the marketplace, your focus should be on validating response from customers – you could do farmer’s markets or craft fairs/local food fairs and gauge response to the product and pricing, and simultaneously also work with a few local stores. Demos are really important when you launch a product so that you can get lots of feedback from consumers, and also so that you can support the success of the products in those initial stores.

I can’t emphasize enough that iterating to get to a product that meets a need in the market is key – having the best sales or marketing is going to enable first time purchases, but if the product taste, packaging, pricing, etc. doesn’t get you repeat customers, the rest of your business won’t be sustainable.

Finally, there are lots of online retailers who love to launch new products – try Fab.com or Mouth.com, as well as box of the month clubs. These are great ways of generating awareness and getting more feedback.

I'm promoting a healthy, vegan bean-to-bar dark chocolate factory in Culver City. Any suggestions on resources to learn how to do this? We want to create more awareness (which we are doing with farmers markets, events, local restaurants, etc) and also get into larger stores like Whole Foods, hotels and restaurants. So far, major markets don't like that it has a short shelf life unless refrigerated. 

Products with a shorter shelf life can be challenging for many conventional grocery stores, and I think the right model is to build the direct to consumer sales, work with independent natural stores, and focus on building the brand. This is a product that isn’t going to sell itself on the shelves initially, supporting with lots of signage that explains the concept, doing demos, and being generous with samples is key.

You might also consider working with a broker that sells similar types of products as well, to increase your reach.

In BBF’s retail stores, one of the #1 factors of success is providing us with samples – at any given time we usually have 20-30 different samples available in the store, and this unique model in our stores has generated phenomenal results. Many of our sellers tell us that we outsell their chain accounts because we usually carry their entire line, and we get product into people’s mouths!

The store/tasting factory is a great model for promoting a newer concept — when I was at Charles Chocolates, one of our best marketing tools was offering factory tours, and a practical way to do it is to allow people to watch through a glass wall, if you’re setup that way (lots of liability and distraction issues with letting people go onto the factory floor). The factory tours and events create a lot of buzz, and almost everyone buys something after the end. It’s also a great way to develop relationships with customers, and the press love the tours as well.

Additionally, this seems like a product that a specific type of customer goes crazy for — which means reaching out to targeted blogs and journalists, as well as attending events where your target demographic is going to be – chocolate festivals, green festivals, etc. You have a unique product category as well, so if you can work with press to promote your category, you’ll be the only one/one of a few in that category. You should chat with Core Foods, Perfect Foods Bar or Papa Steves about how they pioneered their category. Those 3 brands are one of a handful of refrigerated energy bars, and they had similar obstacles in pioneering their category.


TRENDS FOR 2014 AND GMOS

For food startups looking to differentiate themselves through their brand and ingredients, what do you think the trends are going to be for 2014? It seems that non-GMO is on a lot of people’s minds, but do you think sourcing locally or concern for fair labor practices will become increasingly important?

In terms of 2014 trends, there’s always the hot ingredients/flavors and once they get traction they tend to hang on longer than the foodies think (e.g. coconut, bacon, sea salt, himalayan salt, vegan – I’m waiting to try a sample of Coconut Bacon and yesterday tasted coconut kale) and of course attribute trends tend to work on longer arcs (vegan’s hot, but so is gluten free, non-GMO, fair/direct trade, etc.). Cold Brewed coffee is very hot, including Secret Squirrel.

With Whole Foods throwing their weight behind it, non-GMO will be hot.

Fair labor / trade has been slowly growing in importance, it seems to me category by category, following the cycle of innovation. Swanton Berry Farms took me out to their fields to show how tough it is to pick strawberries and how UC Santa Cruz students were trying to make it easier on the team.

Fair labor / trade: awareness helps but without innovative, viable solutions there’s only so much we can do. The unfortunate reality is that consumers are only willing to pay a certain premium at any given time, for a given attribute (healthier, fairer-trade, more-eco-friendly, etc.). BBF lives on this bleeding edge – we once brought in Pachamama Kale Chips, which are locally produced by hand by a local restaurant, and were surprised at how fast they sold even at 30-50% more than competing brands.

Local sourcing matters by category and region – for much of the country, there isn’t much local fruit in winter. Likewise, coffee beans are grown in Hawaii but not in California, so “local” coffee refers to the roaster.

“Sustainable” is an emerging word but it lacks definition – does that mean eco? Financial? For years, we’ve called BBF itself “sustainable” because we’ve built a model that’ll be around for a long long time and, for example, doesn’t depend on outside capital, or one-time fads. Our largest customer/partner affects a tiny percentage of revenue but more importantly, we treat everyone with respect.

I’ve noticed a slight shift in consumer opinion when it comes to accepting GMOs based on a few recent high profile articles in support of genetic modification. Have you noticed a similar shift? Where do you think we will be on this issue in 5 years? 10 years?

Interesting – I think while people in the food business understand why non-GMO is important, and many organizations have quickly jumped on the bandwagon to promote non-GMO, consumer opinion hasn’t really been well formed. Friends who aren’t in the food business still aren’t educated about what non-GMO even is. As with everything, the food industry is great at organizing around a particular movement and building momentum, but it seems like once official policies are proposed, the practicality of enforcement tempers the policies. Take for instance Whole Foods changing their stance on Prop 37 once they realized that the way it would be enforced was actually going to harm many of the artisan and local producers they support.


DISTRIBUTION AND WORKING WITH BUYER'S BEST FRIEND

How have you seen BBF change the landscape of food, and where else would you love to take it? What delicious food discoveries have you personally been surprised by?

BBF has really changed what is humanly possible, and one of the themes I always see is that we’re delivering extreme value at a fraction of the cost, which is enabled by the technology that Adam and his team have built. When I was a sales director and broker, I would sometimes drive 2 hours round trip to visit one customer, and then take a $500 order. Now, in one hour a buyer can order tens of thousands of dollars worth of product on BBF, which many of our new stores do. The costs saved by bringing things online and enabling businesses that would normally fail financially due to the heavy costs of sales goes into people making better product, which is very exciting to me. With the data that we have (transaction data about over 2500 brands across 10,000 buyers), we also have the ability to predict trends well before anyone else and I see this data being useful – not sure exactly how yet.

Traditionally, companies and people have been successful due to access – access to resources of a major metropolitan area, or networks, or knowledge. BBF levels the playing field, so we’re helping anyone who wants to get products, or buy products get access to more buyers/products/connections.

The stories I love are the ones where we bring I Heart Keenwah snacks to new regions of Whole Foods, or where we bring Seaweed Love into Google’s corporate campus – both young companies who benefited from the support BBF provided in the presentation process to these larger buyers. To me, the support and love of BBF from these large buyers is powerful validation that everyone, from small to large, finds it challenging to efficiently connect between buyers and sellers. We constantly hear from sellers “We never would have gotten into [LARGE CHAIN] if it weren’t for BBF.”

In general, I see BBF as another instance/example of how the food business is becoming more of a serious, profitable, lucrative business. More and more people are taking sales, operations, logistics, etc. seriously, and we’re cutting out a lot of the inefficiencies in the market that previously existed.

Two big directions for BBF this year: 1) Continue building our non-food catalog – we have tens of thousands of non-food product in personal care, gifts, vitamins and supplements, and lifestyle products 2) Snacks is one of the fastest growing categories out there right now, which has compelled us to become a distributor of office snacks (www.bbfdirect.com/office-snacks) to the Bay Area’s hottest companies (of course many in tech like Groupon, Nokia, salesforce, New Relic, Chartboost, and more). We’re constantly looking for new offices to deliver to as well as new snacks to add to that catalog.

I try everything that comes into BBF, because I’m always open to being surprised. Sometimes the best products come in the least attractive packages, and other times something that looks awesome online and is really well packaged. One of the products we carry in our corporate office program is Ito En prebrewed teas – our clients just can’t seem to get enough of it. Something like green tea is so simple, yet done well it’s extremely addictive and clients always comment on how amazing it is.

I also love Cobra Corn; it’s a line of authentic Indian popcorn (curry, himalayan salt, and chai caramel); my initial surprise was the juxtaposition of the packaging and product – the fact that a super bold, loud package actually promised all the impact and punch that it conveyed. Customers keep coming back into the BBF retail stores for this product!

IMG_2844.jpg

What percentage of BBF’s suppliers are organic? Also, what percentage of buyers only want organic products?

As of now, 12,987 products. (I went to the BBF search engine and filtered for organic.) Currently about 8.6% of our products are listed as certified organic; of course there are a lot of products made with organic ingredients but not officially certified.

All the research (Specialty Food Association – www.specialtyfood.com has lots of this info) shows that consumers currently care less about organic, and more about non-GMO, especially since Whole Foods has really advocated non-GMO as being really important. They even stopped selling Chobani greek yogurt for not complying with their non-GMO requirements: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/12/19/why-did-whole-foods-drop-chobani/.

It’s fairly rare that buyers can carry 100% organic products in their stores – some categories are difficult to make organic as well. In categories where there are reasonably priced organic versions, if the product quality is the same or better, some buyers will choose organic over conventional. In our own stores, we do find that if something is organic, it is an extra selling point and does boost things in the mind of the consumer.

I’d say this really depends by category – for instance, the cost of organic nuts is so high that some of the brands we work with have not been able to be price competitive, meaning that at the price they need to charge, their product just doesn’t move as quickly, or wholesale buyers are scared off by the pricing to begin with. To consumers, if something costs $2-3 more per unit, that can sometimes be too high for them to choose organic over conventional. But if it’s a price difference of $1 or less, it’s an easy decision to choose organic.

I’m a new specialty tea company selling direct to consumer. I’m considering wholesaling and want to know what the average markups for wholesale vs. retail that you’ve seen? If a company was to go through BBF, what margins are you generally working with?

 There are 2 main classes of trade:

1) grocery stores/supermarkets: these stores usually take a 35-40% margin. If your wholesale price is $1 and the margin is 40%, then the store would sell the product for $1.60.

2) specialty stores/gift stores: these stores do lower volume so they charge higher prices for specialty/premium products, and they also have staff to hand sell your products. These stores usually take a 50% margin (called keystone pricing), so they would double the price. If the wholesale price is $1, then they would charge $1.99 or $2.

One other player that you’ll run into eventually is distributors – for instance, if you get into a large chain, they may not want to receive your product directly from you – they will ask you to get signed up with a distributor. Distributors ask for 20-25% off the wholesale pricing, so if your product is $1/unit wholesale, you would sell to a distributor at $0.75/unit. You would impose an order minimum on the distributor – usually a pallet of product (which can range from 100-200 cases). If and when you work with a distributor, keep in mind that they may require that you support quarterly promotions, which oftentimes range from giving them an additional 10-15% off the distributor pricing, 4 times a year (i.e. promotions usually last for a month). Distributors make sense if you have a high margin product and you want to sell to chains.

If you list your products on BBF, our wholesale buyers get whatever wholesale pricing you set, and we don’t mark up your wholesale prices or take a commission of each sale.

Our stores are specialty stores, so our retail prices are set on the high side, but customers get the benefit of getting to try anything in the stores, we have a lot of tourist business (i.e. those folks LOVE the access to local and non-local artisan products), and we offer a generous loyalty discount and volume discounts that make our prices very competitive to regulars and locals.

What do the most successful companies that you work with do on a daily basis that set them apart from the others? Do any other successful habits and/or practices come to mind?

It really depends on stage of company, and also the distribution strategy by category. One of the things we help sellers do is honestly assess their products and what is working/what isn’t working.

A few thoughts:

1) Understand your category – understand who the other players are, and how your product fits into that category in terms of positioning. Understand who the best types of buyers are for that category, and what the distribution strategy looks like (is it direct or through distributors, or an equal combination of both?)

2) Get your product right – sometimes you do need to spend a lot of time showing product to many people until you hit the core customer base. When you have a product that really resonates with the right customers, the ball will feel like it has hit the bat – the buyer will be excited! The most success companies aren’t afraid to incorporate feedback and iterate in the beginning – those details can be the difference between success and failure.

3) Build a plan – don’t just “hope” that you’ll get into a bunch of stores, figure out how much each store should bring in, figure out what your close rate is, then figure out how many appointments and phone calls you need to hit that goal.

4) Focus and run the #s – there are infinite #s of activities you can be doing at any given time, but you need to stay focused and always evaluate whether a proposed activity is going to have an impact and move you in the right direction or not.

5) Use LinkedIn – while buyers may be too busy to respond to an email sometimes, I see a large % of them on LinkedIn, and clicking an “Accept” button is fairly low commitment. When people accept my LinkedIn requests, I will reply to them and those emails get a great response. You can look at your friends profiles and see who they know and ask for introductions as well.

6) Network and ask for advice: identify companies that are in a similar product category that you want to be like – most likely they’ll be happy to chat with you. Network with other people in the business – the food business is not well documented in terms of its practices, so you learn a lot from other people, who can help you avoid making common mistakes, and accelerate your progress. It’s not uncommon that one simple referral can change everything.

As founder of BBF, what are some successful retention strategies you and your team have employed to help keep your 10,000 plus buyers engaged in your service? Or in what ways do you reach out to your clients to get feedback on how well BBF is meeting their needs?

For the large accounts like Whole Foods, we have a custom process for working with each one of them and dedicated veterans on staff who bring them products: bbfdirect.com/major-accounts

For the smaller and self-service accounts (the 10,000), the scale is too large for people and we’re more like a tech company and Adam (my co-founder) took over the process and I just give him guidance, because we can’t work with individual buyers anymore. Since the beginning, we’ve let buyers and sellers directly communicate, i.e. reveal each other’s contact info — it’s like craigslist that way. Some of the tactics we use: making it super easy to order, gathering and applying discounts from sellers, buyer email reminders, Google SEO (for repeat visitors!), lots of ways to search the catalog and generally being a useful resource.

Some of our favorite buyers browse the catalog every week by category (e.g.http://www.bbfdirect.com/c/grocery/chocolate-candy) or attribute (e.g. http://www.bbfdirect.com/wholesale-gluten-free) and look for new brands that appear at the top.

For our best self-service accounts, we have an integrated sampling program both offering drop-shipped samples at the buyer’s request, or consolidated sample boxes with a dozen+ brands matched by software (bbfdirect.com/smart-sampling).

Finally, we have giant trade show booths at the major shows, and 1000s of buyers (large and small) come and visit to check out 80+ hot and new brands.

Adam promises he that he’s working on doing a lot more, and hasn’t even scratched the surface. We move a little slower than traditional tech companies because food buyers are very sensitive to spam and one buyer wants very different things than another: you don’t want to recommend artisan chocolate to a dog shop, or Woof Waggers to a chocolate shop.

IMG_5428-Edit.jpg

What responsibility does BBF take to minimize its environmental footprint? Best practices? Specifically in the area of shipping & packaging related waste.

Environmental impact – wow, great question! First off, we’re a startup in high growth phase, so there’s only so much we can do: survival has to come first (although there is the old joke, “do something for the environment: kill yourself”). Within what’s practical, we do a bunch of things: (1) we’re extreme scavengers and (by law in SF) recyclers/composters— virtually nothing is thrown out if we can reuse it, from bubble wrap to ice packs and more. Cardboard gets recycled by the city and food is composted. (2) we work with suppliers to send us less material in the first place— the best example was a caramel company which was co-packing (for economic reasons) and had a weird situation where the cases were 80% air and bubble wrap – I called them up and we cut a deal where they repacked the cases at their warehouse, saving all that waste and cutting giant multi-pallet orders down to something reasonable, saving everybody the money needed for this new strategy. As we continue to scale up, one of the biggest things we can do is to share “best practices” like this across 1,000s of companies – we’re not there yet.

Is BBF appropriate for “brand new” brands without any previous distribution experience? What are a few things I should have in place before reaching out to work with BBF?

We love new brands – feel free to use BBF to ‘test’ your ideas, and if they’re “close” to getting to distribution, we can work together. To get started in wholesale, you need product photos, pricing, packaging that’ll work on a store shelf, liability insurance and of course the ability to make a few cases of product per week!

Also, other great places to test out your products before you make the leap into wholesale include friends, craft fairs and farmer’s markets where you can sell your products to the general public. Depending on what products you’re making, if you’re in the right state the cottage food laws may apply to you.

A great way to test things out is to ask people “How much would you expect to have to pay for this?” to make sure everyone is on the same page as well. I also find that the mark of a successful product is when consumers purchase multiple units once they have tried something, or even purchase multiple units based on packaging alone.

Our company offers a bottled, ready to drink, all-natural herbal tea. As you can imagine the weight of the product makes shipping cost a major factor to consider in some markets. Do you have any advice for a company like ours when trying to tap into a market like with BBF? (We are currently in some grocery stores in our state like WF, Kroger, etc. but looking to expand.)

This is a common challenge with bottled beverages and anything in glass which is heavy.

A few things:

1) Delivered pricing sometimes helps so that customer don’t balk at a huge shipping cost; when you build it into the cost and require folks to order a minimum amount that really helps.

2) Distributors: there are beverage distributors all throughout the country and that is one way to get products to your customers, although you want to make sure there is enough demand first or that you pick up a distributor who is very motivated to sell product. Green Shoots and Gourmet Purveyors are two on the West Coast.

3) With companies like yours, through our Major Accounts program we promote brands to our larger buyers, like Whole Foods, Google’s corporate campus, The Fresh Market, Vitacost, Groupon Goods, and more. While you want to validate and build some awareness of your product by selling locally, ultimately you’re going to make your money on going national. When a chain picks you up, that also means you get picked up by their distributor, and in beverage that’s the main way to get into lots of stores.

4) With larger accounts that can accept a pallet, you can ship directly to them. Even so, you’ll need to either have your product warehoused in the middle of the country to make it easier and cheaper to ship nationwide, or have product manufacturered/co-packed on both coasts to reduce the shipping cost and time lag of getting product to customers.

JOYCE'S ENTREPRENEURIAL JOURNEY

I’m curious as to how you had the idea for BBF. What inspired you to start this business?

I started my career in food as National Director of Sales & Marketing for Charles Chocolates, where I handled all aspects of sales and marketing. After getting a really wonderful, rich experience with wholesale food sales there, I realized that there were so many product categories and brands I was curious about and wanted to learn about – both the products and how to sell them. So the next logical step for me was to become a broker, where I represented 10 different product lines – from chocolate, to snacks, to vanilla extract, to granola.

Here’s how I started BBF – when I became a broker, I realized how inefficient it was for buyers and sellers to connect, and that wholesale buyers (i.e. stores) were completely overwhelmed with the sheer number of products launching in the market. There was no one place for buyers to get information about wholesale products, and they were still asking sales reps to take orders in person, by phone, fax, and lots of email back and forths. I love efficiency and I come from a tech background, so it was ridiculous that there was no place for wholesale buyers to order online.

Fortunately my cofounder and fiance Adam spent the last five years at Google as a software engineer, so I was able to convince him to build an online catalog and ordering system, initially just for the 10 brands that I represented as a broker. That’s how BBF got started.

We launched the first version of BBF in Spring 2010; almost overnight, 10-15% of my buyers starting ordering online. We then decided to show some other buyers at the Summer 2010 Fancy Food Show in New York, as we showed our concept to buyers and sellers, our first 100 sellers said yes to putting their products in the BBF catalog on the spot over the three days of the show.

When we realized that nearly 100% of people wanted what we had, we realized our biggest challenge was going to be signing on buyers and sellers as quickly as possible – so we decided to make the basic version completely free to both sides.

Since this is an Ask Me Anything after all, here’s a personal question—Do you have any advice for all the entrepreneurs out there struggling to find balance between running their businesses and maintaining some kind of normalcy in their personal lives?

That is absolutely a relevant question. Being an entrepreneur in the food business is different from being part of a venture funded tech startup where you have enough money to hire tons of people. The food business attracts many people who love understanding how businesses work and “doing a little bit of everything”.

For the first 2 years of BBF we incubated it at our Victorian in San Francisco, with a dozen+ people coming over to the house daily. Ultimately it was the sheer number of product samples we had that drove us into our office and to open our first retail store. Having an office away from home is actually wonderful, and if you don’t have an office, it’s great to work at a coffee shop or a co-working space. That physical separation is great for focus, and maintaining sanity.

Having a cofounder is a huge way to stay sane and be more successful. Food startups generally require people who are “jack of all trades” because being successful requires doing many different activities and having many skills. Statistically it’s hard to cover all of these areas yourself, let alone have the energy to do everything it takes to get things off the ground. Ideally you have a cofounder you know well and who you’re down to spend lots of time with.

Not sure if most people know, but my co-founder Adam is also my partner in life, so it has been especially intense but wonderful. I never complain that we don’t spend enough time together, and sometimes a 2am conversation is a strategic one! For us what has made it work is the fact that by nature, both of us are very good about compartmentalizing things – even if we have a disagreement about something at BBF, generally it doesn’t change the fact that we adore each other. Whether it’s work, love or anything in between, knowing how to “fight/discuss constructively” is very important. You’re never going to agree all the time, but it’s knowing how to resolve things that matters. While we are ridiculously on the same page most of the time, we also consciously try to make sure we involve our management team on all key decisions/meetings – you can’t build a scalable company with just two people making all the decisions and managing.


Joyce Guan is the Founder & VP of Sales of Buyer’s Best Friend, the world’s largest catalog of wholesale specialty and natural products. They have over 10,000 wholesale buyers nationwide, and help everyone from Whole Foods, Virgin America, to Google source the hottest and newest products. Prior to founding Buyer’s Best Friend, Joyce was a food broker, and before that the National Director of Sales for Charles Chocolates. Located in San Francisco, Joyce get brands into local Bay Area stores like Bi-Rite Market, Rainbow Grocery, and Cheese Plus.

For Buyer's Best Friend's latest updates, follow the company on Twitter and check out their Local Food Lab portfolio.

 

BUYER'S BEST FRIEND IS ALSO HIRING CORPORATE SALES REPS! SEE THE JOB LISTING HERE.

 

Related Posts:

AMA Recap: Shivani Ganguly, Food Business Consultant

AMA Recap: Tim Sullivan, Food Production Expert

AMA Recap: Olivia Tincani, Local Food and Ag Consultant