Over the last few years, Samy has gotten a crash course about how you navigate the confusing, overwhelming odds against breaking out of the mass of people who want to do something big.
How long have you been creating your product and how did you get the idea?
Samy Kobrolsy: About five years ago, a buddy of mine bet me at the bar to make a vegan pork rind, so I went home and I thought, let me see if I can figure this out.
What we ended up having wasn’t just a plant-based snack. It was crunchy, salty, and delicious, and everything just kind of snowballed since.
LW: In 2019 you were on Shark Tank, where you got $250,000 for 5% equity and 5% advisory shares, and then you exploded with 1.8 million in sales.
You kept your operating costs are low and you were rated as one of the top food trends of 2019 by Whole Foods.
Your product is located in places such as Walmart, Whole Foods, Thrive Market, Seven 11, Amazon, and more.
Congratulations on your amazing growth.
How does it feel to be winning and how did you get there?
SK: When you talk about winning for us, it started as a bet, and when we started selling at local stores and breweries, we realized people were actually enjoying them.
We were selling a lot and we asked ourselves why? And we thought it can’t just be because of the pork rind. There must be more to it.
We realized people were buying Snacklins because it was a delicious snack that had simple ingredients.
It was mushrooms, onions, and yuca. It was healthy and low in calories and sodium.
They could eat the whole bag and it was 90 calories.
We really listened to our customers and that resulted in us becoming focused and allowed us to flourish.
I personally didn’t want to hear the serving size speech, so that really influenced the mentality behind Snacklins.
When you eat the whole bag, it’s a single serving size, and it’s filling. It’s the exact same size as all the other competitors out there and first and foremost it’s delicious.
LW: Did you have a background in food preparation and the food world?
SK: My job before Snacklins was as a radio morning show host for a station in Washington, DC.
I worked there from 2012 and while I was doing that, I befriended a lot of people in the restaurant industry.
People in the restaurant industry work from 3 pm until late. If you work a morning shift, you’ll work from 3:00 AM and you’re off by noon.
I realized that we all had a window of time off from 12 to 3.
While having these friends, I’d often go to the restaurant and help out for a couple of days, just chopping stuff up.
I’ve worked and ate at everything from dive bars to the restaurants in the Michelin guide.
I think that I developed a reputation amongst friends for making weird stuff and always experimenting with food. And that, mixed with the realization of, “Oh, wow! One of these crazy experiments I made people actually like” really helped a lot to influence the start of.
We didn’t make Snacklins thinking that I was going to start a company. We made it just because it would be awesome to have it.
Our friend that owned a brewery told us Snacklins was great and if we come by one weekend and sold them to people, they’d give us a free beer, and we jumped at that opportunity.
While we were there someone that owned a local grocery store in DC, called Glen’s Garden Market, approached us and said, “These are great guys. If you put these in real bags, get a logo, figure out a name, and put nutrition facts on it, then people would buy these vegan pork rinds.” So, that’s where we started.
That one store went from a side hustle to where I was running out of my job every day just so I could work on Snacklins. Then slowly, the side hustle became the real job.
Since then we’ve grown.
We started off making Snacklins in my apartment for my friends.
Now we’re in a 10,000 square foot manufacturing facility, and it’s pretty awesome to know that 20 people are in the back just making a ton of chips.
LW: That’s staggering because of the short timeline.
SK: A big part of it is that we took control of the manufacturing.
Often, people that are entrepreneurs look for a shortcut so if they make something delicious they try to figure out:
“Who can make this for me? and, Who can make this for me cheaper than I’m making it now?”
Whereas we didn’t want to be giving up our profit margins.
With the fluidity and nimbleness we had to be able to jump in and do something new, we knew we had to have our own manufacturing facility.
Investing in a manufacturing facility really helped us because we didn’t have to try to source and find new things. We already knew where it all was and all we had to do is make more snacks.
LW: How did you come up with the idea to take the approach that you did and why did you feel that was the right way to move rather than following how others do it?
SK: In hindsight, it was clearly the right move and it’s been the best one that we’ve ever made. Owning our own manufacturing and the IP manufacturing, that is.
All the manufacturing that makes us special, we do in-house. No one else sees that, and no one else knows what we’re doing.
That wasn’t some grand scheme, it was out of necessity.
It was the fact that we reached out to all these other people that manufactured snacks and said, “Hey, can you make our snacks?” And they go, “Oh no, you guys use fresh vegetables. No, sorry. We cant.”
It was hard trying to find somebody that could take my recipe and execute it on a larger scale than anyone else could.
It led me to China and I was just looking at machines and all these pieces.
I ended up traveling around to different cities in China going to a bunch of manufacturing facilities, looking at what they were doing, and kind of piecemealing a bunch of different parts together.
LW: So to get this straight, you started your company up from a bar bet, and in a short period of time, you were touring factories in China?
KS: I was on Alibaba reaching out to everyone I could.
I knew I wanted to check out five factories. I just had to figure out how to get there.
I flew into Beijing with a bunch of random train tickets and hotel reservations, and I knew that I’d be in the city for 24 hours just to possibly have that two to three-hour meeting with a manufacturer.
At the time, it seemed like the only thing I had and could do.
It’s almost like the Phil Knight approach, he knew that all the people that are making the best athletic shoes are in Japan.
I looked and realized all the companies in Germany made the exact machinery I wanted to use. But once I started to break it down into the components, I realized they were all coming from someone else.
I knew I needed something that could fit my budget and into the space I had because I didn’t have a lot.
I realized if I went straight to the people that are making it from the get-go then I can have them customize it to fit what I need.
LW: It seems your focus became, how can we expand with Snacklins?
You still had a full-time job and Snacklins were being made, all while you were doing the investigation for manufacturing and getting other things lined up. Is that right?
KS: We were in 500 stores before we stopped hand-making everything. I was making Snacklins from the moment I got home, till 2 am, and waking up at 6 am to make more until I went into work.
It got to a point where I realized I needed help. That’s when I brought in Sylvia.
She needed a part-time job in the evening and I said, “Great. I’ll give you some hours.”
I would leave to serve tables at a restaurant so that I could make enough money to pay her for the hours she put in.
During the daytime, I’d be doing deliveries, finishing up labeling, and working on the business side of it. When evenings came, Sylvia would start making Snacklins and I would go back to the restaurant.
There is nothing wrong with people that think all of it out beforehand and actually build the facility first, but we made the product first never realizing we’d need a facility.
We never planned on it getting so big and we knew we had to find ways to do more without it being so labor-intensive.
We had a room full of machines in the back, but we still had the exact same people that had been working with us for years.
As efficiencies increased, we didn’t need to get rid of our team, we could now make even more with the same people we had.
LW: It’s great to have the Master’s program and the business degrees and there’s nothing wrong with having plenty of funding coming out of the gate.
But a lot of times you don’t.
Do you think that if you would have just rolled out of bed with the idea and went straight to China because you had the money to do so, you would have been as successful as you are today?
Or do you feel that having the knowledge and experience that you have, helped to grow your success?
SK: I think you gain a certain sense of respect from taking the time to learn the craft.
Someone may say, “I have this idea. I want to make these granola bars that are keto, this is what I want to do.”
And I’m like, “Well, hold on, let’s back it up a bit. Have you made granola bars in the past? Do you make granola bars? Did you work in food beforehand? Or is this just an idea? What do you know about food manufacturers?”
I realized in the first two years, when we were just hand-making everything, that it took a lot of time just trying to learn and learn as much as possible.
When John, our operations guy, and I walk into our factory we can sit there and talk to someone who’s been working for every major CPG brand, and when they start talking about machines they know that we actually know about the machine.
I don’t want to be someone who “has a guy for that”. I want to be just as good as my guy for that, so that way he’s not just pulling one over on me.
When I walk into these situations, I know I can speak from a voice of authority because they think,
“Hey, he may have not been doing it for 40 years, like me, but he’s been deep into it for the past four or five years and he definitely has learned what he needs to know.”
I would also say that Kevin Blessey, our CEO, is the reason for a lot of our most recent success. His guidance and leadership have left me with the ability to do what I am great at.
And that is, make snacks!
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