Oodles of Business Insight with Veggie Noodle Company CEO, Mason Arnold
foundingAUSTIN wants to introduce you to another one of Austin’s most innovative, healthy and energetic business leaders, Mason Arnold. Mason is the 38-year-old CEO and Veggie Nerd responsible for Veggie Noodle Company, a nutrition-focused enterprise that makes spiralized vegetable noodles that can be used in virtually any meal.
foundingAUSTIN: What’s the big idea behind the Veggie Noodle Company?
Mason: Finding better alternatives for people who want to improve their diet. Dietary restrictions from allergies are a fast growing trend. Most new research and lifestyle trends geared toward healthier bodies include a reduction in grains and carbohydrates, which mostly cuts out pastas and breads. There are very few alternatives for people looking for grain-free pasta. Veggie Noodle Company fills that need. The vegetables we use have a very mild flavor, so a really quick sauté and it mimics traditional pasta very well. It ends up being a really good alternative.
fA: What are some of the challenges you see within your industry?
Mason: The challenges in this business come down to freshness, consistency and distribution. There are many of those little home-cranked machines out there, but they don’t produce a very good noodle. It usually ends up producing a mushy noodle or different shapes and sizes that make it hard to get a consistent cook. We produce a very consistent, clean, crisp noodle every time.
fA: Who’s your ideal client?
Mason: Anyone who wants to get more vegetables in their diet. Veggie Noodles offer a way to consume more vegetables and healthy food while still enjoying traditional meals. Some of our early adopters are moms trying to feed their kids more healthy food. We also have a lot of customers who have allergies, dietary restrictions, and such. This is a great product for them. It’s certified organic so it’s super clean. There are no additives, no preservatives and zero allergens of any kind. In fact our whole facility has zero allergens in it. It can be approved even for people with Celiac disease and severe allergies.
fA: How does one go about purchasing your product? Is it in stores?
Mason: Right now it is available in retailers in Austin and 24 states across the U.S. You can get it at Whole Foods, Wheatsville, Central Market, Natural Grocers, and Fresh Plus
fA: How long have you been in business?
Mason: About a year.
fA: Let’s talk annual sales projections. Are you meeting your projections?
Mason: Yeah, it’s going extremely well. This year, we’ll probably sell several million units and we’ve got a ton of interest from other regions, so we expect next year to be significantly larger.
fA: Is this your first company?
Mason: No. And it depends on what you call a company. I think this is the fifth one that I’ve started that got to revenue.
fA: What was the inspiration for this company?
Mason: My last company was a grocery company and I always wanted to stay on top of food trends and get the coolest and newest product for our customers. So I saw a lot of food trends as they came and saw products that tried to capitalize on them. I saw a whole lot of brands come through our doors. I got to where I was pretty good at guessing whether or not they would succeed based on how well they were hitting the food trend, their branding, how good their packaging was, and their price point. I spent ten years evaluating products and how they fit into the market and decided I really wanted to try one on my own. It seemed like a really fun business. I had my first veggie noodles, I think three or four years ago, and thought it was a really cool product. I also thought it was interesting that I hadn’t seen it on the market. When I started doing my own research, I realized that it’s pretty difficult to produce in a way that you can deliver it to grocery stores to sell to people. But it’s exactly in my background because I’d been dealing with produce in my grocery company for years and years so I understood temperatures, product quality, and supply chain management.
fA: How does one go from the idea of a packaged product to figuring out how to actually produce that? What type of research does that entail?
Mason: The initial research that I did was kind of high level. I needed to understand what costs were associated with it. I looked into packaging, estimated what packaging costs would be, and production costs. I started with a spreadsheet and said, “Okay, how much is it going to cost to make a noodle pack and how much will people pay for it? What will people want in their noodles—what kind of attributes, sizes and shapes?” I’m a consummate bootstrapper so early on I did my own focus groups with a Dropcam on my kitchen table. I hired a professional facilitator because that’s the part where you need someone really skilled to get the right information out of people. But the rest I did myself. I put a Dropcam on the group and then I stayed in another room watching and taking notes. We ran three or four focus groups, asked them what price they would pay for it, that kind of thing. Once I felt like we had a high-quality, sustainable product concept that people would pay for and that we could make in a sustainable way, then it was about getting into retailers and talking to them and seeing what they thought of the product and whether they wanted it or not.
fA: Is this something that you thought you needed to produce in house or were you going to find a manufacturer or co-packer?
Mason: Early on I definitely felt like we needed to produce it in house because the issues that are critical to creating a quality product are challenging—they’re not the usual issues faced by a food manufacturer. So I knew it would be difficult to find the right kind of co-packer for this. I sublet from a friend who has a large manufacturing space and we did it ourselves and have grown that. I invented a machine to create the noodles because the machines that were out there just didn’t produce the right kind of noodle for the best quality.
fA: Did you patent it?
Mason: Patent Pending. It is indeed.
fA: You mentioned bootstraps. How did you fund your business? Have you been bootstrapping this the whole time?
Mason: I self-funded it and got some help along the way, like a small line of credit and then a little bit of debt from a couple of advisors. But it’s mostly been self-funding and getting the right things at the right time and just kind of growing at the right speed so that I didn’t have to take on a lot of capital.
fA: What do you consider the top strengths that were crucial to your success?
Mason: I think resourcefulness and flexibility about knowing when to do different things. I didn’t start with a big marketing plan because I knew that would take a lot of time and effort. Understanding that time and money were very limited, I started with what was absolutely most important to do first and then moved on to the next priority. I think that approach combined with really having a knack for going out and finding things and people to help me when I run into a challenge.
fA: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Mason: I think this company has a significant opportunity in front of it. We want to do different noodle shapes and complementary sauces so it could easily turn into one of these lifestyle brands where it’s kind of a new way of thinking about dinner. Then we can produce a whole lot of products to support that while keeping on with the clean, non-allergen type of foodstuffs.
fA: What is the most difficult lesson that you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
Mason: Man, the most difficult one. There are a whole lot of difficult things to learn out there. There’s a phrase that I had to repeat during many low times as an entrepreneur. It was, “No matter what happens, they can’t eat you.” It sounds like a ridiculous meme but when you feel like the whole world is coming apart at the seams, it’s like, “I don’t know how I’m going to pay my employees. I don’t know how I’m going to pay my mortgage.” It can really feel like someone is just going to come and eat you alive. So I’ve repeated that to myself many times throughout my entrepreneurial career and it reminded me that no matter what happened, I could figure it out and I would be okay. That has helped give me the strength to keep persevering. One of the most important lessons is that persistence is the key to everything. If you believe in something and the market tells you that there’s a demand for it out there, then there’s a way to make it work.
fA: On the flip side of that, what do you love about being an entrepreneur?
Mason: I love the creative aspect of it. I feel like when I look back on my life I will know that I was able to express myself creatively. There is an art to a business and to entrepreneurship. I am creating an art with commerce as my canvas. My drive is all about sustainability and making the world a better place. So everything that I’ve done has been about helping people move towards sustainability and helping protect our environment. That underlying drive makes everything that I do more fulfilling.
fA: Do you have a favorite mistake?
Mason: There’s one that wasn’t really a “mistake,” but early on in my grocery company we were selling a whole lot of produce. We noticed that when onions and bell peppers had one little spot on them that was bad, you couldn’t sell it. The whole onion or the whole bell pepper would be good, but it just had this one little bad spot. So we were like, “What if we chopped them up, removed the bad spot and sold chopped onions and chopped bell peppers?” The very first week we introduced those we sold more chopped bell peppers and onions than we sold regular bell peppers and onions. We were like, “Ah, okay so this is kind of value add that we need in the produce arena. There’s some opportunity here.”
fA: Do you have a best financial move that you made? Or is that yet to come?
Mason: Paying very close attention to my credit, I think, is the smartest financial thing that I’ve ever done. From very early on, before I even started a business, someone convinced me that having good credit is a key to a whole lot of things. So throughout college I maintained good credit and I remembered the fundamentals of how to do that and keep things revolving. I kept trying to increase my available credit and many of my businesses were launched purely on my good credit, personal guarantees, debt notes and things. Even when no one really believed in the business, I had enough good credit to get money for a venture.
fA: Is there one thing that you can name that actually drives you—that wakes you up in the morning?
Mason: For a long time it really was this concept of moving towards sustainability. But I kind of realized that even deeper than that, the thing that really drives me is I absolutely love creating things that weren’t in the world before. Something that is completely brand new. I think it’s awesome to put something out that people actually want and, you know, it’s not a copy of anything else. It’s literally a brand new concept and people are like, “Why didn’t I think of this!” That’s the phrase that I like hearing the most.
fA: What’s the best advice that you received when starting your business?
Mason: In one of my early businesses, the best advice I received was to go find your customer first. That we can all be in love with our own idea but if there aren’t enough potential customers who love it, then it’s not worth anything. Many people will spend a lot of time working on their business before they validate that anyone actually wants to buy their product. That’s why I’ve always tried to do market research right out of the gate and as cheaply as possible because if it turns out people don’t want the product I don’t want to have wasted a bunch of money. So every time I think of something I always try to validate it with customers first.
fA: Is there someone that you would really like to meet or a company that you would like to do business with?
Mason: Right now I’m really fascinated with manufacturing companies and the things that go into different food products and the loss of durable goods so actually, making products and the machines that do it are really fascinating to me.
fA: What advice would you give to someone sitting at home aspiring to create his or her own startup?
Mason: Get your ducks in a row so you have twice as much time as you think you need to launch the business. The saddest thing, to me, is watching people with a good idea go out and try to tackle it too soon and find themselves stuck because it took longer than they expected and they have to either shut it down or take on partners that they didn’t want because they didn’t have enough resources to get to sustainability from a company standpoint. I want to encourage everyone to take the plunge and give it a shot; I think everyone should try it at least once because it’s a romanticized career that isn’t necessarily as romantic as people make it out to be. It’s full of really hard things and I think anyone who has the bug should try it to understand how hard it is. Just make sure you’ve got a few of those ducks in a row before you take the plunge.
fA: Is there anything other than business that you are passionate about?
Mason: I’m passionate about health in general. It’s an issue that could easily bankrupt the country, if we continue on our current trends, so there are some real changes that need to be made in our culture—in how we think about health and what that looks like. Also, sustainability as a whole is still a very deep-seated passion of mine. So health, environment, and not depleting our natural resources. I’ve got two little kiddos, four and six, and currently they are my hobbies, so another growing passion of mine is finding a way of giving back—helping disadvantaged children and others.
fA: Do you have an exit plan?
Mason: You know, yeah! More and more large companies are taking stakes in smaller companies and not changing the core of what they do, and there are tons of great resources that you can have with one of these larger food companies. Especially from a supply chain manufacturing perspective, we could have resources we wouldn’t have any other way. So that’s one possibility—or we might just keep growing the company and start buying up other value added companies and try to increase their quality and integrity and such.
fA: When you hang the hat up, where do you see yourself?
Mason: I don’t know that I ever will. I really enjoy this process. Although I think in the future I will do it in ways that are less stomach churning, or maybe my stomach will get stronger each time. But I think I’ll always be interested in innovating and creating new things. Whether that’s continuing to start brand new companies or innovation within existing companies. I don’t see the lure of retiring and doing nothing. And I don’t get enough enjoyment out of the typical hobbies that I could see myself doing that all of the time. I want to create things with some kind of significance in the world.
fA: Who inspires you or motivates you? Is there someone in particular?
Mason: My kids motivate me to make sure that they have security. I want them to work hard but I don’t want to have to give them sub-optimal food or education. In terms of people who paved the way for me, there are tons of people who were all-stars of organics and created and defined the movement. Pioneers like John Mackey of Whole Foods and Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms. They created a better product and convinced the public that they were better, which was true but hard to prove. That kind of real uphill battle of differentiation. You know, most products are made with unhealthy chemicals and CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) ingredients and that means something. That’s really inspiring, that you can change people’s perceptions of what they’re putting in their body.
To discover more about Veggie Noodle Company, get recipes or to find out where you can buy their products, visit the website http://veggienoodleco.com/