Neil Thomson, CEO and Founder of Naked Snacks based in Vancouver, British Columbia, joined Cascadia Report to talk about what drives him to innovate in the healthy eating space, and what running a startup in the food industry looks like.
Naked Snacks is a natural foods brand with a strong online presence that delivers healthy and delicious snacks to customers throughout North America. Neil Thomson created the company in 2014 after he could not find what they wanted on the market. He set about creating a range of nutritious yet delicious snacks and has not looked back. In 2017 Neil’s wife, Ryley Humphry joined him to help start their grocery business and help build their online community, mainly through Instagram.
We asked Thomson how his experience with co-founding and leading a startup for the first time has been so far and following the transition from a more conventional career.
“It's a very generalist role. In any one day I'll be having conversations with the IT team, conversations with the marketing team, conversations with my operations team, and figuring out bits and pieces there. And then finance, bookkeeping and other bits and pieces. I do love the variety because it triggers the curiosity in my brain, and I'm intrigued by that. One thing that has taken a while to get used to is the amount of switching that happens in a day. I'm switching between things all the time and if I want to sit down for extended periods of time and get four hours of focused work done, that's often very difficult for me so I have to work hard to create some space and set up boundaries and just go offline and say to everyone, ‘hey, four hours, you can't contact me because I've got to get this done’.”
While the day to day of growing a startup may have its own unique set of challenges, Thomson has come a long way from his childhood in South Africa, via London to Vancouver. Moving to London to begin his career, he first considered a role as a management consultant before finding his first position at technology consultants Accenture.
“I had a good time, but I got to the end of it and I just found myself. I remember we had this big project that we did, and it took about 16 months and I worked my butt off on weekends and late evenings and things, and then we delivered it for the client. The client used it for about two weeks. It cost them at least a million pounds. They used it for a short amount of time and then turned around and decided that they didn't want to take the time to learn how to use it properly. This was an investment bank in London and it just blew my mind and I thought, wow, I can't believe I've put all this time and energy into it and these people just with the wave of the hand, decided that my work is meaningless.”
Disillusioned with the consultancy industry, Thomson decided that he would move on and further his education and experience by moving to Vancouver to do his MBA at the University of British Columbia. Moving to the Pacific North West, Thomson says he was exposed to ‘a lot of start-ups in the clean tech, renewable energy space’ which he credits for providing the inspiration for starting his own company.
“As an outside person looking in, I thought I want to have that [startup] experience for myself. And Naked Snacks is the idea that I settled on to have a crack at. It was born from the fact that I have this wonderful love of food. It plays a super important role in my life, but I make terrible choices when it comes to food. I set out to find and create and share food that's healthy, but also has a lovely taste. And people never feel like they're compromising by making a choice to buy Naked Snacks.”
In 2015 Naked Snacks started a campaign on the popular crowd-funding website KickStarter. Following their first year in business that did not run as smoothly as they hoped, Thomson says they had to accept that ‘not everything we thought was true’. While opening up the brand to the market like that may have been difficult the response was positive, and they successfully reached their target funding amount. We asked Thomson what they learned from the experience, and what work goes on behind the scenes of a KickStarter campaign.
“The process was a lot of fun. It was a daunting experience looking back at it because we just launched the company. One of my advisors said ‘you should do a Kickstarter campaign’ to get some publicity and raise some cash. And it ended up being beneficial for us in that we got exposure to a whole bunch of new people and it definitely catapulted us forward and we learned a ton through the process. It's a very involved process and we got to the end of that and thankfully we raised the money that we wanted. We did a good job and I think that was the first feeling of winning, I remember that feeling. Until then, it just felt like people were rubbing my face in the mud. It was the first step of us really connecting with our customers and getting a bit of validation.”
Looking to the future, Thomson speaks positively about the ‘world of potential’ in the healthy snack industry and is excited about the innovative ways that Naked Snacks are setting about delivering that to their customers. Coming from a background in technology consultancy it may not seem an obvious transition, but the personal journey to find a healthy way to enjoy delicious food has led Thomson and the team to create a unique brand that he’s proud to represent.
“The interest in healthy snacks space comes from a deeply personal desire to clean up my own snacking habits. And the things that I see that I need, which is a fantastic product that is healthy and delicious. A brand that doesn't take itself too seriously has a little bit of fun because I don't want to be preached at and told that I want it to be an entertaining, fun experience. And then the connection with technology and a new way to build relationships. I love that we offer a subscription service and we can connect with our customers through that and build trust with them and build ongoing relationships with them. They feel like they want to share that with their friends and send gifts to people and things, that's all wonderful.”
While changing people’s eating habits may not happen overnight, Thomson is keen to point out that they are witnessing changes in consumers attitudes and their shopping habits. As retailers adapt to the demands of the market, he is confident that the industry will continue to grow in the future. Naked Snacks have also taken the leap across the border into the US with an initial ‘beta-test’ in a few selected markets.
“I do enjoy going into grocery stores and there's a centre aisle, which is packed with tons of potato chip bags and all these huge brands putting out lots of different products that look fairly similar - it's just rows and rows of junk food. It used to be that natural foods were kind of their own section tucked away in the corner. I’ve enjoyed seeing how natural foods and snacking has slowly blended throughout the store. It will be featured at the end of rows, which is prime real estate when it comes to grocery stores. I’ve enjoyed seeing that in the last five years. I feel like we're just getting started because I live in this wonderful microcosm in Vancouver with folks that are athletic, they're health conscious, it's a highly educated community in the lower mainland."
"We're certainly way ahead of the US so this year we started shipping into the US and we're just focusing on those individual areas. Those pockets with folks are identifying that healthy snacking and healthy eating directly correlates to things like healthy weight and making sure they maintain nutritional integrity that they need in their diet.”
As the company has expanded and continues to explore different markets they have been on the lookout for potential partners and collaborations in the region; ‘we are always looking to work with great people’ says Thomson. As sales continue to grow in the States, Thomson says they are keen to work with local suppliers and distributors.
“Generally, we look to work with suppliers as soon as we can, whether it's for sourcing food or materials boxes working with contractors in technology roles or design roles. We've had a couple of marketing contractors that we work with. There are a lot of roles that can be done virtually all over the place and we appreciate that. But we're based in Vancouver, and as much as humanly possible, unless it's a completely non interchangeable job I would love for us to work with partners as we can in the lower mainland and Cascadia Corridor. This is where we're from, and this is the local economy that we're working to support. So that's the priority.”
Naked Snacks are still growing their team at a pace, and at the time of writing they are looking for great marketers and photographers with industry experience in the region. Thomson speaks of a unique passion that he has for the healthy snack space, and the admiration he has for others who share the same drive, describing it as ‘a beauty of the food industry’. Finding the right talent is a challenge for many startups, but Thomson is confident that they have the right mix. We asked him to tell us a little bit about the team at Naked Snacks, and his experience leading them through the startup years.
“My leadership style is very much to identify the vision and the goal of what we're trying to achieve and empower whoever's working toward that to understand and recognize how the work that they do can get us to where we need to be. And through that I am absolutely happy to guide and support as much as I can. So much of it is about actually just empowering and stepping back. So, we've just hired an operations coordinator and a marketing coordinator, and they're both extremely talented young folks.
“They've only been with us for a few short weeks, but throughout the process that I just described, being able to sort of set them up and it all starts with hiring well and making sure that the people that are hired have the character traits and the skillset to be able to achieve, and then just being confident in their ability to get there. And it's a wonderful thing because it's such a win-win for both people. For the leader in that I can step back if I know that I've hired well, and I've also sort of illuminated the path forward, I can step back and I can watch these talented people go ahead and get their work done and achieve wonderful things. When we achieve the goal that's been set for us there's celebration, and all sorts of recognition. I think it's easy to find people who enjoy working in that environment.”
Given that he has had several bites at the career-cherry, switching continents and countries, we asked Thomson what three key lessons he has learned from his journey so far.
1. Perseverance is everything. It really is. A career is absolutely a marathon and perseverance is everything.
2. Seeing and believing in the best in people. I absolutely believe that nobody wakes up in the morning and says,’ I'm going to be really bad at my job today.’ That doesn't exist. People want to be seen; they want to be great. They want to be awesome. And it's important to believe that. That is something that I've learned along the way.
3. To continuously be open to learning. Whether it's learning things that relate within a professional context or things that are related to me as a leader, trying to develop my skills, become a better leader, become a more effective leader, reading about the industry, it’s a lifelong thing.”
Being a Brit myself, I couldn’t let Thomson leave without asking for his insight on the differences that he has seen between a career in London and here in the Pacific Northwest.
" I love the folks who work here and folks who we work with, really do feel passionate about the space that they fill in the world. When I think about working in London so much of it was about paychecks and suits and corporate cards and fonts on business cards and things like that. Working at investment banks and at the same time interacting with those same people who did not feel at all motivated or jazzed about the work that they were doing. I find that a lot of the folks who work here, whether it was previously working in the clean tech renewable space, or now in the natural food space broadly and the sort of entrepreneurial ecosystem. There are a lot of folks here who want to see things change in the world and want to see certain types of companies flourish and want to see certain action take place. There are a lot of people who are willing to work hard to see the world change in the ways that they want it to.”
You can find out more about Naked Snacks here: https://www.nakedsnacks.ca/