Tell us about IWON. How did it come together?
Mark Samuel: Back in 2016, I became involved with a bag company called Fit Mark that I had founded some years prior. I wanted to transition and continue to be in health and wellness. So, I looked for the void in the food and beverage industry and I found it in the savory protein snack category, specifically with plant-based proteins like peas. It was then that I innovated the first protein chip.
By 2018, about a year and a half into IWON, I had figured out what the food and beverage industry looked like as far as distribution, co-packers, manufacturing, margin requirements and the like are concerned. We had moved on from the original chips we were working on, which was a pretty good product. But it wasn’t really where we wanted to be at as far as taste and texture and overall snacking experience goes. Now, we focus on extruded snacks like puffs and sticks which comprise the two main types of snacks that IWON offers today. I would say, we’ve definitely forged ahead since those days. Now, we sell at more than 5000 stores nationally.
How did you strike that balance between crafting something that’s universally appealing palate-wise and still meeting your standards of being healthy?
Mark Samuel: It required a lot of work over time. Again, early on, I had to figure out what these ingredients did vis-a-vis their nutritional make-up, and what the outcome would be as far as taste and texture were concerned. We also applied different types of toppings for seasoning to really get that overall taste, that punky taste that we wanted to be known for. When it comes to food and beverage products, you want people to come back. And the only way that they will come back is if they get that overall experience when it comes to taste and texture. Our core principle of balanced nutrition comes from our ingredient choices. Using peas and beans and rice is how we came to where we’re at. That’s the foundation to everything we do.
Let’s talk about organizational strengths. What key things went into taking your company where it is now?
Mark Samuel: For me, it’s just all about teamwork. We’re a small team, but we are mighty. We have five people on our team, and we all play our positions just like any team in any sporting event they’re competing in . It’s just that we’re in the food and beverage business. We look at it like that. It’s important that we have to go in as a team everyday.
The only thing to do at a high-level performance situation is to make sure that everyone is playing their part. Everyone has to focus on to what they’re supposed to be doing. If everybody does that, usually, you’re going to have some good outcomes. There’s always going to be things that will come your way, obstacles and things that you’re going to have to overcome. But so long as everyone is focused and dedicated on the why of the business, then you’re going to get through it.
If teamwork is the heart of your organizational integrity, what about your external relationships? Were there any particular partnerships that you think helped you guys going through the years?
Mark Samuel: All of them. I’m big on vendor and supplier partnership. Everybody has to treat it like a partnership. Whether it’s from your co-packer all the way down to the mailman, everybody has to be treated with respect, and treated like they’re working within your organization. If you do that, there’s a lot of great things that will come out of it. We’ve been very lucky with our partnerships. Like, sure, there will be some who will fail you in a certain way. If those setbacks can’t be overcome, then you’re going to look for new opportunities when needed.
When it comes to CPG, the key is being able to communicate the value of your product to your target consumers. In your journey to building your customer following, what do you think helped you communicate the winning value of your snacks?
Mark Samuel: We’re a health and fitness platform. Everything that we do is about health. Everything from the brand side, even from the personal brand side with myself through LinkedIn and other social platforms, everybody knows that I talk about health and fitness and wellness. Doing everything for your body, both mentally and physically, comes from nutrition and exercise.
If we continue to talk in that way, to talk about the core values that we’re about, which is not only winning on nutrition, but also winning on every facet of life, and understanding that balance, it spills over to how we manage every aspect of our business, including branding. We’re a key advocate of balance in everything in all ways.
And as long as these values continue to be promoted not just through IWON, but also through our personal brands, the positivity of it and the message of it will really transcend to consumers. Hopefully, that’s what our consumers will take from the overall brand experience.
I’ve read that you’re a fan of influencer marketing. Aside from that, what were your key go-to-market strategies before COVID-19? Have they changed?
Mark Samuel: We call it influencer marketing, but we want to think of it as partnership marketing. We have different types of micro-influencers. Those who have our snacks, and those that would actually eat our snacks on the weekly or monthly basis. If they want to share their experience with it, then that’s great. We don’t really push any levers when it comes to things like that. We like organic natural marketing. To answer the second question, nothing has really changed for us over the years. We stick to blocking and tackling and building the business. It’s all about consistency no matter what things come your way.
Do you think this sense of consistency, has it helped you weather the challenges of this year? Were there challenges that encountered, any disruptions to your supply side or distribution side?
Mark Samuel: That’s a good question. We’re dealing with a little supply chain issue right now. We’ve been fairly lucky and blessed thus far. Our current supply chain issue is kind of isolated to one thing so we’re working through it. Those who are a little bit smaller and emerging have been able to avoid some of the major setbacks that the major players are dealing with as far as the supply chain is concerned. Again, you don’t want to be emerging where there’s a tipping point that’s going to slow you down. But all in all, we’ve been fairly lucky across the board when it comes to the supply chain.
Did you find that you had much more to be thankful for this year?
Mark Samuel: Yeah, I look at it as being fortunate and blessed just to be able to continue to work each day on this platform that we’re passionate about. Every single day that we have the opportunity to grow the business, every single day that the lights are on, every single day that we have money in the bank, every single day that our retail partnerships continue to improve, every single time that new partnerships come to us saying, “Hey, we continue to hear good things about you,”—I’d consider it a great day for us. That’s how we look at it when it comes to being blessed each and every day we grow the business.
Did you make any adjustments this year that is going to change the way you do business going forward? Whether it’s in the way you market your products, or the way you run your organization?
Mark Samuel: There’s more effort into direct-to-consumer. It was always there from the beginning. But now there has been more pressure to get to direct-to-consumer in line. We’ve spent more time on that in the last six months than we probably would have. Which is fine for us. We plan on having a robust direct-to-consumer business as we continue to grow. We’re a small team. We’ve been lucky to be able to work remotely even before this. There’s a couple of us that come into an office that we have, which is local to where I’m at. We will continue to do that, even after we add a few more people next year. But we’ll most likely remain working remotely.
I know that you’ve been working for start-ups and in fitness for more than 19 years. Were there any key lessons that you learned that you brought into how you manage IWON?
Mark Samuel: All of them. Since I first got involved with start-ups, every day has provided a context to develop myself. As a founder, as a leader, as a teammate. I’m commited to continuously improving, not just for myself, but also for the business, and everybody who is involved. We’re never going to be at peak performance. The day that somebody thinks they’ve reached their peak is the day they set themselves up for decline. You’re going to want to absorb new information. You’ve got to be ready to learn to be the best that you can be for the future.
Are there other things that you do aside from IWON that speaks to your vision of being healthy and what that means as the core principle of your business?
Mark Samuel: I’ve been a fitness enthusiast for 20 years, and that will never change. I’m a six-day a week gym goer. Sometimes, it could be a seven-day as far as active rest. Even then, active rest to me is still going out for a mild jog. I’m a firm believer that health is wealth. Nothing else that is going to set you up to be more successful than having your health be the foundation of everything that you do. It starts with nutrition and ends in the gym. You don’t need to be into Crossfit or Orangetheory.
What you need to do is move in any way. That could be yoga, telethon, or walking around the block six times. Anything to get your body moving each and every day for a minimum of 30 to 45 minutes is key to everything else that you’re going to be doing in life. Because without that, without movement, you really aren’t going to be able to do the great things that you have the opportunity of doing.
Given your experience, is there any advice you would give people aspiring to build their own brand and name in the CPG and food industry? How do they stay on top of their game?
Mark Samuel: Patience. The key thing for me that I’m bringing into this that I wasn’t able to prior is a little more patience. I have two young kids, and I look at having them as the day that things have changed for the better when it comes to me developing that skillset. But there’s still room for me to better myself each and every day. Patience is key to wanting to build something lasting and long-standing, specifically when it comes to food and beverage, because nothing worthwhile comes easy. You have to learn how to be okay with being settled, and that doesn’t mean you’re putting your foot off the gas. It just means you’re being patient. You want to be patient with all things as far as wanting to build the business each and every day.
If you could do it all over again, would you do anything differently? What would that be?
Mark Samuel: Early on, there were just a lot of things to learn, as far as distribution, product make-up, costing and margin requirements and the like were concerned. If I could take those times back, I would have saved some money and resources. But I’m a move-forward-type of person. I can’t look back. I can look back as far as taking those experiences and supplying them to what we’re going to do tomorrow – as lessons. It comes down to: you’re going to get punched in the face a few times and some of that is going to come out of your pocket. But that’s just the way things land. But if you have the opportunity to move forward, despite these things, then you’ll be blessed to be able to do that.
Want to shine the spotlight on a business you admire?
Send them our way! Touch base with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us tell their story.