As a good way to start, tell us about AKUA – when did the idea for the company first come to you and how did it come together?
Courtney Boyd Myers: In 2016, I was invited to visit my first restorative kelp farm. It was about a 5-minute boat ride into the Thimble Islands near New Haven, Connecticut. Not too far from where I grew up, actually. The ocean farm structure was completely underwater except for a few buoys. You could say it wasn’t even that impressive (or very impressive depending on how you look at it!). But when I took a bite of a piece of kelp that had been grown from a rope in the water, I was completely hooked. I learned that this virtuous sea veggie is not only healthy for us to eat, but it is also healthy for the planet and the local economy. I knew I had to get more people eating ocean-farmed kelp. And that’s exactly what I set out to do with AKUA.
Where is AKUA now in its growth story?
Courtney Boyd Myers: We’re at the toddler stage. We’re just learning to waddle on our short stubby legs. As the Company Mama, I am finally able to take a breath. Especially now that we’ve passed the highly vulnerable stage of infancy. We’re also gearing up for our seed round next year. At which point, I’m excited to make some new hires and move from scrappy-startup stage to a startup poised-to-scale!
What’s your biggest strength as a CEO? What key decisions did you make that contributed to taking the company to where it is now?
Courtney Boyd Myers: I am an intrepid community builder. I love the idea of building our AKUA tribe as large and wide as possible. When I first started working on AKUA, I didn’t know how to start a food business. So, I created a Facebook Group and called it #OMGCPG, and added all the CPG founders I knew. Now, the group has over 1,000 members and is one of the industry’s top resources for sharing knowledge.
As a community builder, I also see a lot of value in crowdfunding. We launched Kelp Jerky on Kickstarter in 2018 and raised over $70,000 from 1,200 people. These early supporters became our first customers. Now, we’re raising funds on Republic to bring our Kelp Burger to market and we’ve brought in over $250,000 from 600+investors. Which is amazing. By participating in these community-driven initiatives, we are literally building an army of AKUA supporters who are all out there fighting in the world for us to succeed.
What’s your favorite thing about your business? What’s the most important thing that you want people to know about the work that you do?
Courtney Boyd Myers: We are building a company by and for ocean lovers. This means we get to partner with ocean-loving brands and work with ocean-loving people. It means our marketing is all about loving the ocean and letting the ocean love you back. I love that. I’ve always wanted to be a mermaid. Being CEO of AKUA is about as close as it gets!
In the beginning, how did you set out to reach and build your customer following? What changed about your go-to-market strategy during this year?
Courtney Boyd Myers: Since we started the company on Kickstarter, we’ve created a really passionate group of supporters. We continued to grow that group through social media and email marketing, and by leaning heavily on ecommerce. We relied on ecommerce from the start for two reasons. Firstly, my background is in tech and startups. Naturally, I felt most comfortable selling our products online vs. in retail. Secondly, our products require a decent amount of consumer education. It’s just a lot easier (and more fun) to do that online.
Talk about the people you work with, inside your company or through partnerships. What’s your favorite thing about working with them? What communication strategies do you use to maintain a strong and cohesive relationship with your employees and partners?
Courtney Boyd Myers: Our core team is lean, hard-working, and emotionally available. We are all driven by our mission at AKUA. There’s never a moment’s doubt that we’re all here for the right reasons. We are bonded by a shared sense of altruism. When it comes to comms strategies, we’ve built our company to operate remotely from day one. Hence, we’ve been well-equipped to handle the forced remote working situation of the pandemic. We use Slack, WhatsApp, Zoom, Trello, and we’re considering adding Asana as we scale.
What has been the biggest challenge for you during COVID-19 as the CEO of AKUA? How are you managing it?
Courtney Boyd Myers: Fundraising during a pandemic. It was a really tough time meeting investors over Zoom and selling them on the vision for AKUA vs. being in-person and biting into Kelp Burgers together over a cold IPA. Throughout the year, people have felt varying degrees of fear and discomfort. That hasn’t made asking people for money any easier. We ended up raising about $250K in private funding as a bridge. Afterwards, we launched an equity crowdfunding campaign on Republic, where we’ve raised the same amount in 6 weeks (& counting!)
If you could do it all over again, would you do anything differently? What would that be?
Courtney Boyd Myers: We raised $565,000 in our first financing round, which at the time felt like A LOT of dough. Looking back though, we should’ve raised a larger first round – closer to $1M so that we had enough money in the bank to not only pay ourselves, but also to hire a small team. I think early investors should insist that founders take small salaries. Otherwise, they may not be working full-time on the business and since they are working multiple jobs, they are at greater risk of burning out. Money is a currency that represents an energetic exchange in the workplace, and it’s important to have it flowing in a healthy loop, even when you’re just getting started.
Is there any lesson that you’ve personally learned this year that you think is important to pass on to other people who are just starting out in the industry?
Courtney Boyd Myers: In many ways, the food & beverage industry is very antiquated. This year really forced a lot of modernization, particularly when it comes to the technology and systems management, distribution, and communications. While this is great, it has shed a light on how much more transformation needs to take place. There are still a lot of people in our industry who refuse to use email, expect printed out materials, and are just stuck in the proverbial stone age. And so instead of adapting to 2020, they just shut off and stayed in limbo. That can be hugely frustrating for a newcomer who can see the potential, but are put off by the self-inflicted limitations.
Where do you see AKUA in a year’s time?
Courtney Boyd Myers: Hopefully on the beach together enjoying a team surf retreat in Hawaii!
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