Walk me through the birth of D’Vash Organics. How did you realize that date syrup is a viable product for retail in the U.S.?
David Czinn: My business partner, Brian Finkel, was living in Israel at the time. He was the one that told me that date syrup was ubiquitous. Every supermarket you went to in the Middle East had date syrup. I had never heard of date syrup. But then, ten years ago, not many people had heard of hummus either. Until a company called Sabra decided to introduce that product to the United States. They ended up becoming the premier hummus company. Now, they’re on every single table all over the U.S.
With more and more people nowadays wanting to eat healthier and eat cleaner, date syrup seemed to me like the perfect alternative to popular sweeteners. When I conducted market research, I found that most of the date syrups in the U.S. were international products. And their marketing and branding simply didn’t really fit the U.S. market. Ultimately, it became clear that we had the perfect opportunity to give date syrup our own spin. Like a lot of other businesses, D’Vash Organics started out at the farmer’s market, and it was there that we really proved out the concept.
How did you make sure that your version of date syrup fit the U.S. Market? What makes yours stand out?
David Czinn: Everybody has a sweet tooth and everybody’s looking for healthier ways to fill their sweet-tooth craving. D’Vash checks a lot of the boxes because it has 25% less sugar than honey, it’s vegan, and we make it locally. In California, we have a lot of date farms. We buy and use the ugly produce dates in order to reduce food waste. As you know, the honeybees in the US are dying. So, the price of honey is only going to keep going up every single year. Dates offer a really great alternative. It’s one of those products where the timing is just right.
Looking back on those first few years, where would you say your business is at right now, in terms of your own success metrics?
David Czinn: COVID-19 made 2020 a really hard year for everyone, but at the same time, it forced us to pivot. And because of that, we’ve had one of our most successful years to date. We just rolled out a test in Costco. We’re currently launching new products: chocolate-covered dates and superfood bars. We didn’t expect to do these things this early in our business life cycle. But I think they’re the best decisions we ever made. Hopefully, 2021 will be even better than 2020, and that we continue on this incredible trajectory.
We owe it to the fact that, instead of us just creating and building products that we like, we started asking our consumers, our buyers and the retailers we work with what type of products they were looking for. Then, we built our products around that.
In addition, it was important that we weren’t scared to pivot. Nobody expected the recent events to occur. Luckily, Brain and I support one another. It was with that attitude, even during the darkest and hardest times, coupled with our ability to stay positive, that allowed us to figure out a way to face the challenges. Not only that, but we were also able to grow the company and improve.
I want to unpack what you just said. You mentioned that COVID-19 made 2020 especially challenging, but that the year was also your most successful year to date. What kind of challenges did you face and what convinced you that making these decisions, such as rolling out a new product, would be the right opportunity to take during such a chaotic year?
David Czinn: It was flight-or-fight mode. We realized that we had been holding ourselves back. We needed to take certain steps in order for the business to survive. The year 2020 really pushed us to do things that I now believe we should have done much earlier on. So, the fact that we were able to do things so quickly shows that it’s very much mind-over-matter.
For instance, a couple of our retailers placed a large order. Only to let us know later that they were delaying their initial orders – after we already made the product. As a small company, it was important to find a home for these orders. If we didn’t, then we would have just tied up all this working capital in inventory.
I thought to myself, if we could get through this, we could get through anything.
When you were building your marketing strategy, what kind of people did you imagine would be drawn to D’Vash Organics and how did you reach out to them?
David Czinn: We always knew that our target market were people in the health and wellness space. One of the hardest things was really educating people about our product. So, we reached out to people who had access to the communities that were made up of our target market. Men and women between 25 to 45, who were into clean eating, and health and wellness.
We started reaching out to chefs and bartenders on Instagram. It was important for us to find our super fans by figuring out where our community went, who they followed, who they got information from, etc. And then, we reached out to those people and converted them into D’Vash superfans. One thing led to another, and it turned out to be a really incredible approach. It yielded tremendous ROI.
So, you made it clear that D’Vash Organics is not just for individual households. You also supply to businesses. What types of business is D’Vash Organics date syrup perfect for?
David Czinn: It goes great with oatmeal, yogurt, baked goods, tea and coffee. There are a lot of bar companies, sweet companies, and baking companies that are partnering with us. Basically, anybody who uses maple syrup or honey.
The question most people usually have is the taste. Do California dates taste just as good as honey and maple syrup? It’s one of those things that once people try it, they end up liking it.
Still, we had to do a lot of the heavy lifting on our end to really educate people because all of the people we contact often remark, “I didn’t even know what date syrup was.” So, now we’re working with a chocolate company, an ice cream company, and a butter company – basically anyone who is using sweets in their product – as part of our campaign to continue educating our target consumers.
And how has your campaign to educate consumers about date syrup been like?
David Czinn: Some people were really nice. Others were really excited to learn more. And some were a little cold and standoffish and had no interest in trying something new.
It’s definitely hard. At the same time, we like the challenge. For us, we just want people to try the product. If people try it, then we certainly look at it as a win. That was the biggest focus for us. How do we get people to try it? How can we get people to even consider this? We are confident that after enough time, even the people who said ‘no’ in the beginning will come around. We just had to get it into their hands.
How did you get the product into people’s hands? With the onset of COVID-19, how did you adapt your strategies to the times?
David Czinn: It took a lot of time, a lot of energy, but we finally figured out a strategy. Instead of reaching out to people with a million followers, we started to reach out to regular people – with 5,000 to 25,000 followers. It gave us the opportunity to really communicate with people who were into products like ours, who had access to our markets and who were genuinely happy to receive the products to try. They were excited to be offered something new and excited that it was healthy and it tasted good. That was a really incredible discovery for us.
Since then, we’ve rolled out an entire Ambassador program that’s dedicated around chefs and bartenders. We have incredibly talented and amazing people who are constantly making engaging content on a daily basis, and it’s all organic. We still have a long road to go. But we’ve been able to gain over 15,000 followers on Instagram. We’re proud of the fact that that growth is organic. We invested in partnerships and outreach, rather than traditional and costly advertising strategies, to generate awareness.
What is your growth strategy from a business standpoint?
David Czinn: We are always excited to create. We know that people are cooking at home more than ever before. So, having a product as a sweetener is amazing. But having something ready-to-eat like a bar or a bite is going to generate a lot more awareness a lot quicker as well. Our new product – the bars, the chocolate and rogue dates – are going to open us up to a whole new and versatile market.
Firstly, they’re much easier to share and to take with you. If somebody has a bottle of sweetener at home, the only people who are seeing that are their friends and family at home. Whereas a bar is something that they can take with them to work. It’s something that they can eat everyday. It’s definitely a smart way to build the foundation of a household brand a lot faster.
Secondly, you get a lot more eyes on the product that way. We’re confident it will lead to a pipeline of educating people about why the date syrup is good for you because they’re being used in products that we are creating.
You talked about working with bartenders and chefs, and other people who have influence on your target market. Is there a criteria for choosing the kinds of people or the firms that you enter into partnerships with?
David Czinn: We base our outreach on engagement and content. We work with people who really create beautiful content. Do we like the pictures they take and the stories they tell? Do we like the way they engage with their current fans and customers? If everything checks out, then we’re more than happy to move forward with them.
For any business, I think it’s important to work with people who align properly with your brand. For D’Vash Organics, we look for role model partners. Creativity is number one, engagement is number two, and number three is whether or not they share our vision and values as a company.
Speaking of the company, are you working with people besides Brian or is it mostly the two of you?
David Czinn: We’re a small team of six people. We’re fortunate to have such a great team. Our marketing director, Nicole, is really fantastic. She goes above and beyond. She has spearheaded a lot of projects, and we can’t thank her enough for that.
Do you have any experience with outsourcing?
David Czinn: Yes. We have three positions on our team that we outsource: our head of e-commerce, our directors of business development, and one of our directors of operation. And it’s been an incredible experience. They’ve been really great at helping us grow our company. They’re incredibly hard working. In fact, they actually work harder than the people working in the office because they feel the need to really go the extra mile. In the end, they have become a real part of the team.
Before COVID-19, we used to work out of a WeWork. Now that everybody’s working remotely, we use Zoom or Skype or Whatsapp.
Honestly, I miss the office because I’m an extrovert. I miss seeing people, and I miss communicating with people.
But at the same time, Zoom and Skype have been good enough. With remote work, it’s become completely normal to run a business without having everybody work in the same place. I think outsourcing is inevitably going to be an important part of our business solutions moving forward.
Just to put it into context, Albertson has laid off all of their full-time drivers. They’re outsourcing that part of their business to DoorDash. Companies like Amazon, Verizon, Intel, Robinhood, you name it, they’re all outsourcing people. I look at it as, “Let’s learn from the best,” and let’s figure out a way to do it better.
In the case of D’Vash, outsourcing has allowed us to grow, build a team affordably, scale efficiently, and really take our business to the next level. When COVID hit, we didn’t really know how we were going to stay afloat. With outsourcing, we’ve been able to save the company a tremendous amount of money.
There are a lot of incredible people out there who can help you scale much faster and much more affordably. For us, outsourcing was the best thing we ever did. My biggest regret is that we didn’t do it sooner.
With the kind of organizational structure that you have, how do you make sure that you’re able to integrate all of your employees, regardless of where they are and where they’re working from?
David Czinn: I talk and have a mental check-in with everybody everyday. I know this is a very difficult time for a lot of people and it’s very important that we’re mindful of that. Putting work aside, I ask everybody how things are going, how they’re doing, how their family is doing – and anything that people feel is acceptable to share, we’re willing to listen.
People always say that you can’t become friends with your employees. I completely disagree. If you want things to work, you have to have a level of mutual respect. At the end of the day, we’re all human. Between Brian and I, we’ve learned to put our friendship before everything else. That’s why working together is such a good thing.
It’s the same thing with our employees. I think we’ve really treated our team the same way that we want to be treated. One of our employees lost her father last year. She asked for a day off. I told her, “Take two weeks off. I wish I could do more for you.”
One of the lessons of COVID-19 is that we really have to come together. It’s crucial that we take a step back, and that we make sure that everybody is really mentally doing okay. Life is hard enough as it is, and if you add something like a pandemic on top of it, it becomes a bit much.
It’s crucial for everyone at D’Vash to know that we’re here for them, whether it’s work or it’s personal. Anybody that we bring on our team, that we spend time training and working with, we hope to have them as part of the company for the long-term. And you need honesty, transparency, and respect to make that work.
Speaking of COVID-19, what has been the biggest challenge for you during 2020? What did you learn about yourself and your relationship with the company, and how did you overcome it?
David Czinn: COVID-19 makes you really self-reflect. For me, personally, 2020 was a lot. My grandmother passed away, my wedding was cancelled – not once, but twice. On top of that, my little brother was diagnosed with COVID-19. Thankfully he’s okay now. All of these things made me realize that you can’t take and shouldn’t take anything for granted. That’s one of the most important things that I learned in this whole process.
Being an entrepreneur, launching a company is filled with ups and downs. I think there were so many times, more than I can count on my hands, that I truly thought we weren’t going to get back up. But the team work and dedication from everybody on our team, especially working with Brian, really showed me that we can get through anything. Once you put your mind to something, and if you have the right team with you and behind you, you can get through anything and everything. Even though the mountain kept getting larger and larger, we knew we were going to get to the top of it, especially after constantly overcoming one hurdle after another.
I think 2020, even though it was filled with a lot of difficulty and negativity, really pushed us to realize how fortunate we are. We’re so blessed to get to do what we love everyday on a regular basis, and we get to build something amazing. The year really showed me how far we’ve come, how much we’ve learned, and how much we’re going to do in the future. And that’s really the coolest thing. This is just the beginning.
If you could do it all over again, would you do anything differently? What would that be?
David Czinn: I would have hired a team sooner than we did. In the beginning, as an entrepreneur, you always think that you have to do it on your own. That nobody can do it as good as you. Or that you won’t be able to find somebody who cares just as much or somebody who will take the time to do it the way that you would. That’s simply not true.
You can find a lot of incredible people out there who are going to give you their all and help you take your vision across the finish line. And I think any company that’s out there that’s a team of one, the number one thing I would tell them is to figure out how you’re going to get a team and grow efficiently. Because that is what’s going to help you succeed.
At the end of the day, it’s still all sales and marketing. Today, in the world that we live in, even if you have a great product, even if you have strong margins, you still need to make sure that you’re marketing the product appropriately. And the key to educating the people about your product the right way is having people on your team who believe in your product as much as you do.
You’ve given us a lot of sound advice. Did you have mentors who’ve given you indispensible advice? What piece of advice did they give you that you think remains an important part of D’Vash’s journey to this day?
David Czinn: When I was starting out, I used to walk the floors of the tradeshow and I would ask anyone and everyone for help. There were two people in particular – Barry Turner, the CEO of Lenny and Larry’s cookies, and the other one is Michael Galante the vice president of Walker’s Shortbread Cookies, and along with a few other people, who really helped make the right decisions.
They taught me a lot of things. Calculate the margins appropriately. Figure out what the distributors are going to take, and what Amazon is going to take. Determine how much money to allocate towards marketing, and how long it takes to invest in a marketing scheme to see a proper ROI, and when to cut various marketing trials if they didn’t work. They also taught me what type of promotions to implement in retail, how to figure out the best ways to test the product instead of manufacturing half a million units, and really see what sells.
Having access to people who have done it before really saved us a lot of time and a lot of money. As an entrepreneur, you’re always going to make mistakes. But you can reduce the amount of mistakes you make if you’re willing to ask people for advice.
Overall, we’ve been lucky and fortunate to meet with people who have been very generous with their time, and we are big believers in paying it forward and in helping other people. We’re actually going to be mentoring someone from Colombia next month, who’s an entrepreneur who has a food company over there. And we’re gonna help them. It’s through the US government. We’re going to be helping them grow their business, give them guidance and advice, and hopefully educating them in the same way we were taught early on as well.
I just remembered what Alli Owen said about finding the people who can help you – you don’t necessarily have to be talking to the GM of General Mills. You could just talk to CEO of the company that is one step ahead of you and it can make all the difference.
David Czinn: Exactly. Every business is different so you need to have your own unique take. But almost everyone runs in the same initial problems and headaches. If you can speak with someone who has done it before, my hope, at least, is that you’ll gain something from their guidance and advice. And you’ll be able to move on to a better path than you were before.
After everything, what advice would you give entrepreneurs who look at D’Vash Organics as the company that’s one step ahead of them?
David Czinn: There are two things. One, make sure to hire people that are smarter than you. Don’t hire people that are constantly saying that you’re right all the time. Make sure to hire people that you trust and that you believe you can learn from.
Two, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Too many people are scared to ask for help. They’re scared to pivot and change and go into different directions. The year 2020 taught us that you have to be open to changing, and of other people’s guidance and advance. Some of the best companies come from moments of change. You have to be able to change with the world when the world wants change.
As an entrepreneur, you can’t have the mindset of ‘it’s my way or the highway’. You have to really be open to amending your beliefs and your products and doing what’s best for the company. Don’t get married to any of your ideas, and if there’s someone that can help you get to the top, don’t be scared to take it.
Where can we expect to see D’Vash Organics in a year’s time?
David Czinn: This is going to be our biggest year yet. We’ve got our big test rolling out with Costco. If that goes well, hopefully we’ll be in all the regions by year’s end. With all of the new products we’re rolling out, I think we’re going to do incredibly well on Amazon and in Whole Foods. And hopefully we’ll get to sell in a bunch of other stores as well. The sky’s the limit.
For the long term, we’re hoping to become the premier date company in the United States and follow in Sabra’s footsteps. They started out with only a couple of hummus kiosks, and they turned it into a gigantic and successful hummus company, to be later acquired by Pepsi. For us, I think, we’re trying to look at these companies we’re trying to emulate and our mindset is, “if they can do it, so can we”.
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