Michelle May, founder of Seva Foods and Benjii's Canine Cuisine joins us to share the journey from web design/development entrepreneur to packaged food founder. We cover steps and recommendations for founders trying to break into new fields and the challenges of starting a food company.
Speaker 1:0:00Welcome to the zeal interesting podcast. I'm your host, Chris White. Today my cohost is Trevor Yearish. Welcome to back to the podcast, trevor. Well, thank you. I love being here. It's always great to be here with you, Chris. Thanks. And our special guest today is Michelle May. She's the founder of Seva foods. Welcome Michelle.
Speaker 2:0:16Hi, it's great to be here today. Thank you
Speaker 1:0:18so happy to have you on the podcast. We were introduced to you via Don Russell and she told us that there's an interesting story here of how you moved your career from technology and service and consulting into a food products company. So I thought that that would be a great story to share and just kind of hear about where that came out of you. Kind of give us like a tour of your career and how you ended up making packaged foods.
Speaker 2:0:43Sure, yeah. It's not as random of a trajectory three as it might sound. You know, I've always been really interested in food. I've always been someone that really got a lot of joy out of stewed and it's definitely something that, that I'm interested in a lot more I'd say than most people, but I, uh, I started doing web design and development back in my early twenties. I actually went to school for art history and trying to study anything that necessarily would lead to a career path but more so just things that I found interesting. And so that's sort of where I was at and this is early two thousands. And so even though I was at a campus that was extremely wired is case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. It's one of the first universities in the states to really embrace technology and how to get my first email address when I enrolled in this school. So I had the opportunity for a woman's studies course actually to either do a traditional report or to create a mini website. And so that's the route that I chose. And that was actually my first. My first website was a history of goddess iconography, starting with unison, Willendorf and ending with little cam 2000 too.
Speaker 1:1:59I like it. So your, your kind of introduction to web design, web development was not via coursework or curriculum related to that. It was a women's studies studies class for that was just a report option.
Speaker 2:2:12Exactly. You know, I am, I'm completely self taught. I think that because I've studied language pretty much my whole life mine, but my background is Russian and so even though I wasn't lucky enough to be raised bilingually, I definitely heard a lot of Russian growing up and I also studied French in high school so I think I essentially took those skills. I learned, you know, learning language and, and applied that to computer sciences instead. And so when I was in college I was also bartending and working at a wine bar and so I actually, that's where my first kind of pool of clients came from. There were a lot of customers there who had their own businesses and because I struck up a lot of friendships with those people, I got some initial work that way and essentially most of my career have worked that way. I haven't done a lot. I never did a lot of advertising, I really preferred to work with referrals. You tend to work with the best people that way and for most of my career I was a contractor. I've worked for a few companies as a full time employee and within the 15 years that I was a web developer and designer, but primarily really enjoyed working for myself.
Speaker 1:3:15That's super cool. We're a consulting service business and we found that referrals are the best way to get the work that has turned out to be the best for us.
Speaker 2:3:23Yeah. And to enjoy it and to be able to work with people that you enjoy working with, which is extremely important to me.
Speaker 1:3:29Yeah. It was really interesting when you said that when you were, you know, in bartending in the food industry that your clients came from your customers. When you started that sentence, I expected you to say that your clients were like the bars you worked at or related people's food businesses, but you were actually like very much building relationships with your, with your customers and then selling them something else.
Speaker 2:3:50No, and I think that also speaks to the fact that back in that time, not all bars and restaurants are super on it with Internet, with the website, you know, and so it was very much consistent which kind of people and Industries we're looking for web design, looking for that type of marketing. Now of course everybody has to have a website and people would think you're insane if you didn't have one, but back then it was still very much kind of touch and go and I did do a lot of graphic work for those types of companies and so I got to spend a lot of time really learning photoshop in and out because I did lots of flyers and types of marketing. Things like that and all of that of course has really served me into my current career and I'd say that's the best thing about having the background in web design and marketing and really working as sort of a jack of all trades within that realm. Because I was working primarily with small businesses and individuals who really needed me to be either start to finish from logo design, which isn't a huge strength of mine, but I can do it when needed all the way to, you know, maintain their website and so I got to learn a really wide variety of skills. I wouldn't say I excel really, really well and any of those, but I can get it done and that's been great because I've been able to do that for my own companies as well.
Speaker 1:5:00Excellent. So then transitioning, how did you make that transition? Where did the transition happen into starting your own business that was not consulting but product based?
Speaker 2:5:10Well, you know, the thing about web design is that I've always really loved it. I loved the challenge of it. I love the, the sort of symbiosis between design and function, you know, and to me I've always. People have always asked me are you a designer or a developer? And I'm that kind of unique 50 slash 50 hybrid because I really enjoyed both aspects, but the reality is I never really was passionate enough about web design and development within itself to grow a company that would be able to sustain this sort of life that I wanted to lead and to be able to accomplish the things in the world that I wanted to. I'm sure I could done that within website development, but it just didn't feel like it was my path. And so about 2014, 2015, I really started doing some soul searching and thinking about what it was that I, that I couldn't be that passionate about.
Speaker 2:5:59And they started thinking about how I could create a career for myself that was more consistent with the things that I'm truly passionate about, which for me as I've said as food, but also wellness and health in general. I'm a longtime Yogi. I've been practicing yoga almost daily for about. We'll see my daughter's 13 so 14 years ago. But can I kind of came into my life around the same time. Thank goodness. And, and so even though he's never super compelled to be a yoga teacher because it was something that obviously I spent a lot of times doing, it seemed like a natural path for me. So I did my training finally and starting teaching yoga started. I'm helping people with their own diets and became a nutrition coach. I'm also was teaching a lot of community cooking classes at the time and just really doing things, kind of putting feelers out, trying different things that I was already interested in at that time I had been working for.
Speaker 2:6:55It was my last Hurrah, my last attempt to be a professional web developer. I was working or a local clothing company called bronner. And so at the end of 2014 I decided that I just, I couldn't do that anymore. That I really wanted to, to be exploring this other path and that I really felt like I could be at the most service to the world. I'm doing something else. Something else that I felt more strongly about. So yeah, 2015 is really when I started putting myself full time into wellness and I did that for about a year, a year and a half before it slowly started to occur to me that I really needed to get out of being customer service oriented industry for several reasons. First of all, you're sort of limited in how many people you can truly affect and help because it's great, you know, if you're helping some, one person can really appreciate it and if you help one person that's going to reverberate and allow them to impact and hopefully bring light to many people in their lives as well.
Speaker 2:7:54But it's still very limited. Um, and so I wanted to find a way to impact and affect and help more people and also I just didn't want to be stuck trading hours for dollars to the rest of my life. And so whether it was web design or teaching yoga or preparing meals for people, it still was very much that model of you put in this time and you get this money. So I really started to think about products that I would potentially be interested in putting all that attention to instead, and so my first product company actually is a company that I'm still working on. I haven't brought it to market yet for several reasons, but it's Benji's canine cuisine to freeze dried human grade organic dog food company and it's something I feel very strongly about. One of my dogs that passed away years ago, he was definitely also a main motivation for me, trying to realizing that life is fleeting and then I didn't need to do something that I felt super strongly about. And so Benji's will be coming out eventually. It's just a little more complicated. It's actually way easier to create snack foods for people then design a whole meal or a dog. So interesting.
Speaker 1:8:59Was the dog food idea driven out of your special needs that your dog had or was it just like your interest in, in how you want it to be feeding your dog?
Speaker 2:9:07Well, I do love dogs and I do like food. So the intersection of both. It's definitely. That's awesome. There's a lot to be said for for your other statement as well, because for me, I feel really strongly about that subject and the way that dogs are fed currently is really subpar. It's this seven year experiment and basically that we've had with giving dogs fake food and it's failed miserably. Dogs, I've never had it so good, at least in this country in terms of lifestyle, you know, they're very well cared for and most people treat their dogs like their children. However dog's life spans have been essentially cut in half since we started feeding them fake food. So I really would love to help people learn how to feed these really important beings in their life in a way that's the fitting of them and that really enhances their life.
Speaker 2:9:55And that's not to say that it can't happen with a kibble. It's just that a lot of the cables that are out there right now, they weren't designed with dogs and mine. They're designed with economy and convenience in mind. And so with Benji is the thing that's really cool about it is that not only is it the world's first 100 percent organic human grade freeze dried food plant based as well, but it's also the first dog food or any pet food that I know of to be designed with zero synthetic nutrients. So everything that's in there that's been put in there very carefully to make sure it meets all of their nutritional standards comes from real food. And I think that's the way that animals bodies were designed to take in nutrients and that's a model that we should be working to get back towards.
Speaker 1:10:41So as far as like, I don't know very much about dog food, with the freeze dried food, is that how you serve it to the, to your pet or is it, do you have to prepare it after you've purchased it or.
Speaker 2:10:52Well the nice thing about freeze dried isn't marries the advantages of both food and kibble. So you have the convenience of the capital because it's something that can be stored actually for a lot longer than chemical. Because with freeze dried foods, because there's no water left, you can keep things for up to 35 years if they're still in their environments also with these dry and you were say you retain about 95 percent of the nutrients, you definitely don't see that with any of the kibbles. Essentially what they're doing with most kibbles is they're heating it to such a high temperature that all of the inherent nutrients are removed and then they're putting it back in to meet the standards with sheer synthetic nutrients. But with freeze dried you just add water. It's about three times less than non freeze dried foods. So it's super easy to store and to ship and then it's very easy to get to your dog. So that's. I want to meet people where they're at, you know, and the crazy dog ready who cooks for their dogs every day. And full disclosure, I don't have children yet. So you know, I know that there's a lot of people who can't and won't do that for many reasons and it shouldn't keep people from still feeding their dogs the best food possible.
Speaker 3:11:57That's awesome. I'm curious, these two ventures, so seva obviously first and then Benji's is is you said coming along. I didn't. I did look through the site and read, read quite a bit about it and the taste ammonia's and whatnot are fantastic. What I'm really curious about is in this adventure that you started, you said you started about four years ago, three to four years ago on savings and
Speaker 2:12:23savers where we sent the same as this in the past year, year and a half.
Speaker 3:12:26Oh, so you started Benji's first.
Speaker 2:12:29Oh Wow. And I got stuck in it. Make It. Don't make sense to you when you hear about where I am now is Seva because essentially I got stuck in the same place. The reason, the only reason that then Jesus hasn't been brought to market yet is because I don't have a big enough freeze dryer. It's even a bigger issue. To give you an idea, I can make enough food for one of my dogs to eat for a week in the priesthood. It's not a very big machine, so when I'm doing it doesn't scale well at all and so what I've been doing since the time of Benji's, which is basically started working on benches and about 2016, is looking for a freeze dryer manufacturer that's willing to work outside of the box because most of them, you know, we're lucky that we're here in California where most of the countries produce is grown and so there's a lot of freeze drying here, but they don't want allergens and they're so with Benji's it's the Melanin, the chickpeas, and then with my ice cream it's the cashews and the coconut. So that's been the key in terms of making things more affordable in terms of being able to create the volumes I need to work with some of the bigger distributors. All of that really rests on the ability to harness this freeze drying technology, which you know, it's a good problem to have. It's, it's frustrating. Especially since like with Benji's, I've been working for almost three years now, but it really also inspires me because I know I'm onto something that's new and that hasn't been done yet because there's really not there yet.
Speaker 3:13:53You strapping these ventures, are you, have you sought investment? Are you taking investment for these ventures?
Speaker 2:14:00You know, I have sought investment for both or Benji's. We had a little bit in an investment just to get the initial freeze dryers and the initial freeze dryers were then parlayed into what we've done with Seva and then with Seda we've taken a little bit of investment and we were doing around right now I don't want to jinx myself, but I think they may be close to closing the second round. We did a friends and family back in December, but we are keeping things super lane in terms of expenditures and I'm, I'm, I'm very grateful that we're able to at least not have a burn rate. So right now we're able to pay. Our employees are able to read up on ingredients and packaging and pay for our kitchen and that's hire anybody for your marketing lipsyte. That's me, these
Speaker 3:14:48two very beautiful real rich sites and I'm obviously assuming, and I think you, you just confirmed that you're the one who created all of these materials, so oftentimes when a owner is founding a company and bootstrapping their companies, this is a major hurdle for them, is getting this piece, getting the the sort of in your world, this is getting your product idea out there, getting it in front of people, showing them something they can really buy into, want to sink their teeth into and so I'm curious having that ability, having developed that ability as a. As a web developer and designer, has that been a real empowering thing for you when you have ideas to be able to manifest something tangible of that idea that you could share with?
Speaker 2:15:40Oh my gosh, completely and I know the frustration because I've worked with so many small business people and it's very frustrating not being able to not only create what you see in your mind's eye, but not even being able to express that to someone. Pretty much every experience I've had with a client developing a website, if they don't have a website already, there's going to be massive changes once that first iteration comes online because I had no idea what they want it to begin with. It's so much easier to create something once you have something, even if you hate it, you can at least be like, I don't want that, you know, as opposed to like I don't know what I want. And so for me, I'm 100 percent appreciative of the ability to be able to express myself online and through social and other means in real time.
Speaker 2:16:20Essentially, you know, enable. I have an idea for something I want to implement on the website. I just do it. I don't have to sit around, I don't have to worry about budget and don't have to worry about functionality because I'm the only one that's working in there. So I know exactly what we have going on. It's been probably the biggest blessing of having that previous career really is the ability to do that. And like I said before, you know, I'm sure there's people that can do a much better job than me, but being able to design our own packaging and being able to do our least initial branding has been great and has definitely freed me up to get stressed out about other stuff like quickbooks don't know.
Speaker 1:16:57Well, speaking of stress, it sounds like, you know, there's been a lot of challenges in the manufacturing area. What are some of the biggest challenges that you're kind of looking at in the near future for both of your food companies?
Speaker 2:17:08Well, it's really just figuring out scale. So currently we're producing stabilized, producing at a small kitchen space in Carlsbad, so like I spoke to were trying to keep our costs really low so we don't even have a dedicated kitchen space currently, but it's enough for us to accommodate what we want to do with our current sales. And then our plan is by the end of 2018, we're hoping to be in place where the car manufacturer that will take over at least the ice cream if not those products. We also do a coconut Jerky, which is much more low tech, it's just dehydrated, so that one's pretty easy to take her of the ice cream. I'm hoping we will have scaled up by the end of this year and then we can start going into some larger markets and then once I figure out the solution with the ice cream than than benches is ready to go. He saw the testimonials, so we definitely, um, tested out the product, had it analyzed in the lab so we know that it does indeed and meet those standards that are so important to be selling in the United States. And so we'll be ready to go hopefully on all fronts won't once we make that connection happen.
Speaker 1:18:11That's awesome. Awesome. Question connected to something you said earlier where you made a firm decision to exit website and development and good to health and wellness. What does that process look like for you? It sounds like this is something that you were good at, but it wasn't necessarily where your passion was. Is that kind of how you looked at the decision or what was your mind space at the time, if you can recall?
Speaker 2:18:37No, I was in a really bad space emotionally. My dog, Benji had just been killed in a car accident and still really painful for me. It's extremely painful back then. I definitely worked through a lot of those emotions. My other dogs have been so helpful for me in that and my husband as well, and then I was just really unhappy, really unhappy working for a company that I thought the world of and realizing that that didn't solve any of my problems in that, you know, I worked with some really great people at Pronoun but definitely did not feel heard after being in the industry for almost 13 years. At that point I had, you know, if I was going to work in that space, I needed to be heard creatively and I wasn't, you know, I essentially felt like a email banner generating robot and that wasn't at all what I wanted to be doing with my career and so I just felt like I didn't have a choice.
Speaker 2:19:23It was scary, didn't have a bunch of savings. My then boyfriend now husband was extremely encouraging, just do what you want to do and we'll figure it out and he believes really strongly in me and that was definitely one of the biggest parts that allowed me to make that transition and I'm sensitive to the fact that a lot of people aren't in that position. You know, most people when they're wanting to make a transition, they really have to start working on that transition while you still have a full time job, but I made the sacrifices that were necessary. You know, I, I cut down on my expenditures and really honed in on developing those new crafts that I was working on, so teaching and really dug deep into nutrition and did some certifications and some coursework and I think that's what you have to do if you. If you want to make a transition and you want to follow your dreams and work in a space that feels more authentic for you, I think you just have to dive in all the way. Otherwise it's never going to happen.
Speaker 1:20:20That's such an amazing story. Really is, yeah, that is amazing. So, so save a. If I go to save right now and I shop on sale but I can actually purchase, is that correct? It's live and it's first
Speaker 2:20:35and it's been going. We've been in business since August of last year, so we just had our first birthday we launched initially selling we'll honor website because I was able to create that for us, but actually most of our sales go through Amazon now. Amazon has been an amazing channel for us and the thing that I really love about Amazon is that it's proof of concept. It really shows that Seva foods is not just for southern California, Yogi hippie sound like, but it's really a brand and it's products that should appeal to anyone that's interested in eating in a way that that is both deeply fulfilling but also very nutritious. So the thing I love about our Amazon sales is that you could literally take a dart, throw it at a map of the United States, and that's our customer from every single state. I think it's actually more so the people that live maybe in the south or the Midwest and they don't have access to all the amazing grocery stores that we have and some of the areas that are a little more progressive like why I live here in San Diego. I love the ability to be part of this revolution in food, bringing really wonderful healthy products to people that maybe haven't had access to them before.
Speaker 3:21:44So if you were to give a piece of advice to somebody who is in, you know, really it could be any profession but specifically in, you know, in tech design, web development, and they've been really wanting to build a product, move in a new direction. Right. What piece of advice would you give to a person sitting in that position?
Speaker 2:22:09I think the best thing that they could do and what I feel like what I have done is to be super honest about what your skillset is and what you're good at and what you're not good at and partner with people with the stuff that you're not good at. This. This venture has been my mba essentially, and I'm learning along the way, but it's been also really great to partner with people that have more experience in business than I do. If you come to the table with a really very, very deep skillset and certain things, then there's no reason that you shouldn't be able to find people who are just as passionate as you about the same thing that may be bringing other advantages to the table and so I think that's what it really takes. I mean, you can go about it yourself. I know I can build, save on my own and build Benji's on my own if I want to, but I don't want to take that time. I've got a lot of other things I want to work on and so I've been happy to give equity up and they let loose of the reins a little bit and to let other people in to help me grow the company in areas that I don't naturally excel at.
Speaker 3:23:07Awesome. Do you have any tips on how somebody might go about finding people that would fill in? So the first bit of advice is to be real honest with, with your skillset about your skill set with yourself and embrace your strengths and then look for help with your weaknesses. So once you've done that assessment, what might be a next step for somebody to take to fill in those gaps,
Speaker 2:23:30talk to everybody that you see on a daily basis all the time about it, and because you can't even imagine that the connections that your friends and associates have that he may not. So I think it's really good to put it out there to the universe and to just to people that you know, that you, that you want to do this, that you're looking for someone to help you with it. I really feel like talking to as many people, especially people that might be in the industry that you want to work in or that have similar interests, can you really help call. Another way that I found helpful, helpful for people that want to be really strategic is linkedin. I think linkedin is a very untapped resource based on other conversations that I've had with entrepreneurs in terms of finding people to partner with. I feel like linkedin is a great way to make a connection with someone that you may not have had access to before. You know, this whole Internet revolution. I, I can't believe the conversations I've had with people that I know I never would've been able to get in touch with it had it not been for linkedin. So I think that one way that people can find partners, potential investors, even just cheerleaders is to say go on Linkedin and find people that are super successful and the industries that they want to be in.
Speaker 1:24:38That's awesome. That's great advice. I think that might actually be a great place. A high note can start wrapping up on. Before we go though Michelle, is there anything that you'd like to bring our audience's attention to or anything that's close to your heart?
Speaker 2:24:50Yeah, I would love to, you know, circling back to don who referred you guys to me. So don is a member like myself, have the gun lady boss, which is a global networking group that was formed in 2016 in New York that's now spread all over the world and so I'm an organizer for the San Diego Chapter and so I just want to put it out there to your listeners that if they're interested and connecting with a group of really amazing ladies, um, as long as they identify as female and our Vegan as well, they're welcome to join. You can, if you're not in San Diego, then just go on beacon, lady boss Dot Com. You can find the chapter that's closest to you or find out how to start a chapter. But as I've gotten really deep into business, I don't have a ton of really great friendships anymore. A lot of that has fallen by the wayside and so I selfishly became an organizer for begin lady boss in the hopes of creating that community that I really want to be a part of.
Speaker 1:25:44That's super awesome. Sounds like a very, very specific community that works very well.
Speaker 1:25:50That's awesome. That's really awesome. We'll definitely include a link to that in our show notes. Thank you so much everyone for listening and thank you, Michelle, for being our guests. If you'd like more, just please follow us on twitter at coding seal. Thank you.