Would you be willing to risk it all for you biz? That's what Aussie expat Koel Thomae, co-founder of Noosa Yoghurt did. And it's a route we hear many entrepreneurs take. As they say, without passion and risk, there is usually no reward.
Thomae, alongside co-founder Colorado dairy farmer Rob Graves, launched Noosa in January 2010, with the idea of bringing the sweet, tangy and full-fat yogurt of Australia to America.
But yoghurt is one the world's oldest man-made foods. So what made Thomae think she could do it better? Considering Noosa was profitable within one year and acquired within four, trusting her tastebuds is only part of the tale.
Hers is an inspiring success story that includes heart, risk, and yes, getting acquired. But even after acquisition, Thomae stayed on in a different role. Read more about her journey below.
As someone who bootstrapped her company, was there a part of you that wanted to see how far you could go on your own? How did you know it was the right time to take on an investor?
Koel Thomae: Absolutely. There was part of me that wanted to defy the normal path that most start-ups take with having to take outside investment. It certainly meant we were risking all of our own money but that made me even more determined to work hard to see this become successful. It also gave us the ultimate autonomy in how we grew the business and even though we certainly had our missteps we defined what success was and could take risks that others might not have had the stomach for. By the end of 2013 we knew we had created a real business with legs and that the growth curve wasn’t slowing. We were running the business incredibly lean on the executive level and knew that to protect all of the blood, sweat and tears (and money) that we had invested that it was time to think smarter and faster. The only way to do that was with real capital. The trick was to find someone absolutely aligned with our vision and we’ve been successful in doing that.
Especially as someone who didn’t have to give up a stake early on, was it a hard decision to make?
KT: When you’ve invested your life savings, endured many sleepless nights but can see that your vision has become a reality it can be hard to know when is the right time to give up some of that control. When we welcomed Advent into the Noosa family in 2014, it was a strategic decision that allowed us to grow to scale and get noosa into the hands of more people. It really is a partnership and they’ve allowed us to evolve the brand in a way that stays true to what we set out to do, which at the end of the day is to make bloody delicious yoghurt!
Why do you think it’s hard for startups to get traditional business funding?
KT: There is so much risk in startups that traditional lenders typically shy away from these types of investments. But I think that there can be paths to finding traditional financing through networking and establishing strong banking relationships early on. Noosa is fortunate to be based in Colorado where there is a strong entrepreneur culture in the food realm and both local banks and national banks with strong local branches have really started to become aware of the opportunities in food startups.
How was the initial transition? And why did you decide to stay on?
KT: The initial transition was very busy as I was still managing sales and marketing. It took time to find the right people to take over these roles and I wanted to see both Noosa and my new teammates succeed so it was a gradual and thoughtful transition. I had given everything to see Noosa become successful and I wasn’t ready to walk away from the next chapter. I’ve been given an incredible opportunity to continue learning and to have endless fun with my ‘baby’ so to speak.
What is your role in the company now?
KT: Along with my co-founder Rob Graves, I’m still very much involved in the day-to-day at noosa. In passing the baton on for sales and marketing I’ve been able to re-focus on my true passion which is product and flavor innovation. I love everything about food and it is so fun to stay on top of food and cultural trends, It’s like being a food anthropologist! I’ve created my dream job - I get to travel, eat and dream big!
Was there ever a point where you thought, I’ve made a massive mistake. And how what did you do?
KT: I think there are very few entrepreneurs who haven’t made some big mistakes. The trick is surviving the financial impact and learning in real time how to recover and make better strategic decisions. Noosa had so many inbound retailers interested in carrying us early on and we didn’t have a firm strategy on how we would grow outside of our home market. You can become giddy in the early days and say yes to every opportunity. Launching with a retailer in a region on the other side of the country where we had zero brand awareness coupled with very few resources to build this awareness and other supply chain challenges was a recipe for disaster. After 6 months and almost $100,000 in losses we pulled out. In many ways I’m thankful that this mistake came early on. It did not sink us and we were forced to stop and think very hard about what was the right strategy to grow Noosa.
How did you successfully navigate a shifting role?
KT: I like to think of my time at Noosa as a working MBA. I have worn so many hats since we launched the business, some things I was good at and others I was completely in the deep end. I think the trick is to understand what your strengths are, learn to leverage others who can fill in for your weaknesses and always have a thirst to learn from your mentors and the good old internet came through in many occasions.
What would you tell young female entrepreneurs about the startup world?
KT: The best advice I’ve ever received was to surround yourself with a good group of mentors. I’d advise young entrepreneurs to do the same. Look for your own network of women who you can learn from and who can help support you.
How do you see your role at Noosa continuing to evolve?
KT: I am so fortunate to work with an amazing and smart group of people who realize the unique opportunity we have at Noosa. As I said before, I have the best job in the world. I am excited to continue to help push the boundaries on innovation all the while making sure we stay true to our core – and that’s to make bloody good yoghurt.