Denise Woodard started Partake Foods because of an incredibly scary situation involving her daughter and an allergic reaction to food. While Denise’s daughter is now perfectly fine, that event revealed to her the challenges that exist in the food space today. What makes Denise’s story so interesting is the complexity involved with navigating the food industry, which we unpack in this episode.
Denise Woodard started Partake Foods because of an incredibly scary situation involving her daughter and an allergic reaction to food. While Denise’s daughter is now perfectly fine, that event revealed to her the challenges that exist in the food space today. What makes Denise’s story so interesting is the complexity involved with navigating the food industry, which we unpack in this episode.
Denise drops so many truth bombs in this episode, including the idea that you don’t need to jump ship from your stable 9-5 job in order to pursue your entrepreneurial endeavors. She also talks about taking small incremental steps towards bringing your venture into existence.
I love Denise’s story because it is such a great example of not getting caught up in the overwhelming details it takes to start a business. Instead, her journey points to the opportunities that come when you just choose to start! This is Denise Woodard’s startup story.
“If you’re working a 9-5, you can still get started. You don’t need to quit to go ‘all in’ right away. There are many small baby steps that you can take to start making progress.” – Denise Woodard, Partake Foods
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Special Guest: Denise Woodard.
The Startup Story -Denise Woodard
Denise Woodard:Hi. I'm Denise Woodard, the CEO and founder of Partake Foods, and this is MY startup story.
Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. THAT is The Startup Story.
James McKinney:If you are new to The Startup Story, welcome. I'm honored that you are giving our show a listen, and my hope is that you find so much value in this episode that you'll hit the subscribe button on whatever platform you use to listen. So whether it's Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, or even Stitcher, please subscribe or follow on that platform so you don't miss any of our incredible episodes that are in the queue.
So far, The Startup Story has seen tremendous growth in the year 2020 and I hope the same can be said for your business. In fact, I want to help bring your business to the masses, so please do me this favor. Go into Apple Podcast and leave a written review. But make sure when you do that you include your brand and URL at the end of that review. If you do that, I'll read your review in an episode and it becomes free exposure for you that will live within an episode for years to come. Think about the visibility you could have had being in the episode with Randi Zuckerberg or Brian Carrico of The Guild, or even this episode with Denise Woodard. All visibility is helpful, and it is the least I can do as a thank you for taking the time to write a written review.
With that said, I want to say thank you to Rachel Lynn H, who left a five star rating and wrote, "As someone that has never listened to a podcast prior to learning about The Startup Story, I can say I'm officially hooked. James masterfully interviews inspiring entrepreneurs with compelling stories and delves into every episode with passion and insight, and incredible questions. I haven't missed an episode yet and don't intend to." Well, thank you Rachel Lynn H. for the kind words, and I hope these episodes help you as you seek to build your business. So if you have found any value in any episode of The Startup Story, please share that with me in a written review on Apple Podcast. Like I said, plug your brand or URL in the review so you get a free mini ad for tens of thousands to hear. I greatly appreciate you and want to help you the best I can, and this really is the best way I can help. Now, let's jump into this week's episode.
Our guest this week is Denise Woodard, founder of Partake Foods. Denise started Partake Foods out of an incredibly scary situation involving her daughter.
Denise Woodard: My daughter was born in 2015 and in 2016, right after her first birthday, on a Wednesday afternoon at 3 o'clock I remember clear as day, I was on a conference call talking about launching Honest Kids in Wendy's. We had the inkling that she was going to have some sort of food allergy issues because she had some eczema and a vomiting issue with eating one thing, and our allergist was like, "You should just take these epi pens to be safe, but until she's one we can't really test her for allergies." So we took her to the doctor, we tested her for allergies, and it came back that she was not allergic to peanuts but she was allergic to tree nuts. So the doctor says, "You should introduce peanuts as soon as possible." So we give her this snack that's made with two ingredients, literally just peanuts and corn. You're nanny Martha is giving it to her while I'm on this conference call. I have no worries about it because we've literally just done the allergy testing, and immediately after she takes like a tiny bite, her lips start swelling up, her tongue starts swelling up. It's clear she's having trouble breathing, she turns blue in our living room.
James McKinney: Well, Denise's daughter is perfectly fine, but that event revealed to her the challenges that exist in the food space as it relates to food allergies. Like many startup stories, the founders pursuit originates from apersonal matter but what makes Denise's story so interesting is the complexity involved with navigating the food industry. We're going to unpack those complexities in this episode. But while the beginning of Partake Foods is closely tied to her daughter, her entrepreneurial journey has close ties to her father.
Denise Woodard: I grew up with an entrepreneurial father. So my dad, I grew up in Fort Bragg, North Carolina which is the home of a very large military base, and my dad after leaving the military became an entrepreneur. He was an over the road truck driver who was gone for weeks at a time. My mom is a Korean immigrant who met my father whenever he was stationed in Korea. So she was here in America in North Carolina with me, like barely speaking English with a toddler, and my dad was on the road all the time. That stayed true probably until I was like eight or nine, at which point then he started he bought his own truck, and he continued to buy more trucks and so he had employees he was managing, and multiple pieces of equipment. So I saw entrepreneurship first hand, and I saw how hard it was. I remember going to my orthodontist and he was telling me about a fancy vacation he was going on, and I was like, "It seems like you just look at people's teeth all day and my dad like sleeps ina truck and has to deal with really hard stuff, but you both seem to be doing well." So I actually wanted to be an orthodontist growing up, because I saw how hard entrepreneurship was.
James McKinney: That's fascinating. So you saw the challenges of entrepreneurship in your dad, you saw the life of an orthodontist because it seemed like you were just fixing teeth, which that is a cavity I would not live my career in. that's not an unusual story, right, just to see how our entrepreneurial parent struggled and had challenges, or maybe wasn't around all the time, and we don't want it. So we have an aversion to it. So when you were exiting high school, your vision was orthodontist?
Denise Woodard: Well, it was and then I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and I majored in biology because that's what you do if you're going to be a doctor or an orthodontist, or any of those things. Just in the intro biology class I realized very quickly that orthodontia was not going to be for me, because science and math were not for me. So then I had the bright idea that I was going to be a journalist, so I switched my major to journalism. But it started to feel very narrow. If I wasn't going to be in public relations or broadcast journalism, then I would not be equipped with the skillset I needed. I ended up, at the end of my sophomore year, switching my major to interpersonal and organizational communications, because I figured no matter what I decided to do, I would have to talk to people and understand how organizations worked.
James McKinney: That is fascinating. So within we'll just say your first 22 years, definitely don't want entrepreneurship. You're kind of becoming attracted to being an orthodontist. You find out you know what, biology not my jam, I definitely don't want to do science. Then journalism/communication becomes a focus for you. In your time at college as a Tar Heel, obviously we're not going to get into the mall of March Madness discussions and the things that might have occurred while you were there, but in that season what are some of the things that shaped you to give you a vision for what you wanted to do with your degree?
Denise Woodard: I definitely was… my eyes were opened to a whole new slew of possibilities. In my family, I'm the first person, even in my extended family, to have graduated college. There was only a very small subset of jobs that I thought you could do, and then a small subset of jobs that I thought made you successful which were doctor, lawyer, orthodontist, journalist, see you on TV. But then I started to meet entrepreneurs who maybe didn't have startups but were successful CPA's or were running their own dry cleaners. I just started to see through my own friends parents and from alum who had come back to visit the university that there was this whole world of different opportunities that I hadn't really thought about.
James McKinney: And so coming to the end of college, what did you want to do?
Denise Woodard: I had grown up in a situation where I wouldn't say we ever had to do without. I always knew where my next meal was coming from but we were not rolling in the dough. And so the most important thing to me was financial security. I needed good benefits, I needed a regular paycheck, I wanted to work my way up the corporate ladder, and then at some point maybe I would consider doing some of these other things that I had learned about.
So UNC has a pretty robust career services network and lots of like all the big companies come and recruit, and one that was known for having a very robust training program, robust general management program that would lead you to go do lots of other things, was Philip Morris USA. So I actually went to go work at Philip Morris as a sales manager upon graduating.
James McKinney: So I think most of us associate Philip Morris with cigarettes, and so from a sales manager perspective, what was your job?
Denise Woodard: Well I got assigned inner city Charlotte, and so it was definitely not glamorous. They give you a company car, which turns out to be a minivan because you have to carry around all of your cigarette signs.
James McKinney: Nothing's hotter for a 22 year old than a minivan.
Denise Woodard: Yes, so I got this shiny new Dodge Caravan, and my territory was inner city Charlotte. It was a rough neighborhood. It was like I had to be out in my territory at 7 o'clock in the morning before lawyers were out to harass me. Now I think back on it, probably actually wasn't very safe, but the job was solution selling to local business owners, people who owned bodegas, convenience stores, smaller grocers, and sharing with them why we should carry our different products, and what made each product from the other, and upselling them so that they would carry a larger variety. The thing that I really got from that was I think building my sales skills around listening, not going on with this is what I'm selling you and this is what I'm offering, but really trying to understand what the customer's pain points were and then I could see what I had in my bag of cigarette tools to make that better.
James McKinney: So I mean for the listeners they might be thinking right now okay, well every place I go when I do see cigarettes they're behind the counter. There might be some signage in the store. So when we hear solution selling, hearing their pain points, what were some of the things that you were up against? Again, not being in the industry, the idea to us is a bit foreign. What is the challenge in selling that? The person either wants to carry cigarettes or they don't.
Denise Woodard: I think it was a lot around price. So Philip Morris is the most premium product, so there were lots of other options, particularly in an inner city neighborhood where consumers tend to be very price sensitive. So you were selling why your product deserved the upcharge that it had.
James McKinney: Okay. So how long were you there for?
Denise Woodard: I was there for about three and a half years, and I think growing up in the tobacco belt, and this was, oh gosh I'm getting old, like 17 years ago there wasn't-
James McKinney: It creeps up on you.
Denise Woodard: … Right, I feel so young. There wasn't as huge of a stigma attached. So then I started to visit friends in larger cities, and just think about more what I was doing and I realized that having strong benefits and a healthy salary wasn't everything, and didn't feel comfortable selling something that I wasn't actually using, so I left Philip Morris. But I do feel like it was a good sales foundation, and I moved to FedEx at that point.
James McKinney: And what was your role at FedEx?
Denise Woodard: Very similar. So it was a sales role, but I was selling the FedEx solution of services. So if you like Saks Fifth Avenue was one of my clients, and so they use air freight, and they use freight, and they use small parcel, and they use ground. So selling this full suite of supply chain services.
James McKinney: You know, it's interesting because obviously we're not talking to you because of your experience at FedEx or Philip Morris, but because you've started Partake Foods. But it's interesting how you can see automatically some of these things, these dots start connecting. There's a sales strategy side that most entrepreneurs when they think of a product or solution they don't think of the sales strategy behind it. The success of Partake Foods I attribute to the fact that I'massuming you probably started from a sales strategy perspective and a solutions perspective. That is your background and everything kind of plays into it. So from FedEx, how many more steps are in-between before Partake Foods?
Denise Woodard: Just one. So I was at FedEx and I realized I really like selling and I really miss CPG. I just need to work at a company that makes products that I use in my house.
James McKinney: Got it, okay.
Denise Woodard: So I left FedEx and I went to Coca Cola, and I worked on some of their emerging brands like Honest Tea, Zico Coconut Water, and so while I didn't love every product in our portfolio, I was selling a group of products that I felt really good about.
James McKinney: Yeah, that's awesome. S what was it about CPG that you loved? And that reason I ask that because just a few weeks ago we had Ju Rhyu with Hero Cosmetics-The Mighty Patch - and she too she had an interesting career path where it was both a direct to consumer, as well s big box retail. So she loved both sides of it, but she really loved the idea of owning the client relationship with the direct to consumer. What was it for you about CPG that you loved?
Denise Woodard: I really like making a tangible product that you can go into a story and see and touch and feel. I have friends who have tech startups and what they're doing just sounds like so above my like paygrade and brain structure. But we make snacks. That's just something that everyone can relate to and understand, and it's really fun to talk about.
James McKinney: That's awesome, that is awesome. So you're at Coca Cola. Let's talk about where you're at in life at this point. You're nine years out of college?
Denise Woodard: That sounds about right, yes.
James McKinney: About nine years out of college. Are we married at this time?
Denise Woodard: We're dating, engaged, and get married during the time that we're at Coca Cola. So I was in North Carolina working for Philip Morris. I met my boyfriend, now husband, and when I took the job at FedEx to be relocated to Chicago, and then I started working for Coca Cola in Chicago, and his job post business school took us to New York, and I was able to transfer with Coca Cola into a role in New York.
James McKinney: Got it. So you're at Coca Cola, you're married. Is your daughter born at this time?
Denise Woodard: She's born during the time that I'm really leading the sales efforts for our venturing and emerging brands group in non brick and mortar retail. So I'm taking really fun things like Honest Kids and putting them in McDonald's Happy Meals. I'm working on products that I actually feel really good about giving her, and was like I had no intention of leaving the role that I had at Coca Cola, ever. I loved it.
James McKinney: So for those who may not know, part of the reason you left Coca Cola was to create this venture, Partake Foods, but the reason Partake Foods is even part of our world these days is because of your daughter. So can you walk us through the journey of your time working at Coca Cola, the challenges you had with food and allergies with your daughter, and how that led to the concept of starting your own food product business?
Denise Woodard: My daughter was born in 2015 and in 2016, right after her first birthday, on a Wednesday afternoon at 3 o'clock I remember clear as day, I was on a conference call talking about launching Honest Kids in Wendy's. We had the inkling that she was going to have some sort of food allergy issues because she had some eczema and a vomiting issue with eating one thing, and our allergist was like, "You should just take these epi pens to be safe, but until she's one we can't really test her for allergies."
So we took her to the doctor, we tested her for allergies, and it came back that she was not allergic to peanuts but she was allergic to tree nuts. So the doctor says, "You should introduce peanuts as soon as possible." So we give her this snack that's made with two ingredients, literally just peanuts and corn. You're nanny Martha is giving it to her while I'm on this conference call. I have no worries about it because we've literally just done the allergy testing, and immediately after she takes like a tiny bite, her lips start swelling up, her tongue starts swelling up. It's clear she's having trouble breathing, she turns blue in our living room.
James McKinney: Oh my goodness.
Denise Woodard: Thank God we have the epi pen, because we ended up needing both of them. We live five minutes from a hospital, and so we rushed her to the hospital, and everyone was so confused. We thought the test was inaccurate. Well, it turns out she's allergic to corn, which is not something that you would normally test for.
James McKinney: Oh wow.
Denise Woodard: So that is when I realized how scary food allergies could be, because before that I was like oh, allergies, I get it, we'll carry the epi pen. But I saw firsthand how quickly they can escalate.
James McKinney: So when you went through that experience working for a company, again you're working with Honest Kids, trying to get into Wendy's. Your job is attached to food. Your daughter is having challenges with food. What were some of the mental processes going on as you looked at food solutions for your family as you're trying to sell it and to other families?
Denise Woodard: So we live in Jersey City, right across the river from Manhattan, and so I feel like we have a ton of options in terms of natural grocers and independent grocery stores. So I thought it would be an easy fix. I was like oh, I'll just go to the grocery store, we'll pick up some healthy snacks for her. And what I started to find was from a nutritional perspective, I'm not gluten free or vegan and I always just assumed that meant healthy, and I quickly realized that could also mean full of starches and gums, and a lot of sugar, and weird natural flavors. Then from a taste perspective, I found things that met my nutritional standards but they tasted exactly like you would expect a dairy free, gluten free, vegan cookie to taste. She would literally refuse to eat them.
I think the biggest impetus was I started to think about all the things, and this is where the name of the company came from, that should wouldn't be able to partake in, like the playdates and field trips. Just so many of the fun social events we do as a society revolve around food. So when someone's on a restricted diet, whether out of medical necessity like my daughter or just out of personal preference, it's really not fun to attend those events. So when I looked at the snack landscape of what existed, not to be diminishing of other brands but so many of them were so lame. I was like she's already going to feel bad being the weird food allergy kid, and she's going to have the weird food allergy snack that she's embarrassed to share with anyone.
So that's really what the impetus was behind Partake. It was in our living room, during the summer of 2016, that our nanny Martha was like your one year old is on a paleo diet, this is really not fun. I told her all the woes that I just expressed to you, and she's like, "You should start a food company." You know what Martha, you might be right. So she actually has a small piece of equity in our company because it was her idea and her pushing that led to Partake being born.
James McKinney: That's awesome. But there's a huge gap between a conversation and suggestion about you should start a food company to actually starting a food company. What was in that conversation? Because again, you had an aversion to entrepreneurship. You saw how hard it was. Obviously many years have passed since your childhood, but there are certain things that just stick with us for some period of time. Why was now the time that you wanted to try and do something? Because at this point, you haven't even created anything for your daughter yet, and now the idea is on the table about starting a business to do it. So you haven't even proved out that you can make something your daughter is going to eat. How do we travel that gap, because it's such a huge gap to go from idea to execution?
Denise Woodard: So I think the stars really aligned in the group that I was working at in Coca Cola. So I met entrepreneurs first hand, like Seth Goldman from Honest Tea, or read Mark Rampolla from Zico's book, and then I started to realize that they were just normal, driven, and smart people who had personal issues that they then did something about. I felt like well, if they can do it I feel really passionate about this, and I want my daughter to have better options, and want other children like her to have better options, I can do it too.
The other thing that sped things up was we were in line at the zoo the following weekend. I was telling my husband the idea. The person in line in front of me said, "You should enter the Start Something Challenge," which was a pitch competition for New Jersey small businesses. It was backed by JP Morgan and Blackstone. It was a Saturday and the deadline to enter was that Sunday at midnight, and I entered on a whim. We hadn't even, we just literally incorporated that business for that. At the time, it was called Vivi's Life, because my daughter's name is Vivian, I call her Vivi. I just wanted to make Vivi's life easier. We enter the contest and fast forward a few weeks later, we won, and so that really gave me the confidence and the validation to go for it.
James McKinney: That's awesome. But at this point, up to that pitch contest, had you made any products yet?
Denise Woodard: No, not at all.
James McKinney: So this is, and this is what I love about your story, and I hope all the listeners are getting from this. You wanted to start a food company, had not even started trying to make foods yet, and you entered a pitch contest but you put thought into the business plan, and obviously to the point where you won a pitch contest which I'm assuming had a small bit of capital inside of that. And so you were able to win without even having a food product for a food pitch that you were laying out. And I think so many listeners, they complicate things a bit. It really is just about taking that immediate step that's in front of you. You were at a zoo, and the step that happened to be in front of you was oh there's a pitch contest someone told me about and the deadline is tomorrow, I better submit. You just kind of go one step at a time. So here you are now, you're incorporated. You won a pitch contest pitching a product you hadn't even tried to make yet. What is the next step?
Denise Woodard: So the pitch contest thankfully came along with some capital as the prize, $10,000, but it also which I think is a blessing in disguise came with local press. The last thing I needed was my boss at Coke to see me in the local newspaper talking about a company I had started. So that forced me to tell my employer immediately what I was doing. Thankfully, they were quite supportive. I spent the next year moonlighting, but before that I tried to finally make the product, and I failed horribly.
I went to Whole Foods and I spent hundreds of dollars and got in my kitchen, and tried to make cookies and bars and different things, and I realized the reason that this magical allergy friendly, tasty, nutritious product didn't exist was because it's really hard to make.
James McKinney: Because all things with flavor are probably not healthy. That's not true, not all, but many things. The flavor that our palates are adjusted to are usually probably not healthy.
Denise Woodard: Right.
James McKinney: Let me ask this question, is the standard of acceptance your daughter?
Denise Woodard: Yes, definitely. So the standard of acceptance and the standard for what we'll put in our product. If I don't feel comfortable giving it to my daughter, I'm not giving it to someone else's family member.
James McKinney: What was the first small bit of victory for you when it came to a product that your daughter loved?
Denise Woodard: We came up with a cookie. Martha helped me with a cookie that she loved, but then I realized because at the same time I waslooking for a manufacturer, as I detailed the process of how we would make this product to the manufacturer they were like, "There's no way that can be done commercially." So we ended up finding a product developer, food scientist, who was able to help turn this thing that I really liked and my daughter really liked, but still stay true to my vision into something that was commercially producible.
James McKinney: Can you, for those of us and myself and my listeners that don't understand the food side of things, so when you make a product at home that's your test kitchen. Your daughter loves it. Are you saying there are things you can make at home that are not commercially viable for manufacturing?
Denise Woodard: Totally, and I learned it the hard way because I created this gold standard. I used a date paste that I made by soaking dates overnight and then running through my food processor, but when you're making thousands of cookies at one time, you can't soak the dates overnight and run them through a food processor. We had incorporated carrots into our carrot cake cookie and I was literally grating fresh carrots. So while we can still use a freeze dried carrot product that's pure carrot, you can't do things the exact same way that you would do in your kitchen at home.
James McKinney: So that cookie you're talking about that had the date paste, the food scientist partner that you talked about, they were able to take that and bring it into a commercially viable product?
Denise Woodard: Yes. So instead of date paste, we were able to use plum concentrate which is a commercial ingredient but gives you the same effect, and is still as clean label as date paste.
James McKinney: How surprising have all the nuances of trying to start a company in the food business been for you?
Denise Woodard: Oh my goodness. I feel like we're moving in dog years. I feel like I've learned more the past three years than I learned in my entire life prior to working on this business.
James McKinney: Last week, I announced our first ever startup story live event that's going to be held on May 7th in the great city of Dallas at the global headquarters of the Dallas Cowboys. This event will have multiple levels of value for you that you will want to make sure to attend. First you'll be surrounded by hundreds of likeminded entrepreneurs just like you, looking to take their business to the next level. I'm always saying that you run at the pace of those who are around you, so surround yourself by motivated people like yourself. Secondly, you won't arrive at this event with nobody to meet. Once you get your ticket, you'll have access to a private Facebook group that is just for attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors of Startup Story Live Dallas. The reason for this is to start delivering value to you long before the event ever takes place. A third value prop for this event is that if you buy your event ticket before March 31st you can get a three day pass to Sub Summit, which is the largest subscription industry event in the world. This is the event to attend if you're interested in the subscription box service, subscription media service, or anything that has a recurring subscription revenue model to it. It's a $500 pass that you can buy for just $100 just by getting a ticket to Startup Story Live.
In addition to all of those, we'll have an entire area dedicated to local startups to showcase what they're working on. We'll have industry experts where you can get your legal, tax, Facebook ads, and many more questions answered. And lastly, our founder lineup is incredible. But loo, I want to get back to our episode so make sure to visit startupstorylive.com for all the details and to get your ticket today. Again, it's startupstorylive.com. I hope to see you there. And now, let's get back to our episode.
James McKinney: I can't even imagine all the different… and again, we probably won't get into regulations but we haven't even got into that side of things. There's just so many nuances to it. You have this product now. Your first product, which what's the name of the cookie that Vivi love?
Denise Woodard: It was at the time called Carrot Oat. It's now been renamed as Carrot Cake, because I also learned that people don't like things that sound super healthy, even if they say they want to be healthy.
James McKinney: That's awesome. So you've proved out the cookie for your daughter, she loves it. You've solved a way to make it commercially. But have you tested it that the market will want it? Up to this stage, when you've proved with your daughter, you've found a commercial solution to manufacture, have you proved it out with any market in any way, shape, or form?
Denise Woodard: So the two ways I did that, originally I talked to one of our marketing teams at Coke and asked about doing a focus group, and they're like yeah, they're really inexpensive, they start at $45,000. I was like okay, that's not the route that we're going to take. So I created a Survey Monkey that I sent to 10 mom friends, and then I asked each of them to send it to 10 of their friends. It asked questions about do you buy things that are gluten free, are you looking for school safe products, what flavors do your kids like. We ended up compiling about 390 responses. So that helped inform what flavors we led with and what products we came out w.
James McKinney: But they hadn't tasted it yet.
Denise Woodard: Oh, no, they had not tasted it.
James McKinney: Again, there's so many elements to the entrepreneurial journey that I love. There's so much determination I see in your story and there's no hang-up, if you will. So many entrepreneurs get hung up with how they think things have to be. You continue to make progress, but you've kept it very small. Your test kitchen is your home. You're making products that you don't even know if they're commercially manufactural yet. Your daughter loves a product, hates your product, she's your focus group of one. You find a commercial solution finally, you need to alter your product. There's so many things that you're doing that I just love about it, and yet no one has tasted the product yet. From the time of making a cookie that Vivi loves to the time that someone has seen it in the store, what is that time period?
Denise Woodard: That is from August 2016 to August 2017. I left my job at Coca Cola on August 2, 2017. We did one trial production run. The manufacturing facility typically does not work with startups. After lots of begging and pleading, they agree to do a test run for me and give me a trial period of time to drum up enough business to become a real client of theirs, and I have a storage unit full of cookies that I then hit the streets of New York to sell.
James McKinney: Do you realize the last… maybe you don't. Maybe news to you, maybe it'll be of encouragement to you. The last 45 seconds, your words were almost the exact model that Sarah Blakely had to go through for Spanx.
Denise Woodard: Well that's inspiring.
James McKinney: You were in foods obviously, hers is in apparel, but it's the exact same story line. That's awesome.
Denise Woodard: I'm such a huge fan of hers.
James McKinney: As am I, as am I. she's one of my bucket list interviews. She would be amazing. I point to that because oftentimes we'll get hit with a no. You come to a manufacturing plant, we don't do small batch runs, whatever the case may be. But if you want it and you want to work with this partner, there's ways to navigate through that, and I love that you're able to do it. Did you leave Coke because you had to? Was it getting to the point where the demands were getting too great or was Coke saying hey, this is becoming a little too significant? What was that conversation?
Denise Woodard: The agreement was I had to hit the road once I had product that I was selling to any customers that Coca Cola sold to, which is pretty much every store in America.
James McKinney: Got it. I would assume at this point you're now a one salary house. What was that conversation like? Because knowing that the moment you're on the shelf interesting he store you're going to have to leave a salaried job, obviously that conversation with your husband comes into play. Like do we delay getting it to a store? Are we ready to make this jump because just because it's in a store doesn't mean it's going to succeed? How much runway do we have? What are all the conversations you had with your husband at the time? Because this impacts, entrepreneurship impacts family.
Denise Woodard: Everybody definitely has to be on board and my husband Jeremy has been so, so supportive. So he's in finance by trade, but every weekend you can find him doing demos. You can find him shipping boxes. He's all in, working trade shows, doing everything.
James McKinney: That is so cool. So it was a no brainer for him then to say you know what, it's time for you to do this full time?
Denise Woodard: Yep, he was all in.
James McKinney: That's awesome. So 2017 boxes hit the shelves. What was the initial response from that first batch?
Denise Woodard: Surprisingly, it was quite positive given the limited number of people who had actually tried the product. I feel really grateful that we live in the New York area, because the retailers here were so supportive. I thought that people would look at me like a lunatic, like who is this woman with her cookies in her backpack. But as we told the story and as they tried the product, they were so receptive. I think they really appreciated that as a founder I was the person on the street, making the calls. I was the person doing the demos after I sold the product, and I was the person coming back to take the next order. I think they appreciated the grind.
James McKinney: That's awesome. Up to this moment, your first batch hitting shelves, was there any part of this journey where you stopped and just second guessed yourself? Like i don't know if I want to do this, i don't know if I'm the person to do this?
Denise Woodard: I second guess myself a lot. I still do. I really feel and believe that I am the person to do this. I don't think that I worked on this venturing and emerging brands group with all these startup brands and then had a daughter with food allergies, and got this far with the business for us to just stop. I'm also a pretty prideful person, so when we entered that first pitch competition, I shared it with my entire network because I knew that once I told people I was doing something, I was going to try and figure out how to get it.
James McKinney: That's awesome. Oh, I love that. What, again, there's lots of ways in which an entrepreneur can bring a product to market. Given your experience with other startups in the food and technically beverage space, why did you not want to go to them to try and bring this to market? Why yourself?
Denise Woodard: Because at that time we were totally bootstrapped and I'd seen and heard so many times how businesses that tried to go too big too fast failed, and I knew that while I liked the product and my family liked the product, we needed to get buy in from a lot more people. We needed to understand who was buying the product, why they were buying it, if they were going to come back and buy it again before we started taking other people's money and making promises we weren't sure we could keep.
James McKinney: That's awesome. So up to the point where you're on shelves, is your only infusion of capital that pitch fund test and your own personal money?
Denise Woodard: Yes. The only other thing, it ended up seeming to be an infusion of capital, but it wasn't after we fulfilled things, we did a Kickstarter campaign more so to gain brand awareness about what we were doing, and we ended up raising $30,000 on Kickstarter, but grossly underestimating how much it would cost to ship product out. So if we broke even at best, that would be a strong statement, but it was a great way for us to introduce the product to potential consumers.
James McKinney: What did you learn through that Kickstarter process? Because I think a lot of people maybe not now so much as in the early days, they looked at Kickstarter as like this ATM machine, where it's just I just have a product and a campaign, I'll just make a ton of money. We had Emma Rose Cohen of Final Straw in one of our earlier episodes and they were trying to raise $50,000 and they ended up with $1.2 or $1.8 million. It was unbelievable, but in that episode she unpacks how she executed that Kickstarter. It is a how-to manual on how to do a Kickstarter. It just opened my eyes to some of the complexities and challenges with it but for you and your experience, what was most surprising for you in that process?
Denise Woodard: I definitely underestimated how hard it would be. We had some strategy going into it. Like we had a professional video and we knew how we were going to announce it to people, but it was like begging and feeding and clawing and scratching. Like old high school classmates, my entire LinkedIn network got hit up multiple times. There was a lot… it was very uncomfortable but it was probably a good way to get me out of my comfort zone and really just had to go ask for the order it seemed like for us anyway.
James McKinney: That's awesome. But to your point, you might have broken even on the campaign right?
Denise Woodard: Yeah, definitely wasn't a cash cow.
James McKinney: So up to that point again, so Kickstarter breakeven but you did have some capital, your pitch contest. Now your product is on a shelf, you're self funded up to this point. This was August of 2017 so now we are a little over two years into this journey, two years and a couple months. What has been your funding strategy as you look to continue to grow this?
Denise Woodard: When we launched in August of 2017, we were bootstrapped. We self distributed all the way to May of 2018 when we picked up Wegman's and one region of Whole Foods. When we got that news in the spring of 2018, we raised a friends and family round of about $400,000. It was cobbling together like $5,000, $7,000, $10,000 checks. So that was also as painful as the Kickstarter. And then thankfully the launches with Whole Foods and Wegman's went well. We started to get interest from other regional grocers, and started to have conversations with larger retailers, which gave me the confidence to go out and try to raise a seed round of funding, and we closed a $1 million seed round that was led by Jay Z's Marcy Venture Partners during the summer of 2019.
James McKinney: That is awesome. There's a couple things I want to ask inside of that. Don't worry, listeners, I am going to ask about the Jay Z thing in a second. But I want to first talk about your friends and family round. I think a lot of times as entrepreneurs, if you haven't done a friends and family round, you don't really understand the weight I guess. You don't understand that weight of going to friends and family for investment capital. Can you walk us through what your mental processes were about going to friends and family, asking for an investment on something that may not work out? It's one thing if it's our own money, it's another if it's friends and family. What were some of your mental processes in asking for that from friends and family?
Denise Woodard: One thing that I learned was the ease in which you can raise a friends and family round depending on your network is very different. So I use the term friends and family loosely. Everyone is friends and family now because they've afforded the business, but it was really lots of my husband's colleagues, friends of friends. But I still, even though I didn't know the group of people very well, feel the same amount of weight that I do with those investors that I do with our seed round of investors. I know how hard it is to make a dollar, and so I'm very transparent with obviously this is an investment, it's not a guarantee. But these are all the things I've done thus far that make me feel that this is going to be a success. If a door closes in our face, I'm trying to go through the back door, the window. I will do everything I can to make sure that our investors get a return on our money.
James McKinney: I love it. My own personal journey,the friends and family money was the heaviest money. There's just something about those close to you that dollar, that's so much weight to it. As you're going out now trying to raise a seed round, how did you come across Marcy Ventures?
Denise Woodard: One of the friends in our friends and family was a friend, and he is in the music business. I'd seen an article that Jay Z was starting a venture fund, and was like, "Hey, do you know Jay Z?" And he didn't, but he knew a colleague of, and so that person has children with food allergies, really the story really resonated with them. The team really liked the product and believed in what we were doing. Conversations started in the spring of 2018, so it was not like a flash in the pan type of thing. It was we were nurturing a relationship and the conversation for a long time.
James McKinney: So what was that process for pitching? How many firms, during your seed round, how many firms were you presenting to?
Denise Woodard: I have this spreadsheet that has 86 no's on it, so I was very heavy on the angel circuit, the seed round circuit across the country. The no's were for various reasons. You're too early, I don't think the market is big enough, but it was really difficult.
James McKinney: Yeah. So 86 is a lot, and I think a lot of people don't understand that's normal. It's not an unusually large number, that's a number I've heard frequently. But at the same time, you're trying to grow this business. One of the things that I remember from a previous interview with Chris Brownridge from GawkBox and he just shut his business down in July of 2019, after raising $4.5 million, is one of his regrets was that the business and his role in the business became more about fundraising than it was about listening to customers and product development. How did you balance that? Because again, 86 is a lot.
Denise Woodard: It was really hard. That's been my most challenging experience to date. It was personally like nearly soul crushing. I was the only fulltime employee and to go out all day and try to raise money and get no's, and come home and try to run the business as well as be a mom and a wife, it was hard. I don't think there's like an easy sugar coated way to answer it. I just had to keep going every day, because I really knew that we would get the right partners on board. I just truly believed it would work out.
James McKinney: So then let me ask that question. When it came to Marcy Ventures and you got your yes, how validating was that for you?
Denise Woodard: It was the best feeling. I can't even explain how awesome it was. What was more awesome was half of the 86 no's that came back and said, "Hey, I really believe in you. I'd love to come on board," once they heard we had Marcy leading the round. No, it was so validating to have experienced investors who see tons of deal flow, believe in what we were doing, and believe in our product and want to partner with us.
James McKinney: That's incredible. So $1 million seed round, this was closed September of last year?
Denise Woodard: June 2019.
James McKinney: So closed June of last year. What has happened with Partake Foods since then?
Denise Woodard: We finally went from just one fulltime employee to in March we'll have a team of four fulltime employees, with a pretty robust part-time consultant network that supports our business. We're expanding with Whole Foods. We're going into the North East region this month, but also expanding into other regions across the country later this summer. We're going on to the store shelves of Sprouts as well as the Fresh Market, and we're going into 1,600 Target stores in May.
James McKinney: That's incredible.
Denise Woodard: Thank you.
James McKinney: That is unbelievable. Does it seem to you on this side of it, because again I think the listeners are thinking wow, she's only been picked up by Wegman's up until the investment from last June, now you have all these other opportunities, so to the listener it probably seems fast. Does it seem fast to you?
Denise Woodard: It depends on the day. Some days it feels like I just started doing this, and other days I'm like sheesh, I feel like we've been doing this for years upon years.
James McKinney: What has been the greatest challenge in all of this for you?
Denise Woodard: The balance of it all. Making sure that I don't take everything so personally because the business is like my baby, and so if somebody doesn't like the product or we get a no, I take all of that to heart. When we get a customer complaint, I stay up at night thinking about it. Trying to separate myself from the business some has been really challenging for me.
James McKinney: Does your husband have any interest in joining the firm?
Denise Woodard: Not fulltime. He definitely still does demos for us though.
James McKinney: Now you'd mention, one of the things you mentioned for those that aren't in food distribution, you talked about how you were just in certain areas for Whole Foods. And again, we've had some CPG brands on the show and we don't get to hear a lot about the roll out. Some things are just taken nationwide instantly. In the food space, why wouldn't Whole Foods just pick you up nationally? If they've already proven you out, why would they just pick you up nationally?
Denise Woodard: So in their words, we had no money and no brand recognition when they first launched us, so they gave us one region. We really nurtured the brand there. They gave us another region which we're going into now, but the performance has been so strong in the first region that they are going to roll us out nationally. But for them the shelf space is precious. There's only a finite four feet of space for cookies, and if I'm going to take the space of a brand that's already generating sales, it's hard to get the buyer to give new brands a chance a lot of the time.
James McKinney: You said you're getting to Target soon. How many stores of Target are they going to put you in?
Denise Woodard: We're going to go into 1,600 Target stores.
James McKinney: is that all their Targets? How many Targets is that?
Denise Woodard: There's 1,800 that sell cookies, so that's almost all of them.
James McKinney: That's incredible. From minute one, they're picking you up for 1,600.
Denise Woodard: Yes. We just found out this week and I was telling my friends i don't know if I should laugh or cry or scream, but I think it's all of the above.
James McKinney: That is unbelievable. For an entrepreneur who is listening who might be interested in a food startup, what is one bit of very specific, tactical advice you can give them when it comes to the idea of nurturing the brand within a market?
Denise Woodard: Talk to as many of your consumers as you can, because until you talk to the person who's actually putting the product in their mouth, you don't know what's driving consumers to purchase. You don't know what's driving them to love your product, not love your product, and you get different responses from buyers and the store manager, and from what you think or your friends think. But talking to as many consumers as you can is really important.
James McKinney: That's incredible. I love it, I love it. One of the things that I like to ask entrepreneurs,, and especially in the midst of the grind like you are right now, and I think it'll flavor your answer a bit but do you think anyone can be an entrepreneur, or is this something that you are born into?
Denise Woodard: I think that anyone who is passionate enough about something can be an entrepreneur. I think that there definitely are some traits, like grit and resilience that make for strong entrepreneurs but I think when you're doing something that you are so passionate about, the grit and the resilience come along with it.
James McKinney: How much of a student does an entrepreneur have to be?
Denise Woodard: Oh my gosh, so much, to be a successful entrepreneur I think you have to be. One of the things that I'm so glad I instituted as a best practice when we first started was making a point to talk to entrepreneurs whose businesses had failed. So I found that initially I was trying to talk to all of the glamorous like this person raised this much money, is going into this many stores. They didn't remember the grind as much or they were only thinking about the good things. But when you talk to somebody whose business is failing or is in the midst of shutting down, they can tell you all the things not to do and what went wrong, and those are the things that I see as learnings of what not to do.
James McKinney: That's awesome. What is the hardest part of your current role now? Because it's different than really it's only been seven months since you started hiring people, it has changed drastically in seven months. You're in more stores, your brand is bigger, you have a larger team even though it's only four, but you have a larger contract network. What has been the most challenging for you as your role has evolved?
Denise Woodard: It's what you mentioned with the team. So finding and hiring and inspiring the team. Finding people who are just as passionate about what we're doing here, and making sure that we stay true to our culture as we grow, because it's really easy when you're in the throws of how are we going to make all these cookies for Target or how are we going to raise this money or whatever the issue may be to not keep the mission and the culture top of mind. But I think that's what makes or breaks an organization. So that's the thing that I'm most focused on right now.
James McKinney: How old is your daughter right now?
Denise Woodard: She'll be five next month.
James McKinney: Five next month, so her awareness still is pretty shallow as to what you're accomplishing, so she doesn't have full eyes on it yet.
Denise Woodard: I think she kind of gets it. I told her about Target and then on the way to school yesterday she's like, "Mommy, I think the cookies are going to sell in Target. You know, Jay Z…" and she had all these reasons. I was like freaking out the night before. It's really interesting to see how our entrepreneurial journey as a family has shaped her, because she's always coming up with business ideas and really seems to kind of get it.
James McKinney: That's awesome. Can you just imagine 15 years from now, Vivi's on this show and I ask her that same parent question. Well, so your parents are entrepreneurs, and her influence goes back to you. That's going to be incredible.
Denise Woodard: I hope so. Or it may make her want to be an orthodontist, we'll see.
James McKinney: That's unbelievable, I love it. As our time comes to an end, one of the things that I never want to avoid asking because I think it's so critical for all entrepreneurs is the question about gratitude. I ask every founder this question because I believe that if we lose sight of all the people that have poured into us and contributed to our success, ,we begin to think we did this on our own and we isolate ourselves, and that's ultimately going to lead to our failure. So when you look back on your entire life's journey, who are the people that you point to with such immense gratitude for the role that they have played into where you are today?
Denise Woodard: My parents definitely, because while they didn't have a ton of education they knew the importance of education and constant learning, and hard work. I've never seen anyone work as hard as either of my parents and I've literally never heard them complain in my life, so definitely my parents. My daughter, because she's the person who inspires me to do what I'm doing. I know that she's watching even when I think she's not watching, and so wanting to be a good example for her and model what I think hard work and sacrifice look like.
Honestly, the Marcy Venture Partners team, Jay Z and Jay Brown and Larry. Their investment in our business has totally changed the trajectory of it. My husband for sacrificing and for having a wife who's always preoccupied and always emailing, and being able to do demos and deliver cookies for me. And the first Whole Foods buyer. So it's actually not even our buyer anymore, but I cold emailed every single person I could find at Whole Foods and this one guy, who probably doesn't even know I exist, David Woods, was in Boulder, Colorado at a regional office. He introduced me to the global cookie buyer who responded to me, who helped me get into that first region, and every retailer in natural foods wants to know if you're in Whole Foods how you're doing in Whole Foods, why you're not in Whole Foods. So if David Woods had not forwarded my email, I don't know if we would have gotten into Whole Foods.
James McKinney: It's amazing. I hope if for some rare chance that are buyers or anybody within an enterprise organization that has the ability to provide assistance to entrepreneurs that happen to call, I hope that they would just not brush those moments aside. A small change, just forwarding off an email to the right person, can change the trajectory for an entrepreneur significantly. It's just those small, incremental things. So I love, thank you for sharing that great list of those you're thankful for because I truly… if I had to trim down the episode, that question would not get cut. I love it too much. I think entrepreneurs need to remind themselves that if they feel alone in the journey, then something is wrong on their side. They need to get back in with community. They need to connect with those people that helped them get to where they are. They shouldn't be lonely.
The last thing as our time comes to an end, you know we've been talking to tens of thousands of listeners at a very high level, just kind of unpacking your journey a bit. I want to bring the conversation down to just one, just you and a listener, kind of a mentoring minute if you will. If one of my listeners was in New Jersey having a coffee with you, what advice would you say to them? And my listeners are made up of a few different personas. There's the frustrated entrepreneur who's got something going but they have a list of 86 no's and they have yet to get a yes. They're cash flow strapped, they can't get anywhere with buyers. Maybe it's the defeated entrepreneur who has tried numerous times but continues to fail. Or maybe it's that person who has a 9 to 5 and has some ideas, and has someone saying you should do this, you should move on this, but maybe there's something that's anchoring them to the job. Maybe it's the great benefits, maybe it's a mortgage and kids and there's some level of fear to them. I don't care which of those personas resonates with you, but you're having coffee with one of them. What do you say to them?
Denise Woodard: So the person who's still working the 9 to 5, you can do both. You can just get started and you can start small. So whether that's having a conversation with other entrepreneurs or whether it's going out to a potential customer, whether it's starting to do the research to create the prototype. You don't have to go all in and quit your job day one, but you can take baby steps in the right direction that allow you to keep doing what you're doing, and keep bringing your steady income but move this other thing that you're passionate about in the right direction. I think people oftentimes think if I can't quit my job tomorrow and I can't go raise this money, then I shouldn't be doing this. But that's not true. You can start small. You can just get started.
James McKinney: Did you catch those truth bombs that Denise dropped at the end of her episode? The idea that you don't need to jump ship from your stable 9 to 5 job in order to pursue your entrepreneurial endeavors. She talked about taking small incremental steps towards bringing your venture into existence. In fact, did you hear her entire journey? Because that is exactly how she built Partake Foods. She had an idea for Partake Foods and someone suggested a pitch content. She barely formed her legal entity and enters that pitch contest with absolutely no product, and it's a food company. In fact, she won that contest and hadn't even tried to make anything because she had no idea as to whether she could actually make something that her daughter would enjoy, as well as address the allergy issues she was trying to fight. I love Denise's story because it is such a great example of not getting caught up in the overwhelming details that it takes to start a business. It points to the opportunities that come when you just choose to start.
There have been many startup stories where the founder is given the advice of "just start", don't worry about having it all figured out, just take the first step and start. Well I hope you're not becoming numb to that truth. You will never know what is possible unless you get started. You can try to create the most perfect business plan, but until you begin to execute, those plans are simply theories. Each step you take forward will help you to understand what the next step should be. Stop trying to figure out how to get to a destination when you're not even off your couch. And that is the power of The Startup Story. Please, hit me up on LinkedIn, Facebook,, or Instagram sharing with me what was the most impactful thing you received from Denise's story.
And if you've been around The Startup Story for any length of time, then you know how much emphasis I put on the idea that entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs. Denise has brought so much value to us and now it's our turn to deliver value to her. So if you're a social media marketing guru, hit her up at email@example.com because she needs help in that area. Secondly, all of us right now, all 35,000 plus, go to Amazon and search for Partake Foods. Buy a box of cookies and leave a written review about how much you love them. A box of cookies on Amazon costs $4.50. Let's help Denise out in this way. Written reviews of verified purchases are a very big deal on Amazon. And lastly, if you have a favorite coffee shop tell them about Partake Foods because they have a new one ounce snack pack they're trying to get into local coffee shops. So did you catch all that? If you're a social media marketing person, email her firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to Amazon, $4.50 cookie pack, write a written review. And tell your local coffee shop about Partake Foods.
There are over 35,000 listeners of The Startup Story. Let's show up for Denise in one of these ways. Like always, we will include all of this info in our show notes as well as an Amazon link to the cookies. And remember, entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs so let's show up for Denise Woodard and Partake Foods in a huge way. And now, for my personal ask.
The Startup Story community has been so incredible about sharing our podcast with others, but we have more stories to tell and more people to reach. We too are a startup and word of mouth is everything, so please follow us on Facebook and Instagram @TheStartupStory or on Twitter @StartupStory_. If you're on LinkedIn, please search for The Startup Story and follow our company page. LinkedIn is a really powerful way to raise awareness of the show. But the most impactful way you can help us grow our audience is to leave a review on Apple Podcast. Or if you listen to the show via Spotify, then please simply share the podcast directly from your Spotify app or wherever you listen to the show.
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If you like this podcast and are thinking of creating your own, consider talking to my producer Danny Ozment. He helps thought leaders, influencers, executives, and authors create, launch, and produce podcasts that grow their business and make a real impact in this world. You can contact him today at emeraldcitypro.com/startupstory.