PLH 112 | Food Product Startups

 

Joanna Parker, the co-founder of Yumble, explains how she was inspired to open her own company as a mom. Yumble has three pillars which are all centered towards providing healthy food for children. Joanna says children’s diet and appetite greatly vary, and that is why she is customizing the foods she offers, providing options for both picky and adventurous eaters. She narrates how it is working with his husband side by side while taking care of their kids, sharing the struggles they had while their business was growing and how they overcame it. For those who want to do a food startup, this is an episode you shouldn’t miss.

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I have a Shark Tanker for you, someone who’s been in the Tank and survived and thrived. We’re going to have a chat with Joanna Parker. She’s a mom of three and the Cofounder of Yumble. She’s determined to make parents’ lives simpler by helping them teach their children healthy and happy eating habits that will last a lifetime. After graduating from Columbia College, Joanna began her career in product development at Macy’s. She has a product background. We’re going to dig a little bit into that. Five years into teaching early-childhood education, she became a mom of two. She soon left teaching to become a stay-at-home mom, later adding one more child to her growing family. It was during this time that she realized how frustrating and stressful it was to prepare, cook and clean up kids’ breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day. She knew there had to be a better way. She was passionate about solving this problem. She soon began cooking and preparing meals for families in the neighborhood. This is the consummate entrepreneur thing. She couldn’t just solve her own problems. She had to solve it for everyone. Soon that became Yumble. It’s now in 38 states and aired on Shark Tank. Yumble is positioned to deliver healthy and delicious ready-to-eat meals to hundreds of millions of American families. I am looking forward to being one of them. Are you in California yet?

Not yet, but hopefully by the end of the summer.

I’ll be ready to sign up. Joanna, thank you for joining me.

Thank you so much for having me.

You have done the classic thing where you found a problem and you solved it. More people asked you, “Can you do this for me?” We love that because you get your market proof early. Do you think that having that sales proof helped you in the Shark Tank?

It’s 100%. Every step you take as an entrepreneur to prove your product-market fit helps you both as an entrepreneur and in the Tank, explaining that you started it. You did the grind. You went out there and solved the problem on your own. I wore every hat in the beginning. The Sharks respect that grit.

More importantly, you had people asking for your products. A demand is an awesome thing to be able to go in with.

That’s been the big driver since day one. I posted on a Facebook mommy group anonymously. Through word of mouth and viral moms talking, we kept growing organically.

When you’re doing market research, the number one thing that you can’t do to assess product-market fit is to ask your friends and family. You have to go out there and ask the exact target market. If they’re more than willing to plunk down dollars, you should go for it.

I felt strongly about not tapping my friends. I knew my friends had this pain point, but I wanted to see if it existed in the broader mommy community. I purposely wanted to do it anonymously in a different neighborhood. Seeing that people were willing to pay and put in their credit cards on a recurring subscription cycle was promising.

Also, that’s one tip for success right there. You were putting them on the subscription model from the beginning, which is helping your planning and your cashflow. With food, that’s critical.

From a business perspective, the subscription makes it much more manageable. You can project a lot more easily and precisely. I also felt like the product lent itself to subscription because the whole concept was to alleviate this problem from parents’ lives. They have this problem. They have it now. They have it tomorrow. They have it next week. They have it the week after. It’s not a hobby or a fun to-do that they might want to do this week but not the next week. I felt like being able to cross it off their list indefinitely until they didn’t have children in the house anymore was the best way to do it for them.

You have a background in product development from Macy’s. How did that help you?

Kids are not born knowing how to have healthy eating habits. It’s the parent’s job to work through it with them. Click To Tweet

My background is I came from product development and then I was in early child and those two things combined really helped. I didn’t even realize it when I started Yumble. As I got more and more into it, I realized that they were great backgrounds, which I think is important for entrepreneurs, not to try to fit what you want to do into what you’ve already done, but find the things from what you’ve already done and how they can help you move forward. It’s learning about product development and the cycles, building something from scratch, watching it go to market, analyzing, seeing how it does in market and knowing when to pull product and when to double down on something that’s performing. All of those tasks that I had at Macy’s came into play. With my early-childhood experience, what has been even more helpful is having had the relationship with parents who trust you with their children and how to talk to parents in what they expect from teachers or people who are providing a service like Yumble. It’s very intimate, what you’re serving your children for dinner, the same way it is when you spend nine hours a day with them in the classroom.

Most often people would go, “I have a nutrition degree. This is going to be fine. I know what I’m doing.” It’s really is, “How are you going to get those kids to eat it? Is this going to be easy? Is this going to make my life better as a parent?” We’re the gatekeepers in the process. It’s not the nutritional factors. They’re important but they’re not the first factors and not the first concerns that go through our mind. You already know that was helpful.

It was very helpful. Also as an entrepreneur, knowing where your strengths are, where your weaknesses are and calling on other people to fill in for your weaknesses rather than ignoring them is important.

I hope you’re not wearing all the hats now.

I’ve taken a few of them off. It was helpful having worn them all.

When you went into the Shark Tank, you were essentially a solopreneur. You had your husband. Was he your partner at the time?

David came on board early. As soon as he saw the traction from that initial Facebook mommy group and the New York City virality, he was excited. He had been an entrepreneur before. He was excited to jump on board. The two of us started. We pulled in someone who had more operational chops than the two of us. David is more of the business side. He went to Harvard Business School. He comes with more CEO financial background strategy. At the time, it was us. We had one customer service representative who was helping out.

Now, how big are you? You’re in 38 states. That’s a lot.

Now we’re a team of about twenty in the office. That doesn’t include a lot of our developers that are abroad, a lot of our kitchen staff and our packers and things like that.

Let’s talk a little bit about the product. Tell me what you deliver.

Yumble is a weekly subscription of fully prepared, healthy and yummy meals designed for kids. Every customer goes onto the website and they get to choose whichever meals they want from our menu, ranging between 20 and 30 items at any given time. Some of our meals are more catered for dinner. You pop them in the microwave and everything’s fully cooked. There’s no work involved. Some of them are a better warmed up. That’s like mac and cheese or something like that. Another line of ours is what we call ready-to-eat, which don’t even involve any warming up. They’re more of what a lunch mom might throw into her kid’s backpack so the child doesn’t have to even warm them at school. It’s pinwheels, pasta salads, fresh fruits and veggies, dips and things like that.

What are some of your most popular meals?

Our most popular meal is definitely our chicken pops.

PLH 112 | Food Product Startups

Food Product Startups: Knowing where your strengths and weaknesses area and calling on other people to fill in for your weaknesses rather than ignoring them is important.

 

Is it a chicken nugget on a popsicle stick?

Exactly. The reason I love it is because it embodies everything that Yumble is. Yumble DNA has three pillars. One is it’s made from ingredients that mom and dad feel proud to serve. The chicken pops are wholesome. They’re made from antibiotic-free and hormone-free white meat chicken. They’re baked until they’re golden in whole-wheat panko crumbs. It’s all goodness. That’s the first pillar of Yumble DNA. The second is it tastes like food that kids want to eat. We all know that no matter how healthy the food is, if the kids aren’t going to eat it, it doesn’t matter. This tastes like a chicken nugget, which every kid loves. That makes it a winner. The third thing, which sets us apart but it’s as important, is that there’s a fun factor. Taking the familiar chicken nugget, putting it on a lollipop stick, making it round and making it something that kids can dunk, dip, plank and twirl adds an element of fun. Something else that we always send in every box is collectibles and activities for the kids. We want mealtime to be happy, fun and stress-free. If the kids are happy and mom and dad are not stressed, the whole environment in the kitchen changes.

What packaging are they arriving in?

All the meals come in trays that are microwave-safe. For families that don’t use a microwave, the food can easily be taken out and put onto a cookie sheet and warmed in the oven. They come wrapped in these cute bellybands that are in different colors, have characters on them and have fun names of what the food is. Every box comes with a packet. It comes with anything from coloring sheets to coins that you can collect and trade in for prizes, to sticker charts and strategies and tips for mom and dad on how to make eating healthier. It’s little strategies to help get through mealtime.

How old are your kids?

My son is nine and I have two daughters who are seven and four.

I have a 24-year-old. They’re all girls. My ten and five-year-old, I can see them needing what you’re doing because they are very picky eaters. They’re following in their big sister’s footsteps. Ironically, their big sister turned out to be a chef. She went to school as a chef. Now she runs my company. She’s involved in our business as well. I was always like, “You’re the pickiest eater and you’re going to be a chef. At least I did something right in the kitchen. I taught you that it was fun and interesting. You don’t try everything. What is the deal with that?”

Does she explore more now?

Yeah, as an adult. It took cooking for that to happen with her. My middle one, my ten-year-old, she’s good at trying things. The five-year-old, she’s still in that stage, which is a common stage, that post-toddler. They get a little defiant where they might have eaten everything before that, which she did. Now she’s like, “No. This is the one thing I can control. I’m going to say, ‘I’m only eating chicken nuggets.’” Trying to shift them up and make them healthy, that I might be able to do with her. Trying to deviate from that mac and cheese and chicken nugget meal, it’s not going to happen too easily. You’ve given us options.

We try to have something for everybody. For the parents who are dealing with picky kids and they want to get them to eat something healthy, we have basic options. For parents who are ready to explore more adventurous things, we’ve included more exotic dishes. Everybody can cater to what their family needs. You hit the nail on the head with, “Picky eating is a phase.” I always talk to my customers. I tell them, “It’s like potty training. It’s like sleep training.” Kids are not born knowing how to have healthy eating habits. It’s one of our jobs as parents to show them. At some point in their growing up, they’re going to encounter this defiance. It’s our job to work through it with them. That takes a lot of patients like all the other milestones. The earlier we help them, the more consistent we are with them and the less stressed we feel about it, the faster it’s over and the longer those eating habits last.

How is your family dealing with two entrepreneurial parents running a very fast-growing business? I know this is a challenge personally. That’s why I asked it from your perspective. How has that been challenging your family?

It was a big shift for my kids. I went from stay-at-home mom to 24/7-startup mom. The airing of Shark Tank was a pivotal moment for my kids. There was some validation or understanding of what it was we were doing. We got the community rallied up. Everyone was excited. There was a lot of positive comradery.

They found they’re part of something too.

Setting expectations can greatly help any startup business. Click To Tweet

They are always a part of it because they taste things or we get our box every week. They’re always involved. I’m always asking them of their opinions. It’s hard having busy parents so having that validation was exciting for them.

We like to involve our kids whenever we can. Occasionally, I will invite them on to do a podcast or something like that because them feeling what it’s like is great. My ten-year-old is anxious to be a YouTube star now. We’ve been in development for a month because I’m trying to stall until school ends. We’re in development, trying to figure out what our show should be about. That’s exactly it. Getting them involved and getting them to feel like they’re a part of that community is important. It’s good for you because keeping them so separate is hard. You’re living and breathing it.

Especially because it’s my husband and me together, there’s no way to keep it out of the house. It is a family project. I do like to involve them. The other thing that’s helped them is setting their expectations. My four-year-old, she goes to sleep too early for me to see her during the weekdays. She knows that Monday through Thursday, she’s going to go to sleep and she’ll see me in the morning. I’ve set her expectations so there’s no disappointment. When there’s no disappointment on her end, I feel a lot less guilt. She knows that on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, I put her to sleep, I bathe her and I do everything. Leveling with them and talking to them like grownups help.

I have that issue when I do a lot of travel. You can’t talk to me in the morning because of the Time Zone. We have to have discussions about that. Setting that up ahead of time is so important. The other issue that you have is you’re working with your husband. For a lot of people, that seems off the charts. It’s never going to happen in their lives. I know because I’ve been working with my husband for several years. It’s the number one question I get like, “How do you manage that?” Did you work together at all before?

We did not.

You’re navigating new territory as well.

We spoke a lot about it before we made the decision to do it. I couldn’t imagine it any other way because a startup is so consuming and demanding. There are highs and lows. Having someone to ride that rollercoaster with, who understands it, makes it a lot easier. If one of us were doing it by ourselves, it would almost be isolating.

You have a co-creator in your process. You both have the same goals, both in business and in your personal lives. It’s less conflict. It’s enjoyable if you can manage to figure out each other’s roles. You guys have complementary skills. That’s good as well. We do too. We’re different people. I’m the CEO. He’s the CTO. He likes to stay in the technology and the development side of that. That helps us as well.

Our roles are very separated. We commute in together. At the end of the day when we’re driving home, we usually are talking. We’re like, “This is the first time we’re talking today. How was your day?”

I spend my entire day pretty much doing these interviews and other things like that. I don’t see him at all during the day either. Occasionally, we happen to hit in the kitchen at the same time to grab lunch out of the fridge. Otherwise, we probably don’t see each other during the day. People think that you’re tripping over each other. Husband and wife teams are very common. We think about all the small businesses, all the restaurants and all the things out there that are run by families. It’s very different. It’s not unusual. It just requires having systems in place, having a comfort level and having a discussion ahead of time. I love that you guys did that.

I always tell this story. When we commute home and we’re having our end-of-the-day recap, if we’re not finished when we get to the house, we’ll park on the side of the street for a few minutes, wrap everything up and then pull into the driveway in the garage. It can’t go into the garage because the kids come running through the playroom door. They are ready for mommy and daddy and not Yumble cofounders.

Let’s talk about some of these hazards of product launching. Tons have to go wrong. Let’s talk about some of the things that went wrong and how you overcame them.

Our first real challenge was when we outgrew our first kitchen. We were growing too fast. They pretty much gave us our 90-day notice and we had no place to go. I left the meeting crying. David left the meeting pumped like, “We’re going to figure this out. We’ve got 90 days. Let’s do it.” We did. We ended up in a better place that was a better fit for us in the end. Having that crunch time and knowing it was do or die was an enormous challenge. That’s when we first realized that this business was heavy on the operations. That wasn’t mine or David’s strong suit. It’s frustrating as founders to have such an important part of your business not be in your wheelhouse.

PLH 112 | Food Product Startups

Food Product Startups: Everybody can cater to what their family needs.

 

That is an important insight that you’ve given there. When you face some of these challenges, you realize it’s not your skillset and you don’t have time to learn it. It’s not something you can learn and you need deep knowledge there, it makes it difficult. This is what I see too often. They put off the hire in that particular area because they’re like, “We don’t have the income yet. We’re not at the stage in which we hire.” They delay it. It is the business killer at the end of the day. It is the holdback. It’s the reason you are not growing and you don’t know it.

You need to recognize your weaknesses early and fill those spots with people who you trust to carry that through. We always knew that this business had a lot of operations. We also knew that it was very important for us to build a brand that parents trust. That’s where David and I lend our strengths. Being able to focus on that while trusting someone to run the operations is an important part of the business.

I’ve done in the last years about 250 products, but probably about 1,000 overall in my career. I never do food. Food, in and of itself, is a challenge. Would you talk a little bit about that? There’s a reason I don’t do food.

Food is another one of the challenges that’s constant especially when you’re dealing with children. You want to make sure that everything is perfect. It ties in a little bit to why it was challenging to find the perfect place for us to cook out of because our standards were so high. Dealing with fresh food and transporting food, whether it’s from our facility to our customers, making sure it stays at the right temperature is a big challenge. With the different seasons, everything changes. Also, it’s transporting food in different weathers. In the winter, while it’s easier because we can stay colder, you’re also dealing with snowstorms.

You don’t realize that weather watch is critical to your business until it starts happening.

That’s a big challenge. Even getting our food into the kitchen, if we run out of an ingredient or things get recalled ingredient-wise, you have to be amenable and roll with the punches.

I imagine your planning experience helped you. Were you doing inventory planning and other things at Macy’s?

Yeah.

I bet that helped you.

I was lucky because I was doing some items that were seasonal and some items that were evergreens. That’s how we have the menu also, which is some things are rotating and some things stay there forever.

I imagine you also have to have an eye on economics and what’s going on in the world because I understand that we’re having a pork price problem. We’re going to be getting into bacon issues and other things as you go forward. Your pricing has to fluctuate as well and/or you’re going to have to absorb some. Those are profit bottom line issues.

That’s where David’s expertise comes in. He’s very creative at crafting contracts. A lot of our agreements with our vendors protect us.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to do a food startup?

The only difference between successful entrepreneurs and unsuccessful is the successful ones don't give up. Click To Tweet

The number one thing is to find out what people you need on your team to compliment you. It’s important to do what you’re good at doing and have the people surrounding you do what you’re not as good at. Nobody’s great at everything. Being self-aware is important for an entrepreneur because there’s no success in being defensive or not honest about what you’re good at. Surrounding yourself with a team that you can trust is the number one key. Also people who have connections with different vendors especially if you’re dealing with food, knowing the best in the quality is important.

How was your experience in on Shark Tank? Tell me a little bit about it post-Shark Tank. I know you have some secrets, but tell me what you can.

I always say that Shark Tank was like a mini-startup. It’s a rollercoaster ride. It’s exhilarating. It’s thrilling. It’s scary.

Tell us a little bit about how you decided you were going to go into the Shark Tank. That’s a big decision for a lot of people, “Do I even do it?”

My husband and I have talked about it and we never thought that hard about what it meant to go on national TV. We always knew it would be a great thing for Yumble, assuming that the Sharks like this. What we didn’t think about beforehand was what it would mean for Joanna and David Parker, separate from Yumble. It’s the comradery from the community, the excitement for my children and the way it brought our team together. There was a personal component but it took us both a lot of surprise. There was also the whole waiting from when we filmed to when we aired.

It’s a long time for everybody. It’s the slowest time that you’ll ever go through.

You know what happens, but you don’t know how they’re going to edit it, what you’re going to look like and sound like and how they’ll chop it up. I don’t think we realized how stressful those months of waiting would be. After it was over, we both took a deep breath. We’re like, “We’re so glad that’s over.”

You also had each other, which is unusual. Many of the ones who go in solo need a support group. There is a support group on Facebook. There’s a support group for Shark Tankers. It is isolating.

Even going in with David, we look at each other every once in a while. We’re like, “Did we say that? I don’t even remember.” It’s a foggy blur.

What happened after? How has it changed your business?

It gave a lot of brand awareness. That’s been the best asset for us from the airing. It’s the Sharks validating it. For moms, they want to know that a product has been validated before they buy it for their children. Trusting people like the panel of Sharks automatically gives them the check mark to purchase. That’s been our biggest excitement from it.

How did you prepare for the night of boom? Everyone goes and Googles you and finds you.

You get about a few weeks notice that they’re going to air you. Our team was spectacular. Everybody, from tech to customer service to logistics to supply chain, worked around the clock to make sure that the site wouldn’t crash and that we have enough supply for the demand. We thought of creative landing pages and ads. It was a full team effort.

PLH 112 | Food Product Startups

Food Product Startups: Being self-aware is important for an entrepreneur because there’s no success in being defensive or not honest about what you’re good at.

 

Food is harder. It’s one thing to have enough inventory but it’s harder because you could overbuy. You have all the excess. I’ve heard that from multiple Shark Tankers who came in with food products, some who overbought and some who didn’t have enough. It’s a lot harder to balance than regular inventory. Are there any other tips? Do you recommend Shark Tank for other startups?

I recommend it. It’s an amazing life experience. You’ll learn a lot about yourself. It’s exciting. It’s fun. You become part of a community of people who are supportive. Throughout the journey of an entrepreneur, you’re going to hear a lot of noes and you’re going to hit a lot of bumps. Taking advantage of all of the highs and exciting moments, it’s important to celebrate them.

For those of you who didn’t watch Shark Tank yet and you’re hearing Joanna and you’re hearing all about Yumble, I will link to the video that is on YouTube for that so you can check that out. You’ve got a deal with Bethenny Frankel. Was that her first episode on the show or had she been at a few more in the season?

I think 2018 was her first year as a guest and I can’t remember if it was her first episode of this season or her second. I think it was her second.

You’ve got a deal with her. According to what she said there, she was going to take on a spokesperson role. How’s that worked out for you?

It’s great. What I loved about Bethenny was right when we walked into the Tank, you could tell that she understood both the pain points and the solution that we were trying to solve. She’s a busy mom who cares about feeding her daughter healthy food. What I loved is how she connected with the product. She also has a culinary background. That was also a nice connector.

She has her own food and beverages line. That makes sense that she would understand what you’re going through too. Joanna, do you have anything else that you’d like to share with our audience before you go?

If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, best of luck and don’t give up. The only difference between successful entrepreneurs and unsuccessful is the successful ones don’t give up. They keep going.

Thank you so much for joining me. This will also be an Inc. article. You’ll want to check out my column as well. If you have anything you want, reach out to Joanna so you can buy yummy meals for your family. Thank you all for reading. This has been Tracy Hazzard.

Tune in to Joanna Parker‘s next Office Hours. Connect with and find out more about Joanna Parker in our Experts Directory.

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About Joanna Parker

PLH 112 | Food Product StartupsJoanna Parker is a mom of three and co-founder of Yumble. She is determined to make parents’ lives simpler by helping them teach their children healthy and happy eating habits that will last a lifetime.
After graduating from Columbia College, Joanna began her career in product development at Macy’s and later transitioned into early-childhood education. Five years into teaching, she became a mom of two and soon left teaching to become a stay-at-home mom, later adding one more child to her growing family. It was during this time, while Joanna was busy with her growing family, that she realized how frustrating and stressful it was to prepare, cook, and clean up from kids’ breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day.
“I knew there had to be a better way and I was passionate about solving this incessant pain point for parents everywhere,” she said of her time as a stay-at-home mom.
She soon began cooking and preparing meals for families in her neighborhood, and over two years created what would later become Yumble. Now available in 38 states and recently aired nationally on Shark Tank, Yumble, is positioned to deliver healthy and delicious ready-to-eat meals to hundreds of millions of American families.

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