Starting an Organic Food Company
Interview with Kopali Organics Co-Founder Zak Zaidman
Are you looking to start a business and change the world? Meet Zak Zaidman, co- founder of Kopali Organics, and learn how Kopali is helping the planet while selling some amazing snacks.
Zak and his family and friends are working with famers in Costa Rica to grow and sell organic snacks.
Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?
We work with sustainable family farmers around the world, and produce Kopali's line of SUPERGOOD SUPERFOOD: delicious, nourishing, organic and fair trade snacks.
Our main office is in Miami, Florida and we also have an office in NYC. Founding headquarters are in the rainforest of Costa Rica, at our off-the-grid organic permaculture farm and educational center.
When did you start the business?
We launched the SUPERGOOD SUPERFOOD line in January of 2008. We have been working on prototyping Kopali in few stores and on sourcing relationships since 2005. We were inspired to start the business to help the indigenous, sustainable, organic family farmers who were our friends and neighbors in Costa Rica, producing top quality goods in a way to preserve the land and the lives of those involved. They were a positive model and an alternative to the encroachment of large scale chemical agriculture, which produces "food" that is unhealthy to eat, and does tremendous damage to the lives and health of the people in the communities where it is produced, as well as the interdependent ecosystems of the planet.
What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?
We had four founders:
- I ran a multimedia software company in San Francisco in the 90s. Then I worked on non-profit causes before moving to Costa Rica and learning about food.
- My brother Zev was an investor searching for triple-bottom-line (people, planet, profit) breakthroughs.
- Stephen was living off-the-grid in Costa Rica farming, learning and teaching sustainable agriculture.
- Norman Brooks (Stephen's father) was a dentist.
Where did you get the startup money?
We did not have a lot, but as founding partners, we put our own savings into starting Kopali. Then we got some initial orders from Whole Foods Market and got through our prototype phase running on cash flow. Then we invited a couple of angel investors from the Social Venture Network (SVN.org) community. We did our first private equity round towards the end of 2007 just before we launched our line of SUPERGOOD SUPERFOOD.
Who are your main competitors? How do you compete against them?
We like to think that our main competitors are the major snake brands because even though what they sell is terribly unhealthy and unsustainable and unfair to the farmers who grow the ingredients, that is what most Americans are snacking on. We are working to turn people on to snacks that are not just good for them but also good for the farmers who grow our food and for the planet we all share. There are some small healthy snack brands that we also compete with, but given that 99% of the snack market is still dominated by unhealthy snacks, we are not as focused on competing with them as we are in changing the way Americans snack.
How has your experience in running the business been different from what you expected?
Everything in a start up entrepreneurial venture takes longer, costs more, and is much harder than you can ever imagine when you start it.
We started with a very clear mission: Directly support some of the most sustainable and heroic organic family farmers. At first our product development was guided by the farmers and producers we were moved to support. We experimented with some very exotic and interesting products because they were so connected to such powerful stories. Many people were inspired and LOVED these products, but with everything we have learned regarding what it takes to build a successful brand large enough to have as significant an impact as we would like, we have chosen to focus on a line of delicious, appealing, organic, fair trade, premium, impulse-buy SUPERGOOD SUPERFOOD snacks. Snacks offer the possibility of more rapid "turns" or frequency of sales. That is, someone loves the product and they are likely to buy it again much much sooner than say, a bottle of banana vinegar which is likely to sit in the pantry for weeks, even if it's the best tasting, healthiest, and most sustainable product ever.
Another important lesson about expectations and especially about this industry was that getting products on the shelves of many stores, even some of the most important stores in the country, initially felt like a sort of "finish line". The expectation was that if we could get delicious, nutritious, sustainable products on the shelves that had an inspiring story behind them, we would be succeeding. Now we know that not only is getting products on the shelves of stores not the finish line, it is merely a ticket to the starting line of the race. Getting products off the shelves and out of the stores through the check out lines in the hands of happy repeat customers, that is the goal. And even when that happens, there are no guarantees that the stores will reorder the products, even when they are best sellers. It turns out it takes an almost unimaginable amount of effort and resources and daily miracles to keep even some of the best products in the world moving successfully through the process of execution. And that is still only the beginning of the race towards profitability which is a whole other challenge, even for successful brands.
But it is all happening for Kopali and it is all worth it, considering we are on our well on our way to growing a powerful and successful brand that is based on such high standards of personal and global wellness.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
Not really. Everything offered a valuable opportunity for learning.
What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business?
The most important thing we have done that has been effective in helping to grow a successful business is to grow a diverse and complementary partnership to lead the company. The partners of Kopali are a perfect example of what I like to think of as a human permaculture guild. In permaculture (a system of design and agriculture that is based on the successful strategies of nature itself) we plant guilds of plants. Guilds of plants are diversified gardens that include multiple species of plants that complement each other in powerful ways. For example in a tropical orchard down in our off-the-grid permaculture farm in the rainforest of Costa Rica, instead of just planting fruit trees, we will plant them together with a guild of other plants. One plant, say a pigeon pea, might be a nitrogen fixer, taking nitrogen from the atmosphere and 'fixing' it into the soil for the other plants to feed on, while another plant might be a ground cover, preventing other unwanted 'weeds' from growing in the garden. We might also plant some multiple function banana plans that are fast growing, give shade to young vulnerable fruit trees, give bananas to eat and provide plenty of onsite compost to replenish the soil. I share all of this because in similarly and even more complex ways, an ideal business team is composed of very different yet complementary types of team members.
We have a powerful combination of personalities on our team that more than cover critical and different personality traits such as vision, discipline, creativity, good judgment, and many other talents that are necessary to envision, start and then grow a successful business. It is not always easy to combine these very different traits, and in fact most human organizations do not even try to be diverse in all these ways at the leadership level, but it is very important and very rewarding.
The other most important thing we have done to help grow our business is to always keep a very healthy dynamic between our mission, which is the reason we started Kopali and what makes Kopali special, and the many decisions and activities that are not mission related but that are required to have any business succeed. We realized early on that without a successful business, the purity of our mission would be irrelevant. Too many businesses forget their purpose, or forget to even have a deeper purpose. At the same time, too many mission driven visionaries never figure out how to grow a successful business.
I truly believe that the future of our world depends on the success of triple-bottom-line businesses that measure their success in terms of financial, human, and ecological returns and compete with one another to create a more sustainable and just world, and I hope Kopali will be a shining example of a pioneering triple-bottom-line success story.
What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?
Realize it will take longer, cost more, and be much more difficult than you can imagine, and if you still want to do it, go for it. But first find a way to complement not only your skills but the essence of your personality, with partners or team members who will be genius where you are deficient. Nobody is genius in every way. In fact most people who shine in one aspect of human abilities and traits are typically very deficient in others. And remember, there are already many businesses in the world. The world does not need another business, unless it is a business that is going to radically improve our world.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Zak. We will keep an eye out for Kopali snacks at our favorite food stores!
Share this article
Additional Resources for Entrepreneurs