Optimism: An Underdog's Best Friend

Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath explains that being an underdog can work to one's advantage, especially when faced with early hardship. One trait he doesn't mention in David is the optimism required to endure those early hardships. Those who have a generally positive view of the world are excellent at problem solving, a necessary ingredient for successful small companies and entrepreneurs. When our tiny food company launched a not-before-seen snack product, we ran into challenges right and left, but we saw the positive in each situation and turned each obstacle into an opportunity.

A few years ago nobody knew what a coconut chip is. Many still don't. Educating people is one of the biggest challenges when introducing something unprecedented in the market. Weeks before we launched, Trader Joe's released their own private label coconut chip. This appeared to be a huge obstacle -- their market dominance and low prices meant that we wouldn't be able to sell our brand to their shoppers. However, we quickly realized that this was the best thing that could have happened to us. Trader Joe's focuses on their own private label items so they wouldn't have been a viable customer of ours anyway. Not only that, but people actually learned what coconut chips were because they are stocked at every TJ's across the country. Our challenge of educating the public was being solved for us by Goliath himself!

When we were in the product development stage we wanted to get our product into the hands of buyers as soon as possible. We couldn't afford a trade show booth, so we made our presence known by stopping buyers in aisles and asking for feedback on the spot. Without the resources of a big company, we had to accomplish our goals by being scrappy. Looking back, we were hungry in the way that only early stage founders are...enough to go outside our comfort zones to do what we had to do. We managed to speak with the head of a major distributor and a Whole Foods regional buyer who both said they liked the taste and wanted to see retail packaging, which was enough encouragement for us to go full-steam ahead into production.

Another challenge was that many retail buyers didn't know where to place Dang coconut chips in their stores. Snacks? Produce? Nuts? Dessert Topping? At first their confusion seemed to work against us but we quickly realized we could take advantage of it by showing our product to different buyers who manage different parts of the store, increasing the likelihood that we'll make it onto the shelf and gain multiple placements throughout the store.

How do you introduce a food product people aren't familiar with? Get them to taste it. Our marketing strategy is aimed at getting our coconut chips in as many mouths as possible. Many folks tell us they don't like coconut -- but after tasting our chips, the majority of them admit that it changed their minds. This type of marketing is impossible to achieve unless we have demo specialists out there sampling regularly. While expensive, product demonstrations boost sales which will keep us on store shelves and create loyal customers which are the key to a sustainable business.

Another method to introduce something unfamiliar is to compare it to something they are familiar with. Not everyone is familiar with coconut chips but they've heard of coconut water and coconut oil. These two items paved the way for our snack and allowed us to give shoppers a basis for comparison. Those who like coconut water and coconut oil are probably going to like other coconut items which gave us a target demographic to focus our marketing efforts.

Every startup has its own problems to solve -- when figuring out how to navigate those murky early waters, it's best (and a lot less stressful) to believe that things will work out in the end. No matter how grim those humble beginnings look, there's opportunity right around the corner for those that can be optimistic enough to find it.