“Do not turn off your cell phone,” Hamdi Ulukaya told the leaders of six early-stage food and beverage companies who were gathered at Natural Products Expo West to show-off their products to press and potential investors after completing a six-month tenure at Chobani’s Food Incubator.
“I don’t know why people tell you otherwise. Do not turn off your phone. If you usually turn it off when you go to sleep or whatever – no. Absolutely not,” he emphasized, explaining, “Customers can call. Investors can call. You have to get up in the middle of the night, and that is the fun part of it. If it is off, you are going to miss it.”
He acknowledged this approach will take a toll, jokingly pointing out how much grayer his hair is now than it was when Chobani launched in 2008 and how he now needs a heat pack for his hip. But he also said, “you cannot put a price” on making the dream of entrepreneurship come true.
Don’t go it alone
But because this lifestyle is difficult, he also advised entrepreneurs to develop and rely on a team they can trust.
“You cannot do everything alone – especially when you get to a certain level. You cannot do it alone. It is impossible,” he said, noting that he alone is not Chobani, but rather the company is made up a lot of dedicated members.
Let the product represent you
At the same time, it is important to remember that the team and top leadership do not represent the company – rather the product must represent them, Ulukaya said.
“Everything about you, it is in the product,” he said. “And it looks and sounds simple, and it might sound a bit small, but for me it was a bigger thing” to know that he and everyone else at Chobani pours their hearts and passion into each cup of yogurt and that yogurt then represents them to the world.
Talk to everyone
With that in mind, Ulukaya also advised those in the room just starting out “to talk to everyone” at Expo West without looking at their name tags first to see how they can help.
“When you go to these shows and people look at your tag first, it is depressing. I hate it,” he said, noting that one can never tell who will be helpful in the long run.
Therefore, he said, “We talk to everyone, and when we are talking about the product, we are talking about ourselves. We don’t try to show how nice I am, how smart I am and how different I am. We just talk about the product” with passion so that those you talk with then tell others that they meet who then tell yet more people.
“Before you know it, the word has spread and you don’t need a lot of money to be able to spend on marketing,” he said.
Choose partners carefully
While it is good to talk to everyone, it is not good to get into bed with everyone, Ulukaya said pointedly about potential investors.
He acknowledged that when funds are tight it can be difficult to decline a helping hand, but ultimately company leadership must be “really careful” and team only with investors who are aligned with the business and will help not only on good days, but bad days as well.
“This is rare, but they are out there,” he said.
Prioritize food safety
Recognizing that there are many paths to grow a business, Ulukaya says there is one constant that must always be met for a company to succeed: food safety.
“Food safety is [vital because], as you know, we are making food for others and everyone eats it and we have to be careful,” he said. He added that food safety makes good business sense because an outbreak or recall can “disrupt the business dramatically.”
Regularly review the rules
Finally, Ulukaya said that while it is important entrepreneurs establish rules for themselves and their companies, they also should review those rules periodically.
“One of the things that I always said is I am not going to sell. And maybe that is one of your rules. But it is okay to visit that rule every once and awhile to say, ‘I am not going to sell, but maybe I should?,’” he said.
When entrepreneurs ask themselves these questions, finding the answer “is a conversation you have to have with yourself,” Ulukaya said. “Nobody else will judge you. If that is the right thing to do for you and your family then do it, because there is nobody else who can tell you.”