We spoke to five incredible founders about product development, branding and marketing, and the success stories they’ve experienced so far.
Part 4 features Heather Sears, founder of Kinsho (formerly Kensho Kitchen), a retailer of kitchen products based on the idea of mindful eating and food choices. In this interview, you’ll learn Heather’s approach to starting her own online retailer, how her mission drives her decision-making, and why she’s changing the name of her company.
This is part 4 of the “Five Food Startups Winning the Branding Battle” series. Don’t forget to check out Part 1 (Veggie Table Foods), Part 2 (i-Bars Club), and Part 3 (Shameless Pets). Check back in two weeks for part 5!
Tell us a bit about Kinsho.
I started Kensho Kitchen a few years ago because I love cooking and food, and I saw an opportunity to bring fun products to market. I learned to sell on Amazon and work with factories to start a private label based on inspiration I gleaned while eating and cooking.
I’m about to relaunch and scale as Kinsho. I’m taking everything I learned from Kensho Kitchen and being more intentional with the brand, messaging, and content.
Kensho is a Japanese word that refers to the initial moment of enlightenment. Before full enlightenment, you only have glimpses of it. One day, I was using a mandolin slicer and it calmed me down and connected me with my food. If we slow down, pay attention to our senses and environment, we can make better health and food decisions. I try to help people apply the idea of kensho to food. It’s about tools, not specific foods.
When did you know you had something you could build a business around, as opposed to just an interesting idea?
The way I chose the products was by doing a lot of research on Amazon - it’s the number one search engine for products. My launch would be on Amazon. I did data mining to understand the products’ sales in the categories I was in.
I was a bit different - I don’t have new patents for mandolin slicers or anything. I know design can make a difference, so it was a matter of asking what are people already looking for and how I can provide better design. All of this would be done with the message of kensho: Slow down, pay attention, be mindful of your food decisions.
What are some concrete steps you took to go from idea to product, to something that can scale?
I did data mining and looked at the monthly sales for specific product categories, how many reviews there are, how easily I could get sales, etc. Once I did this analysis and chose the products, I researched factories that make these products. I talked with them about design, cost structure, etc. From there, I negotiated prices.
After that, it was a matter of developing the brand and launching/testing products on Amazon to get feedback.
Can you share your process for gathering feedback and turning it into actionable steps for your own product development?
You have to ask the right questions. With Amazon, you can read reviews and learn, even from the negative ones. I also do purposeful outreach through surveys and customer research. Once you have that information, you have to see what you can change, what you should change, and what can’t change, and then getting back to the factory to see how your desired changes will affect your costs
For example, we had a mandolin slicer and the reason we put a rubber handle on it based on what people wanted because it made it more comfortable to use. Other people wanted waterproof lunch containers - I have developed a leak proof bento box that I plan to launch based off what people want.
What food brands have been most influential to you?
There are two that I often think of:
Oui Yogurt. It’s French yogurt sold in little glass pots by Yoplait. It’s more mindful and European-styled. They tap into the beauty of the product’s colors through reusable glass containers. It’s a great flavor - not too sweet or tangy. The whole brand is about being in the moment and savoring the yogurt.
Nestle. I know they’re huge and sometimes have negative publicity, but they were founded on the mission to save a dying child. They have a culture of mindful eating - their entire factory for chocolate is all about mindful eating. They are constantly innovating and evolving with the times. I also love how they’re are very strategic with M&A, which helps small brands go global.
Can you share the most impactful strategies you’ve used so far to market your business?
Digital marketing, particularly Facebook and SEM ads, have been huge drivers of sales for me. Optimizing my Amazon profile has also been very important. By optimizing my digital presence, I’ve been picked up by other online retailers like Sears and other kitchen product sites.
What success story are you most proud of?
I had a very large business order of one of my bento products - a retirement home in Hawaii ordered 200 of them for its residents. They really focus on healthy eating there, and I love that they chose my products to have a fun healthy meal.
Can you share your reasoning behind changing the name of your company from Kensho Kitchen to Kinsho? What prompted that?
I wrote a book that came out in November - Mind to Mouth: A Busy Chick's Guide to Mindful Mealtime Moments - that won three book awards. It’s about being mindful in all things food - shopping, cooking, eating. I’m continuing with that sort of content with the launch of Kinsho - evolving the kitchen products and including mindfulness microlearning pieces with each product. I’ll have digital stickers and Facebook chat bots. Purposeful design linked with mindful eating content - no one is doing that.
The company is bigger so I wanted a one-word brand. It’s combining kitchen and kensho to get kinsho, which is unique and practical. It’s also more likely to get the trademark. Now I’m redoing the look and feel to go along with that.
Your relaunch will include “mindfulness microlearning content.” Can you tell us what that will look like?
It will be insights about how our minds impact our meals. It’s all based on my book and the research I did to write it. It will be on the packaging of the products, so it’s smaller, bite-sized content. I will also have content delivered to fans by Facebook message.
People say food prepared with love tastes better. There’s science behind that - we read the intention of the people who cook for us. One thing we want to do is to show people how to apply that when they cook for others. It’s a combination of mindfulness and science behind the impact.
My book was the inflection point for me. I did a ton of research about how we make food decisions and how we experience food. Digital media impacts 70% of our food decisions subconsciously. Learning how to be mindful of our food takes back some control, lets us make better decisions, eat healthier, and shop according to our values. My mission is to help people have more enlightened eating by helping them understand what they’re eating. It’s about helping people connect with food and themselves.
How important is it for food companies in particular to have a mission? Is it essential?
I think today it is very important. People have a lot of passion for food. Having a mission helps you clarify things when you have decisions to make about which way to go. There are so many tradeoffs and decisions to make when you run a business, and having a clear mission helps make decisions with clarity. That touches everything from product design and to marketing that gives customers transparency about why you’re selling these products. A mission helps you be authentic.
This interview was conducted and written by Ideometry, an all-in-one growth marketing agency helping everyone from startups to Fortune 500 companies engineer brilliant integrated campaigns, find their ideal audience, fuel their pipeline, and drive real success.
Read the rest of our “Five Food Startups Winning the Branding Battle” series: