We spoke to five incredible founders about product development, branding and marketing, and the success stories they’ve experienced so far.
Wrapping up our series is Nadine Habayeb, cofounder and CEO of Bohana, a snack food brand selling popped water lily seeds. Join us as we hear from Nadine how she and her cofounder, Priyal Bhartiya, built their own global supply chain, why brands have to reflect consumers’ lifestyles, and the harrowing story of how they made it to Expo West this year.
This is part 5 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), Part 3 (Shameless Pets), and Part 4 (Kinsho).
Tell us a bit about Bohana.
We’re a brand of popped water lily seeds. It’s a snack that has been eaten in India for centuries. My cofounder Priyal Bhartiya introduced me to it - it was something she was familiar with because she grew up in India. It’s so delicious, we knew had to launch it in the U.S.
Lily seeds have a deep spiritual roots in India through Ayurveda, the mother science that yoga comes from. There’s a connection between mind and body. Yoga focuses on the body, and so do the foods we eat.
When did you know you had something you could build a business around, as opposed to just an interesting idea?
There was no “Aha!” moment. One day I was snacking at Priyal’s house, which is where I tried the seeds for the first time.
I was doing an MBA at Babson College, and we were just talking about how the snack would be great in the U.S. I based my projects in school around the idea to answer the question, “Would people buy this?” For 4-5 months I was working on what would eventually become Bohana, which we called PipPop at the time. Early on, we had a lot of validation through our communities; various members of the Branchfood community helped us do taste tests, questionnaires, etc.
When I graduated, we had enough validation to invest in this idea and make it our full-time jobs. We spent a lot of time testing and decided to do it.
You don’t wake up and start a business, you have to consider what it’s going to do to your life. We invested everything we had into this. We were both working for six years before I went back to school and we started Bohana. You have to take the time to assess the situation before you make the jump.
What are some concrete steps you took to go from idea to product, to something that can scale?
As many Branchfood members can tell you, they were trying the samples I made in my apartment for about a year. It was a lot of testing - making it and seeing what recipes and seasoning people like, and then finally getting to an MVP.
There was the option to make it ourselves and start organically through farmers’ markets and communities. Another option would have been a community kitchen with some support, but still putting you on a course for more organic growth. We chose to spend more time in development and produce a supermarket-grade manufactured product from the start. We wanted to build the foundation of something that could go into a supermarket.
We had a lot of advisors and other entrepreneurs helping us. We identified a final recipe and found a facility that could work with the seed. Building the supply chain took a long time, but it was essential. We cut out the middle men - we source directly from our farmers in India. Priyal is from India and she was able to make the connections in the agriculture industry there.
India’s agriculture industry is still fairly disorganized. There’s no guarantee of fair trade, consistent quality, etc. We had some nightmare situations where we had product shipped that was not good quality. We needed to control every touchpoint, so we built our own supply chain and set up quality control processes in India before anything gets to the U.S. Stateside, we have another quality control system. There’s a lot of work that goes into it.
We had to also find a copacker. Priyal handles the back-end supply chain, and I take over once the seed gets here, managing our packaging and sales/distribution. It was hard - no one I talked to had ever worked with water lily seeds and they were not enthusiastic about working with first-time entrepreneurs to do test runs. I called about 150 copackers around the U.S, and eventually we found someone here in Boston who could help us find a copacker. We did some R&D and finally went into production in March 2018.
It took about a year and a few months to go from concept to final product. Along the way, we built our supply chain, branding, quality control - everything we needed to have a market-ready product. We’re signing on with distributors and we should be rolling out into retail this summer. We’re moving! But it’s still the beginning and there’s a lot to learn.
What food brands have been most influential to you?
The number one brand we look up to and use as a benchmark is Hippeas. It’s a young brand that figured out its perfect target market and made a snack for just them. The entire brand is phenomenal, everything from the visuals to the copy is perfect for the modern “hippies” of the millennial generation. We love that they did so well targeting that community.
What makes your brand unique and different from your competitors?
There’s nothing proprietary about popping a seed and seasoning it. The differentiator is in your brand - it’s all about what you share beyond the product. One thing we’ve built is “free-spirit” snacking, which ties back to Ayurveda, which is growing in popularity in the U.S. Listen to your body, feed your soul. There’s so many trendy diets and fads - we say don’t listen to those. Find out what works for your body and your mind and that will lead to health. Where Bohana comes in is that we have gluten-free, low-fat, corn-free, etc. Whatever you choose, or whatever you need, Bohana fits into that. Don’t just do what you’re told, find out what works for you.
Can you share the most impactful strategies you’ve used so far to market your business?
Giving out samples is the most effective, but microinfluencer outreach has helped a lot. You could pay a lot of money to big-name influencers to reach their audience, but in many cases, they might just have a lot of followers with minimal engagement.
We connect with microinfluencers who have about 5-10k followers and have found that they are really trying to build their communities and content. If we have aligned values, we find that we have a much more fruitful relationship than we do with the big influencers you just pay a lot of money for and it’s an obvious paid engagement. We want to engage with people we can grow with. We hope as we grow, there are influencers in the holistic wellness/vegan space we can give a chance to grow too.
What success story are you most proud of?
We were trying to get to Expo West, which is big natural food exhibition. It’s actually the biggest in the world, and most would consider it the Olympics of food shows. We used to walk around those shows to learn how companies introduce products to a new market. We wanted to present Bohana at Expo West.
Before the show, we had major delays in production. We had to cut it extremely close to the show, to the point where we had our first production run scheduled the day before the event started. A massive storm hit the Northeast at the end of March, and one storm hit New Jersey, where we were manufacturing. Our flight to the show got canceled.
If we missed the flights, we would miss the show. We found the last flight out of NYC, and literally packed our suitcases at our copacker’s facility and caught the last flight just hours after the packer finished the initial run. When we reached Expo West, our product was 12 hours old and people got to try Bohana for the first time.
It was just a total team effort and everyone pushed so hard for us. The packaging company and the individual line workers worked through the whole night before so we could leave that morning. It was just having good people there - they didn’t have to do all that for us, especially during a storm.
What strategies are you using to educate your customers and the market on a snack food that is mostly unfamiliar to people in the U.S.?
We’ve learned that people have moments of clarity when they actually try the product. It tastes good, so all the scariness goes away when people try it. It’s a popped seed puff that is very similar to popcorn.
We’re trying to also launch with familiar flavors - Himalayan Pink Salt, “Soulful Spice,” which is a spice mix we made that’s close to a sriracha/BBQ, and Wild White Cheddar, which is the crowd favorite. If we’re introducing a seed no one has heard of, we need these familiar flavors.
Then, it’s just handing out samples and taking every chance to help people try it. That means table events, events with Branchfood, and other food community events between NYC and Boston for us to attend. We hand out gifts at tradeshows. We’re also working with Snack Nation, an office snack delivery box service, to put 9,000 bags of Bohana into snack boxes going to offices around the country. Those aren’t retail - it’s all marketing activation.
This seed is growing in popularity around the world. There’s over 100 brands of it in India alone. In the U.K. and Middle East, there are lots brands selling these seeds. Now, in just the few months since we launched, there’s about five to six companies selling them in the U.S. A lot of brands are coming in hot, but that’s good because it means the category is growing and we can grow together. It also lights a fire under us because we know we have competitors.
We believe we have the highest quality water lily seeds. We know that most competitors are creating the final product in India and shipping it here. It’s great that it’s growing, but if there’s low quality standards in the category, it could turn consumers off. We want people to try our product first so they know that there’s high quality and good options here.
Bohana seems to be positioned as part of a whole lifestyle. Do you think it’s essential for emerging and existing food brands to not only have a great product but also be embedded in the consumers’ wider lifestyle?
I don’t think there’s any other option. I don’t think a brand can exist as just a product. It needs to reflect a conscious choice and be a part of someone’s lifestyle. One thing that’s important to us is family. It’s not just about making food for college kids or yoga practitioners, but creating something a mom can feed her kids. We know millennial parents would love to share it with their toddlers.
One book I highly recommend to learn about creating a specialty food brand is Sell Your Specialty Food by Stephen Hall.
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: