Start from scratch: Lisa Curtis, Kuli Kuli, and the long road to success
Lisa Curtis keeps her promises. Not only is she a highly successful entrepreneur, but she is also a humanist at heart. Kuli Kuli, Curtis’ business, adheres to socially responsible practices while maintaining financial wellness and profitability. Curtis’ journey is proof that a dedicated entrepreneur with a clear vision can bring even the most challenging business to life.
Curtis’ business was fraught with challenges from the very beginning. While serving in the Peace Corps in Africa, Curtis — a vegetarian — found that the nutritional resources available to her were less than ideal. After speaking with the women in her village about the problem, they introduced Curtis to the moringa plant. Moringa, often called the drumstick tree, the horse radish tree, or the miracle tree, is a nutritious plant that has been used for both food and medicinal purposes for centuries in the lands where it grows. Crammed full of essential dietary components such as iron, calcium, proteins, and a variety of vitamins, moringa helped Curtis maintain a complete diet while serving abroad. When her time in the Peace Corps ended, Curtis promised the women with whom she had been working that she would find a way to bring their products to the American market to help provide them with a reliable source of work and income. This promise is where Kuli Kuli’s journey truly began.
Entrepreneurship, imports, and supply chains, oh my!
Starting any kind of import business is logistically challenging. When she first began playing with the idea of importing moringa, Curtis knew she was trying to bring a relatively unknown agricultural product from Africa to market in the United States. With no existing supply chain, Curtis had to literally build her whole operation from the ground up. She figured out how to ship the products from Africa to the United States, how to get moringa across customs, and how to convert moringa into products that consumers would find valuable. As she slowly built momentum, Curtis recruited friends of hers who had worked in startups and the food sector, and began working earnestly on bringing Kuli Kuli to life. She started by creating products from scratch in small batches and selling them at the local farmers’ market. Every new run brought new insights and ideas.
In 2013, the time to launch Kuli Kuli in earnest arrived. Curtis quit her day job to focus full-time on her startup. While we often think of the startup environment as glamorous and fast-paced, Curtis’ early days were marked by grueling hours and massive amounts of work. She wore all of the hats at Kuli Kuli: she imported moringa, figured out how to convert it into marketable products, did all of her own sales work, handed out samples to consumers, and pitched her idea to stores, brands, and investors. Fast-paced, maybe; glamorous, not so much. But Curtis’ focus was on success, not glamour.
Pitching her product
A business that relies on a lengthy supply chain and competes in a challenging and competitive sector could easily fail. Many people, examining the challenges ahead, may have folded under the pressure. Driven by her promise, Curtis faced the long odds of success with a warrior’s mindset: if she was going to go down, she would go down swinging. Despite her drive and passion, however, Curtis found herself experiencing doubt in the early days. “It was hard to know [whether we would succeed], particularly given that nobody knew what moringa was. I had no food experience…I was like, this is a long shot.”
Long shot or not, Curtis was all in. The first and most salient challenge was funding and growth. To grow, Curtis needed capital. To get capital, Curtis needed to prove that her business was viable. To accomplish this goal, Curtis spent a substantial amount of time doing in-person sales. She traveled between stores and convinced store managers to place her product on the shelf by passing out samples. While managing her sales responsibilities, Curtis was also meeting with investors. She pitched Kuli Kuli to every investor she could get in touch with, persisting even in the face of countless rejections. When investors rejected her pitch, Curtis would keep in touch with them to keep them apprised of her brand’s development, keeping herself on their radar. “In my mind,” she says, “a no just means ‘not yet.’”
Funding the dream
Many people have fantastic business ideas but struggle with capital. Businesses that rely on the manufacturing or creation of a specific product are inevitably going to need money in order to procure the means of production. But, Curtis says, it’s important to start even if you have to start small. Curtis started Kuli Kuli with about $2,000 in assets, including materials, commercial kitchen space, and booth space at the local farmers market. As time went on, she scraped together about $50,000 from different sources, which allowed her to produce a single manufacturing run of Kuli Kuli products. The initial production run solidified how much money it would take to bring Kuli Kuli to life in the national market, an experience Curtis describes as “eye-opening.”
Daunting as it might seem, Curtis says entrepreneurs should begin testing the market and refining their products before attempting to procure huge amounts of capital. While this will also require money, small, initial batches of product can likely be funded through local sources, family, friends, or crowdfunding. Before approaching larger investors, Curtis suggests refining your product and gathering as much data as possible. “You need to launch the product and figure out if anybody will buy it, then use that to go raise a million dollars,” she explains.
Luck favors the persistent
In 2016, Curtis got her first big break. Whole Foods, with whom she had been test-marketing for years, saw the value in Kuli Kuli and approached her with an offer to take five of her products nationwide. This moment was “huge for us,” Curtis says. After years of pitching to customers, enduring rejection from investors, and refining her products, Kuli Kuli finally hit the shelves of Whole Foods stores all across America. This triumph opened the door to another series of challenges: Curtis would need to ramp up production.
Fortunately, thanks to her extensive legwork and persistent pitching, Curtis had a network of potential investors who were already familiar with her product. Now that she had Whole Foods in her pocket, Curtis could re-approach these investors with a new opportunity: instead of a fledgling brand, they would be investing in a company with products on shelves across the nation. After Kuli Kuli closed the deal with Whole Foods, one investor who had previously rejected the brand invested $3 million. Luck, it would seem, favors not just the prepared but also the persistent.
Prepping the pitch: know your business
Pitching your business to investors can be terrifying. Curtis describes approaching investors as “really challenging, for a couple of reasons…the first reasons being that we were young and inexperienced and female, [which] made a lot of investors look at me and look at my cofounder and say, ‘you don’t know what you’re doing.’” Some investors voiced skepticism about the business itself because of how challenging Curtis’ idea was. “We were trying to do something really hard, in the sense that we are sourcing something directly from small farmers and building a supply chain from scratch, and introducing an entirely unknown ingredient to the US market.”
Facing this kind of scrutiny is daunting, but investors don’t throw their money around willy-nilly. Shrewd investors will have many questions. They want to look under the hood of your operations, for one thing, but they are also evaluating you. They want to know if they are dealing with someone who can drive a business to success. It is absolutely essential that you have a deep understanding of your business before approaching investors. So how do entrepreneurs prepare for this kind of fundraising? How can one share their vision with investors in a meaningful way that will successfully raise money?
Curtis offers two pieces of advice for entrepreneurs seeking funding. First, she says, you must know every intimate detail of your business. Know your financials. Know how your operations work. Know your supply chain. Know what the competition looks like and what your market looks like. Gather as much data as you possibly can about your business. Perform a SWOT analysis, examine failure modes, and make projections. If you are encountering business problems outside of your expertise, consult with experts. Do whatever it takes to develop an in-depth understanding of your firm’s operations. If you don’t know your business, no investor in the world will hand you a check.
Second, compare notes with your peers. Curtis spent a lot of time talking to other founders in similar circumstances. When she could, she would examine other entrepreneurs’ pitch decks and executive summaries to take the temperature of what other people were doing. She tested and learned, constantly refining and reworking her own plans. Talking to other people who are doing similar work is an excellent way to learn. If you don’t know any other entrepreneurs, look for local business incubators. Many modern communities are investing in business incubation centers, where entrepreneurs can mix and mingle and share information and ideas.
As Kuli Kuli blossomed, new challenges and obstacles came up. Three months before launching products nationwide, Curtis’ primary moringa supplier’s farm burned to the ground. As moringa is the primary ingredient in Kuli Kuli’s products, this was a massive “oh shit” moment for the company. Curtis, never one to buckle under pressure, landed on her feet and successfully found a farmer in Nicaragua who was growing moringa and could meet demand. Like any successful businessperson, Curtis learned from the incident. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, or in our case, don’t put all of your moringa supply chain in one place,” she says.
Part of Kuli Kuli’s brand is their commitment to sourcing ingredients in a socially and ecologically responsible way. The loss of their supplier’s farm in Ghana was a huge blow to the company that tested Kuli Kuli’s commitment to its brand identity. Not only did Curtis find a new supplier in Nicaragua on short notice, she found a supplier who met her company’s ethical and impact standards. By sticking to its ethical standards even in the face of a crisis, the brand demonstrated to employees, investors, and consumers that it means what it says. Sustainability and social responsibility aren’t just buzzwords to Kuli Kuli or to Curtis. They are lodestars that guide the brand’s actions. Kuli Kuli’s ability to focus on its social and ecological commitments in a crisis proves that the company is meaningfully committed to its values. This is a powerful lesson for any entrepreneur who is building their own brand: even in a crisis, never waiver from your values.
Another lesson from Kuli Kuli’s growth is, according to Curtis, to “kill your darlings.” In the early days, Kuli Kuli had several products that just didn’t perform as well as the brand had hoped. Despite plentiful attention, reformulations, and relaunches, the products ended up being a little too niche for Kuli Kuli’s market. Recognizing when a product has failed and redirecting your resources to more successful lines may be psychologically painful, but it’s essential for the success of your business. Just as some species of bird eject the weakest chicks to ensure the survival of the strongest, a wise entrepreneur should be willing to let go of products that are not working and focus on those that are.
Sometimes, as the business evolves, people are unwilling or unable to cope with the changes that growth brings. Other times, people are not as closely aligned with the needs of the enterprise as they once were. Regardless, there comes a time in every entrepreneur’s life when they will need to let certain people go. One of the biggest obstacles that Curtis experienced was “recognizing when [someone is] no longer the right person for the job.”
As Kuli Kuli grew, one of Curtis’ closest cofounders became unhappy at the company. Despite their longstanding personal and professional relationship, Curtis realized that this person was no longer aligned with the brand’s needs. After long and painful deliberation, Curtis let the individual go. A painful separation from a close colleague is unpleasant, but just as plants thrive when you trim off the deadwood, businesses thrive when people who don’t fit are released to pursue other work.
Control your culture
To grow and maintain a harmonious culture, the firm finds people whose natural inclinations will help them fit the company’s needs. Rather than trying to cram square pegs into round holes and orient people to Kuli Kuli’s culture, Curtis likes to find people who exemplify the traits needed to thrive within the company. Curtis asks, “Who is the ideal Kuli Kuli employee, and what are the strengths and characteristics of that person?… Do you have the right person for the organization, and do you have the right person for the role?”
The old saying is that it’s better to be proactive than reactive. Before bringing a person aboard, Curtis says that you should understand not just who they are and what they bring to you, but also who you are and what you need. What values and attributes should a team member bring to the company? If your culture values teamwork and collaboration, hiring someone who doesn’t enjoy working with others is probably a bad idea.
Curtis explains that optimizing your workforce can be challenging to do, not as an entrepreneur but as a human being. Sometimes, people can be pleasant, personable, charming, and super bad at their jobs. But as a brand founder, Curtis protects her company by being highly selective about her team. “I think you need A players, and if somebody is not an A player, then they’re dragging the whole team down,” she says.
Curtis also recommends building your values into the culture by ritualizing some aspects of them. “Figure out what values are important to you, what values you want your company to have, and how you can build structures to make [those values] live and breathe and come to life.” One example of this is Kuli Kuli’s philosophy on continuous learning, which Curtis describes as “be a sponge.” The idea behind this principle is that the company should always be striving to absorb new information through insightful analysis of its own operations. “We have what we call ‘squeezing the sponge,’” explains Curtis, “which is a postmortem we do on any big initiative we take on…and I think that’s really important. That’s a really important practice to make sure that we’re having the conversation, understanding what went well and what didn’t go well.”
Continually analyzing business moves to determine what went right and wrong is an excellent practice to build into any organizational culture. It acts as a reality check to ensure that Kuli Kuli’s operations are running smoothly and helps leadership identify opportunities for improvement. While many leaders might say they welcome feedback, Curtis means it. She has deliberately programmed her culture to reflect that value. “We really ritualize it within the company,” she says.
Building a strong brand
One of the keys to growing a startup is developing a strong brand. Curtis describes the concept of the brand as “the way that your customers describe who you are and what it is that you do.” In the case of Kuli Kuli, this is about their values, direction, vision, and principles. Branding, in many ways, is the development of the soul of a company. Curtis explains, “we have to understand, what do our customers say about us? How do they describe the brand? How do they think about the value that our brand brings for them? One of the things that our brand has always stood for and that our customers have always recognized is that we are a very mission-driven brand, and that’s something that brings them inspiration and brings them a kind of energy and health, sort of like a halo that envelops everything we do. If we do this thing, does that inspire our customers? Does that make them feel like we are doing the best possible thing for them and for the world?”
Consumers know that talk is cheap, so instead of just talking about sustainability and social responsibility, Curtis’s company takes meaningful action to ensure that the brand’s behavior matches the things that the brand cares about. We have had some really important conversations, mostly internally, about how do we talk about our JEDI commitment, or justice, equality, diversity, inclusion? How do we talk about partnering with farmers who are mostly of color, mostly in Africa and South America and Central America? And have a mostly white team doing that? So I think we’ve grappled with a lot of those issues, mostly internally, but I’ve had some good conversations with some of our customers and stakeholders about that as well.”
Engaging in meaningful conversations about the behavior of the brand and how it interfaces with the brand’s ethical and social positioning is essential to developing a strong brand personality. If you never stop to think about who you are and what you’re doing, you may wake up to find that you’ve created something very different from what you had initially envisioned. Success is about more than just raking in huge profits: it’s about making an impact in the world. Entrepreneurs have unique opportunities to define their impact if they are willing to do the work of building a strong internal culture and brand. Kuli Kuli isn’t just a profitable health food brand: it’s the living embodiment of Curtis’ promise to her fellow women that she would do whatever she could to help them bring their product to market, and that sincere dedication to humanist principles has helped bring Curtis and Kuli Kuli massive success. So dream big, stick to your principles, and be persistent — the struggle, in the end, is well worth it.
Five tips from Lisa Curtis on taking your business to the next level
1. Before you scale up production, test everything you can
It is much harder to change something midstream than it is to get it right before you commit to manufacturing 100,000 units. The time to refine and test a product is while it’s still small.
2. Be persistent
“I’m convinced that a lot of entrepreneurship is just having the grit to stick with it,” says Curtis. We agree: even if you flounder or fail, keep at it. Learn, evolve, and grow — just stick with it!
3. Hire people who are smarter than you
It sounds cliched, but it’s true. Curtis advises taking a thoughtful approach to this axiom: “Really take the time to understand yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses, and hire people whose strengths match your weaknesses,” she tells us.
4. Take time for yourself
Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint. Working yourself to the bone is bad for you and bad for your company. Overworking can deplete your energy, which reduces your ability to perform at your best level — which will obviously have negative effects on your business. Get enough sleep, work out, and eat a nutritious diet. Taking care of yourself takes care of your business.
5. “No” usually means “not yet.”
You’re going to face rejection, but rejection isn’t permanent in the business world. Keep people updated. Broadcast your successes, learn from your failures, and keep your chin up even when things get hard.