Two years ago, Meena Mansharamani, 48, began the task of introducing French food company Materne’s popular applesauce product to the U.S. market. The healthy, squeezable applesauce brand, known as GoGo squeeZ in North America, had limited distribution and $6 million in annual revenues. Today, it’s on shelves at Wal-Mart, Target, Whole Foods, Costco, Kroger and Publix, making $70 million in annual revenues on over $100 million of retail sales.
How did Mansharamani, the former head of product innovation at PepsiCo, with neurobiology degrees from Harvard University and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania, grow GoGo squeeZ by more than 1000% in just two years? She set unreasonably high growth expectations, over-invested ahead of the demand, staffed up quickly, got scrappy with her spending and stayed in constant conversation with her customers.
“We’re bringing confidence, acting bigger than we are and, in some cases, getting ahead of ourselves,” Mansharamani says. She breaks down her growth strategy for the up-and-coming food brand.
Set Unreasonably High Expectations
Mansharamani knew there would be market appeal for the products. Amid increasing consumer demand for convenient, healthy snacks, GoGo squeeZ is 100% fruit and easy to eat on-the-run. Meanwhile, applesauce in squeezable packaging is now 15% of the applesauce category and driving most of its growth. She decided to think big.
It was in Costco and Whole Foods but not well distributed. Her immediate strategy: To expand it in the accounts they had, get it started in major retailers like Target and Wal-Mart, consider new distribution points (airlines, convenience stores and amusement parks) and help consumers find it. “We needed to plant the right seeds,” she says. That would take resources.
“Initially, I was convincing our investors to envision how big it could be,” Mansharamani says. “I wanted to build out the team ahead of the demand to get the demand going. It was a leap of faith.” When she started in December of 2010, she had two employees, and they shared an office with another company. She hired six sales reps and eight marketing associates over the next year and moved the group to a new office in New York, NY.
It was important to over-invest in the very beginning, but Mansharamani says they continue to invest aggressively now that the brand is gaining momentum. Today she has 30 employees in the sales, marketing, supply chain and finance teams and another 90 people in operations, and she’s expanding to an even bigger office.
Mansharamani’s fast pace of hiring posed a risk of its own. “With a startup, if people haven’t done it before, it’s hard to train them in this kind of environment,” she says. “You have to take the right bets on the right people and then continue to grow them.” She needed to move quickly without being impulsive. Hiring everyone herself, she meets with the candidate two to three times, spending six to 10 hours with them, and tries to gauge their passion for the business and how they’ve demonstrated the necessary skills. “It’s extremely time-consuming, but it’s the most important thing I have to do.”
Although Mansharamani managed to convince investors to invest more ahead of the demand, she stayed disciplined in her spending. “I can’t be sloppy. We’re very conscientious about how we spend money,” she says. “If you’re scrappy, you can take the money further.” One cost-saver was keeping a tight marketing budget. They leveraged social media, gaining over 115,000 Facebook fans, and launched grassroots and guerrilla marketing campaigns. They also gave consumers a chance to try the product, sampling 100,000 pouches at Disney’s Epcot theme park in Orlando, Fla.
Get Out Of The Office
One thing Mansharamani didn’t want to do was devise grand plans for the company while holed up in her office. “We have to stay connected to consumers and retailers in a really intimate way,” she says. “I don’t want to have so many layers that people forget the details.” They keep all consumer calls in-house, learning from both praise and complaints. The staff also monitors social media and attends sampling events to hear feedback directly. While research may capture some consumer reaction, it can’t reveal how a consumer says something or the way they feel, she says.
Mansharamani also attends all major retailer meetings herself rather than delegating them to the sales team. “It’s not just a selling transaction,” she says, “but sharing the vision and what our innovation pipeline looks like.” That includes personally sampling all the new applesauce flavors with them to get them excited.
Now Mansharamani’s challenge is continuing to fuel growth without getting distracted by new competition in the marketplace or stretching beyond what the brand does well. They’ve started building relationships with JetBlue Airways and convenience store brands 7Eleven and Wawa. They’ll also launch new line GoGo squeeZ Fast Fruit for adults, who are already one-third of consumers. “I’d like to see it be a $300 million to $500 million brand [in annual revenues] in the next two to three years,” she says. “We can be much bigger than we are, if we stick to what we’re good at.”
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