By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - It took just a spoonful of a simple tub of yogurt with passion fruit puree on a trip home to her native Australia to nudge Koel Thomae into a new career.
Thomae, who had worked in various food companies such as IZZE Beverage Company, had no dairy experience before founding her noosa brand of yogurt in 2009, based on that taste from home. But since then, she has managed to grow her Bellvue, Colorado business into a $170 million company that sells yogurt in major grocery stores across the United States.
The path has not always been smooth, however - and Thomae shared some of the lessons she has learned along the way with Reuters.
Q: How did you learn the value of money?
A: From the time I was 9, I was raised by a single mother and given a high level of responsibility and autonomy with respect to money. My mother provided me an allowance and I had to manage all my expenses. From that I learned to budget and prioritize what was important to me, a skill that allowed me to hit the ground running as a young adult.
Q: Did your family teach you anything about running a business?
A: While my mum and dad were not in the food business, they both were successful entrepreneurs in their own right. My dad was a biologist by education and started his own wildlife guiding business and my mum was in deaf education for most of her career. She started a craft business in my hometown later in life.
Q: What was your first job and what did it teach you?
A: My first job at the age of fifteen was working in an ice-cream shop. Most of my jobs through high school into university were service related and they taught me to think laterally, be a good listener and interact with many types of people.
Q: How did you spend your very first paycheck?
A: On a heart shaped telephone. I coveted this and it made me eternally happy when I would spend hours chatting to my friends on it! I believe in investing in things or experiences that bring you joy!
Q: Was there a mistake you made that taught you something?
A: During the early stages of noosa, we ran into a problem not realizing our initial plan wouldn’t work the way we ultimately thought it would. Without a defined sales expansion strategy in place we viewed any new distribution outside of Colorado as a good opportunity. We didn’t have a critical eye on how complex that could be, especially going into the New York market where we had zero brand awareness as an 18-month-old brand.
We ultimately launched with a local retailer who wasn’t the right fit for the stage we were at and less than 12 months later we were off the shelf and $100K in the hole. Without outside investment, this was a huge hit to our cash position and also left us wondering if we could be successful in one of the biggest markets in the country.
Q: How important is giving to you and what causes do you support?
A: We feel strongly that it is important to allocate your money to a good cause that aligns with your brand and for us it’s helping bees thrive! Honey is such an important ingredient in our yogurt, so we decided to launch our noosa Blooms for Bees philanthropic program in 2016.
This is a long-term commitment to support honey bees through an alliance through Bee Friendly Farming, a program that provides guidelines for farmers and growers interested in promoting pollinator health on their land. This multi-year investment will help expand Bee Friendly Farming, a program of the Pollinator Partnership, created to help pollinators thrive in agricultural landscapes.
Q: What life lessons do you try to pass down to your children?
A: My daughter Matilda is five years old and just now starting to grasp the concept of money at a high level. My goal is to instill the same values my mother taught me, to live within your means and invest in experiences over “things.”
(Editing by Beth Pinsker and Andrew Hay)