Turning a $1000 Investment into a Business That Exports To 32 Countries

How do you succeed in business by really trying? You hammer away at an idea until it works. That’s what Carolyn Carman did. Worried that she was going to lose her job, she bought a small muesli cookie business which was going out of business for $1000. It’s now called Carman’s Muesli, and it’s exported all over the world.

Success against all the odds

She had to break in to a gigantic food sector, get space on the shelves of supermarkets, and basically build the business from the cookies up.

There is a bit of a difference between making a muesli cookie and making a global business.

If you were looking for a definition of “impossible”, this would be it, for several reasons:

  • The grocery chains aren’t easy to sell to. They have huge demands for their space, and they can cherry pick what they want. Typically, they have to be convinced that a product is worth selling.
  • Food production and manufacturing is big business. To get a product from recipe to packet, you need to know how to produce economically, manufacture economically, price well, and above all, have a product that sells.
  • If you look at the ingredients on any packet on muesli, you’ll see another issue- The sheer number of different types of muesli and their ingredients. There are different blends of grains, fruit, and other foods. These foods are sourced often from multiple suppliers. It’s a real piece of string as a logistics exercise- How many things can you put into a packet of muesli?
  • The other gigantic hurdle, as though there weren’t enough already, is that the cereals industry is ultra-competitive. Kellogg and the other giants aren’t monopolies, but their products sell well enough to make other brands have to work very hard just to get on the shelves of major chains at all. Consumers know these big brands, buy them regularly, and they take their own sweet time looking at new brands.

Beating the giants

Carman’s had an ace up its sleeve- Product quality, combined with imagination. If the big brands were everywhere, many of them hadn’t changed their products in decades. Muesli, in particular varied from “Oats with something else” to “Oats with other things”. Bland, boring and blah, in fact.

Consumers got the message when they were offered something different. Muesli is actually a variation on the traditional European grain diet, and it’s a popular product. Carman’s gave them choices with better prices. Sneaking in at a lower price as well, Carman’s muesli became a favourite.

In the food market, taste matters. Consumers can take or leave products any time, and they do. Boring muesli at higher prices was never going to win against interesting, tasty muesli at lower prices. Carolyn Carman’s hard work making cookies had paid off.

Reasons for success were:

  • Variety of choices- A basic food industry maneuver, intelligently presented.
  • Different mixes in standardized packaging- A simple image, recognizable packaging, and you have a merchandising classic.
  • Understanding the market- Muesli eaters tend to read ingredients, and can understand them as well, or perhaps better, than the people who write them. Carman’s provides a lot of information, including useful tips regarding fructose malabsorption, allergens, and similar very functional advice- On the packets and on the Carman’s website.
  • Dietary advice- Up to date dietary advice addressing a range of dietary issues including lactose intolerance and other significant metabolic conditions. Advice also includes information regarding additives and preservatives.
  • A GM free policy- Unlike most of the global cereals industry, particularly in the US, Carman’s addressed a major consumer issue with this policy.
  • Special products like gluten-free muesli. (No minor achievement, because most grains do have some gluten.)
  • Good Customer Relations Management- Carman’s also offers clients and the public a ‘Muesletter” and social media contacts. Carman states that quality of products is a primary issue.

This combination of reasons equated to a winning hand for Carman’s. The product sold, which was quite enough to get the big stores onside and willing to stock as much Carman’s muesli as they could get.

The business model

This business started as one teenage girl making cookies. The business was basically a supplier for other local businesses, a niche business, not a general distribution model. (This model, in fact, is one of the traditional bakery models, acting as a supplier to other stores. It’s hard work, and it’s not exactly a high capital model.)

The business, in fact, grew up with its founder. Carman herself did all the different work involved in producing and selling the original muesli products. As learning curves go, this was an all-round university self-education. She passed with flying colours.

Wryly admitting that she was no overnight success story, she attributes her business success to really knowing her business, rather than a get-rich-quick approach. She’s now also the mother of four kids, who’ve grown up in the business world their mother literally created with her own two hands in the beginning. Her other child, Carman’s Muesli, is still growing, too.

In terms of success stories, this is a true classic, a modern rework of some very old business principles:

  • Know your product
  • Know your business
  • Know your market
  • Know your competition

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