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Partake's Denise Woodard on how Rihanna and Jay Z invested in her allergy friendly cookie company

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

Joining me on today’s episode is Denise Woodard, Founder of Partake foods.

Partake is a US-based line of super yummy snacks that are also gluten-free, vegan and allergy-friendly. The company was founded in 2017 by Denise when her then 1 year old daughter Vivian was diagnosed with several food allergies. Now in more than 6,000 retail stores across the US including Target and Whole Foods, Partake is on a mission to make better-for-you, safe snacking enjoyable, inclusive and accessible.

In this episode we chat about Denise’s purpose driven approach to creating this company, how she got the likes of Rihanna and Jay Z investing in her business and what the early grind looked like for her when she was just starting out.

Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!

So I'm Denise Woodard. I'm the founder and CEO of Partake Foods, a line of allergy friendly snacks that was inspired by my daughter's experience with food allergies, wow, let's definitely dig into that. When did this story kind of start, when, when we're having these thoughts about experimenting, creating food edibles for your daughter. So I think it started, I had nearly a decade long career at coca cola. And as I started thinking about having a family, I loved the company, but not the products that I was responsible for selling. And I had the opportunity to move to their venturing and emerging brands division where I got to work with entrepreneurial brands like honesty and Zico coconut water. So I think that started the entrepreneurial bug a little bit before I even knew it. I've always had a bit of a side hustle and just was always like entrepreneurial in my thinking, but never had a scalable idea.

00:05:30Edit And then my daughter, Vivian came along and she turned six this week actually, but right around her first birthday, um, in the summer of 2016 we learned that she has a lot of food allergies, most tree nuts, eggs, corn and bananas, so very odd combination that makes it pretty hard to shop for her. And that summer our nanny Martha who's still with our family and has a little bit of equity in the business was like, your daughter has the most boring diet ever. Why don't you give her anything fun and then I started to tell her all of the woes of shopping, the allergy friendly isle, how I couldn't find products that tasted good, How I couldn't find anything that had ingredients. I felt good about to not be diminishing of the brands that exist because I'm thankful for the safe solution that they provide for kids with food allergies. But they were kind of lame and I was like, my daughter is already going to feel self conscious about our allergies. I'm not senator school with this stuff. And so I complained to Martha and her response was, you should start a food company. Love that shout out to Martha, right? Love her. He would not be here today if it was not for her genius. And so when we're talking about kids with allergies or people with allergies, is it a big portion of the market?

00:06:35Edit Is are there lots of kids that have allergies? So 31 million Americans have food allergies. The incidents of peanut allergies specifically in kids is up about 400% over the past 10 years, the rate of food allergies and kids has doubled and the rate of food allergies like newfound food allergies and adults has also increased. But over time, what we've learned with our brand is actually, most of our customers don't have food allergies. And so there's a big combination of the two people who are on a restricted diet, whether they're plant based or gluten free by choice or soy free or whatever it may be plus the millions of people who do have food allergies. I always love hearing that when it's like you have your target customer and you know who you have in mind to buy a product and then in reality who it actually is, there's always some, some difference there. But back to the story, where does it kind of kick off? You know you have this moment, Martha says this comment, What happens next? When do you quit your job and be like, right, I'm committed to this. So a pretty serendipitous thing happened that weekend. I was at the zoo with my husband and daughter and I was telling my husband jeremy, you won't believe what Martha said.

00:07:42Edit She thinks I should start a food company and just like out of a movie. This gentleman who was in line in front of us turned around it was like, it sounds like you have a great idea there, young lady, you should enter this small business pitch competition. And that was a saturday afternoon. The deadline to enter was that Monday. The following Monday, really late. I incorporated a business that at the time I was calling Vivi's life because all I knew was that I wanted to make my daughter Vivi's life easier and I entered the pitch competition with just an idea and we won and it came with a $10,000 prize, which was fantastic. But it also more importantly came with some local press and it forced me to tell my employer what I was working on because the last thing I needed was them to see me in the local newspaper like woman starts allergy friendly food company and it gave me the kick in the butt. I needed to leave corporate America because they were like, yeah, that's a really nice idea. But as soon as you have a product you have to leave because there would be a conflict of interest Otherwise I probably would have tried to turn the business into a side hustle. And so I had a year to get things off the ground in terms of finding a place to make the product, figuring out a name and packaging.

00:08:44Edit And then in August of 2017 I left my job at Coca Cola and launched partake Holy moly it's cool that you still have that year though to kind of have that buffer and really transition out of the company and into the startup. The income definitely helped. Yes, I'm sure what were the first key kind of steps into getting started when it comes to producing the product and the recipes and the branding. So producing the product and the recipes were probably the two biggest challenges because our products are top eight Allergen free. It was really important to me that we produce our cookies and a top eight allergen free facility and there's not very many, there's about two in the United States and they typically don't work with startups who are just random women who are calling cold emailing them and calling them and so getting them to agree to work with us was a big challenge for us. And then the other big challenge was Martha and I got into the kitchen and failed horribly and then I started to realize why most of the gluten free stuff that exists is full of sugar and xanthan gum mints starches because it's really hard to formulate without it.

00:09:46Edit And so thankfully we were able to find a professional who still helps it with innovation and leads all things development for partake to bring my vision to life wow and was all that expensive, you know like getting the formulation and having that consultant helping you and producing the consultant. No, she took pity on me, she is an equity holding member of the company now and I think she also really believed in the mission and she knew that we were in a strong financial position to pay her a ton but that if we could get this off the ground there would be a much bigger opportunity and thankfully she was willing to take a leap of faith and work with us and similar with the production facility, there was a bit of a chicken and egg situation, they didn't want to work with us and so I was like, well how can I prove that people want this product and I ran a Kickstarter campaign and we finished in the top 1% of food kick starters? And I was able to go back to them and say, hey look, people want this product. And so that paid for most of the initial production run as well, wow, are you able to shake any kind of numbers around how much that kind of thing costs?

00:10:51Edit Yes. So the Kickstarter raised $30,000. And so the bulk of that went to actually fulfilling the product and making the product cool and how many products were there from that first batch We launched with three flavors of cookies. Cool. I want to switch into the launch and the marketing side of things to find out what that early grind was like and how you're really getting the word out there about your brand and finding your customers grind is definitely the right word to describe it. We were a self funded, self distributed business when we started, which meant I kept cookies in a storage unit near my house, in a climate controlled storage unit and I self distributed them. I would fill up the back of my car every day and I would take them to natural food stores across the city and our entire marketing strategy was built around doing demos and local events. Getting as close to the point of purchase is possible, letting customers try the product, letting customers here. The story. I think whenever we first launched, I was like, all my friends were like, what are you going to do for social media and are you going to have a really fancy photo shoot?

00:11:53Edit And all of that sounded really glamorous and really fun. But it wasn't what moved the needle from a marketing perspective. We were in such a limited geography that it wouldn't make sense for me to invest all of our dollars on Instagram ads. What I needed to do was get into those 50 stores that we were in let people know that our products were there. Let them try the product, let them meet the people behind the company. And that was our entire marketing strategy for the first nine months, wow. And so when you say you were driving and like going to these stores were just literally walking in with your product and being like, hey, can I have a meeting or were you trying to set up meetings before you went there? No, I was literally walking in and saying like I have my book bag or like a tote bag and like, hey, I started this company, here's a sell sheet. This is why I'm doing it. This is why our products are different than our competitors. Can I leave samples with you where you give us a shot. The idea that the founder and Ceo was coming in and like personally selling the product, I think even though some of the stories didn't want to give us a chance, I think they just appreciated the hustle? You know, I would come in and I would sell the product and I'd be like, I'll do a demo tonight, I'll come back this weekend and do another demo.

00:12:56Edit Like I want to do whatever I can to help you sell this product. I think they just appreciated the hustle, totally love that. And so at what point did it feel like, oh, things are really starting to move here. Like I'm definitely onto something, It was probably maybe five months in, we were getting really positive feedback in the New York market. We were seeing how the product was performing against our competitors and that gave me the confidence to begin to expand a bit more. And so the next summer, so the summer of 2018 We went into one region of whole foods, so about 45 whole food stores and then we went into a regional grocery called fragments. Holy molly cool whole foods. That's like the goal, right? That was definitely the goal. That was I linkedin message to every single person that worked at whole foods that had the title category manager until somebody took pity on me and introduced me to the right person. Um, and thankfully she was a fan of the product in our story and was willing to give us a shot. Ha ha, so cool. And you said a moment ago, you know, at the beginning you weren't really focused on digital marketing, you weren't doing the likes of instagram.

00:14:01Edit When does that part of the story entered the picture and how was it going for you? So that didn't really enter the picture until 2019. We particularly specifically chose whole foods and Wegmans because those were retailers that really supported demos and we knew that that worked for us. It was cost effective. And so we ran the same play for those accounts that we did in those local stores in New York In 2019 we raised our first round of outside institutional capital and begin to grow distribution a bit more. And at that point, because our our geographic footprint was spread out so much more, we did start to invest more in digital marketing. And so when you look back, you know, from that point in time today, when you're thinking about digital marketing, what's really working for you at the moment and you know, what's your biggest driver for growth? So right now, text is working really well for us, email and texts are working really well. We definitely do do some paid social, some brand partnerships, creating a lot of content and sharing that across all social media channels. I think personally, I'm just really using instagram and linkedin, but we're on Pinterest and Tiktok and doing reels and there's so many places.

00:15:09Edit And because our distribution has grown so much run about 6000 stores now. It's important that we're supporting, like we're making customers aware of what we're doing and why we're doing it. And so we're really starting to play with all channels. Um we just completed a series a raise which gave us the capital to be able to invest a bit more and marketing. And so we're still figuring out what's working or not. But we saw immediate success with texts and emails, so definitely doubling down there. I've actually had a few people recently talked about the SMS marketing piece of the puzzle. What platforms are you using for your email? And SmS we use Clay vo for email and Attentive for Sms. We had been on mail ship up until january of this year and then we weren't doing SmS. And so it's just, it's pretty new as of 2021 that we've switched over to Clay vo and brought on the SMS marketing. Most people that I asked that question, they have the same answer, I guess, you know, they're the leaders of their space and they seem to be ticking all the boxes so far. So good so far.

00:16:12Edit So good. That's right. I want to switch topics now and talk a little bit more around your institutional funding fundraise and the VC kind of world. I feel like, you know, we've all heard the stats about women in VC, less than 2% of women have access to funding. And I think even less than 1% goes to women of color, which is just, you know, terrible. And I think Covid didn't help At this point. You've raised around 7.5 million in funding. I think I read what have your key learnings be and what advice do you have for women who are going through this process or want to go through fundraising. So for me, I think what was really helpful was that we were willing to start small. We did that because I knew that it was going to be hard to raise money. And so we were able to have some tangible business metrics when we went out and approached investors, which I think helped a lot. I think the other thing that I've learned is to go where your community is and to work with people that want to work with you. I think my favorite investor meetings have been the ones where it's more of a conversation and they're really looking to get to know me as a person and why I'm doing what I'm doing and what the mission is behind the company.

00:17:25Edit And whereas like, I feel like in the earliest of days we had a lot of like angel investor meetings which were almost like cattle calls like you have five minutes and then I'll answer your answer, you know, and then we'll ask you questions and then get out of here and it's time for the next person and that type of like transactional cold relationship just doesn't make for like a good partnership. And so for us it's been really important to me to bring on investors that are very aligned with us from a mission perspective and when you say they're looking for certain business metrics that you were hitting, what were those kind of metrics and what should you be aiming for before you start looking for funding. So I think that probably depends on each business and also how much access to personal capital that you have because depending on that, you might be able to get a little bit further for us. It was making sure that we had a really strong margin from the first day. It was making sure that our velocity and movement on shelf was really strong compared to that of our competition.

00:18:26Edit And it was showing that we could get into the key accounts and the right retailers and there was social like from a social media. I know initially we didn't focus on social media, but as we went into the Wegmans and whole foods and kind of grew outside of the new york region. We did focus there a bit and to show that we were able to build a community outside of like the core customers that they would have expected would be interested in our product and that we were bringing new people to the category and we were doing something that was different than our competitors. Did you learn all this? You know how to do this from your time at coca cola? Like how did you know what to do and you know, learn the language and everything, definitely a lot of learning on the job and trial by fire. I think there are some things that I learned that coca cola that are really coming into play into the business now around processes and infrastructure, the importance of brand and making sure your brand is cohesive across every single touch point. But in the earliest of days, a lot of it's not rocket science, those math around like how much does it cost me to make the product and how much can I sell it for to get this good margin.

00:19:33Edit How much does that leave for me to invest in marketing, doing a competitive analysis? And a lot of that was just natural cause I was my own consumer. And so I was just me grocery shopping was a competitive analysis because I was trying to figure out what my daughter could safely eat and what products appealed to our family. So there was that piece, there was also lots of um thankfully there were so many people that were willing to chat with me about my experience and share best practices and things that they wish they would have done differently. And so getting comfortable with being vulnerable about what I needed help with and then going out and asking for help and getting resources I think was really helpful. Is there anything that you wish you'd done differently when you look back? Not necessarily related to fundraising, but like, I wish I would have enjoyed the journey more because I didn't realize how quickly it could change. I complained when I had to do all those demos and I have to fill up the back of my car. But gosh, that's actually a lot more fun someday has been like building this financial model that I'm working on, a really going through Excel spreadsheets and now we have team members and resources, which I'm so thankful for, but it's very different.

00:20:36Edit And so I feel like I spent so many parts of the journey wishing for the next one. Like when we were selling in new york, I was like, gosh, I can't wait till we get in the whole foods and we got into whole foods was like, gosh, I can't wait till we expand. And I think if you spend all your time looking forward to the next thing, you don't get to actually appreciate the moment that you're in. That's so true. You really need to focus on the journey, not the destination and not that goal kind of have it as the guiding star. But you know, focusing on the day today. Did I read you have investors like Rihanna and jay z in your business? You did, Which is so crazy. But yes, we do. We do. That is so crazy. Can we just take a moment to bask in that glory for you Holy moly How, why tell me I, I think it goes back to that mission alignment. You know, whenever we were out trying to raise our seed round of funding, we got nearly 100 knows and we were introduced to Marcy Venture partners of which jay Z is a co founder and we just immediately clicked, they understood our mission. They enjoyed our products, they believed in me as a founder and they treated it as a partnership.

00:21:42Edit And that really changed the trajectory of our business, Having the brand awareness of being associated with Marcy Venture partners, having the capital to then be able to go out and hire and grow distribution. It was a game changer for us. I bet is Marcy Marcy, Is that what you said, Marcy Marcy Ventures? Is that how you also got connected to Rihanna? Yes. So through our relationship with Marcy they were able to help introduce us to Syriana. So cool, I love that for you. I'm always interested to know what are the kinds of challenges that you're dealing with at this stage of your business. You know, you're a few years in, you've gone through some incredible growth. What's hard for you now. Team building. So we started 2020 with me is the only employee, we are seven right now to new folks starting next month, hiring for three additional roles so I could, I can see a line of sight to being 20 people and we're doing all of this in a virtual environment while the business is moving really quickly. And so making sure our employees have a chance to get to know each other and understand that what we're doing is much greater and and for a much bigger purpose than just like making cookies and baking mixes and really making sure that we convey that and take the time to get to know each other and appreciate each other and a really fast moving virtual environment.

00:23:02Edit Yeah. Gosh, it's so weird to think that you've potentially only met these people online and never in person. I hadn't even considered that kind of unique challenge during Covid, especially if you're in a situation where you're scaling and growing wow, what's going to happen when you go back to the office, you're gonna have to shake hands, we're going to have lots of fun and I think so I can't wait to see humans again in real life. I know that's so weird goodness! So with that in mind and you know, your team is growing things are all happening. Where is the business today? And what does the future look like for you? Sure. So the business today is we have 10 flavors of cookies. We just launched a baking mix and a brownie mix. We have some additional skews coming out in that baking mix category this spring, we're going to start launching our first innovation outside of cookies and that will live in the snack aisle later this year. We're in about 6000 stores right now. So you can find us nationally and trader joe's and Target and Kroger and our goal is to continue to grow our distribution across the United States and to make products that live in every aisle of the grocery store.

00:24:12Edit And then, you know, from a social mission perspective, the things that are really important to us are are working to eradicate childhood food insecurity and increasing diversity in the natural food space. So we're going to double down on those efforts and hopefully as our business grows, we'll be able to positively impact more people. Oh, I love it sounds incredible. Something just came into my mind from what you said really early on in this chat at the beginning about allergies increasing and you know, this kind of thing, why are they increasing? What's different? So there's a few theories. One thing that I learned as my family was on this journey is food allergies don't get a lot of research funding, but I think as this number of people increases, there will be more research funding and we'll get some real answers. But right now the theories around our society is to clean and so like our immune system doesn't have a chance to like build up appropriately. There's some ties to like gut health and GMOs and food, which I don't know that that would be the theory, I would lean on because we see the same growth and food allergies in europe and Australia and other places outside of the United States.

00:25:16Edit I don't know. I wish I knew, but I'm hoping that as more people are unfortunately affected by this more research will go into it and hopefully we can fix it and stop it totally. And does Vivian help with your product development? Is she at an age where she's asking for things that she wants you to make? Yes. So apparently we have to make cinnamon rolls. I don't know how we're going to make that happen. Yes, Vivian definitely has a list of demands and she is still our chief taste tester. Well, I love that for her. What advice do you have for women who have a big idea and want to start their own business? Don't let perfection get in the way of progress. I was very guilty of that when we launched, I thought we should have a very fancy splashy lots and the product had to be perfect and I didn't love the packaging and there were so many things I couldn't afford to do the exact way. I wanted to do them and I talked to a successful founder who gave me that advice was like, you're going to learn so much when you actually just get the product out there from your customers, like just get started and then you'll be able to learn and you'll be able to iterate and you'll be able to change things over time and as your business grows, you'll be able to do all of these like fancy things that you want to do, but if you wait for the right time or when everything's perfect, you'll never get started.

00:26:34Edit Gosh, it's so true and I'm so guilty of it as well. The you know, wanting to be perfect and being crippled by it to the point where you know, it's just a disaster, got to keep moving forward. Okay, we are up to the six quick questions part of the episode, question number one is what's your why? Why do you do what you do? There's so many communities of people that have been underestimated and underrepresented and underfunded that I think if partake has success, it will change the landscape of that and hopefully open the door a little bit wider for other people of color and other women that are coming along behind me on this entrepreneurial journey. I love it. Question #2 is what do you think has been the number one marketing moment that made your business pop Whenever we announced the $1 million Venture Partners into our business. That was definitely a game changer for our business. Was that in terms of press or was it in terms of partnerships, new opportunities coming your way, what was that impact? It was, there was a lot of press and also I think with retailers that we've been talking to for quite a while gave us more credibility because they were like, oh, you actually have the funding.

00:27:47Edit Oh you actually have this new brand awareness that's come along with the celebrity partnership. And so I think it did both. It helped from a brand awareness perspective but then gave us some business credibility with retail partners. Mm hmm That definitely packs a punch. I'm sure Question # three is where do you hang out to get smarter? What have you been reading or listening to? My favorite podcast is one um, by BMG. Well I'm going to start listening to your podcast too. But one that I've been listening to on my journey was the MG partners has a podcast called unfinished biz and they interview so many of my favorite consumer packaged good Ceos Cool. I'm going to link it in the show notes. For anyone who wants to check that out. Question number four is how do you win the day? And that's around your AM or your PM rituals that keep you feeling happy and motivated and successful. I start the day with meditation every single day and I just started that since COVID and it has been a game changer for my mental health and similarly like during the day if I'm feeling overwhelmed, I pull up a meditation app and just like take 15 minutes to myself whether it's just like a guided meditation or walking or something.

00:28:56Edit But like a way to just reset mentally when with all the things that are going on. Mm. Yeah, it's so key. I really want to become the person that can meditate, but I'm just not that person right now, which I was question number five is if you only had $1000 left in your business bank account, where would you spend it? I would spend it on an email and text promotion to drive e commerce sales. Nice. Love it. And last question question # six is how do you deal with failure? What's your mindset and approach? I just view it as a part of the journey and an opportunity to learn. I think inevitably we're all going to face multiple failures on this journey um and all of them are an opportunity to get stronger and to learn more and to change what you do in the future. Denise, thank you so much for taking the time to be on female startup club today and share your incredible journey. I've loved chatting with you saying thank you so much for having me.



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