The cereal brand breaking all the rules, with OffLimits Founder Emily Elyse Miller

Joining me on this episode is Emily Elyse Miller, Founder of the rule breaking cereal brand, OffLimits.

OffLimits is a counterculture cereal brand featuring out-of-the-box flavors and relatable cartoon characters. OffLimits currently offers two flavors (and characters!) that are both gluten-free and plant-based.

DASH, is the first ever female cereal character, brings equal parts Intelligentsia coffee and cacao, turning milk to cold brew; and ZOMBIE is infused with adaptogens to max your relax with out of this world vanilla, pandan, and Ashwagandha flavors.

In this episode you’ll hear how Emily turned her love of art and design into a cereal brand, how collaborations are a driving force behind the brand and how to pitch ideas and partnerships.

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

Yeah, my name is Emily and I started a really cheeky, bold cereal brand called OffLimits.

I love the branding and the look and all the things that you have around this brand, but I want to go back to life before the cereal brand. You are a self-confessed breakfast addict and you've been doing lots of different things in the space. Can you talk me through the path that led you towards breakfast and creating in any time of the day cereal brand?

Yeah, it's really funny, I mean, my career really is breakfast, and it has been for the past decade, so I grew up in the hospitality world. So I always stayed very close to food, but went to school for fashion design because I was always kind of flipping back and forth between food, art, design, that kind of thing. And in school got really into trend forecasting and ended up in the trend forecasting and editorial space. But they needed more people who could write about food, especially as food culture was on the up like ten years ago when all these chefs were really starting to take the stage. And I obviously very willingly took on those pieces and started traveling all over the world writing for different outlets and started a series called Breakfast Club where I would invite about 30 or so creatives in each city to work with chefs in each city, often the ones that I was featuring for a story. And thankfully, they are incredible chefs and either had a tasting menu restaurant or typically were closed during the morning. So it was perfect for them to open up in the morning and then just like honestly prepare like a family meal like they would for their staff, but for breakfast.

And it was typically family style serving. And all these creative people kind of got to be in a space that wasn't typically open in the morning and there was no pressure to post on social media. It was really just let's all connect. Let's have real creative conversations with people who are inspiring in each of these cities. So it became this really incredible series that I hosted around the world and that got me a cookbook deal with Vitan. And I spent the next three years researching, developing and writing a three hundred and eighty recipe cookbook about breakfast. So we featured over 80 countries. So I had at least one hundred people who I've met in my travels, aunts and uncles of friends who I got in touch with to talk about breakfast and make sure all of the recipes were truly things that people eat in the morning in those countries. So that was a really rewarding project. And after that, I wanted to kind of escape the freelance grind a little bit and work on something and be really, really focused that combined both art and food. And that's kind of how I started thinking about off limits.

That's so interesting. What a cool story and experience to go all over the world doing that. It's so out of the box, I guess you would say what makes off limits different to other cereal brands that you can find in the supermarket?

Well, the whole team is creative, so I think for business in general, I am really pushing to champion a lot more creative founders, having been in art classes, design, school, everything my whole career. All they do, even in college, is teach you how to work for other people. But if you're in business school, you're taught how to be financially independent. You're taught how to understand what's happening in the market and find the gap in the market. And that is kind of the difference between the two. Like, I really want to empower more creative entrepreneurs to not work for other people and start their own thing. So that was a lot of the motivation behind everything as well.

Hmm. Something that I noticed when I was going through your brand and going through the website was that it really felt like a cereal brand almost just for adults versus a cereal brand typically that's designed for young kids. And that came through in the flavors having something that was for chill with adaptations and something that was full sort of upbeat with coffee and things like that. How did you come up with those recipes and what was that inspiration like?

Yeah, it's funny. It was kind of unintentional with the adult placement. When we started kind of getting that feedback, I was like, oh, because we have coffee in our cereal. Like of course, like that flavor isn't for kids. But I really hope that off limits and the characters can be role models for kids. So new flavors were coming out with new characters are coming out with like everything is kid friendly, even adopted kids are OK for kids. I would just say coffee, which is kind of like the early bird work hussle character, but also deals with social anxiety or like just anxiety in general because of the pressure to succeed.

She needs a cereal that can keep her up and going and inspiring and working so all of her flavors will be caffeinated essentially. So I would say maybe that's the only character that isn't kid friendly, but moving forward, all of them will be. But the inspiration for the characters is the kind of extreme personalities that creative people have, sometimes individually, sometimes like in a day, you can go through all of these different emotional cycles, but each of the characters inspire the flavor. And that's how we came up on that.

For anyone listening. Do you want to go a little bit deeper into the mascot of the characters that you're bringing to life and how that relates to all the cereal brands? Because cereal brands have characters, right?

Yeah, so some cereal brands have characters, I think a lot of the motivation for off limits, too, is just that it wasn't fair that we had to choose between Kellogg's, our coffee and Kellogg's. And all those brands are fun, like they're delicious cereals. They have really fun characters, colors, stories, things like that. And it's what we grew up with. So there's also the added nostalgia to it. But then the only other option, if you want to be healthy, is like no characters, no colors, no like anything fun and like the flavor is not there. You kind of feel like you're eating something healthy. The brand is actually called off limits because sugary cereals were off limits to me growing up. I mean, for a variety of reasons. That's why it's called off limits. But that was one that was the original tie. So honestly, like I selfishly, I'm creating this because I never got to enjoy the fun characters and flavors growing up while still having a healthy cereal that my mom would approve of. So that's exactly where I hope to sit. Like, I want to just have a better panel and be a step up. Then some of the nostalgic brands that we grew up with.

And then from a storytelling perspective, I feel like these are mega brands. I mean, honey bunches of oats alone does like five hundred million in sales. So having these platforms that are just not being used in any kind of social impact driven way, especially when you have something character driven that relates to young people, you have this insane opportunity and honestly a responsibility to be championing important conversations. And it's been decades. None of these brands are doing that. So I was like, OK, cool, we're going to have the first female cereal mascot, which is Dasch. And honestly, we're building the characters and didn't even realize Dasch was the only female mascot until halfway through.

So that was really important for us. And each of these characters have something very modern and intentional about them to start conversations.

That's so interesting. I didn't realize that there wasn't any other female characters in cereal. That's crazy and so bizarre.

Yeah, there's like Barbie Cereal or Powerpuff Girls cereal, but there is no female cereal mascot from a major brand that has come out, which is so wild and so wild.

Yeah. Seems really simple and like, oh I don't have a gender, whatever, blah blah blah. But it does like it subconsciously means something to own a gender to start the conversation about these important issues that brands typically don't want to tackle. Another reason why we're called off limits.

Totally. That's so interesting. So how do you start a cereal brand? What does one do? What are the key steps to getting started?

Oh man. Well don't launch in twenty. Twenty is probably if I had been developing the brand for about a year and a half. I mean you have to start with some kind of flavor development, like just a true understanding of flavor, how cereal is made. There's a reason why you don't see a lot of cereal startups, but then you see like five hundred beauty brands. Five hundred beverage brands like cereal is really difficult and the minimum order quantities for even starting are really capital intensive. So it's a commitment and it definitely requires being fully invested in the space and long term growth because this is not like a short term gains kind of product to create, because you really start seeing profitability down the line when it comes to bulk ingredients and things like that. And we also choose to use like a lot of organic ingredients, plant based ingredients. We work with intelligentsia coffee on Dasch cereal. So like really good quality beans and like smaller suppliers whenever possible. I'm looking into upcycling ingredients and like all of these different other sustainability efforts that we can be not only challenging ourselves to implement, but the cereal industry at scale, too. So that's what I'm really excited about for the next six months.

Mhm. That's so interesting. Are you able to share a little bit about the kind of capital you needed to get started for the kind of minimum orders you needed and how you went about financing the brand in the very beginning.

Yeah, so, I mean, I don't come from money and my family was able to help out a little bit. I had saved money, not a lot. I had to raise like that was literally the only option to get this brand off of the ground. And I didn't go to business school. I had literally been writing a cookbook for those three years before that. So my financial literacy was of an art student. And I just read I read a lot of books. I talked to tons of other founders, and I spent about a year just educating myself in the space. And it's really hard for me to ask for money. And that's kind of a hump that you have to just get over. And once I really started asking my network, I would get introduced to one venture fund, which was maybe like theories like way later stage for us, but then they would really like what we're doing. So they introduced us to early stage funds and it just like I've only taken warm intros because I feel like that's the best way to really get an authentic shot like working with these people. So it's been a really interesting, very, very draining, very difficult process, especially as a female founder. The statistics are real, like the bias is real whether people want to admit it or not. Of course, there's tons of success stories, but it's really difficult. So prepare yourself for that. Be OK with rejection. It's not a big deal. None of this stuff is personal at all and never feel like you are like. I always like walking into these meetings on the same level as anyone in there. Like we have something valuable, like we're a brand that's going to be worth a lot of money and they have capital that they need to deploy. So there is a mutual relationship. It should never feel like one person has the up over the other person.

Totally. And I really like that thing you said there. I'm going to go about getting Warminster Lades versus just the cold email approach. So it just makes everything that little bit simpler.

Which is really hard to do, and that is exactly why the statistics are not in the favor of female founders, especially of BIPAC founders.

And and that's why you need to kind of get over asking for money, because there is one person in your network who probably has experience with this or knows some investor or has started a business before and can help you out in that. Those are the things that you should not be afraid to like, not warm intro and just go for, because a lot of founders know how hard it is and will be happy to help.

Totally. I want to switch gears and talk about the marketing side of things I know you mentioned. Obviously, it's been hard that you launched during twenty twenty. It's been a great year for everyone. But what was your go to market strategy and how did you start finding your initial customers and fans of the brand?

It was really hard, prie covid we had prelaunch cereal tasting event at Shepard Fairey Subliminable Gallery in L.A. Shepard Fairey and his studio number one team created the cereal mascots, all from kind of prior relationships.

And they were really excited about what we were building and wanted to kind of take on the identity of these wild personalities that we had been developing. So we had this art show where we got about twenty five different artists to submit work and all the proceeds went to support school art programs. So while people were trying the cereal and like hanging out, they got to kind of shop this art for social impact. And we still are having tons of art initiatives in that way. So starting in April, I believe we're donating a portion of the proceeds of each box to support school art programs, because the goal was that we would continue having gallery events and that's what would fund it.

But obviously the world is very different.

And for that event, the gallery I mean, I have to just give it to the gallery like subliminal.

It's pretty iconic in L.A. and also with us launching and no one had tried the cereal. We were doing some hype in our network. We ended up getting like a thousand person wait list, which was amazing. And from my Breakfast Club series, from the book, from other projects have done, we had a really substantial list that we were launching already. So that was very helpful. But everything just kept getting pushed back after that. So it became more and more complicated to navigate how to launch a brand during a time when, like, we should not be peddling a product. And that's exactly how we all felt, especially during the BLM protests, like we had like protestations set up and we were handing out sunscreen and water and we had many cereal boxes that we hadn't activated in any way yet. And we were just kind of feeding people with everything that we had available.

And then we launched in July to pretty defiant press.

I think we wanted to have a real conversation and not just be another brand that is launching. It's a really hard year for everyone. So I think a lot of our tone was like brands that exist currently in this space are not taking it upon themselves to be responsible or at least extremely visibly responsible in the way that they are communicating to younger generations.

So we'll happily take their place and hopefully are setting ourselves up to be one of the next legacy brands. Like we get to choose that.

So I want to be supporting brands like Star Face, like brands who are actively destigmatizing acne and like making it just so fun and bright.

And honestly, I kind of wait until I get pulled down so that I can put my star sticker on it and insane like that kind of voice and vibe that we want to bring to the cereal space.

I really love that.

Yeah, like, it's honestly just been we've tried three million things, like you just have to be ready to pivot so many times. Sometimes people will get it right, right out the back. But like we have a lot of education. It's like our characters. There's a lot going on. We were telling a lot of stories. So really I think if I could do it over, if I have advice for everyone, it would be to just focus on one story, like go super hard with it. But that's just it's not really in my nature.