Jing Gao shares how she built her 8-figure revenue business, Fly by Jing, in just two years
Updated: Aug 24, 2021
Joining me is Jing Gao, the founder of Fly by Jing.
Where highly charged flavors meet 100% real ingredients.
Fly By Jing is the first premium Chinese food company that brings thoughtfully-crafted pantry staples to the modern kitchen.
We’re chatting about her successful kickstarter campaign that lead to over 3000 customers at launch, the key moments of growth that have lead to an 8 figure revenue business in 2 years and key learnings that women-in-progress can keep in their back pocket.
Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!
Speaker3: Great. Yeah, so my name is Jing. I'm the founder of Fly By Jing, and we make premium on natural Chinese food and condiments. We're about two and a half years old and mainly direct to consumer, although this year we are entering into new channels, including retail, and we're on Amazon as well. And a little background on me. I'm currently based in L.A. where I founded the business, but before that I lived about 10 years in Asia, in China, Singapore, and that's where I really got deep into Chinese food and the culture. And I was working in tech at the time, but I was just passionate about, I mean, the flavors, but also just shining a light on the culture. So I did that through writing and media projects and eventually I quit my day job in tech and I started a restaurant in Shanghai which then led to Beijing, which is a line of packaged food products. I'm originally from Chengdu, so the flavors of Beijing are inspired by my hometown. And the fly in Beijing is actually a reference or an ode to this type of restaurant in Chengdu called PLI Restaurant, which are whole in the walls that are so delicious that they are said to attract people like flies. So the flavors are incredible and the energy is so vibrant and I just wanted to capture all of that in my products.
Speaker1: Oh, my gosh, that's so cool. I think it was in twenty eighteen, I was actually in China, in Gwangju and I loved those kind of restaurants that were a hole in the wall, things where, you know, you would just go up and you would see obviously all the locals going there and you would just go up and be like, I'll have what everyone else is having. My favorite thing, I absolutely loved it. I want to ask you about the I know you were building your restaurant at the time and you were obviously consumed with this amazing food and this amazing culture. But what was the specific aha moment when you were like, yep, we're going to do condiments, we're going to do pantry staples of Chinese cuisine.
Speaker3: So I think to tell that story, I need to back up a little bit and kind of go into my life story a little. So I was born in Chengdu, but I grew up moving around a lot. So I lived in lots of different countries across Europe and in Canada, moved around with my parents job. And it was a really amazing experience living in so many different countries and being exposed to so many cultures. But at the same time, it was kind of a feeling that I needed to adapt myself for every place I was in. Right. So code switching away, try to fit in. And so I feel like as amazing as that upbringing was, I became very disconnected from my heritage and who I was because I felt like I often had to have put up a facade for what other people expected me to be. And so in my twenties when I went to China with my job at the time, I was just pretty obsessed with trying to dig deeper and try to uncover some of the aspects of my cultural identity. And so that's how it started. And then as I was learning more about Chinese food, I was realizing just how little of that five thousand year heritage really made its way to the West.
Speaker3: Like people didn't know about it. People misunderstood. And in fact, there was all kinds of false narratives that existed about it. And so everything from the value of Chinese food to how it should taste, what ingredients should be in there, whether it's healthy or not, and the price point. And so in twenty eighteen, actually, I at the time I was running this underground supper club or like a dining concept in Shanghai, which I called Beijing, and there was modern Sichuan flavors that were inspired by my experience having lived all over, but really rooted in the techniques and the ingredients of the region. So kind of marrying tradition with modernity in a way. But I was traveling I came to the US and I went to Expo, which is the largest natural foods expo in the world. And that's where all of these stores, like Whole Foods and all the buyers from these stores are looking for the next big food innovation. And so there's usually thousands of stalls and several days of this kind of big fare. And I realized after walking the halls that there were so little Asian flavors present, pretty much I could count on one hand the number of friends that did Asian food.
Speaker3: So I realized that there was a huge opportunity there because it was twenty eighteen. And clearly the US is much more diverse and people have much more demands for more interesting flavors than what was being presented. So that summer I launched a Kickstarter to launch a few actually one of my core products, which was a source that I was using in my cooking. It was like a flavor base for some of my dishes and I realized that it was actually shelf stable. I can put it in a jar and sell it. So I started in Shanghai just by selling little chance to friends and family and had a little online shop. But that Kickstarter was really the first time that I introduced it to the US audience and it ended up doing extremely well. It was the highest funded craft project on Kickstarter and it allowed me to produce my first big batch at scale. So that's kind of how it all started. And the light bulb moment was really when I went to Expo West and since our Kickstarter, the amazing reception that we've gotten and all of the word of mouth and the organic growth has really brought us to this point where we are now.
Speaker1: So I mean, oh, my gosh, that's so cool. I'm always interested about Kickstarter campaigns because obviously they can be a great success, but they can also be a terrible flop if you don't put in the effort and the work to make them succeed. What were the kinds of things when you look back in hindsight, what were the kinds of things that made your campaign successful, aside from being. Just a truly unique product on the platform.
Speaker3: Yeah, I think the product itself should be able to tell a story. Right. And then that enables you to tell a richer story around it. So for us, the message and that was inherent in the product was about that made in China or Chinese food products can be some of the highest quality in the world. And this is how we make it. And these are the ingredients we source. And so just being really transparent, but also very you know, what we were presenting was inherently unique because it didn't exist before. And that's because a lot of the food products that made their way out of China had traditionally been lower priced and as a result had used like much more basic ingredients. And that was because manufacturers were told that people in the West would not accept anything that was more expensive than two dollars for Chinese food product. Right. So if that was the case, then there's no incentive for them to put anything of quality into it. And so I actually faced a lot of resistance in manufacturing my sources of skill in the beginning, because no coacher would be willing to go through the effort of sourcing or all of the different techniques that are required for my source. So it was a very difficult journey to get that made. And so it was it became apparent to me why most of the products on the market were quite watered down. So just telling even that story of the craftsmanship that goes into it, the sourcing, the ingredients, that was compelling as a story.
Speaker3: And at the end of the day, brands are stories. Right. And so Kickstarter is actually a really effective way to tell stories. Know you can craft a very compelling page with a video with, you know, the visuals that you present on the page. So I think that was a big part of it. The second would be just I mean, it's a lot of work to run a Kickstarter campaign. A lot of it is getting people to come on your page. So whether it's like every single person that you've ever met in your life, just emailing them, asking them to come and support or reaching out to bloggers and media. So I had hould emailed a few writers who I thought had written about similar things in the past and might be interested and ended up getting placements in New York magazine and so were on the day of launch, which was really great because I mean, Kickstarter works on these algorithms that they'll show you to more people the more traffic you're getting. And so you want to actually hit your goal on the first day for it to kind of snowball. And so, I mean, there's so many different techniques for Kickstarter and there's great resources actually on the Kickstarter website. But I think for anyone who is starting out of business and doesn't have the capital, this is one of the best ways still to launch.
Speaker1: Yeah, totally. Did you have to invest a lot of your own money to make that Kickstarter campaign successful?
Speaker3: So I built that campaign myself. I had spent about three thousand dollars on a video that I paid my friend to make for me. So I think the video is really amazing. And if it wasn't my friends creating it, it probably would have cost more. So that's all I spent on it. And but I definitely have to do the legwork to figure out, like, how you're actually going to produce it if you do get the money, because people want to know that if they're giving you the money as much as there, because it's Kickstarter. So they're very supportive of entrepreneurship. And so there's the understanding that this may not come to fruition, but you still need to kind of, you know, convince them that, you know what you're doing enough for them to give you their twenty dollars or something like that, right?
Speaker1: Totally. How much was the goal that you set and how much did you raise? And then what did you use that money for? Like, was it all to do with manufacturing or did it go into other ways, you know, marketing the brand from there onwards, for example?
Speaker3: I think I set the goal for twenty five thousand dollars, and I think we hit like two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, so it was a big success. That's so cool. Yeah, we did it on Kickstarter and then we had a follow on on Indiegogo as well. So the Kickstarter only allows you to do it for like 30 days or something. And then Indiegogo, it kind of extends for another few months. And yeah, I mean, you know, I think twenty five thousand dollars would have been enough to run the first big batch. But of course, you know, running a business is expensive. I also decided to move to L.A. to do this. So that enabled me to move to L.A., set up the business and really kick it off for the first few months and fulfillment as well. I mean, there's so many different costs that you don't think about, like we ended up doing really well. So that was like over three thousand people. We needed to ship stuff, too, but I obviously couldn't do it by myself in my living room, in my studio apartment in L.A. So we had to hire a three people to do that. And yeah, I mean, it really was like a startup funds for the first. I would say it lasts with us for probably about a year and I was just one person time, so. Oh, wow. OK. And I didn't I didn't pay myself so it was like everything went back into the business.
Speaker1: That's amazing. That's so cool that you had kind of that first batch of, say, three thousand. I think you said it was three thousand customers to kind of launch off from. But how do you then spread the word even further outside of those three thousand? And what did you kind of do to really keep that momentum and go to the next level?
Speaker3: Yeah. So I think the great thing about Kickstarter is that it is a platform that attracts people who are more trendsetters or innovators. So they're willing to take a risk to support something brand new. And so they usually tend to be the people in their communities that people trust for advice on things like food or travel or gadgets. And so that was kind of great because it was a built in word of mouth built in like a street team to promote you. So we grew a lot from just people recommending it to their friends and family. And so when you get the email list of all those people, right. So when we officially then launched on, I think it was six months later when we officially launched our direct to consumer website, you know, I was able to blast an email to everybody and just tell them. And by that point, they had already probably finished the initial jar's. So they received. And so it just kind of started from there. And then, of course, press has been really important. I think the Kickstarter did really well. So it attracted a lot of attention from food media. So once we launched, we continued to get a lot of press.
Speaker3: And so I think, you know, for the first year we didn't do any paid ads and it was really just word of mouth. So the product itself should be inherently kind of viral because of its unique aspects. And then the press definitely, definitely helps. And I think the other thing is like customer service. I think that my initial backers, they felt a connection to me because it was such a personal campaign. So then also when they received the product they're receiving, they feel a personal connection to the founder. And so it was really important for me in the beginning, I was like trying to write as many personal notes as possible to my customers and any customer service issues, shipping issues, delays, whatever. It all came directly to me. And so I was answering every single one. And so that kind of builds that report. And that began building our community, which now it's like extremely strong. But at the time it was like just me in my apartment and seeing email totally. So I think it's a combination of product and just providing great service.
Speaker1: Yeah. And I guess that great service really builds that foundation of trust. And like what you said before, building that bond between the founder and the community and people wanting to continue to empower and support and lift you up. Before we move on from the Kickstarter thing, just a final question that do you think if you were to launch a Kickstarter campaign now in twenty twenty one, would it have the same success? I'm wondering because when I speak to founders who have used Kickstarter, it was, you know, a couple of years ago and I'm wondering if the platform has that same kind of charm to it now?
Speaker3: I think so. I think it does, because even when I launched the Kickstarter in twenty eighteen, that was already probably 10 plus years since they first launched. And but I was. I think there's thousands of new Kickstarter was launched every day, but if you kind of like look at all of the campaigns on the platform, past campaigns, and you can kind of filter it to see which ones have done the best write in the different categories. And so that's what I did, is I kind of looked at what was performing the best and really studied those pages, because you'll see that there's on a constant basis, there's launches that don't meet their goal and then there's launches that like do like ten million dollars so that you can stand out with the right story, with the right product. So it's really just setting what it is that those guys are doing. But it's a combination of things. There's a lot of there's an algorithm to play into. There's a lot of tips and tricks and a lot of people launch tricks without really understanding that. And that's why most campaigns don't do it as well. And I think I just asked as many people as I could who had multimillion dollar campaigns and got a lot of great advice from them.
Speaker1: Yeah, I love that. Definitely. Ask the people who have done it well and the people who haven't done it well, for that matter. Right.
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Speaker1: So you said in the first year you were doing it by yourself, you had a lot of press, that's actually how I came across to you. By the way, I first read about you in Lane Locks and became a follow up, became a bit of a fan of what you were doing. But what were the key kind of tipping points and key growth points for you following that first kind of initial year?
Speaker3: Yeah, so it was a one person operation for a while. And then I got accepted to a tech accelerator called TechStars. And I don't actually recommend tech accelerators for every CPG company. It was appropriate for us because I come from a tech background as well. So I kind of felt like I could operate in that environment. But there's many different accelerators that you could go into. And I think for CPG food products, there are CPG specific ones that could be much more helpful because they have the right networks, they have the right mentors and so on and the right investor networks. TechStars is more like Y Combinator. It's much more tech focused. So although it wasn't very specifically CPG focused, it does teach you about scaling a business, what your role is as a CEO, how to fundraise and just kind of tips that would help with any business. So I think that I did pick up a lot in terms of thinking more about scale. And so a lot of that was like understanding. I couldn't keep doing everything myself. I had to let go of some of the pieces, bring in the right people, and that my role as a CEO is really to put the right people in the roles, set the vision, and then make sure you don't run out of money. So before that, I was like just trying to do everything myself, and that was actually slowing me down. And so once I realized that and learned that, I think it definitely helped me to think about growth. And so we started growing pretty rapidly from that point, maybe about 30 percent month over month. And then I would say like the biggest turning point for us was April of last year when we got this huge mention in The New York Times that kind of launched us into a different stratosphere.
Speaker1: Yeah. Oh, my gosh. Well, congratulations. That's amazing. You the dream of every entrepreneur and startup hustla. Love that for you. So when it comes to tech stars, who are they accepting into that kind of program? Can you be at any stage or you need to have hit a certain revenue number or what do they kind of looking for in the entrepreneurs?
Speaker3: Yeah, for most of these accelerator's, you could I mean, ideally, you have a proof of concept, but you could really have just the concept and you don't even have to have any revenue at all. And in fact, I was the only company in the class of 10 that had revenue. Should know there was one more, but everyone else was just like I had an idea and they were just exploring that idea. So these accelerators are our kind of great for that, actually, because if you have a great idea, they help you get it off the ground and help you validate whether that actually works or not. And a lot of people who go through TechStars, they might even pivot their business in the middle of the program because what they initially thought was going to work didn't. And great thing about these accelerators is that there is such a quick like a fast kind of cycle where you're like you have an idea, you're testing the idea and then you're evaluating whether to go forward or not. And so that cycle is quite quick. And so you're able to really it's like a turbo kind of learning period. I guess so. Yeah, I think there's really any stage. But I think if you're already really far ahead or successful, then maybe you don't want to go into something like that because they do take a significant amount of equity.
Speaker1: But what's the percentage,
Speaker3: It varies from accelerator to accelerator, but Texas, I think it's six percent.
Speaker1: Cool. So where is the business today? Are you able to share a little bit about how big the team is, how big the business is? Always love to ask about revenue. You know, any future partnerships that are coming up. One of the things that you can shout about and paint the picture for us.
Speaker3: Yeah, so we I mentioned the New York Times article, which really I mean, it's sold us out of several months of inventory overnight. And we did more in that one month than we did in the entire year before. Oh, wow. That's so cool. Yeah. So since then, we've kind of sustained and grown from there. So I think that was in April and by August I had hired three people and we actually just closed a round of fundraising and added for more people to the team. So now we're I think we're 10. And so last year we ended up doing 10x what we did our first year, which has been incredible in light of the circumstances. And yeah, and I think we just happened to make something that provides a lot of ease and flavor for for people cooking at home or even not cooking because it's good and it's just a condiment like hot sauce you can put on anything. So even if you don't cook and just get takeout, you know, it still works. So we've been really lucky in that regard. And now we are looking at entering natural channels like Whole Foods. We're actually launching in Whole Foods in September. Congratulations. Thank you. And also Target in October, which is super exciting. I never thought that my products would be in Target, but it's happening. So we're really excited about growing into new channels because our goal really is to become a household name the way that like a Heinz Ketchup is.
Speaker3: And there really isn't a household name in the Asian food space quite yet. So we're looking to change that. We're looking to build a platform that equates to the highest quality Chinese food in the world. So people, I think, get a sense of that when they interact with our brand on Sociales or on our site with our communications, we will really get a sense of that dedication to integrity and quality. And I think, you know, as we bring them onto the platform, onto the community, through these flavors, we are thinking about other ways for them to enjoy those flavors maybe in an even easier way. So we are launching food products, maybe not ready to eat, but like ready to cook type of food products. So later this year, we'll be coming out with a few really exciting new products. And yeah. So in terms of revenue, I think this is our second year and we're about in the 10 to 20 million dollar range. And we started out our first year was only like two or three hundred thousand, so. Oh my God. Yeah. So it's been it's been really great growth in the last year. And so we brought on a partner very recently so that we can continue our growth and expand into new channels,
Speaker1: Continue to skyrocket. When you think about your journey and yourself as an entrepreneur, what do you think your superpower is?
Speaker3: I think that I have a good sense of what people want because, I mean, it's just really leaning into what do I want and trusting that, you know, and I think it's really trusting your intuition because for the longest time, I didn't really like I would second guess myself all the time. But I think in the last couple of years, really just leaning into my gut and being a keen observer of what's happening, like the way that television came about was from observing what the US market was like, but also what was happening on the ground in China. And just noticing that this kind of new school of entrepreneurs in China who were cooking super creatively and not bound by any rules. And meanwhile, in the West, it seemed like we were kind of preoccupied with keeping things in a box like Chinese food needs to be this way. Can't be any other way. It has to be this. It's not any other way. And so it was just like it felt very stifling. And so, you know, just trusting my gut and saying that the US market is ready for really high quality Chinese food.
Speaker3: And let's just do this and stick to with the production as well, because I mentioned there were so many resistance from Quebecers to doing things the way that I wanted them to, but just really sticking to it. And I think that insistence on the quality, on the techniques inherently made the products unique in the market, because I knew how difficult it was to get there and that it was unlikely that anyone else would go to such lengths. And so it just made the product instantly unique. So I think, yeah, I think it's really leaning into the gut. But then also, just like the other thing is like working creatively within constraints. So we were bootstrapped, like the Kickstarter was the only funding we really received for the longest time until just last month. So without resources, without even employees, how do you make decisions? How do you just do more with less? And I think that's another super power is just like sometimes restraints or constraints actually help you think more creatively.
Speaker1: That's so true. Yeah, I love that. What is the main piece of advice or learning that you want women who are earlier on in their entrepreneurial journey to know and to take away from this episode?
Speaker3: I think it would be what I had just said. I think honestly, it's like know what it is that you want to achieve. And that one thing I always say is make sure that this project or this business is something that you have to do. Like there's nothing else that you could do because this journey is difficult. It is tedious. It's never ending. And you really need to be sure of what's driving you. Right, because there's many be long nights where it's a lonely journey as well. And so you often need that kind of North Star to guide you along. So, A, I would say it's that. And then B, it's just like sticking to your integrity on what it is that you want to achieve, because everyone at every step of the way, it's going to try to divert you from that. Anyone who's founded a business will know that here no many more times when they hear. Yes. Right. And so it's really about just sticking to your conviction, because if I had accepted no's along the way when I was working with the Packers, then the product would be much more watered down than it is today. So, yeah. So those would be the two pieces of advice.
Speaker1: Thank you so much. That's great. I love that advice. I think sticking to your guns is such a key one. We are up to the six quick questions part of the episode, I ask every woman the same six questions so that we can look back over time and see if anything came out that was similar in that kind of thing. Some of we might have already covid, but we ask them all the same. Question number one is what's your why why do you do what you do for me?
Speaker3: I'm building foraging because I saw a lack of diversity in the natural food space. And what we hope to achieve through farming is to create space for more diverse stories to exist. So ours is just one tiny piece of the puzzle. But by creating more space, we're hoping to allow others or inspire others to do the same. I love that
Speaker1: Question. Number two is what has been and I think I might already know the answer to this. What has been the number one marketing moment that made the business pop?
Speaker3: So I would say The New York Times was definitely one. But the other major moment was last November when we launched our rebrand. So if you Google the initial Kickstarter, it was a very different branding system. And that was initially it was just like to do something that drew your attention. And eventually I felt like the brand outgrew it. And we represented a lot more than than just a flashy hot sauce, for example. So the new rebrand, our tagline is not traditional, but personal, which really I think encapsulates our story and our mission, because like I mentioned, a lot of people have their ideas. They're formed ideas about what Chinese food is. But we wanted to express that there's so much more diversity that exists within Chinese food and that it's not just one monolith. And so this is a very personal story. And so, you know, there's no use in kind of trying to fit it into your frame of reference. And so in doing so, we're also saying, like there's room for more of these products to exist. And so not traditional, but personal became, I think when we launched that rebrand, people instantly got it. And so it helped us to no longer have to explain ourselves all the time. It's like literally written on their door.
Speaker1: Yeah, I love the brand and I. I have so much fun on your website. It brings me a lot of joy. Thank you. Question number three is where do you hang out to get smarter? What are you reading or listening to or subscribing to that others would benefit from knowing about?
Speaker3: I listened to so many podcasts, so podcasts exactly like this one. I obviously like how I wrote this and there's a number of other CPG to see podcasts as well. Twitter is a really good place. There's a Twitter Twitter that is definitely its own ecosystem. We talked about Linux, Linux and to our newsletters. I subscribe to think testing, but honestly, it's like the wisdom of other founders. So I've been very lucky to have a great support group of other founders who are all going through this journey. And so we often get together and swap tales and help each other out. And that's been the biggest source of growth.
Speaker1: Hmm, absolutely. I love that. Question number four is, how do you win the day? What are your a.m. or p.m. rituals and habits to keep you feeling successful and happy and motivated?
Speaker3: I sleep and wake up really early. That, I think, is the biggest game changer. I will go to sleep as soon as it gets dark.
Speaker1: Oh, my gosh. Really early. So what time do you get up then?
Speaker3: Well, I get up. I usually wake up around 5:00 or before that, but I'll sleep around 9:00. And I think that's for me. I'm not necessarily a morning person, but I just find that for me, like the early quiet hours of the day is when I can do the most deep work. So I like to I like to have that because I feel like once you get into like nine, 10 a.m., like all the meetings start and like it's just harder to collect your thoughts afterwards. So I like to have a big block of time where I can just think, yeah,
Speaker1: That's very true. I like the morning time as well. If you were given a thousand dollars of no strings attached grant money, where would you spend that money?
Speaker3: Oh, that's a great question. Well, we work with a lot of organizations, nonprofits, whether it's like to fight food insecurity or to support the rights of sex workers and in many different communities. So it may be to support one of our partners. I also I'm a big proponent of investing in our team and so on, whether it's like education or just any activities that allow the members of my team to feel like they're living up to their highest potential. And so there's a lot of we often do off sites where we talk about company goals, but also personal. And that's actually I think our secret sauce is just like the culture that we have internally. So is either investing in a partner or or internally in our culture.
Speaker1: Love that. Some spicy moggs. And the weekend question that was the last question is how do you deal with failure? What's your mindset and approach? When things don't go to plan?
Speaker3: Things often don't go to plan. And I think sometimes in one day you can have a failure and a huge success. So that's just the journey of an entrepreneur. So it's just keeping it in perspective. But like, you know, oftentimes you get your greatest successes that follow what seem to be the greatest failure. So just understanding and keeping that perspective that nothing is ever as bad as it seems and nothing's also as great as it seems. So having that perspective will get you through anything.
Speaker1: Jing, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the show today and share your journey and tell us about your brand of absolutely loved meeting you. And I cannot wait to try your products.