Creating a medicinal mushroom company w/ Grandma’s help, Rainbo Founder Tonya Papanikoluv shares all
Joining me today is Tonya Papanikoluv, the founder Rainbo.
Rainbo is a sustainable medicinal mushroom company offering supplements and functional foods. Rainbo educates consumers on the healing power of fungi and their mission is to optimize health, open minds and get millions of people healthier with medicinal mushrooms. The mushrooms are grown locally and sustainably in Canada with love and healing intention.
In this episode we’re covering Tonya’s experience and background as a holistic nutritionist and mushroom forager that opened her up to the powers of food as medicine, how she got started with a loan from a handful of people who really believed in her, including her grandma and how email marketing has been a big driver of growth.
Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!
So my name is Tonya, as you mentioned, I'm a holistic nutritionist. That's my background and training and I've been studying nutritional sciences for probably about 13 years. So I've been really ingrained in this for a long time and kind of got into this through my own healing journey. And right now I am The founder and CEO of my business that I launched in 2019 which is Rainbo, a medicinal mushroom company that we make mushroom products. So we're growing and cultivating all of our mushrooms in Canada sustainably.
00:04:21Edit And yeah, it's been it's been a really fun ride since launch and just a lot of things happening fast. Oh my gosh, I bet. How exciting! I'm actually so thrilled to be talking to you because only in recent times have I been getting really interested in mushrooms and the power of mushrooms myself. So I'm excited to learn more from you. I want to go back to life before you started Rainbow when you were doing nutrition and that kind of thing. And what was getting you excited about actually launching an E. Com brand. So, life before Rainbow was I feel like there's almost like a few lives before Rainbow because there was my university training and then there was like a little pocket of time where I was actually working in fashion and that piece of time was very critical for me because it was a departure from science and I was really able to access this different creative side of my brain. I was in trend forecasting within a fashion office and it really allowed me to look at the world in a completely different way.
00:05:24Edit And so it really formed like a very solid piece of who I am and how I visually kind of view things. So there was that kind of pocket in time, it was more of a corporate job and that really was allowed me to see that this really isn't the environment that I thrive in. And yeah, that was like, it was just very formative and then after that I was, you know, in my mid twenties at the time where I was really like going through that feeling and time and face of like, what do I really want to do? I feel like I have a mission, I want my profession and dharma and calling to be helping people and serving people. So I kind of was coming back to nutrition and coming back to the essence of what I had thought my trajectory would be and I went back in 2000 and 15 and 16 and I studied holistic nutrition and so I launched my first business, which was the well woman that was in 2016 and 17, I moved to California for a few months and was in a raw food, like a culinary program in California and so the first few years, so this is in the range of 2016 to 2018 was I was practicing as a holistic nutritionist, I was private chef ng and personal chef ng and putting on these like culinary experiences.
00:06:39Edit I look back so fondly right now because during the times of Covid like it's just, it's so different. We would gather with like 30 to 40 people or more sometimes and have these like, you know, I would create these beautiful meals and you know, it was just like a plant based creation. It was, it was really fun. So I was kind of doing a lot of things at that time. It was a lot of work. I think anybody that's ever done private chef ng or just cooking for people that was delivering food, I was like, it was really a lot of, a lot of things and the main threat has always been like using food as medicine and and trying to get people to eat healthier through plants and fungi and using food. So yeah, that was kind of this period of time where I was still, I was trying things out. I wanted to try out a bunch of different things. Yeah, I ended up just realizing that the sustainability of me progressing in that area was just, it wasn't what I wanted, it wasn't going to be feasible for me. And You know, throughout that process, I had been developing a very strong relationship with fungi and I had been using them personally to hell.
00:07:40Edit And so I was using Rishi, which is a specific medicinal mushroom. In 2016 I was using that therapeutic dosages to heal. This was when I was in school And then to backtrack a little bit. I had first really learned about medicinal mushrooms in 2011 and you know, it was around since that point that I had really started to dive in and even like knew that there was something beyond a button mushroom. Um, and I had a really amazing friend and mentor at the time who just would show me how to forage and how to find these medicinal mushrooms in our backyard, which you know, is in Canada. And so it was really that process of learning more about fungi was a slow process of first learning about what a medicinal mushroom was, what a superfood was kind of before the craze of a large wellness industry had really like turned it into a billion dollar industry. So yeah, I would say like along the same timeline of everything has just been my learning about this species And in 2018 I had like kind of a some symptoms flare up and it was because I was really run down.
00:08:46Edit I wasn't listening to my body. And so I had this period of time at the beginning of 2018 where I really had to slow down and I just started diving into research about fungi and I felt this change happening. Like I felt a transition happening at the end of 2017. And as I entered 2018 my body was just like breaking down in certain ways. And so I had to slow down and listen and take care of myself. And that was kind of when I just dove into that from my research and started learning about cultivation, started learning about how incredible the fungi species kingdom or queendom is. And then like, you know, it was just my inspiration to start Rainbow happened very, very quickly after. So it felt like it was a bit of a quick turn and turning point. So it wasn't like I had this initial desire to start an e commerce brand or um that I was like, oh, this is, you know, this is strategic or anything like that. I would say most of my career, I've just been so lucky to be able to follow um and pursue passions and those passions have been kind of hand in hand with my own healing journey.
00:09:57Edit And as I've needed to like dive in and find my own answers, I've just become so inspired to help show people that, you know, we can use food as medicine, we can like, you know, access plant medicines and fungi and just learn from these ancient traditions from all sorts of lineages, like traditional chinese medicine and Ayurveda. And you know, indigenous medicine in Canada really draws from a lot of the use of mushrooms. So it was a really profound experience with Rishi that I had and that always really stuck with me and it sounds like all of that sounds amazing to start. Um and it sounds like also when this is happening to you in your life, there's also something happening in just general consumer world where it feels like mushrooms were also starting to gain popularity and there are people out there, you know, like tim Ferriss who were at that time starting to bring in more mainstream and get people more thinking the way that you were thinking versus thinking, oh, mushrooms equal psychedelics and that's it kind of thing.
00:11:05Edit Did you need to go through a process of validating this idea with other people or were you like, I just know this is going to be a thing. Mm It's a really good question. My nature is very intuitive. So, I absolutely like to talk about ideas with my close people and um I loved ones and my close friends and I have a great group of entrepreneurial people here in here in Toronto. So we're always sharing ideas, but it wasn't so much where I had doubts where I was like, I'm not really sure if I should do this. It was more so like there is this feeling and this desire to create something with fungi and I don't know what that is and I just took the time to actually just vision board and like draw and make these diagrams of like, this is like my interest, this is what's happening in my brain. It could look this way, like at one point I was like, is it a marketplace? Is that this, it was this process of like trying to understand what the drive, it feels like change, it feels like inspiration.
00:12:10Edit And yeah, I guess like some entrepreneurial drive. So I have just a great crew of people around me. One of the first friends that I turned to was a good friend that works in branding and she helps with strategy and so we had this big night together where it was just all about this idea that I had with mushrooms and fungi and this is like early 2000 and 18 before Michael Pollan had even released that book, how to change your mind and we just sat together and we were like brainstorming, it was like, I just cherish the memory. It was such an amazing thing and it was that night that we like actually brought it down to like, okay, the company is going to have the name Rainbow. And so yeah, I definitely like talked about it a lot and I think it's one of those things like when you're so excited that you can't help, but like it's the only thing you talk about, like there is definitely that, but I can't say like I knew I was such a like a believer in getting funky to more people and excited about the initiative to educate more people because I knew that that would be such a huge requirement.
00:13:13Edit And my love for education and love to help educate was very inborn and natural for me. So yeah, I mean it's always scary, but I was really sure of it. I love that and I love that you're being driven from your intuition versus you know, that really analytical side. So what are the next steps you have this night where you've figured out what it's going to be, You figured out the name, you're kind of onto something. What are the next steps to actually building a medicinal mushroom company? Oh gosh! I mean it was just months of research because my background is in science and health. So I just took the approach. Like it's going to look different for everybody. I, you know, I feel like that running this business is just like you just, that's your NBA like that's how you get it. I mean obviously learned so much more in school. But yeah, I think it would look different from my process was because I was a practitioner. I was building protocols for my clients and the protocols would look like basically a plan to help them achieve their health goals.
00:14:17Edit Some of them were, you know, from the perspective of just optimization and others had real serious health conditions. And so I would always use food supplementation and lifestyle to help create a plan to help the person reach their goals to heal. And so I was really familiar with supplements on the market and I just started calling all of the brands, the professional grade brands that I looked up to. And I had a lot of information on them already because I was a practitioner with them or had received their education. So I kind of started there. Um I read a lot of books, I got a lot of books on the industry and on how to cultivate and it was just, there was a lot of big decisions, but it was also just a time of exploration and talking to people in business. Cold calls, a lot of people saying no and ultimately just like there was the side of it, I guess what I actually had to do was figure out how, where I was going to get the mushrooms from. It was really clear to me from the get go that are mushrooms were going to come from Canada or north America and that I didn't want to source from overseas because I really wanted to know my growers be able to visit, be able to like idea together and grow together and I wasn't going to be able to take a trip to china.
00:15:29Edit And I also was, it was really clear that like mushrooms are needed in the environment and I didn't want a wild craft. I didn't want to take from nature. Nature needs mushrooms, we need more mushrooms and other populations depend on wild mushrooms. So it was just wasn't going to be a sustainable way to grow or scale a business. Um, so I did want to cultivate that was really clear. It's definitely helpful to have your like non negotiables of what your business, what you represent, what your values are. And then you just kind of like, it weeds out a lot of the other stuff that you might have to try and find, I actually found a really great, you know, I guess he was like a competitor or he wasn't really a competitor, but he ultimately was like, I can't help you grow this because we do have a competing product line and he was amazing. He was actually from London and he had written a few of the books, like really good fungi books. And so I was really grateful that we had some chats and just like, yeah, connecting with a lot of people in the industry and you just have to kind of go out there and know that, you know, some people are going to say no and some people are going to say yes and I chatted with people on so many fronts.
00:16:33Edit So there's product, there was regulatory side of things like these products are going to need a license in Canada from health Canada. We needed like manufacturing sites had high standards. I needed to do FDA research, I needed a business plan. I'd never in one of those, I wanted to figure out if we could get grant money, how was even going to get money to do this? So, yeah, and then like, who's going to help me do it? And I had a lot of great people along the way, for sure, it sounds like such a journey, such an incredible journey. Um, on the topic of money, what kind of money did you need to get started? I, you know, I'm hearing that you needed to obviously purchase mushrooms, you needed to take them to a manufacturer or a lab to turn them into tinctures and tonics. Then I imagine you need your bottles, you need minimum orders. What kind of capital did you need to get started? And how did you fund the business in the beginning? So that's the first few months of, So most of 2018, I was just in research phase. So when I found a manufacturer and a mushroom cultivator that I was really excited about, um he wasn't growing the mushrooms that I wanted him to be growing and so they started, to and I was starting to put together a formulation and he just started to send me samples.
00:17:53Edit It was 2018 and 2019 when you're the founder of any business, especially if you're like bootstrapping, at you're not making any money like for yourself. So that was, it was a struggle. Um I was definitely still doing my, you know, consulting and doing as much as I could to get by and I had a little bit of savings that I could actually put in. Um, and a line of credit that I just, you know, fully used and, and was so helpful. So those first few months was just kind of like, I just, it was so nice. I felt no pressure. I felt no pressure for competition. I felt I was just like, I just wanted it to be this pure like passion and it would be very different getting into the industry now because as we know, like it's totally, totally popped up and there's all these, like, it's just, there's a lot happening. So at that point, yeah, I was, I was able to fund like really simple stuff, getting, you know, a business writer to help me with the business plan and then it wasn't until about um I guess September and October of 2018 that I really started to need more capital beyond my line of credit and some of my savings and what I needed there.
00:18:58Edit So I just went to my family and they loaned me and gifted me. So it was really like a few key people, family members, my clients to clients who just were, oh my gosh, absolute angels. Like they just believed in me. Like when you find those people that like see your magic and believe in you, like it's just, I'm so grateful for them. They were Just two incredible women who really believed in me and supported it and my family, like my grandma and my partner, my boyfriend. So it was an initial $30,000 that I did a lot with. And because I had a great network within the branding side of things with, with the friends that I had mentioned, we, I mean she just gave me like, you know, a long time to pay. I gave her a little bit of equity and that was kind of it. I was able to get really, really far with that initial bit and of course like part of it too, when you're bootstrapping is just like there are certain things that are not available to you and I was able to find an extremely good manufacturing site that was able to do a minimum order quantity that I could actually afford.
00:20:08Edit So it was within budget and yeah, we just like I just made that work, wow, so cool. I love that it was like, you know, these women in your life who were so supportive, your grandma, your family, your boyfriend, it's just such a humble story to be like, these are the people who lifted me up in the beginning and a part of the journey now to that is so freaking cool. Oh my God, Okay, so we've talked about the manufacturing side, we've talked about the money side of things. Let's talk a little bit about marketing and how you actually launched the product and how you started getting eyeballs on what you were doing and getting that early momentum happening in 2019. So, pre launch, I actually started our instagram account in the fall of 2018 and I just started posting like inspirational fungi stuff. Like we're coming soon. It was, it was like very sporadic non regular posting, but I got that up and running first. I knew that we weren't going to have a lot of marketing capital, especially at the start. So, like, I just love building things organically and with the well woman, with my personal brand inside of things.
00:21:16Edit Trust is all we have, like, we don't get a second chance at a first impression. And so I had a good deal of trust with my community, we didn't have a budget, but it was always really clear to me from the marketing courses and workshops. I had done that. Building your email list is the most important place to start. So I from the get go was really keen to grow our email list. And that was where I started, we started using clay vo right from the get go. I have a marketing consultant that's based in new york and she's just helped us like really do great emails that was like our thing that we invested in from the get go. And then I just built our instagram organically um posting regularly, posting content that is beautiful and interesting and really educational and I just stayed consistent with it. I I know there's a lot of, a lot of founders, a lot of friend founders that don't love the instagram side of things, they don't like finding content. They don't think they're good at it or whatever the case is, but it's that's been something that I've just truly loved to do and I've continued to do so when you're launching a business, you also have to be realistic as much as I was like, had my hunch and my gut feeling was like, this is this is going to do, well, this is like people need this, I fully believe in this, you're still in business and you just don't know what is going to happen and what's going to come at you.
00:22:35Edit So I was realistic about that and I mean, we launched with one product. I was just really excited to see truly without any marketing without ads, like what the reception was how people felt about it if it was going to be a needed product and it's hard to take the emotion out of that sometimes, but it's important and what was the response? What do people say? And what were you hearing in feedback when you first started selling that first product? I mean we got the first people that we're purchasing in May and June of 2019 when we launched were a lot of friends, a lot of family, a lot of like my community that had followed what I was doing from the well women over to Rainbow and they were just so supportive and so excited. It's hard to say like how things catch on really quickly, I guess. I think it's really a combination of things and probably people sending things to different people, it was really within a few months that free people reached out to us and had found 11, 11 and and wanted to stock our products.
00:23:38Edit So that was so exciting. We hadn't really done much outreach and we were just really focused on getting the product to more people. I sent it to some friends in my community with like large communities and that was really helpful. The initial response was like, we love this, we're so excited to try it. We love the branding. The bottle is beautiful, we're so excited to learn about mushrooms and then from there, like, you know, once, once we were actually like six months in and started getting reviews about how the mushrooms were actually helping people and doing pretty incredible things for their body. That was when I was like okay wow, this is so exciting. And at that point I had been I've been obviously like I started testing our mushrooms in summer of 2018. I ran a small pilot study at that time too, which is a really good thing to do if you have a product um is just Get together a group of people. I had like 30 to 40 people and um I got them to track how they were taking it there, their feelings, their responses, how quickly they went through it. Yeah just any benefits, anything that they were experiencing throughout and that was actually helpful to in me deciding which product to launch with as well, wow, that's so cool.
00:24:47Edit I love the idea of doing a pilot and actually tracking the progress and being able to have that, you know that data for yourself to be able to guide you and propel you forward as your marketing has evolved. What do you find is working for you now and what's driving new acquisition? Another really good question right now we've had such, we haven't turned on facebook ads were not like we're not we're still not doing crazy marketing and I would love to be but we have just had like supply chain stuff that hasn't allowed us to. So as I've been able to ramp up our supply chain to meet the current demand it just wouldn't have made sense to like turn on ads and then be like oh and now two days later we're sold out. So largely I've just been trying to scale this to the point of us being able to turn that on two to market or to use ads in some sort of a like graceful way because ads can be annoying but obviously will help us grow. But yeah I mean honestly just for us we knew that our target market was going to be using instagram and that was just a huge huge tool for us that we stayed committed to since the gecko that's been just an amazing place to generate content actually like see our product being used in the kitchens and homes and rituals of people all over Canada and the U.
00:26:07Edit S. And like some other countries as well. So I mean yeah user generated content sharing that connecting with people in our community to host different types of like online stuff right now. So instagram lives and we're starting to ramp up that side of things. So there's a lot you can do with just giving your product to the people that are in your industry and outside of your industry and get them to try it and through that process it just generated a lot of interest in rainbow. And so we have a we have a great kind of like gifting program now and one that we're building out with an affiliate program. Yeah, I mean honestly instagram is just been a really great tool for us and and staying consistent with emails and like giving people really good content like content that you actually think about and that has a message and that is written with like some heart. And I really believe that when you're passionate about something, when you've found your thing that really lights you up, it inspires people and we all have that and it's just about like finessing and finding and, and like figuring that out.
00:27:15Edit Absolutely. You just reminded me, I wanted to ask you before something. So I'm going to backtrack a little bit to the girl that you hired in new york to do your email marketing. You said that she was doing really great emails for you. Can you just dig a little deeper and tell us more about the email marketing side of things and what your strategy is there. There's so much that you're not going to know when you're starting a business. So it's just, it's so nice to have amazing people and experts around you and like this whole time. I just feel like I've been able to work with like friends and incredible human beings and create a little family of people that get it and that are, that are excited. So you know, we had a lot of calls, We talked about strategy, but in the e commerce world you want to have, there's various flows of emails that you want to be going out to your customers into your email list. So we created a few like specific flows for what, what is the education, what's the content that you want? Somebody to be like thinking about it as like a customer journey? What what is the first set of information they need to know about your brand?
00:28:18Edit How many emails is that? So we created emails that were beautiful to look at that had like targeted information of like the must need to knows of our brand and of rainbow and of our mushrooms and you know, like if you're offering it's really great if you're growing your mls typically you're offering some sort of a discount on their first purchase. So you have that information and then from there there's like so many different marketing tools, you have an abandoned cart email, you have, gosh, I'm like blanking on it right now, but but I totally get it. There's a lot. So it's definitely really helpful and I mean there's tons of platforms that you can use now. We've been using Shopify and within like one to go into the, into the settings in that section and you click on emails, like you'll see there's a range of different emails and you know, you want to get your brand tone of voice right, you want there to be consistency and she helped with, obviously with the designs are ensuring that there's consistent aesthetics throughout and yeah, sounds amazing, wow, cool.
00:29:22Edit I love that. Love Clay vo shout out to them. They're great. Um, where is the business today? And what does the future look like for you say over the next 12 months, for example? So the business today is, we've been growing quickly, it's so exciting. It was really about the fall, like September of 2000 of like 2020 that we really saw things take off in a bigger way. Obviously the beginning of 2020, we didn't really know what was going to happen, it was still our first year of business, So grateful that we're a business that was able to not only like make it through 2020, but also thrive and grow during that year. And so right now it looks like, you know, expanding the team and getting more support, you know, really finessing our supply chain so that we can scale and grow even bigger and I have some new products that I'm working on, I'm always so excited about new product launches. We have a new mushroom that's launching next month and then another kind of like different product that's coming out a few months later that I'm working through various versions of right now.
00:30:33Edit So there's product launches. I'm super excited to hire and have, you know, grow the team and have more support there. Yeah, looks like we're going to be raising some capital in 2021 yeah, I mean, I'm just, I'm excited to be able to like, just meet customers again, like have an event through an event and just do things. We just got into a retailer in California called er one and it was really excited about that and want to just be able to go there and to hand out samples and like literally talk to people. So I'm looking forward to events. I hope that that's able to happen this year and just continuing to like, I mean, I think especially when you're, when you're a founder for anyone in a small company, like if everybody is doing a little bit of so many things um and so it's really easy to get like, in that day to day, and so just continually trying to like think about that bigger vision and stay really inspired and grow as leader and there's so much I'm excited about. Sounds very exciting.
00:31:34Edit I'm super excited to see what comes with the new products and follow along the journey. Yeah, what advice do you have for women who have a big idea and want to launch their own business. My advice is that you can figure it out and it's all figure out able, it takes a lot of dedication and work and it's a bit of like everything on the one side, it's the idea may evolve and you can't be too married to it and you should allow for an evolution of like the right thing because sometimes we like hold on to ideas and don't actually allow the evolution to take us to the exact right place and to just get a great team of people around you that can support you and help you and reach out and cold call cold email and reach out to the people that you're inspired by to learn from. I love the term figure out able is it Marie folio who coined the term? I love it, brilliant. Yeah, so good. We are up to the six quick questions part of the episode.
00:32:40Edit Question number one is what's your, why, Why are you doing what you're doing? We're doing what we're doing because we want to support people in the planet through fun guy through fun guy. Love question number two is what do you think has been the number one marketing moment that made your business pop? Honestly, I don't know if we've had 11 big moment I would say like honestly collaborations like giveaways with other brands has been really effective tool for us. I love that Great, great tip question number three is where do you hang out to get smarter? What have you been reading or listening to or where you're hanging out on the internet these days? I get smarter when I am meditating actually. So I have a very strong practice of yoga and kundalini yoga. And I attribute like a lot of my intuition and like self assuredness to that practice. And so my spiritual practice like business is going to throw you for a loop. So I'm a sensitive individual and sorry, this is supposed to be a short answer chat away.
00:33:51Edit But as a sensitive individual like I just yeah, I need that. I need that time and um and that clarity. So meditation is definitely how I get smarter and then like from a book side of things. I, I read a lot of books. I listen to podcasts and I talked to people, I talked to people that are like super smart and smarter than me and I listened to them. I love that. Take the feedback question number four is how do you win the day? And that's around your AM and PM rituals that keep you feeling happy and successful and productive this morning. I meditate and make a macho and a tonic and I put lots of mushrooms in it and start the day that way And evening you can look different if I've made a healthy and nourishing meal for myself and my partner. I'm happy and just taking some time off screens before bed is a good day. A good win for me. Gosh, I really need to do that.
00:34:53Edit I need to get back into the no screens before bed. I've been so bad lately. Yeah. Question number five is if you only had $1000 left in your business bank account, where would you spend it? Mm The best use of money is on your people and on a really amazing team. That's the best use teamwork. Makes the dream work. Oh, I love that. Last question. Question number six is how do you deal with failure? Just sit with it. Like just be there with that and let myself feel it for a little bit and then release it and find the lesson and find the teacher. Amazing Tanya, thank you so much for being on the show today and sharing all of your story about rainbow and what you're building and creating in the world. I've so enjoyed it and I also really love what you're wearing by the way. Are you wearing a little mushroom and sweatshirt? Yes, it is a mushroom. It was like sweatsuits that we're making. Oh my God, that's so cool. I love that. Thank you so much for this break and chatting it.