Updated: Oct 13
Today on the show we are learning from Vanessa, one of the co-founders behind Omsom.
We chat through how she validated and landed on what their product was going to be, what made them sell out in 72 hours after launch (and multiple times since then) as well as some of her key pieces of advice peppered throughout.
If you haven’t met Omsom yet, they bring proud, loud Asian flavors into your home kitchen. Vanessa and Kim Pham are first-generation Vietnamese-American sisters who started Omsom to reclaim the cultural integrity of Asian cuisines that are often diluted in the mainstream grocery aisle.
They partner with iconic Asian chefs to craft rip-and-pour starters with all the specialty sauces, seasonings, and aromatics needed for specific Asian dishes.
Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!
Vanessa. Hi, welcome to the female startup pump podcast. Hi, doing thanks for having me. I'm so excited to be here. Me too. I'm so excited to be here. I know you're in new york. What is your morning? Like, what have you been up to today? Oh my gosh, well it's a monday morning. So I'm getting into the swing of things. I had my cold through this morning at a couple of meetings um and yeah, we're just getting ready for the holiday season. So things are just, we're all running around like crazy, but it's all good problems to have? Yes, Absolutely. Don't you think it's weird that we're thinking about christmas and like the end of the year. Oh my God, I mean it's so funny because like we are directed consumer right now and so you know we have to get things ready a couple of months ahead but when we're looking at like the retail environment that's like you're planning for the holiday like a year before.
00:03:47 Like it's just a totally different timeline so I'm learning all the different timelines in the CPG space. It's all new to me so we're figuring it out. It's all new to me too. I'm gonna need to like come back to you at a later date for those timelines and how it works. Yes I got you. I always love to start by getting you to give us a little bit of an introduction on you who you are, what your business is. The kind of elevator pitch. The quick 101. Yeah absolutely. Um So hello everybody. I'm Vanessa fam. I am the Ceo and co founder of um song um Sam is a proud loud asian food brand um that exists to reclaim asian flavors because they've been diluted in the grocery store for so long. My sister and I started it a little over two years ago and were the daughters of Vietnamese refugees and my background specifically has been as an e commerce and CPG strategist. So before starting on some I was a management consultant that vein advising Fortune 500 C.
00:04:50 P. G's on retail strategy and growth strategy. And then before that I actually ran an E. Commerce business while I was a student at Harvard grew that like 40% a year. Had a ton of fun with that. And so that's really where my background is. But starting on some 2.5 years ago it was a huge leap because I was 24 so I had like very little experience but but you know really wanted to build something that could inform cultural dialogues and conversations at the national level. So at some our North star is creating products with cultural integrity doing right by the asian american community and so that's like the whole goal of our company. But yeah basically what we do is we craft starters, that's what these are. They're basically pantry shortcuts that allow you to make Asian dishes in 2030 minutes, restaurant quality on your table, we have your back on flavor and you can kind of flex it to your dietary preferences and restrictions. Um but really the vision is to build the new authority in Asian food products. So yeah, it's been an incredible first year in market.
00:05:54 We had a partnership with Disney. We've been, had these beautiful like full features in the new york times fast company for food and wine Epicurious vogue. And yeah and now we're growing the team, all this stuff is happening and we're just so grateful to have kind of like the platform and the writer dot community that we've built. Oh my gosh wow wow wow well so many things to unpack here for anyone who is listening in on audio Vanessa was just showing us her incredible uh starter packs on the video, if you're going to check it out on Youtube or go and check it out on her actual website because the branding is so worth a look and I absolutely love it. I have like so many questions and like the overarching question is like how did you get all those amazing things in your first year in business, but I don't want to get ahead of myself. So let's kind of go back to when you were starting to think about launching this business and what you were thinking about when you were, you're obviously working at bain, but at some point you start thinking, hey, I'm going to essentially leave my job right and build this brand.
00:07:01 You know, I was around 24 when I decided to start on some with my sister Kim and it really came on a personal level from a place of feeling like there when I looked out at the world, there were not enough business thought leaders that had a perspective like mine, so you know, a Southeast asian woman of Vietnamese woman and I knew that was my personal goal was to be a thought leader in business and shape those national dialogues, but I felt like when I was a management consultant kind of on that corporate path, that it would be such a struggle to get there, that it could take, you know, it could take years and years and who knows, maybe by the time I actually got to that place I might be a different person, I might have conformed to the values of those institutions um and I wasn't willing to risk that, so that was on a personal level why I was finally ready to take the risk, even though my whole life, I had been so risk averse and then professionally what I was really looking for was you know, to change the dialogue around asian food, there is all this talk about asian food being cheap or asian food being you know dirty or unhealthy or oil your salty and we wanted to kind of reclaim those conversations and put a product out that actually reflected asian cultures in a way that was honorable and respectful and really made those communities proud, so you know, I really wanted to to impact culture in that way and so those were the kind of motivations that finally had to be like you know what if I'm gonna do it, I'm going to do it now on my own terms and with the perfect co founder that had the most perfect profound, I could ask my sister was kim always like wanting to build a business with you or did you have to do some convincing to bring her on board, kim has always actually been a risk lover, so she's always wanted to start a business, I didn't know she wanted to start one with me.
00:08:52 So when I finally kind of got ready, we actually were on a trip in Bolivia traveling and hiking the salt flats and I kind of brought it up to her and she was like, I've been waiting for this day, so I had no idea. But she was so ready to start a company with me. Oh my gosh, I love that. That's so cool. What a nice trip. What a nice moment to have that with your sister as kind of like a starting point. How did you get started? What were those early steps, I guess we're talking like 2019 at this point when you're kind of like starting to explore suppliers, manufacturing, how it's gonna look financially, what are those early days like for you? Oh my gosh, The early day, we're really challenging, really, really challenging both professionally and personally, but they got us where we are and you know, I'm really glad I went through, I felt like it was a really important time for us as founders. But yeah, I mean, I would say the big things on one hand, it was like knowing how to get started, like we had never started food businesses before.
00:09:58 You know, we didn't know what the right steps were, who to talk to. So it's figuring everything out from the ground up. So grateful for all the people that gave us time to be able to like speak to these things and let us ask questions. So I learned a time. But but yeah, I felt like it was a lot of just learning everything for the first time, leaning on people making mistakes, wasting time going down rabbit holes and realizing, oh wait, that's not actually something that we need to work through. And then at the same time there was all the personal stuff that I had to work through as well of like, oh my gosh, all the uncertainty that I felt like not knowing what I was doing. Like my whole life, I had all these kinds of brands and institutions that I derived a lot of my self worth and sense of safety from like, you know, having that net and we were the daughters of Vietnamese refugees with without generational wealth, also working through a lot of money scarcity. So there were all these elements of uncertainty, not knowing what I was doing. Um, but ultimately was able to find our way through.
00:10:59 Being resourceful asking the right questions and getting the right people on board whether, you know, as mentors or just as supporters in general to help us figure out what's the next path, What's the next or next step in the process or path. When you say, you know, there was a lot of early mistakes and like going down rabbit holes and being like, oh this isn't the direction, are you able to paint a picture of what some of those looked like, especially for people who, like me are in the food or the beverage industry and who are wanting to avoid pitfalls if they can learn from someone like you who's been through it. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think the biggest thing is like, what I've learned is that being part of what makes a founder like good at what they do is not having all the answers at all, but rather being able to solve problems and get the right people bought in early on. So, you know, in many, in many senses that's selling, but it's about asking the right questions and getting the right people along for the journey.
00:12:02 And so yeah, I think going back to the beginning, I would have been less concerned about knowing the answers. I feel like I got tripped up all the time. It's like, oh my God, I don't know what I'm doing, I don't, I've never done this before and it's almost like that's irrelevant. Like, you know, it's nice to have that of course, but if you don't, that's not actually an issue, I would have been much more focused on, like who do I need to talk to and like how do I get the right people in my ecosystem in the mix of the um, some universe to get to the next step and really get to be focused on the next step, Pay less attention to like, oh my gosh, what's the three year plan? Because you know, there's so much you need to solve and if you can be laser focused on what's next, what's next? It's like, it'll give you a lot of ability to focus in on the right things and be able to solve the right problems. I love that. That's so interesting. And I'm thinking like when you were in those really early days of R and D like, you know, in your first kind of six months, who were the kind of people you needed to surround yourself with? Like what kind of literally like people roles, skill set did you need around you?
00:13:10 Yeah, absolutely. So I mean I would say some of the biggest ones are obviously founders that are just like a year or two ahead of you, right? Like those are going to be the most helpful people because their knowledge is so relevant to your experience and your questions and they just did it. And in this day and age dynamics are changing constantly. So you need people with recent perspectives and I would really speak a lot to those people, operators. Yes, investors can be helpful, but in my experience operators are absolutely the most helpful. And then another perspective I would always try to really have top of mind early on is just consumers that are in your target demographic. So we did a lot of research early on surveying people interviewing people literally watching people cook in their kitchens who were, you know, frequent consumers of asian food products. Um and that was really helpful in shaping and informing our perspective and our product. That's so cool to watch people cooking where they were cooking with your product or they were cooking dishes that they already knew how to cook and you were watching from that and then developing from that.
00:14:19 Both we did a whole mix of things just like learning how people consume asian food today. Like how do they get it on their table? Like what are the steps so that what are the challenges, what are they looking for? What are the values that they're aligned with, like on all dimensions, like what are the criteria. But really the biggest thing was like what is the hardest part? Um so we did different types of research at different points in our journey and how long did you do like that peaceful and when did you feel like comfortable thinking? Yeah, like were validated. We have the feedback that we need like we can move towards launching now. Um So we were in that research phase for like a couple of months, like probably at least three months. Um but partially because we just didn't know what we were going to do. And so it was like we had a mission in mind, like we knew our mission was to reclaim asian flavors and build products of cultural integrity. We didn't know what the product would be and so it took us a couple of months to get to the right product which is now how we landed on the starter. But in terms of like having the conviction and like knowing this was the right pad.
00:15:24 Oh my God, I don't even know if I ever really felt it. So we're literally producing it like it. I didn't have, I mean we had a strong perspective, but like conviction is like a whole other piece. Like I feel like conviction is almost as much as it is about mindset as it is about like actual research and knowledge, you know what I mean? And so it's been a long journey for me, building conviction, like even when you know things have gone really well our first year really, really well, but like there are always still moments of doubt and self doubt. Yeah, absolutely. And that in a voice that sometimes just creeps on it and you're like, please leave, this is eating me alive. Yes. Um I always love to ask about the early stage of capital, you know, how you were financing the brand in the beginning, what kind of money you needed to get started and what you're like general approach and thinking towards money was when you were getting started. Yeah, absolutely. I think this is a really important conversation because every business looks so different from the consumer's perspective and behind the scenes and there's reasons for that usually, and usually has to do with financing.
00:16:36 So you know, for us, we bootstrapped as long as we could, We were 24 and we didn't have generational wealth. And so it was really hard. So I was living in new york without a salary for a year, I was doing odd random things to try to pay my rent and it was super challenging. It was one of the hardest parts about starting the company and I felt it every single day We actually went out and raised our pre seed because I ran out of money and and we were paying for everything out of my sister's bank account and she was 26. So it's not like she had a lot of money. So um we butcher for a year and then we kind of hit a point where it's like, well you know, we got a raise if we want to keep doing this. So at that point we raised, we went out to raise a precede. And it was a really challenging raise because raising early stage for food businesses is really tough. There's not a lot of capital at the really early stage unless you personally know investors. And so we basically went through a process where we got a bunch of nose and we're talking to all the wrong people before we got in front of the right people.
00:17:39 Um And this is because my sister worked in V. C. That we naturally tapped her network but she worked in B. Two B. Sas. So like these investors were like software investors. So they were like wait you're you're talking about physical product that expires like has a shelf life. Like what? No that's you know that's nothing. We want to throw our money behind. And so we talked to all the wrong people before finally you know one person was like wait actually I might have a friend who might be interested in this space and then one thing led to another and then we started talking to the right people and then that's when we got momentum. Um But yeah absolutely like I just wish people normalized like the process of talking to the wrong people and being a numbers game because like it was for us. Um and then that's what we raised to proceed and we had to raise that because one we have to pay pay ourselves but also because we had a high level of ambition and we wanted to be able to launch in a way that we felt the asian american community deserved meaning. We wanted to like have the crispness, have the right people supporting us. You know get the press like have the beautiful brand.
00:18:44 We wanted all of that. And so that's why we raised our precede. And also because in order to do that the back end that food business demands to be able to fulfill that type of vision is like you need to have a co manufacturer, you need to have a third party logistics provider and those are expensive to get started with because with a cowman or co manufacturer you need to hit their minimum order quantities, right? And so you have to get all the raw materials, all the packaging and stuff and those are pretty expensive. So that was the rationale behind the precede. And then basically, a couple of months after we launched, we had seen some really strong traction. Um, and so at that point we decided to go out and raise our seed round as well. And that was a lot easier because we had real data to present to investors and you know, my logic with, with raising in general, I think there are a couple of things that have made us a little bit different. One is that we've never wanted to build a business that's reliant on investors. And so we're very thoughtful about how we deploy our capital.
00:19:47 We've been quite efficient to date with all of our spend and that's really because we want to be in the driver's seat. We want to make decisions that allow us to do right by our community because we know that, you know, a lot of investors, you know, we want to make sure that we're bringing the right ones on board. So we want to be able to pick and choose. And so you need to have, like a really strong value prop to investors if you want to be able to pick and choose because at the end of the day, we want to work with investors that understand brand building, understand investments that we're making in service of long term value creation, not just like short term pops on top line sales. And so it takes, it takes a certain type of investor to see that journey and want to be on board for that journey. Um, and so we vet investors a lot in the process. Yeah, that's my question to you is like, how do you actually know who is like that and who is not like that? Because obviously we've heard so many stories around people getting the wrong kinds of investors and people who aren't aligned in their vision, how do you actually get to that?
00:20:51 Is it just like a really direct conversation around like what you will and will not be doing or is there more due diligence or something around it? Yeah, so a lot of it is what you described and I think what is like, what, why there's tension in that is not because people don't necessarily know their vision, don't know how to explain it. It's because in the process of fundraising, if you're in you're in scarcity, you're going to sell relentlessly and actually not sell what you're trying to achieve, you're going to say a lot more of what you think the investor wants to hear. And so I think it's a lot of actually internal work as a founder or with your co founder around being super clear what you're trying to build, what you will won't do to your point. And having the conviction to tell that to the investor when you can tell they're going to say no because of it, and being comfortable with that, and being like, actually, that's what I want, I don't want to waste anybody's time. Even more importantly, I don't want to bring the wrong investor on board. It's kind of like, I don't know if this resonates, but it's like when you're at a certain age, when you're dating, when you're younger, leaving your twenties, you don't know who you are yet.
00:21:59 You're, like, trying to say what you think the other person wants to hear, and they're like, oh, like, you know, I love watching sports all day, and that's what I'm looking for, and you're like, oh my God saying, I love sports, and like, actually, I fucking hate watching sports, right? So, it's a little bit of that. It's it's the same thing where you finally get the point where you're like, no, I know who I am, and I'm okay if I present myself authentically and people self select because of it. You want to weed out the people that you don't want to be around. Exactly. And so, you know what that looks like in the fundraising process is when you're pitching them, you're showing them, you know, your five year plan and they're like, oh, like I got, we got a lot of this, like, oh, you're looking at, you know, being moving towards profitability pretty early. Is that even what you want? Like, what do you want to grow more aggressively and spend a lot more? And that's when I, you know, had a real honest conversation with them. Like I hear you and like, if this was five years ago, we might have taken more of that approach, but I think we've seen enough physical products, dTC businesses pan out where they didn't pay enough attention to profitability early on and ended up not being able to solve that down the road.
00:23:09 So like, if we want a sustaining business, like we're going to pay attention to that early on, we're not going to make that our number one priority, but it will be on the list of KPs that were at least paying attention to and want to ensure that we have a path towards that. So, like, having those hard conversations is really critical with investors. Yeah. And I imagine actually, you probably want to make sure you're having hard conversations so you can make sure because undoubtedly there's going to be hard conversations throughout the journey. So you need to get familiar with what those hard conversations are like early on to be able to know whether you're gonna be able to have them in like a healthy kind of way in the future, if that makes sense. 100% Yeah, love that. In the timeline of when you did the precede raise, how long before your launch was that And how long did you think you needed to give yourself in a pre launch where you were actively like building community, starting to kind of put the word out there. Pre pressing, go on. Like sales.
00:24:12 Yeah, that's a great question. Honestly, I'm trying to remember, I don't remember the exact time. All I know is that was a lot longer than we thought I want to say. Like we were thinking it was going to be like 56 months or something and maybe it ended up, we thought it would be like five months. I feel like it crept up to like eight months or something like that. I don't remember exactly. But it was also tough. We launched during Covid. So we had a ton of delays related to Covid and supply chain but it took us a while and yeah, yeah, maybe it was like, yeah, we thought it was gonna be five months and it was like eight months. It took us a while because we got to figure out a lot of stuff, everything takes longer than you think and a lot of it is out of your control, especially with mostly with physical goods, you can't just like spin stuff up out of nowhere. Like we totally underestimated how long it would take to, you know, get the certain approvals like scheduled processes which are like approvals of formulations that took a long time, getting the right visual identity took forever.
00:25:13 We threw away like multiple fully baked visual identities before we like felt comfortable with it. We just had a really high bar and I I think it was the right thing. I mean you don't want things to be perfect but when your consumer facing brand, I think there are, if your software I think is very different because you can constantly iterating stuff like that. But for us and our strategy, it totally depends on your strategy. But for our strategy we wanted to come out strong and really speak to people's hearts and really resonate and cut through the noise early on. That was our goal and our strategy with our launch, with that in mind and you don't need to be specific about yours, but you can be if you want to but what do you think would be a good ballpark marketing budget for a launch? So keeping in mind things like making sure you have 10 out of 10 content to launch with 10 out of 10 pr representation, You know, gifting influences like if you're doing the whole kind of shebang, what do you think is a good marketing budget for launch?
00:26:15 If you've gone through potentially proceed or if you have access to capital through like debt etcetera for sure. Oh my gosh, that's a really good question. It's, I think it's just so dependent on your gold and who you're trying to speak to in black market you're going after for example, like if you're launching a plant based meat, like your budget has got to be really large to cut through the noise because that space is so busy and there's your competing with so many brands. But if you're definitely we're launching now I think our spaces like getting a lot harder but like there weren't many, you know like ddc asian food prints that were very very few. And so we were much leaner and so our budget was in probably like the low tens of thousands. So I would say it really depends versus I know some of those other brands, like You know the pr firms are working with our like easily 15K retainer is a month for example or they're working with branding agencies that charge like upwards of $200,000 which like we were not looking at that like everything we did was on the much leaner side, we tried to do everything the leanest way possible and so we were able to keep ours in like the look just like a couple of tens of thousands but you know it also depends on how much expertise you have in house like because we were so adamant that we were going to be a critical part of driving everything including brand strategy, we were able to work with like kind of lower spend on the support that we have for that for some people who would kind of take it like the last, you know, the last bit versus them fully owning the full stack of like brand strategy and everything like that.
00:27:56 So it really depends on how much capability of that do you have in house and how much do you want to be driving that? And because we want to drive a lot of that, we were able to spend a lot less on it, got it And I read that you sold out in 72 hours. So I'd love to know like what you attribute that success to and what your launch, like what went really well in your launch that was able to drive that kind of, you know, crazy results and was there anything that didn't go so well that you would say just scrap that, you know, didn't need to do it? Yeah, Oh my gosh, so I would attribute the kind of traction that we saw super early and then kind of, you know, um since then we've sold out seven more times, which has been wild, but oh my God, that's amazing. Yeah, I mean obviously, you know that's on the selecting side, we've been like trying to figure that out and we have been able to scale that up in due time. But I would say the biggest thing I would attribute that to is our ability to cut through the noise as a brand, which we're very grateful for, which goes back to us really knowing who we are, what we're here to do and who we're speaking to being super clear on that has allowed us to speak consistently to the right people like the right audience and from a place of really genuine care around our mission and values that people can feel and what that's allowed us to do then is to build a community and then at the same time have, you know, media outlets understand, you know, oh wow, look at that real residence that brand is having.
00:29:34 I want to speak about that. You know, what they don't see is like, oh look at those founders who saw a white space in the market and are capitalizing on an opportunity like what they're seeing is soul and heart and real care about a mission. And so they want to write about that. Um, and so right out of the gate, we got a ton of national press that kind of allowed Aunts on to break through and and really speak to people and resonate with them emotionally. I love that. That's amazing. Oh, so cool. What's working for you now, when it comes to marketing, when it comes to both organic and paid and all the things, What's kind of your focus when you're allocating budget? Yeah. So, you know, today our growth has been largely organic, like 90% organic, so we spent very little unpaid and you know, that's something we would in general, we would like to build out more of a performance marketing engine, but intentionally, that was not a focus of ours in our first year. We really, like I said, we want to build a brand that stands the test of time, and we're so we're constantly thinking about in the first year, how do you lay the groundwork for brand in service of long term value creation?
00:30:51 And so yeah, we really focused on investing in content. So my sister and my co founder, she's um really the heart and soul of some in many ways, she is the one developing, you know, a lot of our content and we take a really thoughtful and editorial approach to content. That's a huge investment of ours. Just in terms of like her band within time and which, you know, as a co founder, that's a huge investment and then beyond that we're investing in building community like that, those are the biggest things. And then at the same time we're starting to test and learn on the performance side of things, but really for the first year we'