Editor’s Note: In the lead up to the Women in Entrepreneurship event hosted by the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship this Thursday January 26, The Dobson Chronicles’ Mo Akif sat down with Chloé Anderson from Avocado Desserts for a candid interview on what it takes to build a food startup from the ground up. Avocado Desserts aims to redefine the snacking industry by making delicious healthy.
Co-founder Chloé Anderson, who holds a Masters in Food Science from the McGill Faculty of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, was part of a team that won first place at the Institute of Food Technologists Student Association (IFTSA) & MARS Product Development Competition in Chicago in 2015. Chloé also competed in the McGill Dobson Cup 2016 making it to the Finals and participated in the second cohort of the McGill Lean Startup program.
Tell us a little about yourself Chloé!
I am a proud McGillian and I want to be part of the new food industry! After completing my undergrad in Food Science at the Macdonald campus, I pursued a masters in the same field that I recently completed. During my studies, I took part in two startups related to healthy food, where I developed my vision for the future of the food industry and acquired solid know-how about startup building. Today, I am the co-founder and Director of Operations at Avocado Desserts, where we aim to redefine the dessert industry by making delicious healthy.
What makes your desserts healthy?
I have a sweet tooth, this is undeniable, but I also always look for the healthy option. But when it comes to desserts, I realize that we are not given that option. We can choose only between a heavy and overly sweetened dessert or an apple. That’s why I started Avocado Desserts, to propose a dessert that is both healthy and indulgent at the same time.
We replace unhealthy fatty products (cream and butter) and remove excess sugar with a lightly sweetened avocado cream. Hence, we have zero trans fats in our products, and we also minimize the amount of other bad fats – we have 6x less saturated fats than comparable-tasting desserts.
We also use small amounts of low glycemic sweeteners, experimenting with honey, agave, coconut sugar, and inulin. This is important to point out because not only do we have less QUANTITY of sugar, we also have higher QUALITY of sugars that metabolize more slowly and therefore don’t lead to the blood sugar spikes that the refined sugar in most desserts can cause.
Start your project small and on the side while you’re still stable in other areas of your life. Then later, you can think about scaling it and going full-time.
How do you feel about having a business and going to school at the same time? A lot of people think it’s too much.
You’re right, many people tell you that you should quit your job or drop out of school to start your company. I disagree; you need a base of stability. Then start, test, evaluate the issues, and gather feedback from your market while you’re still studying or working.
When you’re stable in other areas of your life, you’re able to pivot and make major changes in your business without falling flat on your face. You don’t want to give up your job and spend your life savings on developing your product and marketing, and then find out “Oh, maybe my market doesn’t even want this” because then you’re broke and you’ve got nowhere to land. The more stable you are in other aspects of your life/finances, the more risks you can take with your startup. Again, start your project small and on the side while you’re still stable in other areas of your life. Then later, you can think about scaling it and going full-time.
Another thing is, mentors and other people in the startup world will look at you more positively when you have other things going on. If you’re unemployed and you have some great ambitious idea, people may be less likely to help you — but EVERYONE wants to help students because they know that you want to learn. In my family, we believe that projects are great — but education is number one. Remember that 9 out of 10 startups fail. So finish your education, work with the people around you while you develop a base.
Let’s get tactical for just a second. What are some of the changes you’ve made in terms of scheduling/time management to allow yourself time to work on AvocadoDesserts while still acing your courses?
First of all, school actually helped me quite a lot during the development phase. In a course called Food Product Development, I came up with some of the little bits and pieces that would turn Avocado Desserts into what it is today. Talking to teachers about our idea was a great idea because they set us up with resources and knowledge specific to our industry. I’m lucky because my education and my enterprise converged so I was hitting two birds with one stone — if you can find a way to do the same, I highly encourage it.
Second, learn to say no: guard your time and energy. People stress themselves out by taking on too many commitments. Learning to say no is a very important skill to learn, and one that I’ve been implementing in my life with some degree of success.
Butter is the go-to for a lot of people when making tasty food, but avocado can be a healthy plant-based alternative when prepared right!
I grew up in a family that really values health, so that played a part in why I was inspired to make healthy food — and what’s healthier than fresh fruit?
In France, we don’t eat avocados much but in Canada they’re really popular. Europe’s avocados are imported from Africa, where the avocados are different — they’re a little more watery and not as creamy. After coming to Montreal and tasting a Hass avocado, I realized they have some properties similar to butter — they’re creamy, easily spreadable and tasty. Butter is the go-to for a lot of people when making tasty food, but avocado can be a healthy plant-based alternative when prepared right!
Right now, you guys are focused on catering — how did you make that decision?
Through trial and error we realized that at this stage in our development, catering just works. First of all, it’s more flexible and efficient — you don’t have to worry about making too much the way coffee shops handle/stores the food, or having no one buy it. Since we get to speak with the customer ahead of time, we can set a schedule and learn more about their needs. This allows us to tailor our desserts to their needs to improve their experience with our food.
You also have to keep in mind that we’re a food-based startup, so freshness is a concern. We’ve tried working with coffee shops but the fact is, that isn’t the best medium for us because we want full control of the eater’s experience. Without a middleman, we can focus on bringing fresh, tasty and healthy food to you with absolute consistency.
Just as a business plan tends to change as soon as you get your first piece of real customer feedback, so did our recipe the first time someone else tasted it.
If you could go back in time and chat with the Chloé that first started Avocado Desserts, what would you tell her?
Simplify, simplify, simplify.
We started off really complicated — using all kinds of “superfoods”, trying to make the desserts high in protein, and creating a perfect self-contained meal. Though this was the right approach to win the food science competition we entered, I realized a year later that a very different approach was needed for the actual market. The former is very resource-intensive in terms of both time and money to make, and the students entering the competition tend to forget about the market and real customers because they often don’t leave the food science bubble.
The other piece of advice I’d give her is that you REALLY shouldn’t wait until your product is perfect before entering the market and seeing what customers think. To be clear, I don’t mean use rotten ingredients! Absolutely use the freshest, best ingredients you can get your hands on. That said, details like the packaging, the labeling, and the marketing can be less than stellar at first.
This is something I kind of knew but was afraid to apply until recently. Just as a business plan tends to change as soon as you get your first piece of real customer feedback, so did our recipe the first time someone else tasted it. I’ve eaten so much of my own desserts that my own mouth isn’t such a great judge anymore — I have too many preconceived notions. But OTHER people’s mouths are the key to my success!
Suppose Avocado Desserts takes off and becomes very successful. What would an ideal day look like for you?
I’d just stay in bed all day!
Kidding aside, it would probably involve waking up in Vancouver somewhere near the water. I’d check my email, gather customer feedback, and make some phone calls to my business partners to begin implementing it. I would then go skiing in Whistler and reward myself with a tasty Avocado Dessert, because once my company is successful they’ll be available all around Canada!
Further down the line, I also want to tackle other industries that need more healthy options.
Develop something that you can be proud of, something that you actually like.
Please give one piece of advice to a college student wanting to get started with a (food) startup…
Develop something that you can be proud of, something that you actually like. I’ve been doing this for a while now and at the beginning it’s easy to be lured in by the attraction of money – especially in the entrepreneurial world.
Let me start off by saying that money IS important to keep your business going. But after a few years, money isn’t enough. There needs to be something MORE to motivate you to keep going. Good investors have a sixth sense that allows them to tell when entrepreneurs are purely driven by profit. The problem with that is that those types of people may jump ship the second the company faces a hardship.
What investors really want to see are genuine people wanting to create something of value who will stand by their product, and who want to make a difference. In my case, I’m really focused on giving people a healthier product instead of trying to make a quick buck — and my customers can tell.
What was your experience with the McGill Dobson Cup?
We were finalists last year, and it was a great experience. Not only did it help me develop a team through meeting with MBAs and other business people, it also helped me get some initial traction and figure out what other people thought about my product. In fact, someone offered to invest in us during our first presentation in the Semi-Finals of the McGill Dobson Cup, which really helped us believe in our idea and stick through with it. Later on during the Finals, one of the judges was in the food industry and he also offered to help us out – I also just met with him recently for an investment.
One weakness that Avocado Desserts had during the McGill Dobson Cup was that we had never sold any desserts – we had only given some away for samples and tastings. So here’s a tip for anyone going through the McGill Dobson Cup: make some REAL sales before the finals!
To summarize, the McGill Dobson Cup is really a great way to get your product and team aligned for initial feedback as well as potential investments!