Katlin Smith’s original entrepreneurial idea was to open a pasta shop. The only problem? Ever since high school, she’d always been bothered by aches and pain, and pasta might have been to blame. “When I was 24 years old, a friend suggested that I try eliminating highly processed foods and allergens, like wheat, to see if that helped,” Smith tells HER Magazine. The changes relieved her symptoms, and she realized that she had more energy. “Things I thought were ‘normal’ didn’t have to be — it was an eye-opening experience that literally changed my life.”
Smith’s “clean food” epiphany changed more than just her health. “After I saw the benefits of a whole foods diet, I scrapped the pasta shop idea and decided I needed to find a way to help other people who needed to eat clean, either by choice or because of health issues.” Motivated by that desire, Smith founded Simple Mills in 2012, and a year later was selling her first three baking mixes on Amazon.
“I decided to start with baking mixes, because none of the mixes I found on grocery shelves had the kind of clean label I was looking for — that is, with ingredients I could pronounce, and without gluten, grains, soy, GMOs, excessive sugar or anything artificial.” Soon after she started selling her mixes on Amazon, Smith got her first Whole Foods store placement. And today?
“Today, Simple Mills products are sold in more than 14,000 natural and conventional grocery stores,” she says.
But Simple Mills has expanded well past the original three mixes. “We sell baking mixes, crackers, cookies and frostings — all made out of nutrient-dense ingredients like almond flour, coconut flour and sunflower seeds, and completely free of gluten, grains, soy, GMOs, excessive sugar, gums, emulsifiers or anything else artificial,” Smith explains. And it’s plain to see that consumers agree with the company’s approach. After all, sales don’t lie.
“We provide the number one best-selling natural baking mix, the number one best-selling natural cracker, and the number two best-selling natural cookie, and we offer a wide variety,” Smith tells us. From Artisan Bread and Pizza Dough Mixes to Sun-Dried Tomato & Basil Almond Flour Crackers, the company has more than 28 different products.
In addition to skyrocketing popularity among consumers, Simple Mills has also acquired several awards from publications like Good Housekeeping, Prevention, Self, Clean Eating, Delicious Living, Paleo Magazine and Yoga Journal. The company has also received a Chicago Innovation Award, and a “Fab Five” ranking as one of Instacart’s top trending foods in 2017.
On an individual level, Smith has been included in Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30, Inc. magazine’s 30 Under 30, and the Progressive Grocer Top Woman in Grocery list for two consecutive years, but she’s quick to shrug off such accolades. “We obviously are in the right place at the right time in terms of consumers’ interest in healthy eating,” she says, “and all the work we’ve done to provide clean food that also tastes good has paid off.”
Luck = Preparation, Passion, and Sweat
How did Katlin Smith manage to create such an effective and successful company? It’s easy to look at the outside and think she just got lucky; that — like she says herself — their product was simply in the right place at the right time. But that’s only part of the story. Like any ‘overnight success,’ the reality is Smith’s success involved a lot of hard work and planning.
Consider the fact that she is a former Deloitte Consulting management consultant who worked in the food industry before starting Simple Mills. When she opened her company, she was strategic about her team — and hired veterans of Fortune 500 food companies. They all, with Smith, saw the need for healthier packaged foods, and committed to helping drive the change. What’s more, Smith didn’t just ‘happen’ to be in the right place at the right time — she had the savvy to see the opportunity before her. She has tapped into a consumer backlash against Big Food, driven by factors ranging from increasing food sensitivities in both adults and children to concerns about GMOs, sugar intake and unrecognizable ingredients in manufactured foods.
Smith says she learns something new every day, and it’s clear she applies it to her business. As the CEO of Simple Mills, there are five keys in particular that she says makes all the difference when building a business — and becoming a not-so-overnight ‘overnight success.’
#1: Hire people who share your passion. “That’s what’s going to build your business and get you through the stressful times,” Smith says. “Every person on the Simple Mills team has a personal interest in health and wellness, and joined the company to help others interested in clean eating.” She believes their commitment has been crucial to the company’s success; they’re not just in it for the paycheck. If you care about what you’re doing, it’s important your team cares, too.
#2: Sweat the small stuff a little less. “Details are important, but learn what you need to worry about yourself and what belongs on someone else’s plate,” Smith says. “That’s the only way you’re going to be able to grow your business and stay sane at the same time.” Delegation is essential for great leadership; you simply can’t do everything yourself, so don’t let yourself stress over it. You hired a great team; now trust them.
#3: Find mentors. A great mentor can make a powerful difference in your growth. “Their guidance and encouragement can not only keep you going, but also make you think bigger than you might have otherwise.” Smith knew she wanted to start a company that would change the way people eat, but didn’t have a specific vision — until a mentor told her the company had the potential to become the next Betty Crocker. “That helped me get where I am today,” Smith says. A mentor can help you see those possibilities — and teach you how to reach them.
#4: Don’t compromise your principles. These days, audiences care a lot about integrity — don’t sell yours short. “That can undercut your success, especially if you’re leading a purpose-driven company like mine,” Smith says. “Every concession undermines the original mission and creates a ‘death by 1,000 cuts’ scenario likely to eliminate any differentiation or competitive advantage you might have had.” Give your customers something to support and believe in; not just a product to purchase.
#5: Enjoy the journey. Don’t get so caught up in your goals and growth that you forget to appreciate your victories. “That includes the little moments along the way,” Smith says. “The first time you tell someone what you do and they actually recognize your brand name, hearing from one of your consumers about how she teared up in her grocery store because her son could eat bread for the first time, your latest market share report or revenue milestone — whatever it is, remember that you made it happen. Celebrate!”
If you want to build a powerful business, follow the example of Katlin Smith: combine passion and integrity with dedication and strategy. That’s the basic recipe for what everyone else calls ‘luck.’