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Founder Interviews: Mitra Raman of The Buttermilk Company

Missing her mother’s home-cooked Indian meals, Mitra set out to create an easy “just add water” solution for everyone who want a delicious, yet affordable authentic Indian dish.

Davis Baer: What’s your background, and what are you working on?

I studied Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, and upon graduating followed the traditional trajectory of working at a tech company. For me, it was Amazon. I moved back to Seattle (where I grew up) and joined Amazon Go as one of the first SDEs on the team. I worked on internal tools for the project, and saw it grow from testing in an old conference room to the opening of our first store! Then, I got the opportunity to lead an engineering team building management software for Amazon physical stores. During my year there, I stumbled upon the idea for Buttermilk.

Buttermilk creates packets of fresh, pre-cooked Indian food developed from crowdsourced recipes. All you do as the customer is mix with hot water to enjoy a homemade meal! It started with my intense craving for mom’s food — I wasn’t a good cook, lacked the time and patience to figure out how to make it myself, and existing options for Indian food were either really expensive or really bad. I wondered why in the age of 100s of meal kits and tons of new snacking options it was so hard to find tasty, healthy, and good ‘ethnic’ food. It also blew me away that there’s still only one ‘ethnic food’ aisle in most grocery stores, which doesn’t reflect the population accurately at all.

I started Buttermilk in October 2017 with a small Beta in Seattle, and launched nationwide in March 2018 when I quit my full-time job. Since then, our team has grown, we’ve added new products to our line-up, we were part of YC S18 batch, and have continued to grow 30–50% MoM — mostly organically!

What motivated you to get started with your company?

I missed my mom’s rasam (a traditional South Indian soup-like dish). Even though I only lived 20 minutes away from home, I couldn’t have it whenever I wanted it. And as someone who grew up eating Indian food almost everyday, I craved it often. So, my mom gave me all the ingredients for rasam in a Ziploc and said, “Just add water”. That got me thinking about how many kids like me grew up eating ‘different’ food and didn’t have access to it after moving out, other than going home or asking their parents to mail them food.

Rasam: the dish that started it all :)

Before jumping into the development, I asked myself if this was what I wanted to do. For a long time, I knew I wanted to start a company and had a notebook full of ideas to execute on. I wasn’t super passionate about any particular idea, mainly because I needed it to provide obvious value to people who needed it. That’s when I came up with the crowdsourced and profit-sharing model for our recipes — we get recipes from real people (like my mom) and give them a portion of the profits for products sold. We’re giving back to a community of people who are mostly women with little to no financial independence. Once this model was in place, I was confident to start executing.

I started validating this idea by making more ‘rasam bags’ and giving them to friends. I tested the packaging, instructions, user behavior, and of course the food itself. I got a few more recipes from my mom and sent those out, too — I wanted to see if people actually enjoyed them if it wasn’t their home recipe, how often they would eat it, and if it was adding significant value to their lives. The food world was completely new to me, so I leaned a lot on my network, found people familiar with the industry to learn from, and continue to research a LOT.

During this time, I was still working full-time at Amazon as a new SDM. I would spend my evenings and weekends working on Buttermilk and most of the week at work. I was blessed that I had saved up enough to put initial capital into Buttermilk for testing and start-up costs.

What went into building the initial product?

Before I did any physical building, I paid for a market research study. In hindsight, this was an expensive and unnecessary decision. I didn’t yet have clarity on the product, the mission, or the value proposition, so the study’s results weren’t helpful.

The entire prototype building phase took a few months and required that I spend time on a combination of things — research, networking, cold calls to suppliers, hiring, cooking, website, marketing, legal, and design. I decided to start with 5–6 recipes I got from my mom and her friends and worked with them to perfect the recipes. While I was developing the product and sending out test samples, I spent quite a bit of time (and money!) figuring out the legal side of things — setting up a company itself can be quite expensive, but food businesses have their own set of permits and insurance that can vary by state and type of business. On the other end of things, I was connected to several people in supply chain, design and packaging through my network who helped get the initial prototypes of my products — everything from the logo and fonts to the packaging type.

Working on the packaging in the *very* early days

Everyday would pose a new challenge and part of the business I hadn’t thought about yet, so I specifically marked time in my calendar to work on Buttermilk. I gave myself deadlines to complete each step by and would prioritize my time accordingly. Thankfully, much of the initial help I received was for free and I found several tools that are perfect to get you started.

To get things off the ground, I would highly recommend:

  • Find a designer you know (or do it yourself if possible) to create a logo and fonts. The online cheap logo designers are a waste of time and money.
  • Download Photoshop!
  • Use LegalZoom and IncFile for simple legal filings
  • Go and talk to your local department if you need special permits or licenses. They’re super helpful in-person.
  • Squarespace offers great landing pages and beautiful website templates for online stores, and is super easy to set-up
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help! I posted on my Facebook and talked to everyone I knew to get connected to people who could help me with everything ranging from design to package sourcing to marketing to supply chain — basically everything I didn’t know well.

How have you attracted users and grown your company?

I’ve tried (and am still trying) tons of different ways to attract users. In today’s day and age, we are inundated with hundreds of brands promoting products that we don’t know if we need or not. I wanted to set Buttermilk apart from the beginning by really honing on our greatest strengths — authenticity, real connections, and quality at affordable prices.

I built our initial waitlist by sending emails to the most obvious customer groups — Indian-Americans — within big Seattle companies (Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing) and promoting Buttermilk at local events. We continue to participate in local events, and have also launched an ambassador program. We work with authentic influencers who we feel would not only love our product, but also speak directly to our target customer. We love testing different marketing strategies frugally and quickly before investing heavily in any one channel, and aim to look beyond traditional social media advertising.

At our first ever event, threedays before Beta launch in Seattle.

What are your goals for the future?

We rely very heavily on customer feedback. Since the beginning, we’ve done in-person customer taste tests, customer interviews, and online surveys. This has helped guide our product roadmap towards some extremely exciting new products. Our biggest goal is to iterate towards product-market fit and increase our return customer and referral rates. Along with these goals, we have an over-arching goal to build an authentic and trustworthy brand representing ‘ethnic foods’ as we build the modern-day ethnic food market.

Personally, I’m working hard on becoming a better manager, building a great team, and prioritizing my time better. I find myself always “working”, even when I don’t have to be. Turning off my phone or stepping away for a period of time is tough, but something I’m working on for my mental health.

What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

Just start. Write out everything that’s worrying you about starting up, prioritize your list, and get going. If something seems too intimidating, break it down into smaller chunks and reach out to someone who may know more than you. Even if it’s someone you haven’t talked to in a while, or ever, you’ll be surprised at how willing they’ll be to help out. Analysis paralysis is real at the beginning, so start with one sure thing — like picking a name — and get going!

Where can we go to learn more?

You can order Buttermilk products at www.thebuttermilk.co and follow us on social media for behind-the-scenes, special announcements, and fun updates at @thebuttermilkco (on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter)

I’d love to chat with you! Feel free to ask questions or post comments below :)

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