These Lessons Learned Saved Our Business – And Made It Successful

As an entrepreneur, certain moments will test your ability to innovate enough to keep your business alive. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always right under your nose.

Photo: Greg and Julie Van Ullen, co-founders of OMilk; Source: Courtesy Photo
Photo: Greg and Julie Van Ullen, co-founders of OMilk; Source: Courtesy Photo

It’s been well-documented how fickle entrepreneurship can be. It can take years of failure for entrepreneurs to finally build a successful startup. But for us, entrepreneurship came about through a passion for creativity and creation.

We launched OMilk as newlyweds directly after returning from our honeymoon. It began as hobby that we initially brought to our local flea market in Brooklyn.

When our dairy-free and preservative-free, nut milk started to receive more interest, we decided to jump into the entrepreneurial waters without much of an idea of what awaited us.

 

Startup Tipping Points

There’s a tipping point for every startup that determines whether it will fizzle out—as at least 80 percent of businesses do within the first 18 months—or continue to grow into a profitable company. In a way we beat the odds, but found the decisive moment was staring us right in the face two years after launching.

Five months after our official launch, Greg quit his full-time job and spent the next year and a half building OMilk into an established brand within New York City. But we still knew that we couldn’t continue to grow while self-distributing our super perishable (eight-day shelf life!!) nut milks. In order for OMilk to take the next step, we needed to work with a distributor. To do that, we had to extend the shelf life of our products.

From the beginning, we were intrigued by the possibilities of High Pressure Processing (HPP) as a means to extend our shelf life without heating our milks (and thereby changing the taste). Unfortunately, while our tests more than tripled our shelf life, it also caused our products to separate in an unappealing way when displayed in our clear bottles. Efforts to find a stock, white bottle came up empty handed, and we were told a custom solution was way beyond our means, with 100,000 minimum orders at best.

So there we were, at what seemed like the end of the road for OMilk and all the effort we had put into it. Without the bottles, we couldn’t do HPP. Without HPP, we couldn’t use a distributor. And without a distributor, we couldn’t grow.

We hadn’t felt so dejected about the future of OMilk before. There’s nothing more nerve-wracking than the prospect of failure, especially for two entrepreneurs who had never faced that feeling before!

In a stroke of cosmic intervention, a former colleague of ours had recently joined Powerlinx, a digital matchmaking site, and suggested we sign up to give it a try. Within a matter of days, they had connected us with Canadian bottle supplier Salbro, which could provide our own custom bottles at a manageable minimum order!

Thanks to our partnership with Salbro, we were able to begin using HPP and expand from NYC to the surrounding Tri-State area. This partnership has been the crucial lynchpin to OMilk’s most recent and future growth; without it we couldn’t have exposed our product to people outside of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

 

Overcoming Business Problems

In solving our business’ biggest looming problem, we came away with an entrepreneurial experience that will define the way we’ll guide OMilk moving forward. We learned that you may need to expand beyond your comfort zone—whether it be challenging the weaknesses in your skill set or reaching buyers outside of your local markets—in order to help your business take the next step.

We hope the story our how OMilk overcame its crucial obstacle will challenge other entrepreneurs to explore new areas of growth.

As an entrepreneur, certain moments will test your ability to innovate enough to keep your business alive. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always right under your nose. While globalization seems daunting when you’re a startup that’s just trying to expand outside of its local neighborhood, the answer to your business’ vital question could lie in an unfamiliar space.

 

This article has been edited and condensed.

Greg Van Ullen is the Chief Milk Officer of OMilk. He launched the company with his wife, Julie, and is building OMilk into a household brand in the Tri-State area. Connect with @OMilk on Twitter.

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