Heather Kelly and I were on the same rowing team at university. Driven, fierce, independent and focused on health, she was an incredible teammate and I've followed her business adventure since the beginning, when she started out with a single dehydrator. She's an avoid outdoor adventurer with a degree in Evolutionary Nutrition and a Professional Certification in Eating Psychology.
In 2016, her business, Heather’s Choice®, enjoyed 500% growth and earlier this summer, CB Insights named it the "most well-funded food startup in Alaska." Heather's Choice® has a number of athletes and adventurers who serve as brand ambassadors - their activities range from skiing and mountaineering, to adventure racing and dog mushing.
Read Heather's Q&A to learn about how her business has grown, what her typical work day looks like and how she feels about hiring people for Heather's Choice®.
What is Heather’s Choice® and how did it come into being?
Heather’s Choice® is a line of dehydrated meals and snacks for adventuring. We make lightweight, packable meals and snacks that are all gluten-, soy- and dairy-free. Our goal is to put healthy, delicious food in people’s packs, no matter where their adventures may take them. I started Heather’s Choice® in the summer of 2014 with a small five tray dehydrator and a couple crock pots. It’s been quite an adventure starting a food business!
How did your background as an athlete influence your business and your business’ values?
As a young athlete, I really struggled to find the “right” nutrition plan. I tried macrobiotics and raw food and veganism, and nothing really settled well with me. When I found out about the Paleo Diet, I felt like I had finally found a nutritional philosophy that really made sense. I’ve spent the past six years coaching athletes on the benefits of a grain-, legume- and dairy-free nutrition plan, and it’s been amazing to see how much better people feel when they eat healthy, whole foods. With Heather’s Choice®, not only do I want to provide delicious, wholesome food to people for any type of adventure, but I also want to positively influence their eating habits at home as well. As a small business, we have the opportunity to teach people about health, nutrition, food security, and sustainability.
What inspired you to start your own business? Was it something you always wanted to do, or an idea you had after a specific event, experience or interaction?
My dad owned multiple businesses when I was kid, and he was very encouraging for me to “hang up my shingle.” I started my coaching business, OPENutrition when I was 24, and now I don’t think I could ever not work for myself. It is very rewarding and forces me to grow as a person every single day. Sometimes I get sick of feeling incompetent at so many different things, but I know I’m always learning new skills as my businesses grow and evolve.
Where does your daily inspiration come from?
Our customers are our greatest inspiration. We have so many people coming to us saying how grateful they are for healthier options. Packing food for an expedition is no small project. There is a lot to consider and people with food intolerances can really struggle to pack enough lightweight calories for their long trips. It’s awesome to be providing a service while simultaneously asking the question, “How can contribute to our overall food system?”
What was the biggest challenge you faced during the start-up process?
ALL OF THEM! I don’t feel like there is a single challenge that we haven’t faced. From production to packaging to scaling to investors to accounting to forecasting to customer relations, you name it! We’ve left no stone unturned when it comes to challenges. ;)
How did you find the motivation to overcome these hurdles?
With your own business, you do not have a choice. Either you face the challenge in front of you or you quit. Granted, I’ve asked for a lot of help and received a ton of support in building both businesses. When you run into hurdles, you have to ask for help and resolve the problem as soon as possible.
Your business and marketing seems very authentic and true to who you are – how important was this when you started the business and how do you remain authentic?
It is incredibly important to me to have a business that feels authentic and personable. There are a lot of aspects of our business, such as recipe development and marketing, that I’ve kept a pretty firm grip on. I’m working towards handing off some of those responsibilities, but I’m very very clear on how I want Heather’s Choice® to look, feel and taste. I think we can continue to grow while having that small business feel that people are drawn to.
After your business was established, how did you get it to grow?
Our business has grown very organically. I’ve done a lot of interviews with podcasts, magazines, blogs and newspapers, and that has been the bulk of our website traffic. It’s amazing what positive press can do for you! Now that we have an audience, we make sure to engage with those folks through our social media outlets daily, and keep our email marketing in tip top shape so that we can build customer loyalty.
What would you say has had the biggest impact on the growth of your business – social media, website, influencers, word of mouth?
Definitely word of mouth! There are a handful of our founding customers who continue to be very vocal and supportive of us. We really owe it all to the folks who have actively promoted our brand through their social media followings, podcasts and websites.
How do you find your customers?
This still feels like a mystery to me. I feel like as an e-commerce business, our customers really do find us! We’re focused on putting out high quality content on our website and social media, and highlighting the customers we already have. This allows other people to discover our products and give us a whirl! Ideally, they will like what they order and become repeat customers for life.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of starting and running Heather’s Choice®?
Currently I’m finding it super rewarding to be employing people. It blows my mind every day that I come into the office there are people here earning a living making Packaroons and filling orders! That’s pretty neat!
What was the biggest mistake (or just a mistake in general) that you made while starting Heather’s Choice® and how did you recover and learn from it?
I think the biggest mistake I made was not paying closer attention to the numbers. For the first couple of years, I wasn’t concerned about making a profit. I was so focused on our customers and keeping them happy that I would spend any amount of money to win their business or keep orders going out the door. It’s only been in the last six month that we have really sat down to find out how we can decrease our costs and actually start turning a profit. I’m not sure this is really a mistake, since we spent so much time focusing on customer relations and building a brand, but I wish I had started watching the numbers sooner and make profitability a priority.
What was important to you when you started your business and has that changed?
When I started Heather’s Choice®, it was important to me that we used the highest quality ingredients we could find, from grass-fed bison to wild caught Alaskan sockeye salmon. Thankfully, that hasn’t changed a bit! It’s more expensive to buy organic maple syrup and essential oils, but it’s worth it!
Describe a typical work day…
My boyfriend Brad and I both work full-time for Heather’s Choice® now, so we start with a slow morning to have coffee and breakfast together. This is one of our favorite parts of the day since we get to enjoy some quiet time. We carpool to the office and I spend the better part of my morning tending to social media, emails and anything the team might need. In the afternoons, I take care of scheduled meetings, business partnerships, investor relations, etc. On an ideal day, I will have the first three hours of the day for quiet, creative pursuits. The afternoon is a better time for me have team meetings, take phone calls, and take care of any outstanding projects. Saturday is actually my most productive work day, since I have the office to myself from 9 am to 5 pm. This allows me to have solo work time, which I find to be critical.
As a business owner, how do you make time for yourself? And do you think making time for yourself is important to a successful business?
The time I spend at the gym working out alone is critical for me. While some people like group fitness, I find that it’s important for me to workout alone. It’s one of the only things I feel like I have total control over, and it gives me a lot of confidence knowing that I’m taking care of my health while growing a business. I also have my first cup of coffee in bed, and like to start my day with a short journaling session. Right before bed, I like to read a chapter or two as a great way to wind down at the end of the day. Whatever brings you joy, schedule time for it like you would anything else! No one is going to give you free time, so you have to make it a priority and schedule it every day.
What advice or tips do you have for someone thinking about starting their own business?
If you overthink it, you’ll never start! Writing a short business plan is a good exercise to think through all the different aspects of your business. However, remember that there is so much you don’t know that you don’t know! You really just have to start in order to find out what the next steps is you need to take! If you pay attention to what your customers are asking for, you will always have plenty to do!
As a young business owner, keep your end goal in mind! It will absolutely change overtime, but keep it crystal clear in your mind what you’re doing this all for. I find that having a work vision board helps me get motivated when I’m feeling like I’m at my wits end.
Favorite Heather’s Choice® snack: Orange Vanilla Packaroons
Favorite free-time activity: Journaling
Favorite adventure: Hiking to a public-use cabin with Brad and our dog Jango!
Interesting fact about yourself: I’m aspiring to become a wine connoisseur
Hometown: Bird Creek, Alaska