University of Snow Monkey: A Crash Course in Trusting Your Gut

It's not easy starting an ice cream business out of your dorm room. Co-Founders Rachel and Mari discuss how they've overcome challenges with co-packers and more in our Incubator Q&A.

TH18.jpg

Describe a challenge your business faced and how you overcame it. 

Our biggest challenge with Snow Monkey was deciding how to innovate and create this not-so-ice-cream, ice cream. We set out to reinvent America’s favorite dessert in a healthy and mindful way. As it turned out, that was not an easy task.

We tested many routes for production, formats of packaging, names and even different formulas until we landed on what we sell today. Throughout our journey, we have learned a lot, but perhaps my favorite lesson is what we learned about innovation. As college students, we wanted to change the world and we wanted to do it NOW, because we had been taught for 4 years that we very well could.

The “University of Snow Monkey” quickly taught us that in order to innovate successfully, we’d have to innovate in continuous steps, not all at once. This meant we couldn’t give consumers a frozen blend in a clear 8oz jar with an ambiguous name. (Yes, we did that, go check out our Kickstarter. “Subzero Superfood?” What does that even mean?). Today, our pints are the same 16oz paper pints that many other ice creams are packaged in and we call our product “Superfood Ice Treat.” That’s similar enough to ice cream, so that you understand its purpose and uses, but different enough that it tells you it’s not just another ice cream alternative.

Lastly, we try to stick to the old way of manufacturing and food distribution. This one is truly hard for me because if you know me, you know how much I hate archaic systems with no clear advantage or reason for still existing besides ‘that’s how we have always done it.’ But we’ve learned to adapt and pick our innovations wisely.

Slowly, we will continue to innovate the category with the help of our business partners, but patiently, one innovation at a time.

Mariana experimenting with recipes in the kitchen

Mariana experimenting with recipes in the kitchen

What was your process for finding a co-packer? How did you know you found the right one? What did you look for or what kind of questions did you ask?

We cold called co-packers before we even knew what a co-packer was, and certainly before we knew whether or not we could even make our product at a manufacturing scale. As ambitious and naive college students, we started at the place where all good college research starts: Google. We found cheap websites with disconnected phone numbers and expired business addresses. Then, we hit the jackpot: trade show directories, government business directories and industry or association listings. These were the most useful but hardest to find, it’s like no one told them SEO is a thing. We called them all, not once but several times. Each time, we would circle back to our mentors and debrief. From these conversations, we learned new lingo and negotiation techniques. By the end, we were experts in cold calling ice cream co-packers. (Please endorse this skill on LinkedIn.)

Eventually, a couple of co-packers gave us more than 5 minutes on the phone without laughing at our idea before hanging up. We finally got an, “Ok we can try it, but you pay for it. All of it.” That was gold. We didn’t stay there very long as it wasn’t the right place for us to grow, but every time we were there we were taking notes on what our ideal co-packer would be and every time I got the chance to talk to a new co-packer, my co-packer lingo improved.

Today we continue this learning by always asking for more of our current co-packer and pushing boundaries. To ensure we are always with the right co-packer, we go directly to our customers (i.e. retail buyers) and ask them what systems and policies they would like to see in our product and our production. We then collaborate with our co-packer to make sure these needs are met.

What we asked for at the beginning is different than what we ask for now because our customer needs have changed and they will continue to do so, but what remains the same is how we determine what we ask for. That comes from two places: 1. Asking mentors in our field for advice before talking to a co-packer. 2. Foreseeing what standards we want to have in place a year from now, and implementing those today in anticipation so we aren’t caught off guard. If Costco calls, we want to say ‘Yup, we can do that for you tomorrow.’

 

Describe a pivotal turning point for your business: a decision, outcome, piece of advice, breakthrough etc.

It was the day we were doing our second production run with our new co-packer and the first one that would fill our new pints. I stepped outside to take a break and I had 3 missed calls from the FDA. Uh oh, did they find out about how we once tried to very unsuccessfully convince Boston’s Health Department to let us make commercial food in our dorm kitchen and sell it at the Farmer’s Market? Fortunately, no.

Turns out, the previous co-packer we had worked with was in the middle of closing operations due to some production concerns. Luckily, our products had not come into contact with the machinery in question, but never had I been more glad we decided to move our operations.

We were the smallest clients at that co-packer, but I realized their quality and safety standards - albeit well adherent to the state laws - did not adhere to my personal standards. I sent Rachel a text one day saying “we can’t grow here, let’s find another plant,” and within a few weeks we did. It took several months to get ready to work with the new co-packer as they were twice as big and required more regulation, man-power and coordination. This was good, though, because we would learn how to operate like a company that makes millions in annual sales when we were still pre-revenue.

In this instance, we had followed our gut and we had pivoted quickly. Although getting ready for the new co-packer had caused many restless nights, it was well worth it because unlike the other clients of the old co-packer, our product wasn’t compromised. Rule 1: Trust your gut.

Snow Monkey team prize at the Boston University new venture competition

Snow Monkey team prize at the Boston University new venture competition

Mitch Rubin