Stories of modern business.

Courier Weekly Friday 18 December 2020

Courier Weekly Friday 18 December 2020

Courier Weekly

Courtney Boyd Myers is the founder of AKUA, whose kelp jerky product has surged in popularity since launching in 2019. We caught up with Courtney to hear how her journey’s been so far and why kelp is a food trend to watch in the year ahead.

DANIEL GIACOPELLI: You’re listening to the Courier Weekly, a podcast all about working better and living smarter.

This week, I’m with Courtney Boyd Myers. Courtney is the founder of AKUA, a food brand whose first and main product is kelp jerky – which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. 

Think of beef jerky, only instead of beef, it’s made from nutrient-dense, high-protein, ocean-farmed, sustainable kelp.

The product was named by Time magazine as an ‘invention of the year’, it was called a ‘world changing idea’ by Fast Company, it won praise from the likes of Richard Branson, who called it 'rather delightful' and 'incredibly delicious'. And, yes, it tastes really good.

It’s hard to call something a miracle ingredient without sounding like a snake-oil salesman, but kelp might actually fit the bill. It’s a zero-input crop, meaning it doesn’t require fresh water, fertiliser, feed or arid land to grow. It also filters carbon and nitrogen from the water. It grows really fast, and there’s a lot of it out there. And it’s really, really good for you. 

Given all that, Courtney has become something of a public evangelist for kelp. Since launching AKUA in April 2019, she’s released three product lines: kelp jerky, kelp pasta, and they’re now making kelp burgers, which they’re calling the most nutritious plant-based burger on the market today. 

I caught up with Courtney recently to hear how her journey’s been so far and to find out why kelp is a food trend to watch in 2021.

COURTNEY BOYD MYERS: I was always one of those weird kids at the beach, just like pulling seaweed out, throwing it at my friends, putting in my mouth, eating it; I made seaweed salads on my own growing up. I just always loved seaweed. I also always loved the ocean. I wanted to be a mermaid after seeing the Little Mermaid. 

Around the time I turned the corner on 30, I started thinking a lot more seriously about climate change, and I think a lot of us did. And there's so many different solutions to climate change. But the one that I felt like was getting under my skin the most was around food systems. I grew up in a family where my dad, God bless him, he invented the Burger King Kids Club and Chester the Cheeto and really worked and created so much of that momentum in the big food industry – he worked for Pepsi, etc. And as a result, we have massive devastation to land agriculture – I don't mean as a result of my dad's work! – but as a result of big factory farming, feeding a growing population of meat-obsessed eaters. And then on the flip side of that, that's planetary health, you have human health being completely destroyed, diabetes, obesity, etc. And so I saw how broken this was and was really called on my food and wellness journey at this point. 

And so I started researching this concept of regenerative agriculture, which really is just this idea that it's one step beyond sustainable, but it actually leaves the soil better than it found it. And so my friend said, ‘Well, have you heard of regenerative aquaculture?’ And I was like, ‘No, but that sounds amazing.’ And he's like, ‘Yeah, it's really close to where we grew up in Connecticut. Come visit this kelp farm up in New Haven.’ And it's also really next door to the world's best pizza. And I was like, pizza, seaweed, I'm sold. So I drove up to New Haven, put on a really thick wetsuit and dove in this kelp farm and ate seaweed that had been grown off a rope... 

DANIEL: Straight from the ocean. Just putting it in your mouth. 

COURTNEY: Yeah! I also put a raw scallop in my mouth that day. And it was amazing. You know, this idea of farming in the ocean just was really cool and extended beyond just fish farming. So, yeah, that was kind of my first brush with seaweed. I learnt all about the environmental benefits of growing it, the health benefits of eating it, the economic benefits of the fishermen growing it. And I was totally hooked. 

DANIEL: And what year was that? 

COURTNEY: 2016. 

DANIEL: So between then and 2019, when you first launched kelp jerky, you must have done a huge amount of research and development, finding suppliers, obviously all the branding and design work. And so when did you say, ‘Right, this tasted great. This is a huge opportunity, it's good for the environment – I'm going to make a business.’ 

COURTNEY: Yeah. I mean, I think that it's never just like one day you wake up and you're like: I'm going to start a business. I mean, maybe some people are like that. But for me, it just became an obsession. And I started building a deck around it and a brand because those are my strengths. I started looking for other people that were equally obsessed with this idea of creating sustainable foods made of seaweed. And I met a chef in the East Village and this random finance dude reached out to me on LinkedIn. And then these two people became my co-founders and we didn't really have a business at that point. It was 2017. We were just sort of getting the team together and hosting these kelp-tasting parties. And we'd basically be pulling people off the streets of the East Village, feeding them beer and seaweed snacks and food and chips and dips and soups and teas and saying, ‘What do you like?’ 

This was really just starting to become a big cash drain, because I was spending money on all of these events and it was super fun and we weren't really thinking: OK, this is a 'quit your job and start a business thing' just yet. And then we realised: OK, maybe we shouldn't be spending all of our own money on this business. We started researching the industry at large and all of the awesome food companies that we knew because we were consumers. We started saying, how did they build this? And actually it's podcasts like How I Built This that have been amazing for just hearing those entrepreneurship stories. So, yeah, it really took almost two years from having those tasting parties in the East Village to saying: alright, this product is now on a fully built website with a brand and you can buy it. And, yeah, it was a lot of learnings along the way and a lot of mistakes. 

DANIEL: What was the landscape like for kelp products at the time? Were you the sole one in the wilderness raising your hands saying this is a thing? Or were there other ones in Whole Foods, for instance, or Trader Joe's that you were like: ah, those are the ones we have to beat!

COURTNEY: Well, there's many kinds of entrepreneurs. But growing up in the startup space, I have seen two defining ones, characteristics-wise. The first one is someone who's like myself, who sees something as an incredible opportunity because it's new, it's innovative, and it hasn't been done before. And they can be a market leader and it's this total blue-ocean strategy. And then there's this second class of entrepreneurs who I'm kind of jealous of because I find it super uninspiring, but they tend to make more money. And they see things that are already working really well, or at least there's consumer adoption, but they know they can out-operate that first mover and build a sexier brand, a faster go-to-market strategy, a higher-margin business, whatever it is. And you see so many examples of it. 

DANIEL: So people who just find the flaws of models that already work and just make them a bit better, refine it. 

COURTNEY: Totally. And so to answer your question, I am 100% that first entrepreneur, but I didn't realise that that was a thing. I just thought all entrepreneurs were inventive. And I just thought: wow, this doesn't exist, so I have to create it – and went out there and did it. 

DANIEL: Where did you get your kelp from originally? Did you go shopping for farmers? 

COURTNEY: Yeah. So as we were doing product development and pulling people off the streets in the East Village, we were working to set up our supply chain because, at this point, anyone who knew anything about how to start a food company was like, ‘Alright, well, that's cool. This is such a new industry. But as you scale, you're going to need a lot of kelp. Where can you buy that kelp from?’ And I was like, ‘OK, good point.’ So we basically went and just met a lot of farmers and built amazing relationships in the industry. So to back up a second, like 98% of the seaweed that you buy on the market today is sourced from Asia – Korea and China and Japan, mostly Korea and the United States. When we looked at building the supply chain, we thought: well, that's silly. We want to build this 100% locally in the United States and specifically actually from the New England area. So we source 100% of our kelp today from ocean farmers in Maine. 

DANIEL: And where were those farmers sending their kelp prior to you coming around? Was it medicinal products or something? Or was it other food products? 

COURTNEY: Honestly, this is why our business has been in a little bit of a chicken and egg stage until now. So for the first few years, there were farmers growing kelp before we got in there and they were selling into restaurants and they were trying to sell into food companies because those are the guys who would pay the most money. But a lot of them ended up selling it as fertiliser and just getting rid of it and not making a good income on it. And that's not how you grow a supply chain like this. So we really came in to create that consumer market and demand. And now what's happened is the farming side has grown so much, there's more kelp than anyone knows what to do with. And it's really the consumer market now that needs to keep up. 

DANIEL: That's incredible, right? I mean, the fact that this sustainable, tasty product, which – as you guys rightly point out on your site – it's a zero-input crop, doesn't need anything, it just grows, right? 

COURTNEY: It's crazy. Like anything you or I have probably consumed today requires fresh water or dry land to grow or probably fertiliser or if you eat meat, feed. And kelp requires none of those things. It is a zero-input crop. It really has a lot of potential as a future food. When we talk about cricket companies and thinking through how do we feed this growing population in an era of climate change, kelp is definitely one of the top solutions to do so because of the zero inputs. 

DANIEL: And it just keeps growing and growing and growing. I mean, I read somewhere it grows like a foot and a half a week or something, or a day?

COURTNEY: You have maybe 15 different species of kelp. And so kelp is a brown macroalgae and it's part of the algae kingdom. There's also microalgae like spirulina and in the macroalgae kingdom there's brown and there's red and there's green. And so a lot of people know the macro algae nori, which is wrapped around your sushi, and so kelp is its own class and there is giant kelp, like what grows in California and out here in Cape Town where I am right now. And then what we grow is this sugar kelp. And it's very delicate and it's really tasty and it's perfect for turning into food. And it grows very quickly, which is what makes it so good at converting carbon into energy. So it soaks up carbon from the water, just like a land-based plant uses photosynthesis on land to soak up carbon from the atmosphere – and it turns it into oxygen also while it's converting into energy that we then eat. So we are pulling carbon out of the ocean when we pull the kelp out to create the foods that we make. One thing that's really important to note is we farm all of our kelp. It's never wild harvested. We plant what we'll use in the spring. We plant in the fall and we take it out in the spring. And it grows about six feet during the six months. So some of it can grow, like you just said, over an inch a day. Ours grows a little bit slower than that. About 12 inches a month. 

DANIEL: Which is still quite a lot. 

COURTNEY: Yeah, it is a lot. 

DANIEL: I want to talk about the business model. I've been looking at your... Because you guys are raising money right now and you set out your entire model on this page. 

COURTNEY: I know it's crazy to be so transparent. 

DANIEL: Yeah, I know. I was like: oh wow, I could see all the numbers. So you've raised just about $200,000, which is a lot more than the minimum that you wanted to. But you're raising all of this money to launch your kelp burger, which… we know each other because a Courier columnist, Colin Nagy, wrote a piece about it in his newsletter and he was like, 'Oh, shit, this actually tasted absolutely delicious and I didn't think it would because it's kelp' – but actually it tasted like a delicious burger. How are you going to try to position that burger in and amongst the Impossible Burgers of the world? Is it a completely different category? Are you going head to head with those guys? 

COURTNEY: You know, again, I like to create my own category. So I see that the fake meat culture around Beyond and Impossible is being really positive for us because it's converted a large number of traditionally meat-based eaters into this idea that, 'Oh, OK, maybe I can get something as satiating from plant-based materials,' but I think that there's going to be this real backlash against the Beyonds and Impossibles of the world. And you're actually already seeing it where people are like, ‘Oh my god, this is really overly processed. Why am I eating chemicals?’ 

DANIEL: They're not actually healthy. 

COURTNEY: Exactly. They're not healthy. 

DANIEL: Don't sue me. But, yeah, I mean, they're not as healthy as people think they are. 

COURTNEY: No, they're not. And I think it can be really confusing for consumers because they see something as ‘plant based’ and they think it's healthy. And I have a real problem with that. Again, it's just creating a new problem, really. If you look back since like the early 1900s, food companies have just constantly been screwing us. And I'm so tired of it and I'm so tired of people reaching for Beyond and thinking they're doing a good thing because they're eating a Beyond Meat burger every day – like, it's a treat, have one once a week. 

But I wanted to create a burger that was as satiating as a meat burger, but wasn't going to trick you into thinking this is a cow or a pig because we're not about tricking people at AKUA. We're trying to make the most sustainable form of food on the planet taste really good and using other plant-based ingredients and superfoods. So it's going to be a lot more satiating than a veggie burger, a traditional one, because it has the umami bomb of kelp and mushrooms, but it's not going to be a beef burger. And so a lot of people eat it and they're like, this is the best vegan burger I've ever had and I don't miss the beef. And that, for us, is kind of an in-between category. And that's what we're creating. 

DANIEL: Do you think it'll ever get proper mainstream appeal? Because the average American, when you say, ‘Do you want to eat seaweed?’ They'd still kind of be like, 'Eh.' 

COURTNEY: It's true. 

DANIEL: We were talking with the founder of a pistachio nut milk brand the other week. And I was just saying education is a huge part of this. This is what it tastes like. It's not going to be icky in your coffee. I imagine kelp is the same, if not a lot more. 

COURTNEY: Yeah. And I guess I live in a world where I just love pistachios, so for me, I'm like: yes, of course you should make milk out of pistachios. So I think that's a little bit easier when it comes to consumer adoption. With seaweed, a lot of people see it as that stuff that gets caught around their surfboards or that gets dry and stinky on the beach or is underwater and they're freaked out about eating things from the ocean. There's so many layers of fear and complexity to break through here. 

I think that when we look at a market like mushrooms, we study that pretty hard because it's, for us, a similar trajectory from this very niche Asian superfood to really more mass-market adoption. If I had pulled you aside in the grocery store 10 years ago, you probably would've been like, ‘Oh, I can name a couple mushrooms,’ and now you can probably name 10 or 12. And, we've so much more knowledge of the fungi kingdom than we did 10 years ago, and I think seaweed's going to follow a really similar trajectory in the next 10 years. 

DANIEL: When you say mushrooms, do you mean the niche health mushroom brands, like Four Sigmatic or just mushrooms at the supermarket that you pick up to put in your stir-fry? 

COURTNEY: I truly just mean knowing what the difference is between a shiitake and a lion's mane mushroom. Or like a chaga or a reishi, you can go on. And I think, today, people are like, ‘Kelp, what is that? Oh, it's seaweed, OK.’ And that's it. But I think in 10 years people are going to be like, ‘Oh, I know what dulse is and nori and I know that kelp on the West Coast is different than the East Coast because these are underwater plants,’ like the way you and I can say corn and tomatoes and squash, etc. So I think that there's an education to be done. It will be done by our company and many other seaweed-based companies that are coming online. Now, whether kelp gets mainstream, I think, is really just a timing thing and also a cultural shift thing to more plant-based eating and needing more variety in the plant-based food diet. 

DANIEL: And if it does become mainstream and it just goes through the roof, as you pointed out already, there'll be a billion different farmers to meet that demand? 

COURTNEY: Yeah, I mean, we're farming less than .001% of the world's farmable waters. And there's so much potential. If we take that up to .05%, we will create 50m new jobs around the world, according to the World Bank. And so when you hear companies gripe about: oh, the end of the dairy industry, that's 13m jobs lost, or the fast food industry – if that ends it's 1.3m jobs lost… like, who cares? Let's start an industry that's actually regenerative, that’s going to leave the planet better than we found it, creates a ton of new jobs and that's just on the farming level, not to mention processing and distribution and all the other things that are tied to that. So, yeah, I think the industry has a ton of potential. There's a lot of money going into it and a lot of smart people are attracted to it right now. 

DANIEL: How did you develop the business model? I know you sell through supermarkets, you also sell direct to consumer on your website. You have distribution partners for the kelp burgers that you're going to try to roll out. 

COURTNEY: It's a good question. Honestly, I never made a business model. We've been asked several times – they're like, ‘OK, can you send us your business model?’ And I assume they mean some 50-page deck about how we're going to make money. And I was like… I didn't do it. I knew how to sell products online because my background was in technology and startups. So, pretty early on for a food company, we started building out our Shopify website. I knew how to do performance marketing, so I just wanted to bring customers in through Facebook ads and out through our Shopify. I wanted to see all their data, who they are, where do they live, how do they find us. 

And so we were really lucky because when the pandemic hit in March, we only lost maybe like 10% of our business that was in grocery stores and all those grocery stores, I didn't go find them, they found us. And I was like, cool. Here's a 40% off wholesale code you can use on our website. And so that's how we built our wholesale business. We didn't use brokers or anything. I just built a wholesale portal on Shopify for them. When March hit or April, grocery stores weren't like, 'Oh my God, I have to restock kelp jerky!' That wasn't their priority. But our actual e-commerce business doubled every single month during Covid. It was crazy. So the fact that we were set up for e-commerce and out there doing performance marketing was just hugely beneficial. 

And now, I think, obviously this is so old school, but I think food is just becoming a lot more keenly aware of how running an e-commerce business is actually so positive for your retail business because your consumers are going to see an ad, then they're going to be in the grocery store and they're going to buy it off the shelf. You might not be able to directly track that very accurately. But I know brands who've turned off their performance marketing because they're focused on retail and their retail sales dropped. So, yeah, I haven't built a business model. We've just figured it out along the way. But our business model is mostly direct to consumer and we will be pushing more into retail with frozen products next year. 

DANIEL: And why did you decide to raise money right now and how did you decide to go about it in the way you've done it? 

COURTNEY: When I was spending a lot of my personal money putting this business together, a lot of people around me had been raising money for their tech companies for years. So I knew about venture capital. I love doing decks. I don't do business models necessarily, but I love doing decks, like: here's the story. Here's, I guess, one slide on the business model, how we're going to sell it. And so I built that and just started asking for introductions. And in about a year, it took a long time – granted, I wasn't full time on the business – but we raised about $500k in what you would call a ‘friends-and-founders’ round. Lots of food company founders put in like $25k or $30k cheques and they've been the most valuable investors ever. That was 2018 and we closed that round and then we went to raise a smaller round. Or actually we went out to raise a larger round in 2020 in February and when the pandemic hit it just made fundraising so hard, it was just a miserable experience asking people for money when everyone's in crisis mode, really. And so unsure of the future. 

DANIEL: ‘So hard’, meaning it was just awkward or they were just like: no, we don't have time for you right now? 

COURTNEY: Well, I think, investors are trained to always keep their options open. So everyone took the call and it ended up just being this very emotionally draining experience because they weren't like, 'No, we're not interested.' But a lot of them just weren't writing cheques because they were just like, ‘I don't know what the world's going to be like in six months, this is unprecedented’. And so by August, we hadn't raised any money. We'd raised $50K in February and then none until August. And then I was in Ibiza at a party and someone was like, ‘I'll put in $15k,’ and I was like: yes, we've just broken the seal, let's go! 

DANIEL: As they were drunk… 

COURTNEY: Yeah, basically. And so then we continued on to raise about like $250k in the months that followed. Through Zoom calls; much more professional. And it was also just hard on that note, too. When you're building relationships with investors, it's so hard to do that over a Zoom. You really want to be having a glass of wine with someone in person and talking about your business and your vision and who you are. So we raised money from some great people and I guess this summer, Republic, which is the equity crowdfunding campaign we're raising on right now, approached us. And they're like: look, we know it's brutal out there with VCs and no one's really writing cheques like they were last year. But everybody for some reason is putting money into our campaigns. And we've grown exponentially this year. So you should consider it. And I love crowdfunding. I love it, love it, love it. I love community-driven anything. And so, we launched a month ago and it's just blown our expectations out of the water. It's been such a blast. 

DANIEL: Do you think all of that hustling and creating hype and getting out there and talking to people and using social as well is just as important as all the other stuff? Because you somehow got named as one of Fast Company's world-changing ideas. You somehow got your kelp jerky into the hands of Richard Branson, who gave you a glowing review. Was that just you being like: let's just do this, let's get it out there? Because if you didn't do all that, it would have just been quiet and – 'Oh, look at that kelp jerky brand, isn't that nice?' But you've made it into this kind of 'thing'. 

COURTNEY: Yeah. Look, I have so many faults as a CEO and founder, but hustle is not one of them. I'm like 99% hustle. And so yeah, I chased Richard Branson up an active volcano in the middle of a triathlon and he was super hungry. And I made him try kelp jerky. We've been finding a lot of validation when it comes to thought leaders, whether they're Richard Branson or it's Time magazine. I think that what we're doing is not like a traditional business; we need so much validation because it's such an innovative new thing that people are a little unsure of. So media and PR comes in as really important for us. And I was a journalist for a long time. That's how I know our mutual friend Colin. So I love storytelling and I think it's such an important part of our brand, too, from just ocean imagery and mermaid love. That's just the fun part, for me, of building the business. 

DANIEL: When you're looking back at your last couple of years, I know obviously you're still in the very early stages of the company, but what's a mistake you've made that you've learnt from? 

COURTNEY: There's been so many. I think the hardest part about building a food business and this might sound so obvious, is actually making the food at scale. And a lot of companies will start with a kitchen benchtop recipe – our kitchen recipe for kelp jerky was amazing and I didn't realise how long it would take to take that recipe and make it 10,000 bags a day type of scale. And working with food manufacturers to do that is really hard because they're not incentivised to do anything innovative. They just want to make more bar companies and more chip companies because it's easy to scale and then they get paid based on volume. So, I think it's really brutal, especially not having any industry experience. So anyone who wants to start a food company, I think one of the mistakes that I made was not focusing enough on our operations and manufacturing. Like, truthfully, a business – yes it needs hustle, it needs storytelling and it needs brand building, but if you don't have operations, the whole thing's going to implode. 

DANIEL: And your company is still quite small in terms of headcount. 

COURTNEY: Yeah, I mean, we've been so brutally lean for two years. Basically, it's my co-founder and I and one employee and we struggled so hard in our first year. 

DANIEL: So a team of three? 

COURTNEY: Kind of. We've got an army of consultants and advisors and always an army of interns and ambassadors. So there's a network. But when it comes to the core team, it's three, yeah. 

DANIEL: Looking ahead, obviously you're launching the kelp burger. What kind of company do you want AKUA to be? Do you want to just keep launching products in the kelp space? Do you want to go beyond that and just become a broader health company? A company that makes products good for the environment, good for your body? 

COURTNEY: There is a reason that we're not called the Kelp Co. We wanted to build a company that looked at all sustainable foods as potential ingredients for our food products. That being said, I think that we are on this earth to bring sustainable sea grains to the mainstream. Looking through what are the most sustainable ways to source sea grains, ocean farming is really it right now. And the most ocean-farmed seaweed in the United States is really kelp. So until there's other sustainable sources of seaweed, we will be focused on kelp. And our mission is to put out, every 18 months, a new plant-based product. So, looking through the forward-thinking lens, we've got burgers coming out in Q1 and then after that we'll look at kelp nuggets aimed at kids. I'm really excited about having starfish- and mermaid-shaped kelp nuggets and then kelp crab cakes, kelp sausages, kelp meatballs, kelp breakfast sausages as well. 

DANIEL: Amazing. Kelp nuggets. I mean, God bless you, I'm sure they taste delicious, too, but that's an education job for the parents to say to their kids, 'This is seaweed.' Or maybe they'll just say, 'Eat it and let us know what you think.' 

COURTNEY: Yeah, I mean, that's the thing about kids, actually. They've loved our kelp burger and they're kind of like, 'I don't know, mom.' And they eat it and they love it. And I think putting it in fish shapes and stuff will really help, too. Funnily enough, SpongeBob has made eating kelp really cool. So you have a lot of kids that are, like, obsessed with our company because of that… 

DANIEL: I smell a good collaboration coming up. 

COURTNEY: I hope! If anyone knows SpongeBob's team, please let me know. There's a kelp burger in there! 

DANIEL: And that’s it for this week. Thanks to Courtney Boyd Myers from AKUA for this week’s episode. As ever, get in touch with any comments or ideas  – I’m daniel@couriermedia.com. I hope you guys have a fantastic few weeks.

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