The First Mile Problem & How to Overcome It

Sebastian Garcia is the co-founder and CEO of Vitruvian Health. Vitruvian Health is aimed at making convenient, nutritionally-complete foods that make our modern eating habits healthy. Sebastian studied finance and accounting at NYU Stern and, prior to starting his business, worked with a pro-bono consulting group.

We believe individualizing food makes healthy living easy so we prepare a meal shake that is customized to your unique nutritional needs, just add water. We call it Sani. Using only wholesome, plant-based ingredients, each customized meal contains all the essential nutrients your body needs for $5.

This post is part of the NYU Summer Launchpad blog series featuring NYU entrepreneurs’ first-hand accounts of challenges faced in starting a business and the lessons learned along the way. Learn more about the NYU Summer Launchpad 2016 participants here.

The First Mile Problem & How to Overcome It

As a runner, I learned to think about getting things done in mile increments and the first mile in a 5k sets my pace for a good race.  The first mile of a startup creation often involves trial and error experimentation but the goal is to surface a winning approach and not end in defeat. For Sani, our path to setting the right pace to growth was our approach to identifying a concrete beachhead market and building on it. Here is our journey...

Sani-TeamMy co-founder Danielle and I met through our mutual interest in analytics, listening to the 90s bands. One day, on our walk home from the gym, we came up with the idea of developing a simple way to to eat healthy by customizing a smoothie that will meet our individual nutritional needs. We saw food and technology intersect to meet the needs we cared about in the product and we decided to test our idea further. Pulling together our extra scholarship money we bootstrapped for nine months and, to our excitement, our revenue grew quickly. Then all of a sudden, nothing!

The honeymoon period was over. We found ourselves lost in a medley of customer feedback and no clear sense of direction. When we looked at our customer pattern, we noticed that one month there was a spike from busy professionals looking to lose weight and the next month drew broke college students trying to hit their macros.

In our efforts to sell the "personalization" aspect of our shakes, we created too many options for customers which led to longer sales cycles from them. They didn’t understand how to use the product properly and were filled with questions. The irony was that we continued to grow our customer base but with no clear beachhead market–a concentrated user base–and, the referrals we received did not have the multiplier effect our young startup needed.

Perfecting the First Mile:

People were drawn to Sani because it is was an easier way to eat, but after driving ourselves crazy trying to please very different customer segments, we knew the need to find those we will love us and become regular customers.

Thanks to the Summer Launchpad teaching team’s constant reminder to "get out of the building" and the MIT handbook, “Disciplined Entrepreneurship", we went to the places we knew we could find our customers. Speaking to them gave us deep insights into what they care about and how that translates to what they buy.

The first step was to strip down the product to the specific things our customers truly cared about and categorizing them by the trigger that changed their eating behavior.

We started with the assumption that we could all use a simpler, healthier meal so focusing on behavior, and not pain points, distilled clear segments for us to test. We needed to understand why someone would care about a personalized diet, while aligning with our values of sustainability and wholesome ingredients.

Sani-CacaoCustomer interviews revealed that food choices are often driven by intrinsic motivators such as health goals, immediacy, environmental impact, and trends. We also realized that as a food company, our products need to align with the aspirations of our customers. Gatorade rewards hard work for the athlete, while Redbull gives you the jolt you need to go out and crush it.

After about 70 interviews and countless hours of research, we narrowed down our target customers to represent only 3% of the population. Our mentors further pushed us to find an even narrower and more defined segment. We dug deeper into the life of the pain points of our beachhead customer—how it started, if/how they fixed it—and this gave us a clear path to move forward.

Decisions carry a new found conviction when your product, team values, and users are on the same page. It took us almost a year of questioning what we were doing, who we were helping, and if it was worth it to create something people might actually want. The first mile of our startup was marked with stages of high ambiguity but we are well on our way of progress and are excited about the next phase.