kuli kuli crowd

Raising Capital

A ‘Superfood’ Company Grows, With a Little Help From the Crowd

B the Change | December 15, 2017

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Chances are you’ve heard of moringa, a nutrient rich plant that has been dubbed the next superfood. If so, you’ve probably also heard of Kuli Kuli Foods, a fast-growing social venture that has helped popularize moringa in the U.S., while helping women farmers in West Africa and the Caribbean.

Kuli Kuli was founded in 2013 by Lisa Curtis, who first came across it while volunteering for the Peace Corps in Niger. A vegetarian, her usual diet of millet and rice had left her feeling sluggish, and locals recommended moringa, which is rich in iron, calcium, vitamins, and antioxidants. It was especially good mixed with a popular peanut snack called “kuli kuli.”

That experience led Curtis to found Kuli Kuli Foods, which makes nutritious and tasty bars, shakes and energy shots from organic moringa leaves. To date, Kuli Kuli has worked with more than 800 moringa farmers and helped to plant 200,000 moringa trees (photo, above). The company recently raised more than $4 million in a Series A round led by Kellogg Company’s venture arm.

But before the big investors came knocking, Kuli Kuli was funded by hundreds of individuals who saw in the fledgling venture something they wanted to bring to life. “Our whole company, from day one, has been funded by the crowd,” Curtis says.

B the Change spoke with Curtis about her fundraising experience and how Kuli Kuli, an Oakland-based B Corp., has found mission-aligned investors.

Tell us about your crowdfunding process.

The year 2013 was not only the first time we started taking money, but the first time I told my friends and family what I’d been working on. It was a side project in addition to my day job, but it was a passion project that I wanted to get out there. I had recruited a few of my childhood best friends to work on it with me, and together we launched an Indiegogo campaign. We raised almost $25,000 in the first 24 hours and we ended up raising over $50,000 from 800 people in 23 different countries.

Lisa Curtis of Kuli Kuli, with a sampling of her products

It really took on a life of its own and went beyond our friends and family. That gave me the courage I needed to quit my day job and really get our sales off the ground. Whole Foods picked us up first, and after we got good traction there we moved into more stores.

I then took a Kiva loan to help us more. A Kiva loan is a zero-interest loan, and it’s also through the crowd. Our whole company from day one was built by the crowd. For Kiva, people put in $25 or more as a zero-interest loan that would get paid back over time. That was super helpful for us, because what we really needed was some startup capital to help us make the product. Nobody was getting paid, it was really about making the product.

We took on crowdfunding equity in 2014. We started a crowdfunding campaign through Agfunder (a funding site that connects ag-tech ventures with accredited investors). It was similar to our Indiegogo campaign, but instead of getting product in return, people were actually getting shares of the company. We initially raised $350,000, with follow-on investment that got us up to $1 million total. There were about 20 investors.

And more recently…?

Earlier this year, we raised a Series A round of investment that got us up to a total of $4.25 million of. When you include grants and donation-based crowdfunding, we’ve raised a total of about $4.5 million. We don’t disclose the exact percentage owned by investors, but we still own the majority of the company.

How did you ensure investors were aligned with your company’s mission and goals? How did you find investors?

We did a lot of sitting down with investors. We were in the nice place where we had more people who wanted to invest in us than the investment dollars that we needed. So we got to be picky about the people we worked with, and I think we’re very aligned with all of our investors on what the future of our company looks like.

I met investors through a lot of events — I’ve done a ton of pitch events. And just by building networks and keeping in touch with people, which is one of the most important things you can do. Especially in our early days, we had a lot of people say, “This is super interesting, but I’m not ready yet.” I think in the food industry people don’t take you seriously until you’re over $1 million in sales, so after we got over that it got a lot easier to fundraise.

What role did B Corp certification play in your fundraising? If someone were to say, I’m starting a new company, should I be a B Corp, what would you say?

For us, B Corp certification was a really good litmus test. If investors showed a lot of hesitation around us being a full-fledged benefit corporation and our social mission being a part of our legal DNA, if that was an issue for them, then they probably weren’t the right fit. So, I used that idea a lot as we went through the process.

If you’re trying to find mission-aligned investors, then being a B Corp and a benefit corporation is really important, and it’s a great way to know how aligned your investors are.

Has your social mission been part of your hiring process? 

kuli kuli
Women selling moringa leaves at a West African market.

Absolutely, without a doubt. Across our employees, we get a lot of people who are exceptionally talented and could be doing so many different things. Often, they’re coming to work for a startup like us and are not making as much money as they could be elsewhere. But they feel good about it because they feel like they are a part of a strong social mission and are doing something really important for the world. So, yeah, I think it’s a big part of who we are.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs raising money?

I think a lot of people start fundraising too early. I absolutely understand why it happens. You know, coming out of Peace Corps, I had no real savings and I was starting a company and not getting paid anything, so it felt like taking on money was the only way the company could be successful. But I find in those early days, it’s really hard to raise money and you end up spending a lot of time doing it.

The best thing you can do in those early days is develop a really great sales story and start to show some market traction. That’s ultimately the best way to get investment. So, one of the things I advise is even if you’re only in a couple stores, how can you make your product super-successful in those couple stores? So you can go to investors and go to other retailers and say, “Hey, you know, we’re in two stores, but we’re selling 20 units per store per week. We’d love to come into your 20 stores and do the same thing.”

How did you get started with the heavyweight Whole Foods?

I had seen that they were looking for new products and had open submissions. We made a bunch of bars by hand and submitted our product. They actually invited us in for a meeting almost right away. They had been interested in moringa for a while and saw an opportunity to work with us to bring in their first moringa product. That was pretty exciting.

It wasn’t like they said, “Oh, great, we love it, you’re going to get into all 400 stores.” It was more like, “We think this is interesting, you can go sell it into NorCal stores.” So I spent a lot of time driving around Northern California, selling it in, store by store. We’re now in all Whole Foods nationwide.

Where does the company stand now?

We are ramping up, bringing in new retailers and launching a new product later this summer. Right now, we’re in about 3,000 stores nationwide. We’re in Whole Foods, Safeway and Albertson, Sprouts and a bunch of other natural foods co-ops. We’ve been really focused on expanding within the natural food co-ops in particular because we think that’s our core demographic, so we’re focused on bringing in lots more of those types of stores.

This interview is excerpted from a longer version originally published by B the Change, a Medium publication run by the nonprofit B Lab. read the full version here.

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