This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
Nydia Shipman and Sarah Renahan started the Worthy Company in 2018. As new moms, they were seeking a better eating experience that delivered plant-based nutrition in a portable format and at a reasonable price.
Their solution: the Worthy Bowl, a plant-based, fruit-forward, travel-friendly bowl made with superfood ingredients. And the Chicago-based, B Corp–certified company just finished launching the reformulated flavors last month.
Fortune recently spoke with cofounders Shipman and Renahan to learn more about their insights and predictions for their business and the plant-based food industry after a year in which grocery shopping was completely upended.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: Could you share a bit about your backgrounds? What were you doing professionally prior to launching the Worthy Company?
Renahan: Prior to launching Worthy, I spent 15 years in luxury brand management and merchandising for Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Frette in New York City and Milan. As a lifelong athlete, current marathon runner, and student of yoga, performance-supporting yet delicious plant-based nutrition has been a personal obsession. Since becoming a mom to two young, very active boys, a deeper drive to support self-worth for all, particularly children, through a socially-minded food business, has become an equal obsession. Worthy was born to satisfy both.
Shipman: Prior to launching Worthy, I was a trial attorney representing Fortune 500 companies in NYC. I am an obsessive home cook and hail from a family of Latinx restaurateurs and foodies. I am passionate about my family and creating delicious and nutritious recipes for them, incorporating natural, plant-based ingredients that pay homage to my Caribbean roots. This passion for combining uncomplicated, nutritious, and satisfying ingredients with flair and a shared drive to support self-worth for all led me to cocreate Worthy with Sarah.
The plant-based diet and industry have skyrocketed in the past few years, but from a consumer perspective, there might be so many new options that it’s overwhelming. What inspired the launch of the Worthy Company? What went into the recipe development process?
Renahan: Despite the boom in plant-based offerings, as consumers, we saw a glaring white space in the market. And so the Worthy Company was born to solve a problem for ourselves and many others searching for a balanced, plant-based, ready-to-eat option that’s well priced and never sacrifices flavor. With no clean-up required! Who has time for another mess? We first made the bowls for ourselves in our kitchens because we wanted to eat something that was convenient, made with real fruits and vegetables, contained protein and fiber for gut health, and was ready to be devoured—with a spoon. Taste is queen, and we made sure these tasted great.
Shipman: Each Worthy Bowl is inspired by our favorite childhood treats and the ingredients our mothers and grandmothers cooked with regularly. Dark Cocoa Cherry was inspired by a chocolate cherry pie Sarah grew up eating. Strawberry & Greens was inspired by a strawberry rhubarb tart from Sarah’s childhood. Vanilla Orange was inspired by our love of Creamsicles and a drink very popular in the Caribbean, where I am from. Mango & Greens was inspired by my childhood growing up eating fresh mangoes with my family.
Renahan: What started as a recipe in our kitchens that went through many edits and changes has now grown into a movement to ensure plant-based nourishment is accessible to all and to encourage a global wave of self-worth. We are all worthy.
It’s noted that the Worthy Company’s bowls are travel-friendly. Who is the target audience, and what makes these bowls stand apart in the grocery aisle?
Shipman: We are obsessed with our customers, how they are making plants part of their diet, and where they are shopping. And we’re here for it. We are determined to be part of where and how our customers are eating, so we developed our Worthy Bowls to be travel-friendly. We know that 66% of 24- to 35-year-old adults say that health and wellness is important in on-the-go eating, and we want Worthy Bowls to be part of the solution. We know that our customers are 65% to 75% female, 25% to 35% male, and span a variety of age demographics from young millennials to middle-aged adults. They are socially conscious, focused on increased plant consumption, and lead active lives.
Part of our obsession is providing the best customer experience possible. We spent 2020 redesigning our packaging and communications with the branding firm Hatch in San Francisco. We love the bright modern colors and nod to earthy “old-school” ingredients in the redesign, and hope you’ll agree our new containers stand out on the shelf and screen.
Grocery shopping has become complicated, to say the least, during the pandemic. What has it been like working in the food retail market in the last year? How have e-commerce sales balanced out with wholesale partners?
Renahan: When COVID hit, we focused on and invested in wins, knowing retail and food service would lag for the near to medium term. With our strong direct-to-consumer business on Amazon growing only stronger during the pandemic, we felt confident investing in our direct-to-consumer, e-commerce website launch in July. It paid off: E-commerce repeat customers average between 32% and 40% per month; almost 40% of new customers trade up to larger pack sizes; and our subscription business is growing double digits month over month.
While the food retail market recalibrated, channels like Costco and QVC were exciting opportunities for Worthy, and we are thrilled to announce our launch in Costco in February 2021. Also, we’re fresh off a very successful debut on QVC. We have other similar launches in development.
COVID also presented opportunities for international expansion in Japan and Asia. Plant-based is exploding in the region, and we have plans in development to introduce Worthy in the market within the year. We have some key strategic partners in the region, and Worthy will be attending two key trade shows: the OEM/PB Development Exhibition and Foodex.
Domestic retail opportunities are back in full force for Worthy, and we’re excited to announce launches into strategic natural accounts soon.
Economic downturns often prove to be a fruitful time for startups that can fill a void. What has it been like to secure funding for the Worthy Company? Is it privately funded or backed by venture capital?
Renahan: From our inception, we have attracted incredible talent from across the industry, inspired by our Worthy movement: ensuring plant-based nourishment is accessible to all, and changing the world with the stir of a spoon. We have been honored to have highly engaged strategic advisers from the likes of Uber, Unilever, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola. This has continued with our investors. We have leveraged our networks throughout our growth stages to bring in private investors from varied industries to join Worthy. We have not yet taken on any venture capital and don’t intend to do so until we reach our Series A.
Shipman: As a women-and-BIPOC–led company, we opened the Worthy GRACE community fund, a female-led organization bringing together investment opportunity and community, which is centered on inclusivity and action. With a minimum investment threshold of $5,000, accredited investors will have the unique opportunity to invest early in a movement-based company rapidly becoming a global brand. In turn, the GRACE fund creates an opportunity for Worthy to leverage best practices from a multitude of companies and industries by expanding our investor base to be inclusive and representative of the voices we all need to be hearing. Worthy will reserve portions of all subsequent raises for like initiatives. We’re proud the network to date includes a multinational group of powerful business leaders across industries.
Post-pandemic and five years down the road, where do you see the Worthy Company?
Shipman: Our vision is for the Worthy Company to be leading a movement to ensure plant-based nourishment is accessible to all. We want to continue to inspire a global wave of self-worth with nonprofit organizations like the amazing One Simple Wish and Graham Windham. We are so happy to be highlighting both organizations directly on our packaging for Costco.
Renahan: Our plant-based, Worthy nourishment offering will extend to multiple product lines for the entire family, with an omnichannel distribution obsessed with providing the best customer experience possible. We want the words “We’re All Worthy” to be synonymous with plant-based nourishment and self-worth for all.
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