Rebecca had always loved creating healthy snacks for friends and family but it was only when she struggled to find a job after taking 10 years off to raise her children that she decided to start her own business.
“‘Top Seedz’ is a play on a common sports term for the top ranked player or team in a competition because I have always loved the connection between food, sport and performance. I’ve always loved feeding my kids healthy snacks and I had been making the crackers and roasting seeds since forever and everyone loved them so I thought, ok I’ll give it a whirl.”
Investing $5k of her own money Rebecca rented space at a communal kitchen and began baking the organic crackers and roasting seeds to sell at her local farmers market.
“I know five thousand dollars doesn’t sound like a lot of money but to me it was so much, I would wake up in the middle of the night and think what have I done? I used that $5k to get the logo designed and the packaging created, I also bought the first batch of ingredients and rented space in a commercial kitchen. That kitchen allowed me to bake 8 boxes of crackers an hour, and I would just bake as fast as I could because I was paying by the hour and I didn’t know how profitable the business was going to be. The ovens were really old and the timers didn’t work so I had to keep turning the trays, it was hard work and there were a lot of times I thought this is mad, what am I doing?”
Not long after she started selling at the farmers market, her crackers began to make an impact and soon she was being approached by local businesses and then the supermarket chains came knocking.
“When I first sold to Wholefoods supermarket they said that I had created a new category. Most gourmet crackers on the market were tasty but weren’t good for you, and then the ones that were good for you didn’t taste great. Wholefoods said mine were healthy, delicious and also well packaged, so I was ticking all the boxes.”
Within the first year of operation Rebecca won $50k in a small business competition. The extra cashflow allowed her to say goodbye to hourly slots at the shared kitchen and move into her own space. She celebrated by spending $35k on a commercial oven which could bake enough crackers at any one time to fill 80 boxes.
Five years on and Top Seedz is now producing around 50,000 boxes of crackers a month and can be found on the shelves of 300 stores across the US. Rebecca has also just won her second business competition and this one comes with a million dollars of investment which will help the company increase its production tenfold and build a bigger manufacturing site.
Despite her rise to success, it’s been a steep learning curve for Rebecca who is a first time business owner.
“I have been lucky enough to be profitable from day one, but that’s only because I didn’t realise I could take on investors or apply for a business loan! In hindsight it’s worked out well, and the two business competitions I have won have really helped the business grow. But as we have grown I have had to learn a lot. For example when I started out I didn’t think Human Resources was a big thing, turns out it’s huge!”
“I also find that one of the bigger challenges, when you have a small business, is getting people to listen to you without dismissing you. Last year we had been trying to automate some of our manufacturing and processing equipment. We were too small for people to pay much attention to us but we were too big to be doing a lot of the processes manually. I spoke to a few suppliers and I would have people come in and look and say ‘oh you are not ready for that or you can’t afford that.’ It’s really frustrating, they don’t know how much I have in the bank or what I’m ready for.”
While suppliers might not have been ready to listen to Rebecca, she found that her business community were. She is connected to several business networks and says her biggest advice to people starting out is to talk to as many people as you can.
“I have learnt that there is always someone out there who has been through the same thing. When I run into a problem I try to talk it through with other people. I usually find someone who has had the same problem and has an idea of how to fix it. I try to talk and share as much as possible. It can be lonely being the ‘top seed’ you are ‘the everything’. I do bounce a lot of ideas and thoughts off my husband but our family doesn’t want to talk about crackers all the time.”
Rebecca’s company isn’t just about making healthy snacks, she also plays an active role in helping others. Her company only hires female refugees and she works with a local charity to ensure those coming to her area are able to get a start on building new lives.
“We work with a local organisation that helps refugees settle in buffalo, they call us when they have people arriving and we will hire them if we have places available. Our staff are from all over the world, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria. They have been through hell and back again, a lot of them have been in refugee camps outside of their own countries for a few years. Despite the challenges that their backgrounds create such as language barriers, I like welcoming people to this country and giving them an opportunity to start again.”
Rebecca is also an active part of the Kea Connect network and says no matter how long she lives offshore she will always consider herself a Kiwi.
“I will always be a New Zealander, sometimes I like to talk to another Kiwi just to hear the accent. From day one I have had so much help, so if my success or what has worked for me can help someone else I am all in. I think what comes around goes around and if I can help someone get a little further along then why not.”
For now Top Seedz is focused on growing its US business, building a bigger manufacturing plant and investigating options to export to Canada. Because the crackers are organic and preservative free their short shelf life makes exporting them further afield challenging but Rebecca says she’s determined to put them on Kiwi shelves at some point.
“I think my mum would kill me if I didn’t at least try to get them into New Zealand! It’s hard with the crackers as they are only good for four months and I can’t have them sitting on a boat for half that time. However we have just launched a boxed cracker mix that people can use to make their own, so who knows what the future holds.”
Rebecca is just one of Kea’s many ‘solvers’ – Kiwi who are keen to provide advice and mentoring to other Kiwi businesses through our free Kea Connect service. If you’d like to speak to Rebecca or any of our other solvers then get in touch with Kea Connect today