Learn Entrepreneur Willem Sodderland’s Startup Secrets That Took Seamore From An Idea To A Food Innovator In Two Years

A chance encounter with edible seaweed in an Ibizan restaurant led this entrepreneur to turn the ongoing revolution in healthy, sustainable food into a business success…

RISING In 15 words or less, what are the three biggest startup lessons you have learned as founder of Seamore? WILLEM SODDERLAND, CEO ‘It Always Takes More Time. Retail Sucks (Usually). It’s All About the People, Dummy.’

RISING What has been Seamore’s biggest achievement so far? WS ‘That we got 750,000 servings of seaweed on to people’s plates in two years, of whom 69% never had seaweed before.’

RISING In marketing terms, how did you get those people to see seaweed as food? WS ‘Seaweed was never seen as food in the West, more like weird stuff between your toes, or a health supplement or: “Yeah, OK it’s food but only as the outside of sushi.” We needed to create a new perspective on seaweed: that you can cook great meals with it.’

‘Everything we did in the initial year was focused on this: great recipes, working with food bloggers, attractive packaging, great photography, a Whatsapp channel for cooking tips. The other part has been to present seaweed in a shape or form that people already know and love: pasta, bacon, wraps. This lowers barriers to trying.’

RISING When you say retail usually sucks, what do you mean by that? WE ‘Retail has huge power over what consumers eat. They decide what’s on the offline and online shelves. And although the larger retailers claim they want to help consumers towards healthier and more sustainable food, they are equipped to work with large corporations, not the innovative startups that are bringing the healthier and more sustainable food.’

‘Most retailers are slow to take innovative products on and – more importantly – don’t actively support these products in the stores, or offer ways to support them that small companies can work with. So retailers slow down innovation in food.’

Behave like an international brand from day one – have a Chief Funding Officer and a Storyteller

RISING What would be your advice for a new entrepreneurs in looking to grow their startup quickly? WS ‘Behave like an international brand from day one – do everything also in English and build an international team (interns). Have a Chief Funding Officer. Make sure you have a chief storyteller (usually the founder, but not if they’re a geek) who can help to generate massive free publicity.’

RISING What storytelling successes did you have with Seamore in the early days? WS ‘I came up with the idea for Seamore when I ordered a seaweed salad in a restaurant in Ibiza. I couldn’t spot any seaweed on the plate. I asked the table and my wife pointed to the green tagliatelle and said: “I think that must be it.” I declared her crazy and asked the chef to clarify. He told me my wife was right and that the green pasta was actually seaweed, which grows on the rocks looking like tagliatelle.’

‘My immediate thought was, why not eat seaweed as pasta, replace carbs with a super veggie? I then went home, tried to find the seaweed and when I did, cooked it – tossed bolognese sauce on top and watched to see if my kids would survive. They did, liked it: experiment succeeded. This ‘Ibiza’ story has travelled everywhere, in media, in dozens of countries. Because it’s a great story and it’s real.’

RISING Why do you single out having a Chief Funding Officer as important? WS ‘You need someone – it could be the CEO – who sees funding as a daily responsibility, not just when you are almost running out of money. It’s a job to fund a fast-growing startup. This person should love telling the story, sharing the vision, networking. It’s much less a technical financial job.’

RISING What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it? WS ‘The biggest challenge is not one particular obstacle. The biggest challenge is all of the challenges. The constant struggle when going from startup to scaleup. Overcoming obstacles every day, facing resistance every day and still waking up every day with the energy to put everything into Seamore, and to change the world of food. To keep believing it’s possible and to enjoy the path while you try to get there.’

RISING How do you overcome challenges every day with the same energy, without personally burning out? WS ‘At home I do stuff that asks very different things than my work but is still challenging. I have complex building projects that completely take my mind away; recently I built a walk-in closet with an elevator. In my work, I’m part of the Entrepreneur’s Organization, a 12,000 member network. Every month, I gather with 10 of them to share our successes, failures and then share experiences that might help each other. This helps me reflect, take a fresh perspective and enjoy life more.’

RISING What trends in the future of food have fuelled your success and will become even more important in the future? WS ‘Demand for less processed, ‘closer-to-nature’ food; more sustainably sourced food; nutrient-dense ‘superfood’ and the shift from animal to plant protein.’

I admire leaders who are realistic about the causes of success and are true to their cause

RISING When to comes to leadership, what qualities are important to startups? WS** ‘I admire leaders who are realistic about the causes of success, who speak openly about failure and who are true to their cause. There’s a founder of a small Dutch ice cream company, Pepijn Ornstein from Professor Grunschnabel, who stuck with it for 20 years to get into major retail with his plant-based ice cream, and succeeded. He’s a hero.’

RISING What are the common mistakes you see startups making and how can we avoid them? WS ‘Focusing on the solution instead of the problem you’re trying to fix. Testing products and services too late or not at all. The solution is to follow a methodology like ‘Lean Startup’ and stick to the lessons about validation of the needs that your product should address, before you finalise the product.’

‘Then not thinking big enough: targeting a small geographic market first (and then we look look beyond). Some people start companies while still doing other stuff like school or jobs. If you’re really serious about your purpose/ mission, then you should be spending all your time on it. Get financing very early if you need it but don’t hustle.’

RISING How easy or difficult has it been to raise funding for Seamore and what key things have you done to make it this far? WS ‘It’s never easy. And it takes a shitload of time. The pre-seed from a group of befriended entrepreneurs was very easy. Getting a bank on board very early to finance the harvest was surprisingly easy; I think the reason I succeeded was because the Rabobank (world’s biggest agricultural bank) had just launched their ‘Banking For Food’ mission statement and needed a poster-child client that personified this. Seamore was it.’

‘The seed round with informal investors took much more time than I had anticipated but went well eventually. The A-round I am now doing is the most difficult as investing in food in Europe has not taken the same flight yet that it has in the US.’

RISING Why have you started a crowdfunding campaign now? WS ‘The crowdfunding campaign we’ve launched now is a bridge so that we have more time to find a larger, long term investor. I’m realising that crowdfunding could become a really powerful tool to keep control of your financing so that you are not dependent on VC’s. On a practical level, using several financing instruments at the same time works well and convertible loans are a startups best friend!’

RISING What has been the best bit of professional advice you have ever been given? WS ‘Dare to be honest about things that are not going well, especially to investors. Our first two products, I Sea pasta and I Sea bacon, make (pure 100%) seaweed much more accessible. And a more focused audience of healthy and sustainable food-seeking consumers love these products. But we started Seamore to have a much larger impact, which requires even more accessible products. So we realised that products like I Sea wraps and I Sea bread (both 50% seaweed, no cooking needed) were needed if we were to realise our growth objectives. Being completely open about this proved crucial in establishing trust and credibility with investors.’

You can learn from your competitors and the most effective way to stay ahead is speed

RISING A common fear for startups is people seeing your idea and moving to push a product out to compete, or even beat you to the punch – how can you combat this? WS ‘This fear is something to push away. Because it usually paralyses entrepreneurs. And it is very important to realise that a) competitors help create a market, b) there’s a million different ways to reach the same goal, and c) you can learn from your competitors. The most effective way to stay ahead is speed…’

RISING hat are your ambitions for growth for Seamore and where do you see the company going from here? WS ‘The Big Hairy Audacious Goal is to get one billion servings of seaweed into people’s mouths before 2030. To get there, we have a few small challenges! First, we’ll have to create many more exciting seaweed products that offer consumers easy ways to start eating seaweed, from breakfast to dessert. This mean growing our R&D/ technology, product development capability. We’ll also have to move from predominantly specialised retail into mainstream supermarkets, which is starting to happen.’

‘Thirdly, we will have to keep educating, inspiring, helping consumers to make seaweed part of their eating habits. We call this ‘customer transformation’ and it’s the toughest challenge of all. Fortunately, large catering companies are starting to help with this. Finally, we will have to work with our harvesting partners to create ‘seagriculture’: a world where farming seaweed will become as normal as farming broccoli.’

WHAT NEXT? Got an idea for a product but need to set up your own crowdfunder? Then read our guide to the perfect campaign, from Indiegogo’s European chief. Then check out Seamore’s own video on why we need to switch from the land to the sea to make food production sustainable.

Comments are for information only and should not replace financial advice or recommendations.

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