Every week we ask a local business or product to introduce themselves in eight simple takes. This week we talk to Megan May, founder of whole foods company Little Bird Organics which today launches its first-ever equity crowdfunding campaign with fellow Kiwi entrepreneurs Melanie and Malcolm Rands of Ecostore.
ONE: How did Little Bird Organics start and what was the inspiration behind it?
Before Little Bird, I’d been working as a chef trying to cut it in the food industry. Due to the stressful lifestyle and my many food intolerances, I soon became incredibly ill. As a chef, switching to a gluten, dairy and refined sugar-free lifestyle was a little daunting as there were no delicious, healthy alternatives in the market at the time. So my solution was to make my own.
Little Bird began eight years ago as a little stall at a health talk. I’d been struggling with my own personal health issues for years and I thought I’d try selling some of my creations as a little side project. I took along my macaroons and grawnola which I’d been working on for some time and my husband Jeremy made me some labels the night before as well. Within a few hours [of the stall being open], everything I’d made had sold out. There were buyers there from Ceres Organics and Huckleberry who kept calling me asking when I’d be ready to sell in stores. So before I even had a business plan, Little Bird had begun.
All the original stores we stocked were through word of mouth. After we hit around 40 stores, I began to start selling into stores. I’m not the best sales person so it was a blessing to start the business this way. Otherwise, I don’t know if I would’ve had the confidence to go round doing that. These products were really new to the market [at the time]. It’s not like it is now and there wasn’t really a category for them. When I did tastings, there was a lot of education involved. I really wasn’t sure if people would be interested.
We eventually got a small (but large for us at the time) kitchen in Kingsland which also had space for a small café. We opened the first café on a shoestring and it went crazy. Just one week after opening, we were running around trying to keep up. I’d wake up early and stay up until midnight making cakes for the next day. A year later, we opened our second larger café with a full offering in Ponsonby. The following year we opened our third café in Britomart which was entirely take-out so people in the city could grab some fresh organic food and cold-pressed juices in their lunch break. At the same time, we finally got ourselves a factory so we could start producing more of our original raw, organic macaroons, grawnolas, crackers and clusters for retail.
TWO: Did you have any interest/experience in business or entrepreneurship prior to starting Little Bird Organics?
When [my family] got our first Apple computer with the little screen in the ’80s, I would sit and type out ‘Megan May makes money millions’ over and over again. I was probably about six or seven years old. I was quite a driven child who was a little on the competitive side and I’ve had a job since my early teens so I could have ‘my own’ money.
I had a lot of ideas about what to do to meet this million dollar goal but hadn’t explored them much other than having my parents pay me to cook for them every night when I was 14 (it ended up costing them too much – I don’t think they anticipated my enthusiasm for doing it every night). I also helped my boyfriend and his brother start a smoothie caravan at Mount Maunganui when I was 18.
In the caravan, I’d make wholefood sandwiches which were a little ahead of their time (people mostly wanted hot chips and Mr Whippy) and I’d get frustrated with the guys for adding sugar to the smoothies. I refused to add it (their reasoning was that that’s what smoothie places did and without it we needed to charge more). To me, quality always came first. I was never interested in cutting corners when it came to food.
I’d been planning Little Bird since I was 21, writing in notebooks and spending a lot of time thinking about it. I’d collect packets from products I liked from around the world and store them in a notebook which is probably in a box somewhere. It wasn’t something I talked about a lot as I didn’t really think I would ever make it happen. At one point, it was called ‘Divine Foods’, but I’m glad I didn’t run with that. So you could say I didn’t have much experience prior to Little Bird, but I certainly had years of enthusiasm!
THREE: What drives Little Bird’s philosophy as being “mostly raw, definitely organic”?
I’d turned around my own health with an organic, raw food diet of mostly vegetables, nuts and seeds when nothing else was working for me. I wanted to share my experience, so I started Little Bird to show people how you could thrive on a plant-based, mostly raw diet that’s enjoyable and delicious. It’s important to stress that this isn’t an all-or-nothing approach. You don’t need to go all raw to experience the benefits. I think most people can experience a significant improvement in their health from simply including more fresh fruits and veggies in their diet.
Little Bird’s philosophy has softened a little over the years, being more of a balance of 70% raw and 30% cooked. I’ve found that a plant-based, organic, whole foods way of eating encapsulates our message. This way of eating is a lot more inclusive and achievable.
Being organic is an important part of Little Bird. I grew up on an organic farm and my family still works in organics. When I think about organics, it means much more to me than thinking about my own health. It’s about the health of the environment – we can’t keep piling chemicals into the ground without any implications (decreased soil quality and less than desirable waterways).
FOUR: What do you think accounts for the booming popularity of plant-based foods and what are some of Little Bird’s most popular products?
Plant-based eating has really boomed in the past few years. We started eight years ago at the very beginning of [its popularity] here in New Zealand. People thought we were a bit out there at the time so I’m incredibly blown away by how far we’ve come in recent years and how mainstream it’s becoming.
I think there are two main factors. The first is increased awareness/concern over climate change and how eating a plant-based diet significantly reduces your ecological footprint. The second is increased awareness/concern around how over-consumption of animal products and processed foods negatively affects our health, increasing our risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
There’s so much evidence out there now supporting a plant-based diet as an effective way to improve our health and minimise our risk of lifestyle disease, all while reducing our impact on the environment. Not to mention, people often talk about how great eating less meat, sugar and processed foods makes them feel!
Our macaroons are one of our original products and still one of our most popular. They are handmade coconut macaroons that have been dehydrated (not cooked) to retain all their goodness. In our cafes, our raw chocolate brownie, raw caramel slice and kimchi pancake are top sellers which continue to wow even the most sceptical customers. We also sell a lot of green smoothies (there are three different types on the menu)
We’ve worked with Melanie and Malcolm Rands a few times over the years. The [idea for a crowdfunding campaign] came about after I contacted Malcolm to ask him some questions about intellectual property, and before you knew it, we were in business together.
We’d been looking for experienced cornerstone investors who could help take us to the next level. [Because] we started Little Bird with little business experience, we knew we needed some heavy hitters in order to reach our potential. It was an interesting process trying to find the right investors as they really needed to have the same values as us to make it work. We’re a values-first company which is and will continue to be integral to Little Bird’s success. We really couldn’t have asked for better business partners, being pioneers in the space of sustainable and ethical business. We have a lot to learn from them and it feels pretty great to have them on board with us.
SIX: Tell us more about that and what you’re trying to achieve by crowdfunding and what should people know if people want to get involved?
We have put a lot of thought and consideration into choosing crowdfunding as the right platform for us. As I said, Little Bird is a values-based company and throughout the process of finding Melanie and Malcolm, we realised just how unusual that is and how important that is to our business.
With crowdfunding, we have the opportunity to have a group of investors that are with us for the same reasons: to make a positive impact on people’s health and the environment. We want to show the world that you can make a values-based business that is both wildly successful and sustainable, all at the same time. I love the idea of doing that together. It makes the company stronger and for me personally, it’s incredibly motivating to have that support base behind us, knowing that I’m doing this for so many more people than just myself.
SEVEN: Do you have any other plans to scale/grow further and if so, what are they?
We have had a lot of opportunities presented to us over the years. But due to financial constraints, we’ve been unable to realise many of them. We’ve always been underfunded (the number 8 wire approach has its limitations), leaving us short on cash and making it very hard to bring onboard experienced staff and upper-level management to help with our growth process.
With Melanie and Malcolm coming on board late last year, we’ve been able to bring in an experienced general manager, Leonard Mead, a few months ago who has many years’ experience in food manufacturing, particularly the organic whole foods space. He’s come onboard to help us improve our production efficiencies, instil better business practices and ultimately, help us realise some of these opportunities and scale Little Bird for maximum impact.
With a successful crowdfunding campaign, we’ll be looking at key areas of growth for the company, including more cafes, new product lines and improving existing ones. We’ll also be taking the next step with some of the many export opportunities we’ve been presented with over the years, as well as an overhaul of our e-commercee platform.
EIGHT: Lastly, tell us about a start-up or business that you really admire right now.
I really admire what Gosia Piatek is doing at Kowtow, an ethical and organic fashion brand based in Wellington. Ethical clothing is a challenge for some people to connect with when fast fashion has become so prevalent and the true cost of producing clothing is never accounted for. When you can buy a t-shirt for the same price as a cauliflower or coffee, something’s not quite right.
I remember when Kowtow started. It was a few years before us and when I was just beginning to discover this lifestyle. I’d been searching for some organic clothing and it had a very small range of basics. Ten years later, they have an extensive range of beautiful clothing made from gorgeous organic fabrics and designs that are worn by celebrities around the world. It’s amazing as an outsider to watch their collections grow each year and see how their strong values have been key to their success. You don’t have to second guess anything they do. I love that.
The Spinoff’s business content is brought to you by our friends at Kiwibank. Kiwibank backs small to medium businesses, social enterprises and Kiwis who innovate to make good things happen.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.