August 23, 2013
At first blush, Danielle LiVolsi might sound like so many other mompreneurs you hear about these days whose kids were the inspiration behind NuttZo, the nut and seed butter company she started five years ago. But the story is so much more than that…
The A-Ha Moment
Danielle LiVolsi always had the entrepreneurial itch but none of the ideas she came up with over the years ever really stuck. “I’ve kicked so many ideas down the road,” she says with a laugh from her Southern California office. “I was always into health and nutrition and always cooking for the family when my mom and dad were working.” That passion never waned and Danielle always thought she’d like to start some type of food business but without the right idea in hand, she kept focused on her job in radio sales and raising her daughter.
Her life changed forever, you could say, one night when Danielle and her husband, Kevin, were relaxing from a busy week by watching an episode of 20/20. That night the feature happened to be about Romanian orphanages. “It was about the kids that were being kept in cribs and not being changed for hours and we watched it that night and didn’t even talk about it,” Danielle remembers. That’s not to say it didn’t have a strong impact on her. The next day her husband headed off to his monthly Reserves training and called her mid-day. “What do you think about adopting?” she sprung on him. Without missing a beat, her husband replied “That’s why I married you.” And so, in April 2002, after reams of paperwork and numerous social worker visits, they were finally able to bring home Gregory who was 3.5 years old at the time.
While the homecoming was joyful, it was soon evident that Gregory had some catching up to do physically. Compared to Danielle’s eldest who had a bevy of healthy foods available to her at a young age, getting Gregory to eat anything at all was a struggle. He was so small that at 3.5 years old he was still wearing 18-month-old clothing and his vision suffered too. “We went through years where eating was a huge struggle,” Danielle recalls. “He had been on a lot of porridges in the orphanage and he had trouble chewing. He didn’t like animal proteins and even getting him to eat bread was a struggle. We were constantly looking for ways to get more nutrients and protein into him to help him grow and get his weight up.”
“I started making Nuttzo in my food processor and I was doing it because I know that every nut and seed has different nutritional benefits,” says Danielle who says as a kid she personally had no qualms finishing off a bottle of store-bought peanut butter. The problem for her son, she realized, was that those peanut butters didn’t pack enough nutritional punch. “When Gregory was having trouble eating I wanted to give him some type of protein and I knew that if I gave him peanut butter and added the nuts and seeks it would make it a complete protein. Then I added flax seed oil for Omega 3’s and turned it all into a nice nut butter that I’d put on an apple or banana for him.”
Danielle’s husband couldn’t understand why she was spending so much time and dirtying up so many dishes making this nut butter. “Why don’t you just buy it,” he said in frustration one day when faced with another sink full of dishes. “I said, Kevin, you can’t find a peanut, nut , and seed butter like this.”
And that, as they say, was the beginning….
Working With A Co-Packer
Now this wasn’t the first time Danielle had what seemed like a good idea and while she was looking for a way to transition out of her sales and advertising job, she wasn’t just going to jump into just anything so she spent time finding mentors and talking with advisors to get a better sense of whether this idea of hers made sense. One of the hardest parts of this business planning process turned out to be finding someone she could work with who would produce the product for her.
Danielle sought a co-packer from the beginning because she realized that her strength was actually out selling and marketing the product and she could move the financial needle much quicker for her company if that was her focus and not be tied to the kitchen. Not to mention that working with the right co-packer would make it possible for her to fulfill large orders quickly as opposed to trying to make everything herself.
Finding a co-packer she could work with that would produce the product according to her exact standards and was able to do small-batch production runs took many many many months of searching. Danielle spent hours at the computer plugging in every possible combination of co-packer and contract packer that she could think into search engines. She wasn’t hesitant to pick up the phone either and reached out to every co-packer she could find to see if they could produce her product as needed. More often than not the answer was no but Danielle pulled out an old sales trick and asked everyone she talked with if they could give her a recommendation or name of someone else she could call.
Adding to that, Danielle also contacted national associations like the Peanut Association and Almond Association to ask for their recommendations on co-packers to try. It was through this dogged searching and calling that Danielle finally found a co-packer to work with.
Entrepreneurship Is All About Sales
Talking to Danielle it’s obvious that she has the type of extraverted sales personality that made her one of the top radio salespeople in the San Diego area. That personality and sales experience has played a huge part in the success of NuttZo which can now be found on natural food store shelves and in Whole Foods Markets around the country. “To be a successful entrepreneur,” she says, “sales is extremely important. I don’t even think you can really go and hire other people to make sales calls for you, at least initially, because you believe in you product so much more than anyone else ever will. I can go in and sell the product so much easier and better than other people can because it’s my business and it’s my passion.”
Danielle says that she’s seen more than one really great product fail because the entrepreneurs behind it weren’t willing to go out and sell the product to consumers and buyers. “Sometimes people get embarrassed when they’re selling their own product but you can’t let that stop you. You have to confidently convey to others what makes you so passionate about your product and your brand and get them excited about it as well.”
Remembering Where It All Started
As mentioned earlier, NuttZo has experienced tremendous success for a self-funded small business that Danielle oversees in addition to being CEO of her family which now includes 3 children (they adopted a youngest son from overseas as well) and even a grandchild. “I’m at a place where I need to build my team out and I’m getting a handle on developing real projections and keeping to the budgets I’ve created,” Danielle says. With growth comes the need for capital so Danielle and her team are exploring different funding options. She’s hesitant to take on an angel investor too early which would mean giving away part of the equity in the company she’s worked so hard to build, but at the same time, she’s unsure whether a business loan will give her the capital necessary to grow as quickly as she wants to.
Regardless of what she decides, one key piece of her business that isn’t going anywhere is the 1% of the gross profits that the company donates to orphanages around the world. Project Left Behind is a nonprofit Danielle and Kevin started that provides things like roofs, educational supplies, and clothing to orphanages. What makes the nonprofit even more special to Danielle and Kevin is that they personally work with every orphanage the nonprofit collaborates with. “I’ve gone to every orphanage that we support,” Danielle says, her voice swelling at the mention of the children she’s had the opportunity to meet. “I’ve helped paint the walls, redesigned a kitchen, and I especially love to cook with kids. It’s one of the most fun and rewarding things I do and we’ll be doing it forever.