June 16, 2014
To make the best vanilla extract, you need the very best ingredients and you must take a longer time frame approach in order to let the vanilla age and allow the flavor to develop naturally. The four partners behind Lágrima, makers of handcrafted, pure vanilla extract, take that exact same long-term horizon when it comes to the building of their business and rather than focusing on rapid growth, instead look to build relationships one at a time.
During a recent sunny afternoon, I had the chance to sit down with Neil Beam, one of the founders of Lágrima. As he tells it, he and his wife, Rebekah, who is an accomplished ballerina (having graced world-renowned stages) and a veterinarian, always knew they wanted to start a business but what, exactly, wasn’t initially clear. The two first met in high school and originally thought they would open up a veterinary clinic together – a decision that prompted Neil to head to business school for his MBA while Rebekah was finishing up her veterinary training and residencies. Ultimately, they realized that the vet world was not the most compatible for the family life they hoped to have and they started to consider what else might be a good fit for their family (which now includes a six-year old and twins who will be making an appearance any day now!), their lifestyle, and their passions.
“We’ve always been foodies,” Neil said, “and we’ve always given consumables as gifts. We started making homemade vanilla extract and giving it to friends who raved about it.”
That spark of an idea prompted Neil to do more research about the industry and he realized that it was ripe for a new competitor to enter the scene. “You see artisan vinegars and oils and we wondered why someone hadn’t done something similar with vanilla extract.”
Together with co-founders Danielle Stroble and David Gomez-Rosado, they built out a business model that would differentiate themselves from the mass-market vanilla extract producers that line supermarket shelves. Part of their strategy was to create a more authentic, truer, less-manipulated vanilla extract by letting time naturally age the best beans they could find. There would be no short-cuts with this process and Neil, who has an engineering background, developed processes that would enable the product’s full flavor to mature while David Gomez-Rosado developed the company’s visual branding complete with the screen-printed bottles that help customers immediately identify that this vanilla is a step above the ordinary.
The other part of the equation that the team spent time deliberating was how they could differentiate themselves from a distribution standpoint. They considered following the well-worn model of selling wholesale as a means by which to gain sales, but they knew that would be an uphill battle given the entrenched vanilla extract manufacturers who already line the shelves.
Rather, they gave up potential quicker initial sales for building authentic relationships with customers to build brand loyalty via a direct-to-customer sales model. Their products can be purchased online through the company’s web store which went live in July 2013. “We wanted to develop an experience that allows us to build relationships with our customers,” Neil explains. “It’s all about the relationship to us. We know this means we may grow more slowly but our relationships with customers will be that much stronger.”
Part of their strategy for building those relationships is to reach out to food bloggers. While they do not pay for sponsored posts or sponsored recipes, Lagrima is open to sending bloggers product samples or offering giveaway products for blog readers. These are the people, Neil and the team know, who are most committed to cooking and good food and know that good ingredients make all the difference. They believe that if they can get in front of these people then their product’s superior taste will do the rest of the work.
“We’re open to doing experimentation,” Neil says about how they market their products. This means that they have to be open to spending a little bit of money, mostly in product samples, and they’ve built that into their business financial models. “When we started this business, we all agreed that we wouldn’t take any money out of the business for the first five years in order to keep that capital in the business.”
This is obviously not an option for every entrepreneur and Neil knows that he is in a fortunate situation though it does mean that he, and the entire team, often work long hours. After our meeting, for example, Neil was on his way to pick up some new labels for their infused vanilla flavors, helping to oversee some reconstruction on their processing facility in addition to continuing to work full-time.
With new additions planned to their product line later this year, Lágrima’s long-range planning enables the team to focus on making decisions (and evaluating how those decisions have performed) and on building relationships that are best for the company’s long-term success.