From Prototyping to Launching the Alpha Lecka Energy Bar
Developing a product. Probably the most amazing and fun part to starting a product-led company. Probably also one of the most challenging parts to building a company. A lot can go right, but also very wrong.
Here is what I learned when developing the Lecka Natural Energy Bar in 2020 in Vietnam. A journey of exploring unchartered waters of foods, packaging and language barriers.
Rewind to 2019. After my ‘powerpoint, excel and coffee chat’ investor life in Singapore, that I loved for many reasons, I was determined to start something different (see my previous post about the inner journey). Product building was the next step. A product I use myself, I am proud of and I would love to sell.
Lesson #1: Build something where you have immediate control over every iteration
My product building journey started out by developing an app for runners that helped to track races and results in Asia. We developed some algorithms to scrape dozens of websites and show those in a comprehensive way. We had probably the largest database of races in Asia by then. Useful for us runners who were looking for races at the time, however quite tedious to build as none of us were mobile app developers. It took weeks to coordinate with the developers and push sprints out. The cycle of development was too long and we couldn’t adopt the app fast enough based on users feedback. Eventually the cost for the app grew too high and we didn’t see the potential.
The homescreen to search for different races in Asia
Next one up was a fitness training app for Southeast Asia in late 2019. By then I had spent more time in Vietnam and saw the potential to leverage mobile phones for fitness classes. With a few friends, we started to record workout videos that anyone can do at home. Again, the idea was to live stream it via a (this time) simpler app to a group of people. Fun to record the videos and work out together, not so fun to patch all the technology together. None of us were tech-savy enough to push it over the line. Funny enough, this app would have done quite well during COVID I believe.
So, no more tech. Let’s do something physical.
I turned vegan in 2019, so I saw the potential to introduce more vegan products in Vietnam. I love cheese, so a natural step would be to make my own vegan cheese. After some weeks of testing, I got around to make some nice vegan feta cheese and some semi-hard creme cheese. Great experience and interesting for improving taste profiles, however the fermentation cycles of a few weeks took too long in order to iterate fast. Bye bye vegan cheese.
My vegan feta cheese based on tofu
I learned, I love creating a food product that I eat myself and where I can adjust recipe over night.
Besides realising that there is a market gap in Vietnam by simply going to grocery stores and not seeing any good energy bars, I also enjoyed making those efficient and effective snacks for my personal needs.
The idea to start making energy bars was born. I loved the fact that I can just buy the ingredients from the market, mix them together, shape them into a bar and try them out on a run and/or share them with friends. That was a cycle of around 1-2h. Compared to my other ideas before, this type of product allowed me to move really fast from one version to another. In no time, I had tested over 500 recipes that I recorded like a good German engineer in an excel sheet to keep track of all iterations. As it turns out, the great flavours out of those 500 recipes are still the ones we are selling today. Unlike doing app development where we had to outsource the work, I was able to be in the kitchen myself and control every aspect of it. No need for consultants, experts nor freelancers. Simply me and the product.
Hence, the lesson: build a product where you can control the prototyping cycle as much as possible.
Lesson #2: Define a swimlane
There are probably hundred different ways of making energy bars. Some are based on dates, others on oats, then some on nuts, and so on. The question was, where do I start?
I copied. I googled ‘energy bar recipe’, took the one with the highest votes and started to try it out myself. I also bought a good enough food processor and went to work. Turns out, those recipes are super easy and the products are very delicious.
My best friend the food processor lasted for 18 months
But, that wouldn’t cut it for me. It wasn’t anything special and I wasn’t excited about the fact that I just make recipes off the internet. ‘Everyone can do that’.
So, I defined my first rule, a so-called swimlane, that I would not leave so easily:
I only use ingredients from Vietnam.
As I was doing more and more online and offline shopping of ingredients, I learned about the hundreds of fruits, seeds, nuts, spices and herbs that are grown in Vietnam. Why should I use dates like anyone else, if I can just use the dried fruits from Vietnam? That led me on a culinary journey where I had to train my taste buds to understand how Vietnamese flavour profiles work together. Again, all recorded in my spreadsheet, I worked my way into various combinations that work the best: Mango Coconut, Ginger Lime, Dark Cacao Banana, etc.
One of the first Mango Coconut bars – we are still using a very similar recipe today
As EVERYONE is using plastic packaging and me as a nature loving trail runner can’t see more plastic, I defined the second swimlane:
We use bio-based packaging
It was very clear for me at the beginning that I cannot cross that line to use conventional plastic packaging. This packaging journey of Lecka deserves its own post where I will cover more details on our packaging. I can tell you however that I got so frustrated at some point not being able to find a good solution, that I crushed my right pointing finger so hard into a table, that it broke slightly. The sacrifices you take…
By creating those two conditions, I narrowed down the possibilities on what kind of product I can create. At the same time, I already defined some of the key values that we still hold onto today: work with Vietnamese farmers directly and not use plastic packaging. Clear and simple. But very important at the beginning!
For about 4-5 months, some of it in COVID lockdowns in Ho Chi Minh City (around March 2020), I was pretty much every day in the kitchen to work through hundreds of different recipes, techniques and flavour profiles. It brought me closer to a few farmers that we still work with today. It taught me to be patient and make sure that we got to find that perfect recipe that get the most good feedback.
Lesson #3: Do something that doesn’t scale
Once I had narrowed down the recipes to a handful, I was keen to get them out to the world and get more feedback. At the beginning, I wasn’t sure how else to package the products, so I chose the easy zip-lock back.
Still in plastic, but ready for testing
In May 2020 I started to hand out dozens of prototypes to friends in the running community. This testing is key to every product development and real feedback is crucial. Something that everyone talks about, and still holds very true! No way around it.
However, I wasn’t happy about the plastic version and based on the aferomentioned no-plastic rule, I was looking for alternatives how I can package the product.
And then nature presented itself. How about using banana leaves? Those leaves are a very traditional way in Asia to wrap and preserve food. The banana leaf energy bar wrapper was born. We sourced the leaves directly from a farm outside Ho Chi Minh City where they were part of a wild garden.
From May to December 2020 we were making hundreds of energy bars every week, wrap them in leaves and distribute them to the trail runners. It was so much fun and felt so good to provide the community with a truly value adding product. The feedback was incredibly positive and it was a truly unique experience for trail runners. No harm was done to the nature when the leaf was chucked into the forest. True biodegradation in a few weeks.
However, it does not scale. Each bar had to be wrapped indivually which took time and care. The shelf life was only 5 days so we couldn’t sell any in retail places. The business model was closer to a bakery and would require a very different setup and product mix. I didn’t care though. For me it was very important to provide a product I am proud of, that adds value to customers and is close to our values.
We wrapped all the energy bars in leaves
In hindsight, I still believe that going down that route for a few months was the right step. I didn’t allow us to scale fast, but we build a lot of strong relationships in the community and gained trust of a very loyal group of customers. It also allowed me to test already a lot of different types of industrial bio-based packaging materials simultaniously which was beneficial later when I had to choose which material to go for.
Doing something that doesn’t scale at the beginning is so true and I can only recommend everyone to do it.
Throughout 2020 I moved from a simple idea of making energy bars to providing thousands of banana leaf wrapped energy bars to trail runners in Vietnam. That process was filled with joy, curiosity and passion. The banana leaf was our alpha product that we started to sell to the runners before races. It made us set up a company that became Lecka. It was the first step on a long journey.
I will never forget the support from the trail community who carried that initial idea and provided so much valuable feedback. Launching an alpha product in a niche market is so much easier and the product refinement cycles are much shorter. The feedback flows easier and everyone feels more part it. Thank you all!
From there we embarked to next chapter: how to industrialise all this. Next post coming soon.