Want to start a Malaysian snack food company? Amy Zheng of Amazin’ Graze shares her story
We've all been there where a single thought wandered its way into our brains and for a moment, we have this cool business idea that could potentially take off. Make soap at home. Sell cakes and biscuits for Raya/Chinese New Year/Christmas/etc. Whip up candles. A minute or two passed by and our minds are back on the train of thought on a different track.
But not so for the girls behind Amazin' Graze. The need to fill that gap for healthy (but tasty) local snacks pushed them, made them experiment, and soon, it wasn't just friends and family craving for more, but friends of friends and strangers who were hungry for their granolas and nuts. But what does it take to build a success story? What does it take to go from a party of three to a company of forty (and more)? What does it take to see the production of these very snacks move from home kitchen to a three-storey production centre? As Amazin' Graze celebrates their upcoming third anniversary, Executive Director and co-founder Amy Zheng tells all.
Hi Amy! Congrats on Amazin' Graze's huge milestone. Three years ago, did you envision Amazin' Graze to grow this huge, this fast?
I still remember setting up at our first market stall at Bangsar Shopping Centre in August 2015 and we sold out all 600 packets of our granolas and nuts over that weekend. It was at that moment that we realised that the market is ready for a local, healthy snacks brand.
But as this was our first food business, we didn't know what to expect. Most food businesses were already established and we were one of the first people to create a healthy snacks brand in the region. We tried different business models and product ranges and worked with a lot of different customers. It wasn't until a year ago that we felt confident in our approach and the direction ahead. I guess our approach is to work as hard as we can and don't look back!
That's awesome. As the Executive Director, what are some of the gritty tasks under your belt?
The list is pretty long. It ranges from chasing accounts receivables from customers to uploading new products onto our website to dealing with IT issues when the server is down to administration and HR responsibilities. I also manage our public email address so I can filter and track what people are emailing us about and deal with customer comments and complaints.
That sounds like a lot!
Yes, but generally, we have a pretty good work-life balance here at Amazin' Graze, so I am able to leave work between 6-7pm. That's when I get some time to either cook or catch-up with friends over dinner and get some time to read books or watch Netflix.
So what would you say is the best part about your job?
The ability to create and to work with talented young people, which I find extremely inspiring. On a daily basis, I get to think about new products and flavours that we can create and how we can solve people's problems with these creations. I also get a big kick out of working with my team, all of whom are young, ambitious and also want to lead impactful lives. They, in turn, inspire me.
And the worst?
Dealing with financial matters like chasing overdue payments. It's really tedious and quite stressful, but extremely important to keep the company afloat.
It's all part and parcel as they say. With that being said though, there must be a couple of misconceptions that people have about starting a business like Amazin' Graze?
There are so many that I can probably write a book about this! I think the most obvious one is how easy it is to enter this kind of business. In a way, it may be easy to introduce a product but it's extremely challenging to scale it into a brand.
A lot of home-bakers can come up with their own granolas or other food products and sell at weekend markets, but becoming a food brand is an entirely different thing. You really need to understand the scope and organise a host of things such as food science, operations, large-scale production, distribution, brand and product marketing, and have sizeable funds to finance growth and supply cash flow.
On that note, how much of an investment should aspiring home entrepreneurs expect to have on hand before making the leap?
For those wishing to start a food brand and want to scale the business outside the home, you can start by renting a small commercial unit with the basic necessary equipment, preferably somewhere close to home.
From there on, you can set proper working hours, develop process flows and hire employees. In terms of investment, it really depends on the type of product you want to create and whether you can get a unit that is already set up to operate a kitchen. My advice is to start off with a budget of at least RM200,000 with more than half going into rental, equipment and renovations and the rest for raw materials, marketing, branding and other cash flow needs.
In the beginning, what or who were the biggest resources instrumental to Amazin' Graze?
There's a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. I think we definitely experienced the same here. We were extremely fortunate to have three founders at the beginning who each brought something unique to the team. The same can be said about our family and friends. They were really open to giving us their time and sharing their experience, expertise and feedback, as well as spreading the word about us.
We also participated in the Alliance Bank SME Bizsmart Challenge in 2016 where we received formal mentorship from business leaders. In addition, we were mentored by more than 10 industry leaders through the Endeavour Entrepreneurship Program earlier this year.
Amazin' Graze is an all-female startup but outside of the company's circle, do you face any sexism with your work?
Fortunately, we haven't faced outright sexism so far. However, whenever we attend business competitions, fundraising pitches or conferences, we see that the startup world is dominated by men which can often be discouraging for female-led startups.
We have had one encounter where we were encouraged to hire more men, just because all three co-founders are female, just so that we can be taken "more seriously". While diversity is important, it means there is also an assumption that there is something wrong with an all-female management team.
Hence, there's also a big misconception out there about female-led food or fashion companies that these are "lifestyle" businesses or hobbies, and not serious or professional endeavours. There's also a perception that decisions are not made quickly or that the founders are "not as ambitious".
We are saddened by such comments but we also understand that this is a common perception in our society which we have to actively battle against. It just motivates us to be our best and grow Amazin' Graze into a brand that Malaysia and Asia can be proud of.
Biggest lesson you've learnt over the years from running Amazin' Graze?
It's a marathon, not a sprint. Good things take time so be patient and don't be overly encouraged or discouraged by short-term results. Keep going, build a great foundation and ensure that you surround yourself with people that have the right attitude. I will choose someone with a good attitude over experience or skill set any day.
With the upcoming third anniversary, Amazin' Graze is due for several changes. Tell us more about it!
The decision to refresh the brand with a stronger look and identity came about as we dug deep into who Amazin' Graze is after three years of operations. Looking back, we were quite shy about our branding, our Asian roots and the greater possibilities of the company on the global stage.
As part of the anniversary celebrations, Amazin' Graze will introduce a new look and version 2.0 of our products that will more fully encompass who we are and provide better value to our customers. We are really excited about this change, so please stay tuned!
Lastly, what advice would you give to anyone aspiring to start a business like yours?
Be prepared for the long haul. This is not a one or two year endeavour. It will take at least 10 to 20 years to really build a global snacks business. Definitely find your hero product that people will rave about and keep innovating to delight your customers.
Once you have an awesome product, get out of your house, hire your first employees and scale quickly. Find distributors that believe in your product (or be your own distributor). Find business partners that can compliment you, are equally committed for the long journey and are not afraid to tell you the truth. Surround yourself with curious and ambitious people that are better than you and give them the tools and the freedom to be their best. And always be hopeful and optimistic because things will get tough, but with a great attitude, you can overcome them!