Stories of modern business.

Courier Weekly Friday 7 August 2020

Courier Weekly Friday 7 August 2020

We’re in California with Aishwarya Iyer, who explains how she built her fast-growing olive oil brand, Brightland – then over to Norway where we talk about the future of video meetings with Øyvind Reed, CEO of Whereby.

DANNY GIACOPELLI: Hey guys, welcome back to Courier Weekly. I'm Danny Giacopelli, Courier's editorial director. If you're new here to the show or to Courier, we're all about telling amazing stories of modern business, basically showing you how to work better and live smarter. This week on the show, we talk olive oil and video meetings, but not in the same conversation. 

First up, we're in Los Angeles. It's pretty likely that you know of Brightland, one of the most buzzy and talked-about olive oil brands on the market. Aishwarya Iyer previously spent a decade working in the tech and VC world, until at some point, she and her husband started to get into cooking and realised that crappy olive oil was making them sick. She soon discovered that the origins supply chain and labelling for lots of olive oil was all over the place. And pretty shady. Lo and behold, a new business idea fell from the sky. Aishwarya now runs Brightland. She works with a farming partner in California, where the olives are grown. I caught up with her to find out how she's grown the company, and how she's launched a new product line during the pandemic. 

AISHWARYA IYER: I was living in New York City. I lived in New York for about 10 years. The first eight years, I can probably count the number of times that I spent time in my kitchen. I had a spreadsheet of over 600 restaurants – I was that New Yorker. Around year eight of just bopping around the city, I started spending more time at home and cooking more and got into a serious relationship. Both my partner and I noticed that we kept getting stomach aches every time that we cooked at home. At first, it was just this slight discomfort, nothing too alarming, but enough to cause attention and give us some pause. So we started eliminating certain things like bread and cheese, and we even cut out spices. Eventually the only constant that was left – and we talked to a couple of nutritionist friends – was the cooking oil we were using. Until then, I had never given all oil, or cooking with any type of oil or a pantry foundational food, a second thought.

I did a little bit of research. I was using olive oil at the time, so I googled bad olive oil. What showed up was that there is a massive problem across the world actually – this is a global issue – where there's a slew of rancid rotten products out there in the ether. By ether, I mean supermarkets and places where we're all shopping. Consumers have just been buying what they think is labelled extra-virgin olive oil, but actually doesn't qualify to be that. 60 Minutes had done a pretty big piece about this, and there's conversations around a lot of kinds of food fraud and the Italian Mafia being involved… There's a lot of scandal and intrigue plaguing this industry.

DANNY: Yeah, I've read all about the counterfeit olive oil coming out of... well, nobody really knows where it originates from, right?

AISHWARYA: No one really knows where it originates from. At the end of the day, I think there's a miseducation around the concept of olive oil. Olive oil is pressed from a fruit, which is the olive, and it should not go through massive amounts of processing. After that, it's really important to remember that it is something that ages and doesn't age well. It's not a wine; it's actually going to degrade in quality. That's a huge fact that a lot of people don't necessarily think about, and then that it has some very clear enemies in light, heat and air. When you get caught up in, 'Oh, I want it to be in a clear bottle, because that's prettier,' you're not really providing integrity to the actual product. That's happening at a pretty large scale, too.

DANNY: So you noticed all of this, and you turned what you saw as a gap in the market into a fast growing direct-to-consumer olive oil brand? 

AISHWARYA: I was thinking about doing a certification programme. I thought that maybe a chef or a restauranteur should be pursuing this project. I didn't think that I would be the one to do it. I didn't come from a background in food, so I didn't think I had a place or a space that I could carve out for myself. 

When I moved to California in 2016, I started visiting olive farms just on the weekends out of fun and curiosity. I didn't really understand the kind of the burgeoning industry that's here. I was so delighted by the quality and the conversation and just the promise for what I saw was really, really interesting. It reminded me of what the wine industry must have been like in the seventies in California. Having these similar conversations brought back some of those feelings and I thought that maybe there's something that I can do here. 

I didn't go into a business plan and funding. I took some of my savings and said: let me just see – let me do a first run and let me try to find the right farm partner that aligns with what this company's values are going to be. Let's take it day by day after that. 

DANNY: Now, obviously, Brightland is seemingly everywhere: it's all over Instagram; it's on ‘best of’ lists; you're in the New York Times. A question that I'm keen to know is, how does one brand go down a path that gets quite a lot of exposure and press time and is out there, and people know about it and they write about it? And how does a brand not get that? You've made olive oil a sexy thing or a cool product. What do you account for that besides just hard work and stamina?

AISHWARYA: It's such a blend of things. It can't be just one thing. Anytime someone says that's the one thing that's either going to get you sales or press or 'success', it's very dangerous, and I wouldn't trust that, candidly. 

I think it was the story we told, I think it's my story. When I talked about getting stomach aches, we've had so many customers reach out and say that they were getting stomach aches, and then they tried Brightland and the pain went away. So I think it's the story and just why I started it. Our packaging serves well in terms of being a bit memorable, and being something that people enjoy placing in their kitchens. I've heard a lot that people pre-Covid would have dinner parties and would have people over and the Brightland bottles, if they were on the table, became a topic of conversation. 

DANNY: It's a physically beautiful thing, so that obviously doesn't hurt whatsoever.

AISHWARYA: It definitely doesn't hurt. Ultimately, the product has to speak for itself. You can take something subpar and dress it up with pretty packaging, or even build a beautiful website, and maybe you can get that first sale. But we have nearly 200 five-star reviews that are real. I'm always shocked when I read them, as they come in through my email. Customers who've said they're floored by how it tastes, how it has changed the way they think about cooking or eating. That is so powerful and so amazing to see. 

It's also my background. I worked in corporate communications and public affairs mainly for fintech and consumer technology companies, but I still had that baseline of understanding storytelling and narrative building. I valued PR in a way that maybe I wouldn't have if I didn't have that experience. 

DANNY: How has the pandemic changed things for you? It's changed every company, every brand in the world in different ways. How does it change Brightland?

AISHWARYA: The first thing we did was shut down our office and implement WFH. I had just signed a two-year lease for a new office space, and we were supposed to move in April. I emailed them and said, I'd like to cancel and get out of this lease, and luckily they agreed to that. Shortly thereafter, we saw quite a few wholesale cancellations from larger retailers. That was one kind of domino that fell. Another domino was we saw restaurants, local and around the country, start reaching out and saying that they were developing a pantry programme and they'd love to carry Brightland.

For us, we just took a step back and thought a lot about what we people might need right now or that they could potentially enjoy. So we put together and launched a digital content series called On the Bright Side and it featured conversations with folks in natural wine and conversations about cheese; topics that were ancillary to Brightland, and we also had cooking episodes. We got a lot of really nice feedback about that. Even that was such an evolution. Social media definitely exhausts me more than it invigorates or energises me. I had to press pause on it multiple times because it got to be a very exhausting, that content series. Those are just snippets of what the pandemic caused in our thinking and our way of navigating through it. 

DANNY: Did you see a rise in sales or a drop in sales? Obviously, a lot more people were cooking at home, but then fewer people had the disposable income to splurge on things like nice olive oil. So I'm wondering how your sales were?

AISHWARYA: Yeah, we definitely saw a spike in sales.

DANNY: What about your business model? You guys have a really interesting model similar to streetwear drops. You drop vinegars, and everybody just rallies around, buys it, and then it's sold out. 

AISHWARYA: That's really a funny comparison. We want to remind our customers, and we want to remind people in general, that there are humans working behind the scenes for this. This is an agricultural product, and in order for us to do it right and do it with our values intact, we're not going to just launch something with 100,000 units willy nilly. This product wasn't just made in a factory, where it's just churned out. There's harvest dates, and there are fermenting times, and that drives the thinking behind our launches. 

We launched our hero products, the extra-virgin olive oils first, and then we started launching flavoured oils, because a) that was something we were asked of quite a bit and b) I really wanted to celebrate artists. A way that I thought to marry food and art together was to use the Brightland bottles as a canvas. We have commissioned various artists around the world who have worked with us on labels, special-edition labels, and we've debuted a spicy chilli oil and a lemon oil and a basil-infused oil. 

Eight months ago, we started working on a vinegar situation. I should add that to the pandemic mix, launching something in the midst of a pandemic, going through that supply chain operations process, it's quite something. For any entrepreneur listening to this right now: if you're thinking about launching anything or you're working on a product, definitely buffer some extra time for even something as small as a photoshoot that's happening in two weeks. You’ll need to send your product to the photographers, and have to account for the fact that USPS is going through so many issues. We've sent products to photographers and our other partners, and it's gotten lost more than one time. Then we've had to send it again and things get delayed because of that. That's a really simple example, but it's an example that has a severe domino effect for when you think you might want to launch something.

DANNY: Have there been any shit-hitting-the-fan moments in the past couple months for you guys in terms of a major delay? Something where you thought it got a bit dicey?

AISHWARYA: Yeah, definitely. We coat all of our bottles with a UV-protected, organic coating, and one of the coaters is in Wisconsin. The day that they were about to ship to California to our olive farm, the Wisconsin governor announced a shutdown. Even though we're classified as an essential business, because we're in the food business, that partner still shut their facility down. So, we had to scramble because they wouldn't reopen, we tried anything we possibly could, and we had bottles that we needed. We were scrambling left and right to figure out a solution. That's just one kind of example, but that was so unexpected, because we didn't know that that would be the day that they would announce the shutdown. We also thought that we're an essential business, and that we'd be OK. But this time is so unprecedented.

DANNY: The situation is still so fluid, especially in the US with openings and reopenings. What about the situation in California? So you grow the olives. Who is actually the farmer and do you own that land? What's the situation? 

AISHWARYA: We have a farm partner we work with. We have a very close relationship with them. They're a family farm, it's a husband-and-wife owner, and fortunately they're in the central coast of California and it's not a very dense area. They've been practising social distancing and doing what they can do to operate extremely lean. It's also not harvest time yet, so the olives are just growing and waiting to be picked later in November.

DANNY: What are the challenges have you faced growing an online-based food brand?

AISHWARYA: Shipping is always a challenge. USPS in the United States, I just feel horribly for them. They're going through a lot and packages are getting lost more than ever – there's a cut down in service time. From a postal worker standpoint, they're an integral part of our democracy, and also our business. We're seeing it on both fronts and feeling really badly. That's a huge challenge, and it's not something that's sexy or talked about but, at the end of the day, your product needs to get shipped and arrive to your customer intact and on time.

Customers are understanding and they understand that due to Covid there are delays, but with these USPS issues, we've never seen anything like it. Things are showing up 10 days later than they normally do. I don't know how that's gonna play out, especially as we approach the election and then the holidays. Big picture, I think a lot of people think that we have raised millions of dollars and are this fancy company that can spend a lot of money. I'm proud that we have built a brand that looks like that, but we are not like that.

DANNY: Yeah, it's really slick and polished. 

AISHWARYA: Thank you, but certainly not in that bucket. That's an opportunity and a challenge. The  other opportunity and challenge is just that it's very noisy.There's a lot of everything, especially on social media. In order to truly stand out, what do you have to do? How do you make sure that you're not overly inspired by somebody else doing something? I think there's a lot of those thoughts and conversations.

DANNY: You just see the vast wealth of brands out there in the food-and-drink space. It boggles the mind, how they could all exist at the same time, and they all have quite similar branding – they're all millennial friendly, they're all Instagram native. Something's got to break at some point. Tthere's just too many out there. 

AISHWARYA: I completely agree with you. 

DANNY: That was Aishwarya Iyer from Brightland. Next up, Zoom, the video meetings platform that you've probably already used about 10 times today, has that rare cultural achievement of becoming a verb, 'let me zoom you'. But it's not the only service of its kind. Today, we're talking with Øyvind Reed. He's the CEO and co-founder of the Norwegian company Whereby, a web-based platform known for its privacy standards, which has grown hugely in recent months, for obvious reasons. Øyvind caught up with me just a bit earlier, from his home in Norway. 

ØYVIND REED: We've had 4x revenue growth in four months, so it's been absolutely crazy. It's fascinating to me and all my colleagues to see how different and how changed the company is today, compared to what it was even in February, for instance. We saw things really starting to happen on 25 February of this year, and just skyrocket with traffic reaching a 30x increase. It was quite clear that everyone needed a video-conferencing service of some sort, to be able to conduct their business in good fashion while sheltering in place. The word ‘game-changing’ is often used a lot – I think, it's totally applicable. 

DANNY: Do most of your users come from people who have tried your competitors, like Zoom, and have abandoned it? Or do they find you because they don't even want to attempt to go on Zoom, they see you as a good alternative to begin with? 

ØYVIND: It's fair to say there's a combination of the two. We've seen tremendous growth from people that have had concerns around privacy, for instance, that goes just for Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and Zoom. We're seen as the European privacy friendly alternative to big tech, which is a good position for us to be in obviously. There are nuances to how the platform is being utilised. One of the strengths of our platform is that there is no download. You click that link and the video meeting is up. There is no need to book a meeting, you can just decide ad hoc to jump on, find that link, and boom, you're in the meeting. So we've seen that there are actually different use cases that set us aside from some of the more traditional players in this space.

DANNY: How did Zoom get to be the market leader so quickly? So few people were doing video conferencing before lockdown, and then all of sudden, this ‘Zoom’ word was everywhere? It's become a verb now: to zoom someone. Could that have been you or somebody else, if you just did something a bit different back then?

ØYVIND: I've been in the video-conferencing industry for 10 years, right? Everyone associated with the business has always said that they can't wait for video to become pervasive, but there's always been boundaries in place to stop that from happening. The tech wasn't good enough, companies didn't execute well enough, there were so many different reasons why video never really took off in the first place. Obviously, people had Skype and so on, but it never really manifested itself in organisations. I think Zoom – and I have tremendous respect for what they've done from an execution perspective – they were the first one to build tech that was reliable and stable. I think users really love that part of it, and I've always been amazed at how well they've executed their go-to marketing strategy. 

We're looking at Zoom and asking: what are some of the things that we can learn and improve on? And what are the things that we don't want to do that Zoom has done, and that can take us in a different direction? 

To answer your question, I don't think anyone could have done more to be truthful. They're one of the fastest growing software companies – replicating that requires extreme execution and a very strong strategy in place.

DANNY: You guys must be hoping that more people stay remote working right now. I've seen a few companies in the past couple days which have said, 'No more office ever again.' It's remarkable, right? 

ØYVIND: I think we're all struggling to find out exactly what the new normal is going to be. We are already seeing that there will be some sort of hybrid situation between an office space and people working remotely. Many people that have been working from home have seen it can help reduce stress. The two-hour commute every single day into an office doesn't really make you very efficient, right? There's no doubt that there are better ways of doing things, especially for us fortunate enough to be working in tech, and where our mind is basically our biggest tool. 

When you've seen all these companies decide to make that shift, that's a huge step in a very radical direction. Telenor, one of our owners, just announced that 23,000 people will now have the option to decide wherever they want to work from. So I find that interesting. We're not just seeing the shift in startups and smaller companies, such as us with 60 people, but you're seeing this massive shift in much larger corporations. They're looking at better ways and new ways of allowing people the flexibility, and that's something that we as a company care deeply about. How do we give flexibility to our colleagues, so that they can perform at the highest level consistently, while at the same time maintaining a very healthy lifestyle, have a healthy mind and enjoy their life in total, a combination of family and work?

DANNY: What's the future of this sector? There must be tons of competitors piling into the video-teleconferencing and vide- meeting space. What's the future of features, for me, as a user of these things? Will there be crazy features introduced that allow me to visit with my doctor or dentist?

ØYVIND: A very good question. There are so many cool things happening in this space, and this market is now being flooded by anyone who wants to go out and get started using a video platform. The problem, though, is that building a high-functioning and globally distributed video platform takes a lot of effort and a lot of great engineering power. We've been fortunate enough to have some amazing engineers working on this for years, and they continue every single day to improve it. There's a barrier to entry there for many companies where it's easy to build something that you and I can use, but once you start really scaling, it becomes really complicated very fast. I think you're going to see quite a few drop off, because they just have completely underestimated that piece of it. 

However, what I think is the massive opportunity today is that most use cases are underestimated in terms of how videos are set up today. If you look at Zoom, and to a certain extent Whereby, sometimes we're retrofitting our use case to help someone get something fun over video. We’re seeing a huge growth in our API platform, where we allow other companies to take our video platform and embed it into their own workflows. Now that could either be used for healthcare – we're massive in healthcare in Scandinavia, for instance, where companies are using us to facilitate doctor-patient meetings. They will take care of the whole customer journey, but just then make sure that the video call is all taking place over Whereby. 

I think we've just started to see the small shifts in how different use cases can improve the experience for the user. Instead of saying everything has to be a certain colour, everything has to be a Whereby colour, we have to cater and tailor the use cases to the specific needs of what you're trying to solve at any given moment.

DANNY: What about privacy and security? One of the big criticisms of Zoom is that the Chinese government is listening in, and the Bogeyman has all your transcripts? If I'm talking about my personal health data, how do I know it's not gonna get leaked somewhere at some point?

ØYVIND: This is why investing in privacy is so important and why Whereby's privacy policy has been given a lot of praise – because it's very clear how we use data. People are starting to see that the tech might not have their best interest at heart, especially at all times. So vendors and service providers that can guarantee more privacy and security will have a competitive advantage. That requires you to make some tough decisions on how you use that data though. How do you track? How does that impact your revenue and your ability to convert a free user to a paying user, for instance? 

The great part is, when you talk about this specific example of use in healthcare, very often, all different parts of a solution would have to be certified by the healthcare provider before you could start using. I think that's the way you have to do it. To go through the rigorous scrutiny, to be sure that the meetings taking place are safe and secure, and that they are scrubbed after. At Whereby, we don't store any meetings, we don't store chat, we don't store video, we don't store audio, it's all deleted as soon as the meeting is done.

DANNY: But Zoom stores that?

ØYVIND: I wouldn't want to speak out of turn on how exactly they do it, but there's no doubt that Zoom has received tough scrutiny on their security and their privacy. I've seen that they're making massive steps to try and fix that, and then it's up to the consumers to say whether or not that they're happy with the progress or if they can find a better alternative. 

DANNY: And that's it this week, make sure to check out our latest print edition of the magazine, the Design issue, all about how to make it work as a creative entrepreneur. And we've also launched our new Fresh Fund, a grant scheme for black business founders to start or supercharge a company with a bit of extra money. You can find details about both on our website, couriermedia.co. I'm Daniel Giacopelli. The Courier Weekly is back again next week. We'll see you then.