In this podcast we hear from Sharon Thurin, CEO & health food visionary at the helm of Slim Secrets, the global business that creates delicious, nutritionally balanced snacks with a sassy edge. Slim Secrets is one of Australia’s biggest success stories in the health food market.
In this podcast interview we hear Sharon’s business startup story.
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Happy reading! Now here is the full transcript of the podcast.
Ingrid: Hi Sharon, it’s Ingrid Thompson here, and thank you so much for being part of the podcast So You Want to Start a Business. And let’s start with what sort of business are you in, what is your business?
Sharon: Thanks Ingrid, for having me
Ingrid: My pleasure.
Sharon: Okay, so Slim Secrets is a brand that is all about healthy snacking. We’re part of what’s called the FMCG, Fast Moving Consumer Goods. And so it’s all about healthy snacking. Our mission is really to offer a wide variety of convenient, delicious, but also nutritionally balanced snacks to help people nourish their lives, and also for those that want to pursue a healthy and active lifestyle.
Ingrid: Wow, they sound delicious. I’m sure there’s people listening that will be just wanting to have one right now. So Sharon, when did you start this business?
Sharon: I launched it at the end of 2005. It took from the idea to the actual launch of the business, it was like having a baby, it actually took nine months.
Sharon: And it really felt like a baby when I saw it coming up. A lot of products coming off the line, the production line. It felt like a baby, but not as exciting of course.
Ingrid: And what was your impetus to actually start this business? Because you’ve got quite an interesting background, haven’t you?
Sharon: Yes. My background, I’ve got lots of degrees, a law degree, a diploma of education, arts degree, but I worked with my husband when the kids were growing up, or when the kids were younger actually, I worked with my husband in his pharmacies. So I had a strong interest in health at that stage, and I also come from a medical background, father, father-in-law, lots of doctors in the family. And I’ve always been interested in health, and I was … When my husband sold his pharmacies, much to my dismay, I decided then that it was time to do something for myself anyway, and started to work with some doctors in a anti-aging clinic, and help them set it up. And it was through there that I really realised how important food, our diet was, our fitness, everything to do with that was important to our health and longevity.
I then started to actually help some of the clients in terms of health and wellness coaching. And it was at that time that I really saw a gap in the market for healthier snack products, designed between meals, when we’re busy and on the go. So, it was really a gap in the market that I saw at that time.
Ingrid: And just remind us exactly what year we’re talking about then?
Sharon: That was 2004.
Ingrid: Okay, so this was quite some time ago, and it’s hard for people to think that there ever was a gap in the … We kind of take for granted that we’ve got a variety of choices now, but in 2004 there really was nothing, was there?
Sharon: There really wasn’t. The products that were on the shelf were really geared towards the strong body-builders, especially in terms of protein and fibre, which are very important to help fill you up. So it was either the body-builders or the really hardcore weight watchers, and nothing it between, and also nothing that actually tasted good. So it was like, everyone used to say, “Oh, these products …” Most of the bars out there or the snack options were like cardboard.
Ingrid: Yes. I remember those cardboard ones
Sharon: Hey, some still are
Ingrid: Yeah, I guess. Well clearly yours aren’t. So the next question is, what did you want from that business? So it sounds a little bit like you’ve answered that, but what did you want the business to do from the beginning?
Sharon: Okay. Really initially, I didn’t see it as a business. For me it was just a solution for my clients. And hence, the target market, which were a lot of my friends, a lot of family, we were all … I knew so many people in that target market that were looking for healthy, on-the-go snack options. So it started as a hobby. I had no intention of this being a business. So, traditionally, I didn’t do a business plan, I really launched with three bars, morning, afternoon, and night time options, and thought that was going to be it initially.
Ingrid: This is one of my favourite questions. When did you actually realise that you were in business? When did it become real? So what was that thing that changed it from the hobby to being, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got a business?”
Sharon: Okay, two things. Initially, when I spoke to Boost Juice and like in a very short period of time after we launched. They loved the products and wanted to put them on the counters of all of their juice bars nationally when we first launched, and they stayed there for about six months. Sorry, not six months, what am I saying. They stayed there for about six years.
Ingrid: Six years, yeah.
Sharon: Six years. So that was number one, and number two, when I saw them on the shelves in the supermarket and realised that there were deadlines, and things had to be done, everything had to be done very strictly, and there were no shortcuts at that stage. So yes, that’s when I realised I had a business.
Ingrid: And it’s quite amazing. So a really important point you bring up there is this idea of partnerships with somebody else, somebody who already has the kind of people that you’re looking to provide your product, and having a strong partnership with that by being involved with Boost Juice.
Ingrid: It is one of those important things in business, isn’t it?
Sharon: I call it a bit of luck as well, because from a marketing perspective, it was free marketing, sitting on their counters. And also too, the supermarkets are the same, the supermarkets are great marketing being on their shelves, because most of us do walk past and see it, so it was very-
Ingrid: And it’s a huge endorsement too that this is real, because it’s on a shelf.
Ingrid: It’s not just somebody with their local market stall or something like that. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it really is that sort of strength of endorsement, isn’t it?
Sharon: Correct, and especially when it was really aimed towards people that I was working with.
Ingrid: So we’ve talked a little bit about knowing what your customers wanted, and that the business idea was viable. So to take it from that idea of it being a hobby to get the production, clearly that would have taken some kind of investment. How did you know that it was actually going to be viable, and that it was worth actually making that leap from it being a hobby to actually taking it into production?
Sharon: Look, to be honest with you … And again, when I started … Today, there are certain things that I wish I’d done differently, but at the time I just didn’t think of it in terms of the business being viable. It was just something for my target market, a solution for consumers.
So when I actually launched, or looked at the funds involved, I did it on a shoestring. And at the time, I just didn’t have a lot to lose. It wasn’t a large amount of money that I put up front, it was really, for the initial run, the packaging, some legal and accounting, bits and pieces … But I did it from home, and I just didn’t feel like I had a lot to lose.
Ingrid: Okay, that’s pretty terrific. So that whole idea, because my next question is around funding and funding expansion, so where that money actually comes from. So from a business mindset point of view, so you’ve already talked about on a shoestring, keeping it from harm, so really keeping those costs low so that you could put everything into providing this terrific product for people who you knew needed it. So, that was your own funds, and then I know you’ve expanded now, because, wow, you’re 15, 14 years later, you’re really expanding. Where did those funds, what’s your sort of approach to funding now?
Sharon: Luckily enough, we’ve been able to self-fund the business.
Ingrid: That’s terrific.
Sharon: Through cash flow, and every bit of growth goes back into marketing, everything goes back into our marketing as well, so we’re really going to heavy push on marketing, which … People that follow us will see in terms of, we’ve got the number one tennis player in the world, hopefully still after Wimbledon, but … As our brand ambassador, Angelique Kerber, and we just put a lot back into our marketing, because it’s so important to … I keep saying, spreading the secret, and making sure it’s not a secret.
Ingrid: And make sure it’s not a secret, yeah. So just in terms of that, then how do you find new customers? So, how do you know who they are, how specific are you around your ideal customer avatar and please if you could share as much of that as you feel is appropriate. But just in terms of how do you know who that is, why you choose someone like a tennis player, and I know that you also have a singer who is one your brand ambassadors.
Ingrid: So you could you talk a little bit about-
Sharon: Avril Lavigne.
Ingrid: Yes. Could you talk a little bit about finding customers in that process that you use, please.
Sharon: Sure. Look, our target market is quite broad, even though it’s quite a female-oriented product. I’d say about 70% of our market is female, and look, we can see from our social media following, from our purchase history, that our major target market is between the 18 to 34 age group. Busy, on-the-go, etc.
Sharon: And thankfully, we have 30% males who love the product and love the protein element and also just the health element of the product. So we, again, see that through our social media, through our newsletters, and then to target them, we again use, very importantly today, which we didn’t have when we first started as much, is the social media. But also email marketing. But word of mouth, to me word of mouth is absolutely number one, and that comes through in social media but it also just comes through doing different events and things like that as well. And we tend to put our products into things like goodie bags for where our target market is, and get the brand out that way … We find that a fantastic way to spread the secret.
Ingrid: So people get to experience the product, and then they go look for it in their supermarket or wherever it’s available. Okay. So in terms of pricing, because like I would imagine in 2004 when you started out, as you said, you were just providing something terrific for people you knew needed it, and then gradually as you went into supermarkets, and now there’s a myriad of these sorts of products to choose from. So, the pricing strategy has probably changed over time. Could you talk a little bit about your pricing strategy please?
Sharon: Sure. At the time when we launched, we did look at what products were sitting on the shelves, and just wanted to make sure that we were offering less than what they were offering at that particular time. So, we were trying to be competitive knowing that we didn’t have a name out there, and our budget was a lot lower than some of the big companies, really it was looking at what was out there, and obviously then looking at what our costs were in terms of product, and trying to get a balance. The problem is that where our products sit today price-wise, we have not increased … You’re not going to believe it, the 40 g bars that we launched with, we have not increased the price in the, I think it’s 11 years since we launched.
Ingrid: Sharon, that’s amazing.
Sharon: I know. So I push and I push all of our supplies to try and keep our costs down. It’s not easy, but yeah. So it’s $2.95 for our 40 g bars, and that’s what they are still today sitting on the shelves.
Ingrid: Wow. Because of course, your competition isn’t just the other bars, it’s the Mars Bars and the other things that people could have at any time of day to give themselves that boost, isn’t it?
Sharon: It is and it’s not, because really, I believe that our target market is really anybody interested in their health, fitness, or weight management. So, anybody that has a Mars Bar … Everything in moderation I say.
Sharon: But mostly our customers will not eat a Mars Bar, except on the rare occasion.
Ingrid: Okay, so your people are really clear that they want this type of product, they’re not looking at that other … And I should just pick on Mars Bars, because there’s a myriad, a whole aisle of things in the supermarket, isn’t there? And it could be sweet or savoury, it could just as easily be Corn Chips. It’s that snack something that people look for.
Ingrid: So you’re clear that your people really do know that they need something healthier than any of the other options for them.
Sharon: Absolutely, and also understand that they understand what protein today … Protein has such a high profile, and such an importance in terms of snack, so they actually … And also the low sugar element. Well, your Mars Bars, even your muesli bars sitting on the shelves, a lot of them are high in sugar and low in protein, so you’re not getting the benefits of getting that, feeling full between meals. So it really is an awareness, and it’s teaching people about these type of products. And once they understand about them, they are happy to pay a premium, because the ingredients are more expensive as well.
Ingrid: Yes. And having looked at your … And I’ll put the website links and the Facebook links into the show notes with this. There’s a lot of education involved in helping people understand why these products really are the snack to have, particularly if you’re wanting to be healthy and have the energy for the day. Because I think particularly, as people choose to be vegan or vegetarian, with all these different lifestyle choices being made, then how do you get the protein if you’re … How do you maintain an overall nutritional balance? It becomes so complex, doesn’t it?
Sharon: It sure does. And it’s funny you actually mentioned gluten-free, because we were before, again, we’ve been very innovative with a lot of our products and ingredients, and we actually had gluten-free products basically from day one, or soon after.
Sharon: Yeah. The next range we did were gluten-free after the first range. And so, that foresight, because today, again, gluten-free is another buzzword. And the products that were out in the market that were gluten-free, as you mentioned, were often high in calories, fat, sugar, etc. So there was very little offering at the time, hence we filled a gap there too.
Ingrid: And it’s so difficult for people to get it right, or even people who really want to get it right, they buy this and then they discover there’s a lot of sugar in it, or they buy that and they discover that it’s got more fat … It’s very difficult.
Sharon: It is, but we’re getting more savvy.
Ingrid: We are, yeah. So, back to the business, and you don’t have to tell us what it is, but Sharon, do you have an exit strategy, have you thought about where this goes?
Sharon: I certainly do. I’ve actually got my son involved in the business. He’s now heading our export growth, which, as we can discuss later, but is taking a really healthy turn for the best, and growing. So he’s involved with that. So we’re looking at a larger export growth short-term. We do have investors that have contacted us on quite a number of occasions, but it’s not something … I don’t believe it’s something that we’re looking at in the very short-term, but it may be something …
Ingrid: Who knows.
Sharon: I don’t know how many years away, but it is … We do have an exit strategy in place.
Ingrid: And the reason I ask that is that so many people get started in a business, and they get so caught in running the business that they actually don’t think about what potentially that might be. And it doesn’t have to end up looking like the picture they paint, but it’s about having that awareness that at the end there will be an end, and what is that, yes.
Sharon: Very important, I agree.
Ingrid: Very important. So you’ve mentioned this, and now I’m going to ask you specifically, what is something that you wish you’d done differently at the beginning? You said that there were some things that you might have done differently. Can you talk a little bit about that now please?
Sharon: Sure. Well probably the most important thing, and I’ve learned this along the way talking to lots of different entrepreneurs, is partnering with somebody. Because I hadn’t started as a business as such, it was more a hobby, I was looking after everything myself for the first six years I think. I did everything. I was your bookkeeper, salesperson, everything I did. And having a partner to actually compliment your skills and bounce ideas off, and really work with is probably one of the things that I do regret. But whilst I do regret it, it just was never on my radar when I first started for the reasons that I started.
Sharon: But now I’ve got Jamie, my son, involved in the business. So that in itself is part of the solution, but it’s definitely one of the things I do regret.
Ingrid: Yeah. But it’s not … It’s so easy in hindsight, isn’t it? Because when you’re doing it, you don’t realise that the half hour you spend here, or the hour you spend there doing activities that somebody else could do differently, you just do them. You don’t deliberately go, “Well I’m not going to let someone else do that,” it’s just done before you even realise, isn’t it?
Sharon: Definitely. And even things like going on holidays, when I go away it’s very hard to switch off, whereas if I knew I had a partner looking after everything and having the same passion that I have in business, it would definitely have helped in the early days. Now, it’s a lot better.
Ingrid: It’s a lot better. So this is a slightly different question. What do you wish you’d known from the start? So if somebody could have said to you, “Sharon, here’s some knowledge or here’s some information,” what difference could something have made, what might that have been?
Sharon: Look, I could tell you, which a lot of people want to hear and say, that I should have had a business plan and followed a business plan. But I can’t tell you that, because I actually think that whilst it is important, and today’s generation is all about very stringent business plans and organisation, again, because of the way I started, it just wasn’t something that I even wish I had known. Because in fact, if I had known, I probably would have done things differently and maybe not have ended up in some of the places that, thankfully, I’ve ended up in.
There’s quite a number of things, but I think if there’s anything I wish I’d known before I started, probably that we make lots of mistakes along the way, but sometimes a mistake offers you an opportunity that you might not have had otherwise. And there’s loads of stuff that-
Ingrid: That’s nice, yeah.
Sharon: And there’s loads of stuff that would’ve saved me a lot of time and made things easier if I had known about them at the start. But sometimes, I think if you just roll up your sleeves and get on with it yourself, it’s very important in terms of growth.
Ingrid: I really like what you said about the business plan, because I remember talking to Maggie Beer at a lunch that she was speaking at. And she was saying that she didn’t have a business plan, they’ve never had a business plan.
Sharon: Wow. That makes me feel better.
Ingrid: And I remember the room, it was all bankers and finance people, and they all gasped when she said it. She’s so adorable, and she said, “We never, we kind of did this thing on the back of an envelope, and that’s how we’ve always approached it” Now, I’m sure somewhere in the mechanizations of her business there is somebody doing some kind of number crunching somewhere, but philosophically, that’s not her approach. And I think when I hear you and a number of people who’ve said this idea that if you can plan things to the Nth degree, and it actually curtails or in some way restricts your ability to go on and have a terrific business. So I think it is a fine balance between planning and being able to say, “Okay, let’s just provide what our clients/ customers want” I think the key in what you’re saying is provide the very best product to the people who need it and want it.
Sharon: Absolutely, yeah.
Ingrid: And keeping the focus on that is your plan. That actually is your plan.
Sharon: Yep, 100% right. And just keeping on with innovation. Absolutely.
Ingrid: And that can be your plan. To me, that’s the business plan, and the number crunching can be done as kind of a viability thing, but what is your actual goal, what is it that actually creates a business. Okay, so you’ve talked about your son and he’s now involved, particularly because of the expansion. Have you had other people along the way who’ve been, and you can either mention their name or not, who’ve been good assistants to you and your business?
Sharon: Okay. So without a doubt, all of my family. They’ve been all involved in different ways from the early days. From my husband, who then left pharmacy, he became a professional business speaker, and … There were times, and there still are times where it’s like, “Oh, this is too much,” or I just need someone positive to keep me going, and he’s been absolutely fantastic.
So my husband, my son that I’ve mentioned. I’ve got a daughter who actually was involved with us looking after some of the marketing before she fell pregnant, and has now two little gorgeous babies. And then I’ve got my youngest son, who’s my best taste tester, and biggest advocate. He loves all the protein, and always giving advice. So family, without a doubt, has been a great assistant.
I’ve then also had people working with me in the business, and we have a very small group of us, and I’ve got a girl called Nichole who no longer works with me, but she helped me in the first few years. And now Angela, who’s awesome, and my right-hand person. On top of that, I’ve got amazing mentors too. I’ve got people, I’ve got friends that if I need to bounce ideas off. My parents are terrific, all of my family to be honest with you, extended family, all very entrepreneurial, and they’re great to bounce ideas off. And if I need anything, they’re always there.
Ingrid: It sounds like having that network of people around you has really been of assistance, and that’s really helped to get you to where you are today.
Sharon: Definitely. And the network does extend beyond family and close friends, because I’m involved with different organisations. I’m involved with Business Chicks, and other organisations as well.
Ingrid: Terrific. I think it’s so important for people to have other people around them, isn’t it?
Sharon: Absolutely correct.
Ingrid: Now, tell us about feedback. You said your youngest son is terrific at taste testing, and you’ve got a right-hand, and your husband helps you to keep going when you feel like you just want to stay under the doona. But who can give you good feedback, where do you take your feedback from?
Sharon: A lot of it’s social media. For example, we just launched a reformulated product range, and we sent it out. We had a competition and we sent out products to the winners, and the immediate feedback we got was absolutely sensational. And look, it’s not always going to be positive, not everybody’s going to love everything, that’s why you have so many products and flavours. But really, our target market and our customers give us the best feedback.
Ingrid: And we get that so immediately now, don’t we? I mean in 2004, it’s hard for anyone to believe that none of that even existed back then, but that evolution, you can have absolutely same day immediate feedback on almost everything, can’t you?
Sharon: You can, and it can be a bit scary.
Ingrid: So Sharon, what would you tell someone who came to you, say one of the listeners to this programme, what would you say to them who are now embarking on starting their own business?
Sharon: I think it’s, be prepared to work hard. Nothing comes easily. Also, as I mentioned previously, be prepared to make mistakes, but making mistakes actually is the best learning curve. And just to give it a go, because really, the rewards can be absolutely incredible in so many ways. And just from a growth, for myself, I’ve grown as a person as a result of Slim Secrets. And it’s just an amazing, empowering feeling to see something start from scratch, or starting any business. It doesn’t have to be from scratch, but actually working on it and building it up. So I think it’s very empowering.
Ingrid: It is. And to go back to 2004 when you had three products, and that’s what you offered, and then gradually built it from there, it’s that, “Okay, take something and get started with it.”
Sharon: That’s it. Sometimes, people wait too long, and they’re waiting for, I don’t know …
Ingrid: The full range, or …
Sharon: Yeah. But put your toes in and give it a go. You don’t have to always take the plunge straight up.
Ingrid: And there’s so many people now, in America they refer to it as “side hustle,” which I think is a lovely expression, or having a hobby that kind of runs into an interest that then becomes a business. So you don’t have to just give everything up and invest, sell the farm to invest in a business kind of thing. But you can do on weekends, and the internet and the technology now allows people to have so much more ability to just set their toe in the water as you say.
Ingrid: Now you’ve alluded to a number of things, and I could probably think of the three characteristics for you. But what do you believe are the three characteristics that have made you successful? Those three characteristics, what words would you use?
Sharon: Probably work ethic, so working hard. Building relationships. For me, the best part about what I’ve done is actually build relationships, and it’s actually been one of the reasons for our success, I believe. Number two, without a doubt, is persistence, but without pressure. And number three, being adaptable and flexible is very important.
Ingrid: And given your very extensive background, that adaptability shines through, doesn’t it, in terms of that you’ve done a number of different things, and you’ve turned yourself to this. And even as you started this, it could’ve gone in any one of a number of directions. But this is the one. And now, as you make this, do you want to talk a little bit about what’s happening this month? And I saved that till the end, but it’s a pretty exciting … I was going to talk about it earlier, and thought I’d leave it till closer to the end. You’re exporting product in a major expansion. Would you please tell us about that?
Sharon: Very exciting. We’ve been exporting our brand overseas. Exporting our brand basically since when we started, but we’re doing it now to about 13 countries. But as of a week ago or two weeks ago, we actually signed with a very reputable and exciting Chinese distributor and marketer. So, they actually not only distribute, but they also market. And they’ve distributed the likes of Manuka honey and some other great brands.
So we are very excited with this new relationship. And I look to really grow Slim Secrets in China. We’re actually at the moment doing some marketing over there too. We’ve got social media accounts, Weibo and Wechat, which we started a couple of weeks ago, or the company that’s looking after it over there did. And they’re key opinion leaders, like our influencers are going to be doing some posting for us, as well as Avril Lavigne, who I mentioned. She’s done some things for us both on our social media and on there’s, and she’s actually one of the, I think, the third largest western influencer in China. So we are really hoping for our brand to be very well-recognized over there in a short period of time.
Ingrid: In a very short period of time perhaps, yeah. And that’s just, in terms of the size of the potential market there, it’s just almost mind-blowing, isn’t it?
Sharon: It is. And they’re very much into, they’re just starting to understand, they’re a little bit behind us in terms of our Western eating habits, and they’re just starting to understand the importance of protein and health. And you can see from all the vitamins that they’re now buying. So, it’s building awareness with them and showing them how our products can help them to look and feel good, which is what they really would like.
Ingrid: Yeah. Well, all the very best with that.
Sharon: Thank you.
Ingrid: And Sharon, thank you so much for your time today. I just love the whole health and wellbeing space anyway, and to know that there’s such a lovely family story behind a range of products that are available, and there’s something for everyone in your product range. So is there anything else before we finish that I haven’t covered, or that you haven’t had a chance to say that you’d like to add? Because our audience are people who have ideas for products, they have ideas for services, a lot of health and wellbeing professionals that we know listen to the podcasts. Is there anything else that you would add to encourage or inspire them?
Sharon: Look, in terms of our brand, our philosophy isn’t about extreme dieting, but finding healthier ways to have everything, and that’s what we try and bring out as many varying products, like I mentioned our bars in the past, but we have things like puddings and cookies, and little bowls and drinks. We’ve got a big range of snack products. So from our brand perspective, there’s a lot of growth opportunity. I think in terms of starting a business, it’s also important to look at where you can get those growth opportunities, and once again, even though I hadn’t started with that in mind, I was actually very lucky, and there is a huge growth potential in what we do, and in so many of the businesses out there as well.
Ingrid: As you say, just get the first three products right, get them right, then grow and listen to what your people want, and then who knows, there’s this whole range of products available. And working hard as you said, it didn’t just happen. I know you’ve used the “luck” word quite a few times in the interview, but luck comes from preparation, and it comes from persistence and perseverance, and as you said, relationships. Sharon, thanks so much, you’re totally inspiring. I’m off to find a pudding, that sounds quite nice, or a drink. So I’ll put the links in the show notes, and encourage people to have a look at your website, because there’s some terrific things there, and then join your community. So again, thanks so much Sharon.
Sharon: Thank you, I really appreciate it. Thanks for having me.