I remember being nine years old and watching the first season of Dragon's Den. I looked at those entrepreneurs and small business owners with awe thinking they were so brave for coming up with an idea and starting a business from the ground up only to stand in front of experts to have their business picked apart. I remember saying to myself, "there is absolutely no way I will do that, that is so not for me."
Well, here I am, 15 years later, having just launched a novel product that Devon and I have spent the past two years researching, developing, and validating. While Algi is not ready to be on Dragon’s Den, the past two years have been an absolute whirlwind and I can say the nine year old Alessa was definitely wrong about entrepreneurship.
How it Started
Two years ago, I was finishing up my undergrad at Queen's University and had no idea what my next steps would be. As a kinesiology student, everyone was applying to medical or physiotherapy school, but for me, that just didn't feel like the right fit, much to my parents' dismay. I wanted to get experience in different industries to try and get a better sense of what I was truly passionate about in order to determine where I wanted to invest my time and energy.
Feeling panicked every time someone asked me what I was going to do once I graduated, I decided to start applying for a Master’s degree. I had done some research during my degree and enjoyed it so this seemed like the ideal next step for me. Bonus, it would give me a little more time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and so, I accepted an offer from McGill University.
During the final year of my undergraduate degree, still on the hunt for other opportunities in different areas beyond kinesiology, I heard about a summer innovation program offered at Queen’s University. I applied and got accepted in the program(much to my surprise, it was not my best interview) but then almost decided not to participate. At the 11th hour, on the advice of a friend who participated in the program the year before, I decided to take part in the program. Looking back, what a life altering decision this was. Had I not participated that summer, I never would have met Devon, I doubt I would have gotten enthralled with entrepreneurship, and most certainly, Algi would not exist.
And so, the summer after my final year of undergrad and before I moved to Montreal and started my Master’s in the fall, I took part in an entrepreneurship program. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. That was the summer I met Devon. We bonded over our shared experiences as high-performing athletes, our mother's crazy high expectations for us, and our love of food. For the duration of the summer, we got to pick a problem, come up with a solution, and work on it for the rest of the summer. Devon and I chose to focus on the issue of sustainability in the food system and in doing so, an early version of Algi was born. You can read all about how we came up with the idea for Algi here.
Developing the IMPACT Bars
When the pandemic started, Devon and I were working on developing a recipe for the IMPACT Bars. We were playing around with different recipes and using different ingredients. For those of you who haven’t tried spirulina powder on its own, spirulina has a very distinct flavour and finding complementary flavours to it can be quite challenging. Through talking to friends, fellow students, and even people in the food industry, we knew the bars were a product people were excited for and a good product to introduce the world to algae. But, we also knew that taste was very important and algae, being a very new food item, was going to be a hard sell.
For these reasons, taste was our number one priority. We created hundreds of different versions of the bar, shared it with friends and family, then headed back to the kitchen to make changes, and repeated until we got to a recipe that made people say “what the heck, how is this SO good?!” Ultimately, we decided to move ahead with two flavours, the Cocoa & Cacao Nib and the Sunflower & Sea Salt.
In Fall 2020, Devon and I were introduced to a food scientist who offered to help us finalize the recipe of the bars and ensure the food science of the bars was done properly. What this means is testing the shelf life, the water level of the bar (too much water means mold will grow), and ensuring the taste remains the same months after the bar is produced.
After working with him throughout the fall, we felt confident in the recipe of the two bars and scheduled a date to head to a food production facility to test the recipes on a large scale. Typically, when developing a new food product, you start out on a small scale in a kitchen similar to a house kitchen. You make small batches to play around with ingredients, flavours, and proportions. But when you want to sell a product, producing in a regular kitchen means you likely can’t produce the product quickly enough. So you need to move to a larger production facility, with specialized equipment to make hundreds, if not thousands, of bars at a time. But you need to test out your small scale recipe to ensure it still works for a huge batch.
Walking into the production facility, I was surprised at how industrial it looked with the different machines and equipment inside. In my mind, a food production facility was warm and inviting, full of delicious smells and great-tasting food. While the great-tasting food was accurate, the rest was not. We were required to wear rubber boots, white lab coats, and even helmets to protect ourselves and the food. This was definitely an eye opening experience into the reality of food production today.
At the facility, we produced about 500 samples of each flavour of the IMPACT Bar. Seeing the ingredients get mixed together in a large 60 quart mixer, then be pressed out and cut into bars, and finally be packaged into real wrappers was incredible. After months of testing out bars in our own kitchens and having this idea of what the bars would be like in our heads, to be able to hold a sample in my hand was surreal. It felt like we had taken a giant step forward.
Producing the IMPACT Bars
Although we now had a recipe and samples of what a finished product would look and taste like, this was only the first step to having ready-to-sell bars. The next step was to find a manufacturer, known as a copacker, that had a food production facility with the right equipment to produce the bars for us.
In the food industry, there is a shortage of copackers for new and small companies. These copackers make their money by producing a large amount of a product at one time, which means the minimum amount of product they will produce at one time is very high. This is a problem for new companies, like Algi, because it means we need to spend a lot of money upfront (i.e. before we’ve even sold products and actually made money) to pay them to produce products.
For us, finding a copacker was a long and frustrating process. After many trials at different facilities, broken agreements, and ignored emails and calls, we finally found a local facility that was willing to work with us.
Ordering the wrappers and boxes for the bars was the next step we needed to tackle and it was another long and difficult process. Finding the right supplier for both the wrapper and the boxes was actually quite easy however designing the packaging was another story. Devon, after teaching himself how to use Illustrator, created a custom font for Algi and mock up designs for both the wrappers. For those not familiar with Illustrator, making the smallest edits from spacing to text changes, takes an incredibly long time.
Once Devon had created the beautiful designs for the packaging, we realized that we needed to check all of the packaging regulations before moving ahead with ordering. In Canada, all food packaging is regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and they are very particular about how things are labeled and what can be included on packages. While their regulations are important for accurate and honest reporting of ingredients and nutrition, they are quite strict which makes it very difficult to create visually appealing packaging, although I would say Devon did a pretty great job.
Once I we were sure the wrapper and box designs were compliant with all the regulations, we faced another problem: the time we would have to wait to actually receive the packaging. After a year of COVID, supply chains in every industry have been affected. You’ve probably heard of the shortages of microchips, or glass bottles, or even paper in the spring and summer of 2021. These shortages (and the many, many other shortages) meant that everything, including packaging was taking 3-4 times longer to be delivered. Because of this unpredictability, we were stuck waiting weeks or even months to receive our packaging, meaning our production was delayed, and the product launch was also delayed.
Planning a Launch Campaign
In addition to figuring out how to produce and package the bars, we also needed to decide how we were going to announce the bars and the upcoming launch. Naively, we thought the packaging and production would be quick and easy and thought we could launch the bars at the beginning of the summer. We hired a marketing intern, Tristan, for the summer to help us create a plan for our launch and a marketing strategy to increase sales over the summer. However, with the delays in finding a production facility and receiving our packaging, the IMPACT Bar launch kept getting pushed back.
I think joining the Algi team was a crash course in entrepreneurship for Tristan. She quickly learned how many delays and problems startups face in a day, and most frustratingly, how most of these issues are out of our control yet she was resilient through it all and rolled with the punches. Together, Tristan and Devon created a comprehensive launch plan and I got to be the bearer of bad news, and let them know week after week that the launch was going to be delayed again. They did a great job, growing our ambassador network, planning and creating more content, and building up the hype for the eventual launch of the bars.
How it’s going
After months of delays, we finally launched the great-tasting, plant based IMPACT Bars. Working through all the delays, frustrations, and the MANY headaches, I am so excited and proud to finally see customers enjoying the IMPACT Bars. I am so grateful to all those who have been supporting Algi since day one, and excited to welcome the newcomers to Algi. We love hearing what everyone thinks about the bars, seeing how you are using them, and receive all the positive messages and glowing reviews!
There is so much Devon and I want to accomplish with Algi and are excited to set ambitious goals for ourselves to continue to create innovative, delicious, and sustainable food products. We know we face many more challenges along the way but are excited for what the future holds and cannot wait to share this journey with you!