What do you do when the healthy options you need don’t exist? Make them yourself, of course. When Katlin Smith started to clean up her diet to address health concerns, she realized nutritious and delicious was a combination that simply didn’t exist. And so, Simple Mills was born. She crafted recipe after recipe (in excel, we might add) that only incorporated ingredients good for our bodies — no gums, emulsifiers, added sugar, or grains.
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Katlin tells us that the journey to being CEO of her own baked goods company wasn’t easy; it required all of her time, an oven straight from the ’80s, and lots of trial and error. And now, her line of baked goods is changing the grocery aisle for good. She shared with us exactly what it took to launch Simple Mills and her plans to continue creating better-for-you food.
Name: Katlin Smith, CEO of Simple Mills
Location: Chicago, IL
Education: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of Chicago – Booth School of Business
What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?
My first job out of school was as a Strategy & Operations Consultant at Deloitte. I was a generalist, consulting across industries and functional areas. There was a huge variety of projects — everything from a merger of health insurance companies, to marketing strategy for a consumer packaged goods brand, to supply chain cost reduction for a health system, to global health strategy for a government agency, to project management for a large bank initiative. It was a terrific foundation for starting my career.
I became intrigued with management consulting when I was a sophomore in college. At the time I had an internship in business development and saw so many things I wanted to change about the company where I worked. I wondered if there was something out there called consulting for management. Little did I know there was an entire industry called management consulting!
If it is easier and tastier, people will eat differently, and as result will be able to do more with their lives — things that can likewise have a positive impact on the world.
Prior to Simple Mills, you were a consultant at Deloitte. What is the most important thing you learned from consulting that you apply to your business today?
I was often given huge, conflicting amounts of data sets and asked to tell a story. It taught me how to quickly simplify complex information. Today it gives me an ability to shortcut thought processes and find the bigger picture when I need to make decisions. It makes it easier to be a CEO because I can distill information in any form into something that’s meaningful for the business. Today at Simple Mills, we use data to drive most of our decisions.
Simple Mills is the brainchild of your own personal need for healthier options. Can you take us through the conception of the brand and your journey with starting Simple Mills?
Absolutely — about five years ago I cleaned up my diet and took out a lot of the processed food and sugar. It made a huge difference — my joint pain went away, my seasonal allergies went away, and I had so much energy! It stunned me what an effect food has on your body. Fifteen years ago there was a much smaller appreciation for this — food was thought primarily to affect your waistline and your digestive system, but we’re learning now that the effects are much more profound. Spanning everything from your ability to focus, to anxiety and depression, to autoimmune issues like hypothyroidism or joint pain.
I saw this and knew that people across the country were being adversely affected by the food they were eating. I wanted to make it easier and tastier for people to eat simple, whole-food ingredients — things that have vitamins and minerals, protein, and nutrition. If it is easier and tastier, people will eat differently, and as result will be able to do more with their lives — things that can likewise have a positive impact on the world.
What was your first step once you realized this was what you wanted?
It was actually one of the last things that most people do when they decide to start a business. I came up with the name. I wanted Simple Foods at first but the website domain name was $3,000. That’s when Simple Mills came to mind. It fit the vision I had and the mission to take complex center-store products and make them simple. It helped that the domain name was $14! Simple Mills was born and I became an entrepreneur.
Simple ingredients are the key to Simple Mills. What did the trial and error process look like when testing your recipes?
It literally looked like me in my small kitchen of a basement apartment, with a bunch of powders everywhere, and an oven that dated back to the ’80s. I would bake for hours each weekend (since I was still working full-time during the week). I developed all of the formulas for recipes in Excel, which is a little unconventional. There were over 90 different trial and error recipes before I got the first recipe right. Today my oven is a little nicer, but I still work on our recipes in excel with powders scattered about in my kitchen.
It’s going to be a lot of hard work and chaos before the company is at a stage where it is worth something. I saved up every dime I could, sold my car, my parents remortgaged their house, and I worked every minute. You will wear a lot of hats and work on a tight budget.
You won University of Chicago’s New Venture Challenge and Chapman University’s California Dreamin’ Business Competition, winning a combined total of $100,000!! What advice would you give to someone trying to fund their own startup right now?
It’s going to be a lot of hard work and chaos before the company is at a stage where it is worth something. I saved up every dime I could, sold my car, my parents remortgaged their house, and I worked every minute. You will wear a lot of hats and work on a tight budget. I couldn’t afford taxis. It meant me dragging five suitcases of sample product by myself onto the subway train when I had to go to a meeting. It was hard. I lost friends; I had to miss out a lot.
You won’t always have time or energy for things, you will need to conserve money. The day before we won the competition, I was with our co-manufacturer working on our product, took a midnight flight to LA, and put the presentation together in the middle of the night while baking sample product for the judges. It’s rarely easy in the first few years — but that is part of the fun.
Can you take us a through a day in the life of Katlin and what routines do you stick to?
I think it’s important to take care of yourself first. I wake up early enough to make breakfast, lunch, and a late afternoon snack, which helps me stay productive later in the day. I also tackle my most difficult problems in the morning because it’s harder to in the afternoon. I thrive on getting to work in the morning and prioritizing challenges. I try to use afternoons for meetings. You can always spend time having conversations during that time of the day and it lets you save the fresh hours of the morning for the more complex things. My calendar is usually 70-80% meetings. Before I became a CEO, I read that most CEOs spend their days in meetings. I didn’t believe it at the time, but it’s true.
Can you share the moment when you realized Simple Mills was no longer an idea but a success?
It was the moment when we became the #1 best-selling muffin mix on Amazon. This was before we even had an office — I remember jumping up and down in my bedroom with excitement.
What difficulties have you faced while breaking into the baking aisle with a healthier option and how have you overcome those obstacles?
It was actually easier to break into the baking aisle because it was ripe for the picking. Everything available at that time had so much sugar and carbs. The category was in decline and consumers were seeking out alternatives. That helped.
Instead, the largest challenge has always been figuring out how to make amazingly delicious products using natural, whole-food ingredients. We are ingredient hawks at Simple Mills and dive into the tiniest details about how ingredients are processed before accepting them into our products. We refuse to use things like gums or emulsifiers that are common in over half the center aisle products. We don’t use grains because they are irritating to many people’s bodies. We won’t use a load of sugar to make a product taste good. All of these things create obstacles for us — obstacles to using the solves food scientists have used for decades as quick solutions. That means we have to be truly creative and develop new solutions that no one has used before.
What has been the most rewarding thing about founding and running Simple Mills to date?
Building our team and seeing the power in what they can do. It’s amazing what a committed, passionate group of people can accomplish. When you look at our brand, our products, our ingredient list, our branding, our distribution — it’s all in the hands of people in our company. People who work really hard and care a lot about Simple Mills. Watching these people grow within the organization, seeing them develop new skills, seeing them accomplish great things in their roles. It’s really exciting.
And the most challenging?
On the same note, getting the right people on the boat. Finding the right people, and waiting until you find those people. That part is really painful because a lot of times it’s you doing that person’s job until you hire someone. You know the right fit when you see it, but you always have doubts — you keep wondering if you’re crazy to want what you want until you see it. With our hires, we’ve recruited everyone internally, instead of using recruiters. It means spending hours looking for the right people to join the team.
Before I became a CEO, I read that most CEOs spend their days in meetings. I didn’t believe it at the time, but it’s true.
You were named in the Forbes 30 Under 30 2017 Class, congratulations! With so much success under your belt thus far, what’s next for you and Simple Mills? Where do you see yourself professionally in five years?
I still see myself at Simple Mills, continuing to work to clean up the grocery aisles with better solutions that are tasty and nutritious, and have simple, whole-food ingredients that the body recognizes and aren’t made in a lab somewhere. It is a gigantic problem on our hands. There are a lot of sick people from the food we eat and how it’s made. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
What advice would you give to you 23-year-old self? (Which is how old you were when the idea for Simple Mills came to you!)
Sweat some of the small stuff a little less. Some of the details do really matter. But some of the details do not matter. I still try to impress on our team to be really detail-oriented, but you learn what you need to worry about and what you don’t. Some of the things I thought would be really important in the early days weren’t as much. Especially as I started growing the team. You learn it’s important to let people do their jobs because it takes care of a lot of what your business needs.
Katlin Smith is The Everygirl…
Favorite Simple Mills product?
Our new Chocolate Chip Cookies that are made of almond flour, tigernuts (a prebiotic fiber!), and coconut flour.
Before bed every night I….
Watch Seth Myers — it’s a great way to unwind and laugh at the end of the day.
Kitchen utensil you can’t live without?
A really awesome Shun knife (it’s a Japanese knife that cuts really well), which makes chopping round vegetables a joy.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
Taylor Swift. She’s a talented singer, but she also recognizes the value of her fans and makes them her priority. That’s her product and her customer. She puts a lot of time and effort into her relationship with them. She’s also said to be a really savvy businesswoman. I’ve read she loves to cook and loves chocolate chip cookie dough. That alone would give us plenty to talk about!