As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Alison Mountford.
Alison is the Founder and CEO of Ends+Stems, a meal planning service designed to reduce household food waste to stop the effects of climate change. Alison has 15 years of experience as a professional chef and entrepreneur. Her first business, an early model in meal delivery, was sold in 2015. She is a Winter 2020 Nasdaq Milestone Maker; 2018 Rubicon Waste Fit Champion and has appeared in Forbes, Rachael Ray every day, as well as on many podcasts, and works as a zero food waste advocate. She aims to empower users with delicious meal plans and instant grocery lists all designed to reduce food waste while making cooking approachable and fun.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’m a chef and have been cooking for busy families, celebrities, and everyone in between for the last 15 years. But, when I graduated from NYU with a degree in Anthropology, I had no idea what career path I wanted to embark on. I moved to California for adventure, I had never been here before but felt that I needed to explore before setting into a job. It was here that I discovered an inspiring array of produce and farms and I began cooking in earnest. I was interested in cooking as a hobby growing up, we used to make elaborate cakes and cook to experiment with new flavors but I didn’t want to “work in a restaurant.” The silly but true story is that I googled “What to do with my life” and found an article listed Personal Chef Service as one of the fastest-growing businesses to form in 2005. I immediately knew this was it. Entrepreneurship spoke to my desire to lead and build and cooking on my own terms for paying clients sounded like a dream job. And, it largely has been.
I still live in San Francisco with my husband, who’s an 8th-grade teacher, and my two young kids. Other than cooking, I love reading novels and hiking.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
After selling my first business, which was a meal delivery and catering company with a cafe attached, I was a little lost and very tired. I built and ran that business for 10 years but I hadn’t expected to sell it. I was hired as the Procurement Director at a large food-tech company and was also responsible for the team that threw away the leftover food. Around the same time, I was reading the NRDC’s report on the volume of food wasted in the U.S. and the environmental impact of it all. And, Trump was elected and said he’d be rolling back, rather than increasing, climate protections. It was a perfect storm for me and I knew that I could speak to busy families and get to them to think about reducing food waste at home and taking individual action against climate change.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The very first “beta” version of Ends+Stems was a series of google docs with recipes and grocery lists. I had to pay subscribers and would send the email out each week. Early on, I sent all of the recipes out but I neglected to make the access public, so everyone was locked out of the information! People were emailing and asking what was going on and I was panicked thinking they’d all cancel immediately. I think it was a reminder that most customers are generous and will give you the benefit of the doubt if you’re authentic and honest. I didn’t lie or try to make it seem like anything other than what it was, a very human mistake and I fixed it.
Do you find Ends+Stems is targeting three different audiences? Eco-conscious. Budget-conscious. Time conscious. Is anyone of those the primary reason why people subscribe?
I think it’s only two audiences — Eco-Conscious and Time Conscious. Families who prioritize and track their budget typically waste less naturally because over purchasing is one of the top reasons for waste. Upon sign up, customers choose whether they’re joining primarily to save time or to be more eco-friendly and I have been surprised to see that the results are about 50/50. I expected that the busy, time-stressed people would sign up more often. The busy families do tend to be most vocal about how much they love the recipes and see the value in my choosing recipes for them.
Taste preferences are very personal. As a restaurateur, you are preparing for occasional diners who pop in every soften. And, your restaurant gets known for a certain style of cuisine. With Ends+Stems Your subscribers are following your menu plans daily. At some point, your plans will be repetitious. Is there a risk subscribers will get bored with your style of cuisine? After all, home kitchens are loaded with a wide variety of cookbooks in the endless search for variety.
This is a great question — I used to worry about this often as a meal delivery chef and in my recurring corporate catering gigs. Ends+Stems is different because the value isn’t in the recipes, the true value of the service is that I am deciding what you’ll cook each week, alleviating that mental burden of dinner management. It’s the thing people complain most about having to do. We kid ourselves that we truly need something new every night, most families happily eat the same dozen or so things over and over again. Because Ends+Stems is suggesting only 3 recipes per week, there are still plenty of other meals to experiment on!
As a subscription-based service, Ends+Stems is vulnerable to the fickleness of subscribers. Do you find that subscribers jump in and out in their use of your service? Or participate for a specific period and then disappear? Do you find you need to continuously replenish your subscriber base to remain profitable?
Yes. Any subscription service will have people coming and going and I will need to constantly add new subscribers to stay profitable. That said, we see an 85% retention rate after 6 months and about 25% of our subscribers pay for an annual plan (which is less expensive overall) upfront. We haven’t been live for multiple years yet, so it will be interesting to speak with customers and see what they need in order to remain part of the community.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven business” is more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My purpose is to help busy people and their families take action against climate change; specifically, by reducing their household food waste.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
Everything we do is support this goal. When I meet people that don’t want to sign up for the paid service for whatever reason, I still encourage them to join our Facebook group or follow on Instagram. We have tons of free resources on the platform and even a “What’s In My Fridge Recipe Search.” These are all to promote the idea that when a community takes baby steps together, it will amount to a meaningful impact. For our customers, we show an “impact report” each week. When they cook our plans, we’ve estimated how much less food they’re wasting than a typical U.S. household. We show their impact and the community total to illustrate that it matters. I also personally try to show that we all make mistakes and are learning to be better planetary stewards. It’s about trying and growing, not being perfect.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My dad and my grandmother always remind me that you can only do your best every day. Some of those days, your best might just be hanging on and barely getting through. Other days, you may break records and reach huge goals, but as long as you can look back and know you did your best in that situation on each particular day, it’s going to be ok.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Oh, absolutely. I’ve searched through job listings from time to time wondering if someone else would hire me; I’ve considered living off the grid on a tropical beach somewhere. The most challenging times for me are usually rooted in cash flow. I feel very stressed and upset if my credit card bill is too high or when bills are due and I can not pay them in full on time. If payroll is involved, it’s even worse. You wake up in the middle of the night and just feel crushed by what’s expected of you, wondering how you’ll get it done. My kids inspire me to keep going and I’m lucky that my friends and family are all incredibly supportive. I’m truly worried about the future of our planet and if I’m not working to make it better, what else would I do? I can’t think of anything more pressing, so I keep going.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Ends+Stems is in a great place right now. We have worked out some early bugs and bottlenecks and are poised for growth. We have a few great partnerships coming up and are starting to see signups take off! When new customers write to me and tell me they’re feeling more confident in the kitchen, or their kids tried a new vegetable, or trips to the grocery store aren’t the low point of the week anymore, it’s very fulfilling. My favorite piece though is that 100% of my customers said that by joining, they think about food waste at other points in the day and try to reduce it wherever they are. 100%! Getting people to keep that thought top of mind is a huge success.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service-based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Talk to your customers first. I learned this early on from a friend and mentor. You aren’t your target market so don’t waste money building something you want until you know if people will pay you for your product
- Why you/why this business? This is classic business-building advice and something that resonates with me. Anytime I feel like an underdog as a chef creating a technology-based service, I remember that anyone can hire out for tech development, but the skills I have in the kitchen and experience with helping families decide what to eat have been learned over time and can’t be googled or ripped off.
- Get started! I started out very small. I’d still consider my impact much smaller than I envision it being. That means there’s room to grow, which is great. You’ll never go anywhere if you don’t start.
- Find Support. I’m a solo founder and it’s always frustrating when I see advice that says “Build a team.” I’ve come to realize this doesn’t have to mean pay 5 large salaries and have an office. For me, I have a team of volunteers, interns, and contractors who are experts in their field helping me grow. Also, having a personal support network of other founders is amazing. No one else can quite understand or support you in the same way as a peer.
- Provide Value. Subscription customers will be with you for a while and will have to decide to purchase over and over. I work really hard to figure out how to continue increasing the value I provide and build a community around my business so that customers want to stay involved. You can’t “set it and forget it”.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I agree wholeheartedly and I could name so many. I’d highlight my friend, mentor, one-time business coach of sorts, Lindsay Tabas. I met Lindsay in a Facebook Group for female founders when Ends+Stems was nothing but an Instagram feed and a desire to stop food waste. She was building a coaching program/accelerator to help non-tech founders solve problems in the world with tech-forward businesses. She taught me so much and I still think about her worksheets and lessons years later as I’m growing Ends+Stems. https://www.lindsayt.com/ is still a resource for me and I value Lindsay’s friendship and advice to keep me moving along!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
This is what Ends+Stems is! Let’s stop wasting food for a healthier planet and so that the millions of people without enough to eat can get enough.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Instagram is my favorite: https://www.instagram.com/endsandstems/
But, we have a growing Facebook group too, which is a great place to discuss recipes and tips! Join here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/370025376825483/