Treat Co-Mans like Investors

Build better relationships with contract manufacturers through Vanessa Pham’s recommendations

That’s how Vanessa Pham, co-founder and CEO of Omsom, has approached discussing her brand and potential growth with key co-mans partners. When she joins Gary Nowacki on this episode of the Conception to Consumption (C to C) podcast, they’ll explore the struggles of scale, the hands-on support contract manufacturers really need, and the innovation that comes from being true to your heritage.

Self-proclaimed loud, proud Asian cooking, Omsom is breaking grocery-store stereotypes of what AAPI culture and cuisine looks like. With a collection of starter packs that enable even the clumsiest cooks to transform simple, accessible ingredients into a delicious meal, this CPG brand is giving consumers options. The Pham sisters have earned every rave review and they’re preparing for to bring their pantry shortcuts to shelves across the United States.

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Vanessa Pham: Another piece is, at the onset, almost treating the relationship with your co-mans as if you were treating the relationship with an investor. You want to be pitching the highest of decision makers and really selling them on your growth and your brand so that you have their buy-in and that when inevitably things get challenging. 

Like [if] something goes wrong or they’re deciding how to divide lime time, you want to make sure that they are thinking about your brand and wanting to invest there. So, I would say, definitely make sure that you’re really building that relationship in a way where they’re excited about the future and the potential with your brand.

Gary Nowacki: This is C to C, where we cover innovation in the food and CPG business from conception to consumption.

Welcome to this episode of C to C, everybody. Today, great guest with a really neat company. My guest today is Vanessa Pham, who is co-founder of Omsom, a really cool company focused on the Asian food space. So, Vanessa, welcome to the podcast.

Vanessa Pham: Yeah, Gary, thank you so much for having me. Excited to be here and tell our story.

Gary Nowacki: Yeah, terrific. So why don’t we get started with your background? Tell our listeners how you got started in this crazy business.

Vanessa Pham: Yeah, for sure. So, yeah, my background is really—honestly, I am the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, and for my whole life I feel like I was so risk averse, so it’s so wild to say that now I run a company and I’m a CEO and I’m 27 years old. 

But I started my career as a management consultant at Bain. There, I focused on advising Fortune 500 CPGs on their retail strategy and growth strategy. And then, actually, before that, I ran an ecommerce business while I was a student at Harvard. Had a lot of fun with that. 

And so, [I] kind of wanted to use my skills as a strategist across ecommerce, across CPG. And really, after a couple of years at Bain, while I was learning a ton, we felt like there was such a huge need for a brand in the mainstream grocery store that actually built products with cultural integrity and honored and celebrated the communities and cuisines represented. 

Looking at the world around us, we saw all this excitement and, really, this renaissance around Asian culture and Asian cuisines with David Chang building his empire and Crazy Rich Asians selling out theaters and Netflix making all this original content on Asian food. 

But then we would go into the grocery store year after year and see the same kind of set of sauces and jars and bottles with diluted flavors and really stereotypical branding like dragons and pandas and pagodas, and we were like, ‘This needs to change.’ And we felt like we were the right people to build that brand.

Continue reading the transcript:

Gary Nowacki: So that’s great background, immigration, great academic background at Harvard, top minds at Bain Consulting. So tell us about Omsom. Tell us about the company. And what are the aspirations and the mission and the strategy?

Vanessa Pham: Yeah. So Omsom is a loud and proud Asian food brand, and we exist to reclaim flavors that have been diluted far too long in the mainstream grocery store. 

Our first product to market is a line of pantry shortcuts that allows you to make restaurant-quality Asian dishes in under 20 minutes with just a handful of fresh ingredients that you can get at any grocery store. So, it really unlocks this whole new ability for consumers. 

And we partner with iconic Asian chefs for every cuisine that we have represented in our product line because, while I am technically Asian, I’m Vietnamese American, and I can’t purport to be the expert on Korean food and Japanese food and Filipino food. So we actually partner with restaurant chefs that have built their careers in these respective cuisines. 

And really the vision for Omsom—well, now we’re making pantry shortcuts. The vision is to become the new authority in Asian food CPG. We feel like the brands that exist now largely produce flavors that are diluted and no longer meet the needs of consumers who have now been educated by restaurants across the country. 

Right? So, Omsom is here to create products with cultural integrity, to actually deliver on the flavors that consumers now know and love, and do so in a way that puts the spotlight on Asian stories and elevates and highlights the multitudes within Asian culture.

Gary Nowacki: Well, it’s always the big three, convenience, taste, and price. It sounds like you just covered two. Do you have any quick comments on price?

Vanessa Pham: Absolutely. For us to be a true household name, we definitely believe that you need to be accessible. And so right now, our current product on a per serving basis is just like $1 or 2. And I think that was really intentional. 

We really want to be able to be accessible to folks of all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds. And definitely as we’re thinking about the future and our expansion into retail, that is something high up on our list of just making sure that we can be in homes of all kinds of Americans across the country.

Gary Nowacki: Yeah. Tell us about your expansion into retail. It looks like currently consumers can go to Omsom and buy your great products online, but how about being in traditional retail?

Vanessa Pham: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I definitely think that’s a huge part of our plan. We know that’s still where over 80-90% of grocery decisions are made. And so right now we are selling direct consumer on our website where we can tell our full story, where we can build a direct relationship with our customers and build that loyal community that we know and love.

But definitely looking to the future, retail is something that we are focusing on for sure in the next 12 months and we’ve gotten some good excitement on that front. So, yeah, we’re really excited about that.

Gary Nowacki: Good luck. Can’t wait to see your product on store shelves as well.

Vanessa Pham: Thank you.

Gary Nowacki: So Vanessa, what you said a few minutes ago makes me believe that the Asian food sector is growing. But I’m guessing it’s also like most sectors are crowded sector—everybody’s fighting for mind space and shelf space. So how do you carve out your own successful niche?

Vanessa Pham: It’s a great question. We have been really intentional from day one about cutting through the noise. That has been core to our strategy. And I think we’ve taken a really different approach than most other brands. 

The way that we’ve approached it is to start with our ethos at everything that we do and really lead into that as the anchor of the brand. And our ethos is all about being loud and proud. I think stereotypically folks view Asian Americans as maybe docile or submissive, and that’s really why we define our whole kind of energy that we want to bring is all about being noisy, rambunctious, riotous. And you can feel that in everything that we do, in all the ways that we show up. 

Whether you’re eating our products and tasting those uncompromised flavors. You’re reading our social media, which is often educational, which has a lot of really vocal perspectives. Or you’re looking at our website and you see all the moving pieces and all the bright colors, right? All of it comes together in a really cohesive way that is rooted in something emotional and something genuine to who we are and how we hope to change the world as a brand.

And I think, ultimately that’s what allows us to be so resonant as a brand, culturally and emotionally and personally. And so yeah. We invest in all kinds of things that relates to content storytelling and brand, and do so in a way that is really rooted in who we are and what we stand for.

Gary Nowacki: And you can even see it in the packaging, the colors. And it’s like, “Bam.” Right?

Vanessa Pham: [laughter] Yeah. Exactly. That’s what we’re going for.

Gary Nowacki:  So, you must think a lot about the space that you’re in, and you must think a lot about the ever-changing mindset of the consumer. So, tell us your thoughts. 

Share with our listeners, macrotrends. What do you think the big ones are out there? Authenticity, health, convenience, new experiences. What do you think is going on out there?

Vanessa Pham: Yeah. Yeah. There’s a couple of things. Definitely, credibility is a huge one, especially in the space that we’re in, which is we’re representing the cuisine and a flavor profile and a community in some sense. And we’ve actually done a lot of research on this of what really matters for brands like ours that are in the space. And we’ve heard time and again that consumers care about, quote-unquote, “authenticity.” 

And so we asked them, “What do you mean when you say, ‘I want this to be really authentic?'” And what they really were looking for is a brand that is credible. And so we push them. “What does that mean to you?” And they said that they want to see brands that are actually including the right people in the room in developing the products, and they want to see brands that are centering and speaking to a community that actually has the authority in saying whether or not this is a good product. 

And so for us, it’s always been our mission to do right by the Asian-American community. And we always center them in everything that we do. And I think at the root of our credibility is that evangelist community just like with RXBAR, having that weightlifting community at the root of their kind of brand origin story. For us, it’s a similar thing. You can’t really build a brand with credibility if you don’t have people in an evangelist community that’s substantiating that.

Gary Nowacki: Yeah. Yeah. I remember seeing a presentation by the founder of RXBAR. And he talked about how he was very active, cycling, and so on, and always wanting to find the right kind of bar for him and saying he’d go to the shelf and look at all the options and say, “Why are they all crap?” [laughter] And so that was an interesting origin story. 

So, Vanessa, there’s so many challenges going from startup to successful company. Let’s move into discussing some of those challenges now. If you look back at some of the challenges you hit, tell our listeners about them and tell them, if you had a time machine, how you might have done things differently?

Vanessa Pham: Yeah. Oh, my gosh. So many challenges. And honestly, it’s hard to say I would have really done it differently because I’ve learned something really important from every single one of those things. And now going into the future, I feel better, prepared to tackle the upcoming challenges. But yeah. 

I mean, we face so many challenges from—I mean, for one, we launched in May of 2020, which was the start of the pandemic, when people were like, “This is going to last two more weeks.” And other people were like, “This is going to last years.” There was no visibility. And at the time, we had so many people in our ear saying, “Oh, my gosh. Don’t launch now. Wind everything down.” And other people saying like, “Okay. You should just go for it” and I think, at the time, it was really hard. We were listening. We talked to like 20 different people, and we didn’t know what to do. But ultimately, we decided to listen to our gut. And I’m really glad we did. 

But I think in general, there’s many times in my journey where I feel like I wasted a lot of time just trying to derisk so much because I was scared to make a decision. And as a first-time founder, it’s really tempting to want to overengineer things, want to just hope. Can you just keep going further, asking more questions, boiling the ocean to see if you can find one data point to, just, almost take the burden of decision making off of you? 

And my sister and my co-founder, one of her really incredible talents is having such a strong connection to her gut and her instinct. And I think that’s something that I’m trying to hone in on. And if I could go back and, kind of, make some of those decisions more quickly so that I could move quickly and not be a little bit more biased towards execution, I think that I would have. And I’m still working on that skill, trusting myself.

Gary Nowacki: I guess it’s about focus and priorities and things like that, right?

Vanessa Pham: Priorities and building a muscle to listen to your gut, having the courage to do that, honestly.

Gary Nowacki: I think it was Peter Drucker who said, “Show me a successful company, and I’ll show you a time when somebody made a courageous decision.”

Vanessa Pham: Wow. I love that.

Gary Nowacki: So you touched on it, May 2020. We’re in the early days of the pandemic. We’re still dealing with it, and I think maybe the phrase of the year for Webster should be, “Supply chain disruptions.” Tell us. Has that affected your business?

Vanessa Pham: Without a doubt, we’ve had several challenges as it relates to supply chain. I think the one that the whole industry is definitely facing, or actually all of these to some degree, but one is seeing delays and shortages on labor and ingredients. So, whether that’s with manufacturing facility, with our third-party logistics partner, seeing those labor shortages slowing everything down for us, kind of, not allowing us to be nimble and meet demand, which is why we sold out 10 times, which has been, obviously, really amazing. And we’ve gotten a lot of press, and that’s definitely driven that. But at the same time, it’s like, “Okay, well, our supply chain can’t move quickly enough to meet this demand.” 

And then, of course, the other piece that everybody’s really feeling is this increased cost of goods sold. Many brands have been forced to increase prices. I think as a young brand, we feel like it’s absolutely critical to try to maintain reasonable price points since we’re trying to drive trial and acquisition, right? 

And so to combat these increased costs, we really felt some pressure to scale more quickly or try to realize those economies of scale to offset those increased prices, but that’s not something you can just do overnight. So it’s definitely been a challenge trying to figure out where we want to optimize. Is it in terms of efficiency, or is it in terms of growth and being accessible to new customers?

Gary Nowacki: So many startups have to deal with a very common challenge, which they’re happy with their product, with their packaging. They’ve figured out a lot of questions. Now they have to manufacture at scale and of course, so many of them go the route of a co-man. Is that the route you went? And can you tell us about your experiences and challenges and solutions in that area?

Vanessa Pham: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, just given how expensive it would be to set up your own facility, how capital intensive that would be, I think most startup brands definitely find contract manufacturing as a viable route, and for us, that’s the route that we went. 

And we also did look into a commissary kitchen to get started and all of that. But ultimately, with our format being a pouch that just really wasn’t—there’s not machines that do that in the commissary kitchen, so yeah. 

So, that’s the route that we went. And yeah, no, without a doubt, it’s been definitely, really challenging and a whole new learning curve. I would say some of the challenges are just with COVID was like control. We can’t necessarily be there on the floor on every run. So how do we do that? 

So, we had to have our co-mans FaceTime us in, overnight us samples at every production. We’re cooking them all the time, especially if we’re doing smaller runs to get started. And so there was a ton of extra work around all the control there. Management of inventory is really challenging, especially if you’re—well, for us, we have a ton of specialty ingredients. So us figuring out how do we manage this in an efficient way and have visibility into lots of raw materials and things like that. 

Some of the things that have worked well for us in terms of problem-solving on this front, I would say instituting weekly calls with your co-man. That’s really important for just really building the relationship.

Being a little bit more hands-on and making sure they’re feeling supported and making sure that you can problem solve on the weekly basis, I think, is critical. 

Another piece is, at the onset, almost treating the relationship with your co-man as if you were treating the relationship with an investor. You want to be pitching the highest of decision makers and really selling them on your growth and your brand so that you have their buy-in and that when inevitably things get challenging. 

Like [if] something goes wrong or they’re deciding how to divide line time, you want to make sure that they are thinking about your brand and wanting to invest there. So, I would say definitely make sure that you’re really building that relationship in a way where they’re excited about the future and the potential with your brand.

Gary Nowacki: Yeah. So it sounds like your world view was to really build a relationship and a partnership with them and then not deal with them as, hey, let’s negotiate with an adversary.

Vanessa Pham: Absolutely. I find that in operations, that pretty much never works, especially food operations. It’s such a challenging—nevermind COVID making it all the more challenging, but for everybody, it’s not an easy thing. So much goes wrong with perishable goods, with food that needs to be consumed, with obviously the highest level of quality control, right? 

And so, I think with—and also, just being a small brand in this environment, you are competing to get a co-man. The supply-demand is way off, right? So you really want to build strategic partners and view them as extensions of your brand, and like for us, we see them as a part of the Omsom family.

Gary Nowacki: I’m here with Vanessa Pham, who is co-founder of Omson. Let’s talk about the people’s side of success and particularly innovation. When you think about all the innovation that’s had to occur to make your company successful, what are the key qualities you see in folks, their talents, and their mindset that characterize top innovators?

Vanessa Pham: Yeah, well, I would say two different things. So on one hand, I think there’s this broad idea around bringing more diverse innovators to the table. 

So, for example, back in 2018, when we were starting to talk about Omsom and we pitched it to Mars and we ended up being in their accelerator, that was when we started talking about the future of Asia and America and Asian-American culture, flavors, and stories being something that would be at the forefront of American culture. And I would say back then, folks were like, “Oh, really? Are you sure? I don’t know. That feels really niche.” 

People were like, “I don’t know. I don’t really that’s really only relevant to a very small audience. Fast forward, now it’s 2022, fast forward three, four years, and we’re seeing that play out across media, across the hospitality industry, across Hollywood, and also across food and beverage. 

I think part of what allows for innovation is unique and diverse perspectives. And I think for us, we were able to see that because we were living it as Asian Americans. We were seeing our stories starting to be valued on a level that they deserve. And so I really always am advocating for that. And as a founder myself, I’m now making sure I dedicate time to mentor other BIPOC creators and founders myself.

And then the second piece I would say to your question around mindsets that allow for innovation. So, I’m really lucky because I have a very clear window into this because my sister, who is also my co-founder, is, I think, an incredible innovator, an incredible creative. She’s so talented. And I’ve been reflecting a lot on what allows her to be that way, how is she that way, and there’s so many things that make her, her. But one thing that I’ve really observed is that she is able to turn off her outcomes-driven mindset. 

So, what do I mean by this? So think about someone like me. I used to be a consultant. I’m very analytical, right? I am always working backwards from what is the desired goal and how do we get there. And in some ways, that can be a superpower. When I’m fundraising, that really helps me because I can really work backwards from our five-year plan, our three-year plan, and paint the picture of how we get there. 

But when you’re being innovative, when you’re being creative, you need to take down those walls and those boxes that stifle your ability to actually put something original out into the world. And so, I have witnessed her ability to do this and I think it is incredible talent and it’s actually something I’m really trying to build in my own toolkit. But let me tell you, it is really hard.

Gary Nowacki: I guess that ties into things like the long view and not being worried about short-term failures and things like that, right?

Vanessa Pham: Absolutely. Yeah. What I would do is shut down so many paths because I’m like, “Oh, it won’t work for this reason or that reason.” Because I’m playing all the ways that things could go wrong. But she looks at it very differently from a place of just possibility and wonder. And that’s really where innovation, I believe, comes from.

Gary Nowacki: So let’s talk about success and failure in innovation. Can you share any personal stories on both sides of the ledger?

Vanessa Pham: Yeah, so I mean in terms of—let’s see. In terms of failure around innovation, let me think. I mean, I personally feel like I fail with innovation all the time. In brainstorming with the team, I think because I am so driven by those outcomes, I’m always trying to turn off that mindset around, is this viable? Is this viable? 

And so that’s an area where I feel like I’ve pushed myself to try to put fresh ideas out into the world. And that sometimes falls short. In terms of successes, I think it’s all about taking risk. I think the areas that we’ve seen success with our innovation is one area in our content that we create. 

And so, one of the biggest ways that I’ve seen our team do that is by stopping the practice of always looking around at what everybody else is doing. I know in the CPG industry, obviously, there’s always this practice of, “What’s your competitive set, what’s happening in your category, what’s working, what’s not?” And that’s definitely something that needs to happen, especially when it comes to product innovation. I definitely understand that. 

But I do think in other areas, specifically marketing, always looking around can really dilute your ability to be innovative. And so I’m really encouraging of the team to continue just focusing on our North Star, focusing on our mission and vision, and really creating from that place versus looking at our peers constantly.

Gary Nowacki: It seems like such common sense. If you’re always focused on your competition and you’re chasing them, how could you ever be unique and innovative, right? But yet it seems like so many people make that critical mistake.

Vanessa Pham: Absolutely. Yeah. I see it again and again.

Gary Nowacki: Yeah. So as you look to continue the journey of Omsom, whether it’s growing the company or launching new products or launching into new distribution channels, what are some of the big speed bumps that you see to all those things?

Vanessa Pham: Yeah, I think a lot of it is really getting the rest of the industry to catch up. There’s a lot of folks that are in positions of power in this industry. Some could probably call them kind of like gatekeepers, but folks that have the keys to the resources, whether that be investors or buyers or, yeah, folks that decide who gets what and access to what. 

And I really hope to see this industry continue to evolve and catch up with how the world is changing and start to map the way that they deploy their resources to that, and what I believe are really the demands of consumers today and what they will be in the future, tomorrow and beyond. And so whether it’s investors feeling like Asian flavors and Asian companies are too niche or buyers feeling that as well, that’s where I continue to push back and hope Omsom really can be an example of what’s possible. 

And that’s definitely one of my own missions. I actually do some work on this side. I’m part of this group called The New American Table, and there’s a lot of really great industry folks in there, like Errol Schweizer, who used to be at Whole Foods, and then Chloe Sorvino, who is a writer on FNB at Forbes, and some other really great folks in the industry. And we’re working together to really help increase that kind of equality and access to resources across all types of founders and BIPOC founders specifically.

Gary Nowacki: Excellent. So what can you share what’s next for you, and for Omsom?

Vanessa Pham: Oh, my gosh. So much is happening at our small, but growing, company we are a small, but mighty team and we’re growing. So, definitely really excited. Some bigger hires coming up this year. Really excited to start to actually build out a sales team to, like I said, enter into grocery in that retail space. 

We are working on some innovation which is really exciting. So, nothing I can share in great detail but you’ll definitely see all of this come out soon and then lastly, we’ve been really excited and thankful to have all the great partnerships that we have. 

This past year, we launched partnerships with Disney and with Instant Pot, which has been amazing, but looking to the future, definitely excited to launch some more partnerships with other household names.

Gary Nowacki: Yeah, well, good. We’re rooting for you, and we’ll be on the lookout for exciting news. For folks who’ve been listening to this podcast today, who are professionals in the CPG innovation space, what’s the best way for them to connect with you professionally or LinkedIn or what have you?

Vanessa Pham: Yeah, absolutely. A couple of ways. So you can actually find me on LinkedIn, but I think the best way is actually on my personal website. I think that’s where everything’s linked out, including my LinkedIn and my Instagram and all of that. So that is vanessatpham.com

And actually, I do bimonthly office hours where I set aside time, 45 minutes, and anybody can join and ask me anything related to their venture, their challenges, their career. And I do that every two months, and anybody can sign up on my website. 

And it’s been a really amazing opportunity for founders to meet each other honestly, even through the office hours, and a lot of great relationships and connections have come out of that. So definitely, if you’re interested, join for one of those. You can sign up on my website.

Gary Nowacki: Excellent. Well, I’m really glad you do that because when entrepreneurs and founders support each other, amazing things can happen.

Vanessa Pham: Without a doubt. We need it.

Gary Nowacki: And for folks interested in your products, it’s omsom.com, right?

Vanessa Pham: Absolutely, omsom.com. omsom.com.

Gary Nowacki: Excellent. So Vanessa, I ask everybody the same question. What advice would you give to two different sets of folks: first, innovators who are already in the CPG space, maybe even working for a large company and second, new people just starting their careers in this space.

Vanessa Pham: Yeah, absolutely. So when it comes to innovators who are already in the space, one of the things I really encourage folks to do is step back and take a look at who they’re surrounding themselves with in their career. 

I feel like all the time people take this kind of critical eye to who they spend time with in their personal life, but they don’t do it, professionally, as much. They kind of take it for granted. But I really believe that who you surround yourself with, who you allow to influence your mindset, how you value your work, what you think is aspirational versus not really influences you and can really change your day-to-day experience of what you strive for and what makes you feel fulfilled at the end of the day.

So, I would really encourage you to take a look and say, “Hey, do these people align with my values? Does this company align with my values? Is my boss, for example, somebody that I really want to learn from and emulate?” And have the courage to make a change if not. I think oftentimes, we feel stuck where we are, and that’s really never the case. There’s so much opportunity, especially in this market, so I really encourage that.

And then to somebody potentially starting a career in this space, I would say it is a tough industry. It’s not easy. The margins are slim; there’s a lot of competition; the supply chains are tough, but that is why I really encourage everybody to get super clear on what is their North Star from day one.

I think, especially for founders, but really anybody who wants to feel deeply fulfilled in their work, I think doing the upfront work of really understanding what motivates you, what change you want to see in the world, and what you want to throw your weight behind, and making decisions with that as a key input can really change the game for the day-to-day experience of coming to work and putting your talents, your energy, and your time into something that’s aligned with your innermost value.

Gary Nowacki: Great advice. I’d like to thank my guest, Vanessa Pham, who is co-founder of Omsom. Check it out; omsom.com. Neat products. And thanks so much for being on the podcast.

Thanks for listening to CtoC where we cover innovation in the food and CPG business from conception to consumption. Just type the letters C-T-O-C – no spaces – to find us on iTunes, Stitcher, Podbean, and Google Play.

This podcast is produced for informational purposes and does not constitute any scientific, legal, or medical advice.

The views and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are those of the guest alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and positions of the host or any other entity or organization. Listeners are encouraged to listen with an open mind and form opinions of their own.

This podcast originally aired on February 1, 2022.

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