The Soylent Team Breaks Down the Logistics of Starting the Business
In part 3 of a 4-part series, we're diving into the very beginning of Soylent, the futuristic meal replacement created by Rob Rhinehart. In this part, we dig deep into the timeline of how it got started and the logistics of getting Soylent started. View Part 1 and 2.
I’d love to know more about the timeline the team faced with Soylent, every step of the way. When did you first get the idea for it, when did you start making hires, when did you line up suppliers, etc. all the way to when it was available?
Julio Miles: Rob’s original few blog posts are great context for how he came up with the idea originally.
Here’s a timeline from my perspective:
- January/February 2013 - I’m living in the Silicon Valley working for a different startup, and Rob, John, and Matt are living in a cramped apartment in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. I don’t really remember the context, but at some point Matt or John told me that Rob was experimenting with liquid food. I thought it sounded cool, but didn’t think much more about it until Rob published his blog post, and I had the same reaction that a lot of other people had: “wait, what?”
A few days later, Rob calls me and asks if I’d come up and shoot some portraits of him for the press. I say “sure!” and drive up to San Francisco. That was the first time I tried Soylent, I think it was probably v0.2 or .3—it was surprisingly delicious! Those pictures still pop up sometimes in press articles, which is pretty funny considering that we no longer manufacture Soylent in a 20 sq.ft. kitchen, measuring out ingredients onto torn-up pieces of paper towel.
- April 2013 - Rob, Matt, and John all start living off of Soylent v0.4 and begin working on the crowdfunding campaign. David and Rob work on the original crowdfunding video, which is hilariously bad and worth watching, if you can find it.
- May 2013 - Soon after the shoot with Rob, I had moved to Los Angeles and hadn’t heard much more about Soylent, until Matt called me out of the blue and asked if I wanted a job. I did indeed, and pretty soon after that, the crowdfunding campaign went live.
That was a pretty insane day. I was confident we’d reach our goal of $100,000, but had no idea it would only take 2 hours. Immediately, the emails started flooding in, and I essentially spend the next 8-10 months answering emails for 8-10 hours per day.
- June-October 2013 - Crazy times. We raised $800k in the first 30 days of the crowdfunding campaign. The team is working on refining the formula, giving interviews to the press, closing a seed round from YC partners, Lerer Ventures, and a16z. We hire OKFocus to develop our brand identity and initial pouch design. We settle on a copacker to manufacture our first production run of Soylent.
- November 2013 - The decision is made to base the company in Los Angeles, due to the lower real estate costs, better climate, and a desire to get outside of the San Francisco Bay Area tech culture bubble. We all move into a big house with 7 bedrooms (counting a converted garage), and turn the master bedroom into office space. Work continues on the 1.0 formula. We place our first PO for 425,000 units, and promise our backers a ship date of February 2014. In retrospect, that was a mistake.
- January 2014 - We finalize the Soylent 1.0 formula.
- April 2014 - The first shipments of Soylent 1.0 begin arriving at customers’ doorsteps. At the beginning, orders were fulfilled by emailing CSVs to our logistics partner (a warehouse in central California). This was far from ideal, and caused major headaches for the first few months.
- May 2014 - With customers actually receiving product, and thousands more contacting us to find out when they can expect their orders, the backlog of emails never dips below 2000, and we make our first dedicated customer support hire.
- June-August 2014 - Rob is on the Colbert Report (we sell over $500k of product over the next 24 hours!), and Soylent is the subject of a feature article in The New Yorker. We hire three more customer support agents, and begin transitioning to a order fulfillment platform (Shipwire) that was much more reliable and streamlined than email attachments.
- September 2014 - We make our first Product hire, who restarts the Beta program that we had paused when moving the company from SF to Los Angeles.
- October 2014 - All of our crowdfunding orders are fulfilled, 6 months after we began shipping.
Rob is spending a significant portion of his time meeting with current and potential investors, which is great since we are now placing regular POs for Soylent 1.0 and our bank account is getting pretty low.
- January 2015 - We announce our Series A, led by a16z. Hiring begins in earnest, and around this time we move into our current headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.
Did you have investors? If so, how did you work to line them up?
Julio Miles: In 2013, we raised more than $3 million on Tilt, making us the largest crowdfunded food project in history. We also received seed funding from investors that included a16z, Lerer Ventures, and Alexis Ohanian, a co-founder of Reddit. By January 2015, our $20 million Series A funding round was led by a16z, with participation from Lerer Ventures, Index Ventures, and individual investors including David Friedberg, CEO of The Climate Corporation.
What resources were the most helpful in getting Soylent started?
Julio Miles: Our crowdfunding campaign on Tilt was instrumental to our success. Soylent would not be where it is today without our backers. They set us on a path to success from the start. Since most traditional investors tend to be skeptical of new ideas or products, crowdfunding allows startups to demonstrate proof of concept in a real way. In Soylent’s case, we were able prove that the strong demand for a product like ours was already out there, while simultaneously generating a lot of buzz.
How did you go about finding suppliers?
Julio Miles: In the beginning, we found one contract manufacturer who did all of our supply chain sourcing. In January 2015, we brought on a VP of Supply Chain who managed relationships with all our suppliers and vetted new contract manufacturers, to ensure manufacturing redundancy and allow for product expansion. To this day, we vet, audit, and negotiate all pricing and terms with each of our suppliers. The contract manufacturers then provide turn-key manufacturing of Soylent products, using the ingredients provided by our supply chain.
Who did you turn to for packaging? How do you feel that the packaging for Soylent is successful in communicating the values and mission of the brand?
Julio Miles: We spent a long time sourcing our packaging suppliers, and OKFocus did a great job developing our original brand identity and pouch design. We wanted to communicate that Soylent was food, and nothing more. The emphasis on our nutrition facts panel (placed on the front of the primary packaging) reflected this priority on functional nutrition.