After she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, Lauren D’Souza was determined to spend her time doing something that excited her – and in 2020, a food experiment became Ujjo, a hot sauce designed for coffee. The Columbus, Ohio-based entrepreneur sells two different sauces, a light roast and dark roast blend, which derive their heat from spices like cinnamon as well as cacao and vanilla, making them unique sauces to add to beverages and desserts.
Here’s our lightly edited Q&A, from The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project.
Tell us more about why you started your business.
Ujjo started as a dare, actually! One day, a friend dared me to throw some hot sauce into my morning coffee because he knew that I liked spicy food and he knew that I liked coffee. When I tried it, the experience wasn’t exactly a positive one…but I began to think of all of the other spicy beverages I enjoyed (spicy mochas, jalapeno margaritas, chai tea) and wondered if there was a way to create a condiment that would bring that same experience to coffee. After 10 months of experimenting in the kitchen, Ujjo was born.
How is your business different from others in your industry?
I can pretty definitively say that Ujjo was the first––and is still the only––hot sauce for coffee. Our sauces are different from conventional hot sauces because we don’t rely on vinegar, salt or garlic to build our flavor profiles. Instead, we use a sweetener blend and a combination of warming spices in addition to chili powders, which brings a cozy sweet-and-spicy combination to your favorite drink.
Tell us about your biggest success so far.
To launch the brand, I decided to crowdfund via a Kickstarter campaign. Over the course of the campaign, my goal was to raise $5,000, and I honestly wasn’t sure that enough people would “get it” for me to even meet that goal. Not only did we raise $5,000, we ended up raising that on the first day of the campaign and went on to raise over $40,000 overall.
What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?
Navigating growth as a solo founder. Without a team to rely on, it’s easy to have blinders on and make decisions that could hinder the success of the company. That’s why I’m so thankful to have a strong team of advisors around me who can look at the business from different angles––sales, operations, marketing, PR––and help guide me accordingly.
Have you experienced any significant personal situations that have affected your business decisions?
Right as I began working on Ujjo, at age 28, I was diagnosed with RA. It runs in my family, so I had seen firsthand just how devastating the autoimmune disease can be, and to be diagnosed in my 20s felt like a death sentence. It made me realize that time and energy are finite, and I wanted to commit mine to something that made me feel truly excited.
What is your biggest tip for other startup entrepreneurs?
When I first started, I worked with many contractors who consulted on legal, operations, marketing, you name it. What I learned the hard way was that they didn’t always have my––or my business’––best interest at heart. Even though it was really uncomfortable for me, and I definitely lost some “friends” along the way, I had to learn to stand my ground and hold others accountable so that I could protect the business as much as possible.
How do you find inspiration on your darkest days?
A friend once recommended to me that I keep notes of the good things that happen in the business so that I can consult them on the bad days. So, I have a log of all of the milestones we’ve achieved and hurdles we’ve overcome, plus a collection of positive customer emails and reviews I’ve collected over the past year and a half. When I’m having what I call a “low self-esteem day,” I pull all of those records out and remember that, even though it doesn’t always feel like it, Ujjo’s come a long way in a short period of time and that’s something worth celebrating.
What is your go to song to get motivated on tough days?
Ooooh this is a great question! I was a #theaterkid in college so I absolutely love musical theater. When I’m feeling stressed and trying to pump myself up, I love listening to show tunes, especially the Les Miserables soundtrack.
Who is your most important role model?
My parents. They are both entrepreneurs and had to face huge obstacles in order to get their companies off the ground. They understand what I’m going through in trying to build Ujjo. ◼