Seven years after a corporate sabbatical inspired Simple Squares, Kimberly Dobbins is close to turning a profit.
In 2007, Kimberly Dobbins was working as director of global recruiting for Morningstar, the investment research company, when she took a paid, six-week sabbatical – a perk the company offers its employees – to do some soul-searching. “While I was happy at work, I needed something more in my personal life,” says Dobbins, who had previously worked in human resources at Goldman Sachs. “I didn’t know if it was volunteering or a hobby.”
All signs pointed toward health and wellness, so Dobbins decided to enroll in weekend classes in dietary theory when she returned to Morningstar, which is based in Chicago. Around the same time, she concocted a homemade nutrition bar free of wheat, gluten, dairy, soy and refined sugars. Initially dubbed “the Sabbaticals,” Dobbins was surprised to find that her snack – made with nuts, honey, vanilla, sea salt and herbs or spices — was popular with friends and even her husband, Sean, a meat-and-potatoes guy. “And I thought, well, maybe there’s an idea there,” she says.
Dobbins renamed the product Simple Squares, but she wasn’t ready to quit her day job yet. She thought she’d make the bars in a commercial kitchen, and sell them at farmers’ markets on weekends. “That was going to be my new personal passion,” she says. But when she learned that the farmers’ markets required attendance, with penalties for no-shows, she nixed the idea. “It wasn’t worth the effort,” she says.
So she decided to take a shot at Plan B: mass distribution.
Learning how to manufacture a snack bar when you don’t know anything about the food industry and have a full-time corporate job that requires travel to the United Kingdom and Australia, isn’t the easiest feat. And Dobbins spent much of 2009 figuring out the process.
First, she read the book “Sell Your Specialty Food” by Stephen Hall, which covered the basics, and then she searched the Internet to find a manufacturer that would do a pilot run. Eventually, she contacted a food-processing facility run by Land O’Lakes, the Minneapolis dairy company. “They says, ‘we don’t normally work for companies unless they have $1 million in sales,’” she says. “But they were very kind.”
The facility put her in touch with a consultant, also based in Minneapolis, who for $1,200 agreed to help Dobbins find a manufacturer, develop a business model and come up with a commercial recipe. The consultant flew to Chicago, and spent time with Dobbins at Kitchen Chicago, which rents shared kitchen space by the hour. “I brought my food processor, and pots and pans,” she says. “It was helpful for him to see how I made it so he could tell what equipment I needed.” The consultant found her a manufacturer, a family-run business in Oregon, willing to work with a start-up.
In early 2010, while still working full-time at Morningstar, Dobbins spent about $2,500 on her first pilot run— a batch of Simple Squares in individually wrapped plain packs. She had them shipped to a hotel in Anaheim, Calif., where she attended Natural Products Expo West that March. “The night before the show started, my whole family was there to support me,” she recalled. “We were putting stickers on these silver packages.” The trade expo was a success for Dobbins, who says she took a “ton of orders.” She also “pounded the pavement” in Chicago and got local natural stores and gyms to carry Simple Squares.
Six weeks later, she says, “We had a major snafu. All the bars started leaking oil.” It was because of the nuts, and it forced Dobbins to spend about eight months working with the manufacturer to refine the process. She hated to lose the momentum picked up from the Expo, she says, but most customers were patient with the delay.
At the end of 2010, she took a three-month leave of absence from Morningstar to gear up for Simple Squares’ first official production run, with formal packaging — and to determine if she wanted to make the start-up her new career. “Everybody was saying, ‘don’t leave the corporate job, look at all the perks and benefits,’” she says. But the trial period cemented her desire to provide “a healthy alternative to what’s out there.” She resigned from Morningstar in early 2011.
Today, Dobbins’ bars are sold in 2,500 stores, including Whole Foods and Fairway locations. Each year, she has tripled her sales, selling about 450,000 bars in 2013, generally in 12-packs that retail for about $30. She now employs two full-time and two part-time employees to help with sales, accounting and business development.
About a year-and-a-half ago, Dobbins began working with large distributors to get the product into retail chains, and she also hired a broker to communicate with the distributors. “It’s driving the growth of the business,” she says.
Even so, Simple Squares is still just breaking even. Dobbins estimates that the company will finally turn a profit this fall — seven years after her Morningstar sabbatical. She spent about $50,000 to get Simple Squares up and running, she says, and she continues to bootstrap the company with savings from her corporate career. She plans to seek financing from a bank or investors.
Entrepreneurship, she says, “is 5,000 times more challenging than I thought it would be.”
Posted: June 9, 2014