Women in Business Q&A: Lizzi Ackerman, Co-Founder and CMO, Birch Benders

05/01/2017 05:42 am ET Updated May 01, 2017

Lizzi Ackerman is the co-founder and CMO of Birch Benders, a line of all-natural, gourmet pancake and waffles mixes. She launched the company alongside her business partner and now husband in 2012 after the two discovered a mutual love of flapjacks and bonding around the breakfast table. With a goal to combine wholesome food with convenience, Lizzi believes some of the most memorable family moments can be made around the kitchen table over delicious pancakes. Lizzi currently resides in Denver, CO, with her husband where she enjoys spending time outdoors and experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen. 

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I learned very early in life that hard work pays off, and that’s definitely a value I try to embody as a leader. As a leader, I strive to set an example. And if my employees work hard and exceed expectations, they’ll be rewarded.

For me, an early reward from hard work was learning to speak properly. I had severe speech impediments as a child, largely due to a mysterious extra tooth in my gums that interfered with tongue movement. It was bad. People couldn’t understand me. I’ve watched the home movies and I honestly can’t understand a single word. I was fortunate to find a wonderful speech therapist, with whom I worked twice a week from preschool until second grade. When other kids were doing homework or on play dates, I was doing tongue exercises. But it all worked out in the end, and I learned that if I put my mind to something, I can succeed.

In college, I was very involved in the Yale Herald, our college newspaper, and my experience there definitely taught me a lot about how to lead a team and bring out the best in others. I started out as a columnist, became opinion editor, then became senior editor, so I was able to relate to the writers, having been in their position. One thing I learned from my time at the Herald is that if you want to get the best stories, you need to be able to empathize with your writers, understand what motivates them, and encourage them to write about things they are passionate and knowledgeable about. I think that applies to business at well. To me, it’s not enough to hire people who are good at what they do — you want someone who is both best-in-class, but also genuinely passionate about their work, because if they like what they’re doing, they’ll do a better job. I think it’s all about finding out what makes people tick and helping push people in a direction where they can excel.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Birch Benders?

After graduating college in 2010, I was on the fast track to medical school. I did my postbac premed at Columbia, and by fall 2011, I’d completed all my requirements except Organic Chemistry and lab. As an avid skier, I figured: what better place to take that and study for the MCATs that than Boulder, Colorado? I moved to Boulder, and shortly after, began dating my college classmate, business partner, and now-husband Matt LaCasse. 

Birch Benders began one morning when Matt woke up craving pancakes, but didn’t feel like going through the effort of making them. We began looking around and realized there weren’t any healthy, just-add-water mixes on the market available at an affordable price. We saw a niche, and went for it.

We finalized the initial recipes, but I wasn’t satisfied, and here’s where my science background came in. It occurred to me that if we really wanted the best recipes, we needed to make sure we had the best ingredients. The only way to ensure that objectively would be to double-blind taste test every ingredient. That’s exactly what we did. We started by testing well over 30 organic flours double-blind to make the fluffiest, most delicious pancakes imaginable. We did and continue to do this testing on every ingredient we use. While it’s time-consuming, I believe it’s worthwhile, because at the end of the day, our recipes actually taste better than from scratch. Great pancakes start with great ingredients, and we’re meticulous about picking the very best.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Birch Benders?

In March 2015, at Expo West (the biggest natural foods trade show in the US), the pancake buyer for Target came by and told us he wanted to put four of our flavors in all their stores at eye level to replace their own private-label brand. At the time, we were in a couple hundred stores, so the idea of having four flavors in over 1600 stores was surreal. I’ll never forgot that moment. We’ve had an incredible business with Target since we launched, and I’ll always be grateful to them for taking a chance on us.

I’ve also been excited by recent syndicated data. We’re now the number two brand in the natural channel, but we’re number one in sales per point of distribution, and we have the number one and number two most productive SKUs in the natural channel. In the conventional channel, we’re the fastest growing brand, but we’re a long way away from being number one or two, so that keeps me hungry every day. 

As for challenges, the biggest challenge we ever faced as a business was the avian flu in 2015. It was the worst avian flu outbreak in US history and completely wiped out egg supply. Egg powder went from around $3/lb to over $20/lb virtually overnight, and there was very little supply available because most went to the bigger companies who contracted it. So we were buying whatever we could for over $20/lb, and in constant fear of running out. It wasn’t sustainable, and with our September 2015 Target launch approaching, I was terrified that we would run out of egg, be unable to provide product, and go under. I remember asking a sales rep of one of our ingredient suppliers what he thought we should do. He said the companies he works with that have product lines containing egg powder have closed those lines. I remember thinking, are you kidding me? We’re launching in Target this fall and you’re telling me to give up? Not a chance.

So we went back to the kitchen, did a ton of research, and ultimately created our own egg replacer. Our criteria was simple: the recipe had to taste better without the egg than it did with it. We managed to pull it off, and none of our customers even noticed. Ultimately, the avian flu was a blessing in disguise because it forced us to replace one of our most volatile commodities, in terms of price, and our margins improved in the end. We made the best out of a potentially disastrous situation, and I’m very proud of that.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

Take your time to study your industry and competition. Though Birch Benders was incorporated in 2011, it took us three years and five rounds of packaging before we officially launched at Expo West in March 2014. We were fresh out of college and knew nothing about consumer packaged goods and natural foods, so we went to every educational seminar we could and got coffee with any industry veteran willing to meet with us. Boulder is often called the Silicon Valley of natural and organic foods, so we were fortunate to have a lot of successful entrepreneurs around us. That said, I was surprised how open most people were to giving us a little of their time, and I always encourage other entrepreneurs to reach out to the leaders they admire, because you never know what might happen.

Get consumer feedback. We did demos in grocery stores, twice a day, for over a year. We asked people what they liked and didn’t like about our products, and people were brutally honest and incredibly helpful. Their insights shaped the products we sell today. 

Ask questions. I had millions of questions when we were starting out, and I still have tons of questions. If you have to make a decision and you’re not 100% confident you’re making the right choice, it’s always better to get feedback from people who have been in your position before pulling the trigger. We’ve definitely saved ourselves a lot of time and money by running things—big and small—by our board and mentors.

Lastly, make sure you really believe in your brand before devoting what will inevitably be a ton of time to it. When you’re starting out, you’ll be working long hours, and people will question everything. It’s tough to stand out in any industry, but if you want to be seen as an innovator, you’re going to have to outshine the competition, and that often means working more. If you love what you do, it won’t be a problem.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?

Know your strengths, and hire and outsource your weaknesses. Tempting as it may be as an entrepreneur, you can’t do it all and you shouldn’t do it all. I think it’s really important to know what you’re best at, focus on that, and be honest with yourself and others about your shortcomings. Hire people that are better than you, and your business will thrive.

And trust your gut. Always.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I won’t lie, it’s an ongoing struggle. Matt and I make a conscious effort to try to stop work around 5:30 or 6 every day, then go to the gym and disconnect. Another thing we like to do is plan weekend trips (often of the skiing/hiking variety) and book the hotel or Airbnb in advance. If it’s paid for and on the calendar, you won’t blow it off.

That said, it’s 9:40 PM as I’m writing this, so…

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

As a younger woman in the workplace, I’ve been in many situations where buyers have made unfair presumptions about me or my experience based on my appearance. It’s unfortunate, but ultimately I try to overcome these biases by using my age and gender as a competitive advantage, and letting the success of our brand and products speak for itself. 

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

Mentorship has been everything to me, and I think having good mentors is one of the most important parts of being an entrepreneur and running a successful business. One of the most influential mentors in my life built his business from the ground up, and understands the day-to-day difficulties we face. There are so many situations where we almost made a choice that would have set us back a few years, and my mentor came in just in the nick of time to steer us the right direction. It’s wonderful to have advisors you can count on who have been there, done that, and can help guide you along the way.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

Sheryl Sandberg. She’s a brilliant and inspiring leader, and seems like a wonderful person. I also think we have similar outlooks on the future. As she says in Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead: “In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” I love that.

What do you want Birch Benders to accomplish in the next year?

I’d like to see our new 24oz pouches, which we developed to compete with mainstream mixes like Aunt Jemima and Krusteaz, make a big impact in the conventional grocery and club channels. 2016 was an amazing year, but with this new product line, we’re poised to blow all our projections out of the water! 

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