Meet a Maker: John and Jess Waller, Humble Nut Butter
Many consider New York or San Francisco to be the biggest food business hubs, but insiders know there’s an incredible amount of innovation and collaboration in the scrappy, agriculturally-rooted area of Minneapolis-St. Paul. One of the startups making a splash in Minnesota’s food scene is Humble Nut Butter, a husband and wife team crafting the country’s only savory nut butters. Why Humble? “We want to be transparent and honest in our approach.” says co-founder John Waller. Here’s how Jess and John Waller balance two kids, one full-time job, and one fast-growing business while breaking the mold in an age-old category.
Had either of you started a business before?
John: We had not. Collectively, we had over 30 years of sales and marketing experience, and Jess and I have always been passionate about food and beverage. We came very close to launching an apple cider vinegar beverage in Chicago about 6 years ago, but the timing wasn’t right for a variety of reasons. So we both went about our corporate journeys, and then Jess had this idea, and the more we learned that there was a void in the market, we decided to go for it.
How does the entrepreneurial life compare to what you envisioned?
John: It’s wild. Jess still works full-time at the University of Minnesota. We’re definitely plowing ahead, and we’re working a lot. It’s a 7 day a week job. But it’s great, because you’ve got autonomy, and you can make decisions that directly impact the business and there’s not a lot of bureaucracy or middlemen. You can and should make things happen quickly in an early-stage food business. But it’s not for the faint of heart. You need to be able to endure the roller coaster that comes with it, but if you can ride the momentum, you develop a following and a customer base and helps you get through the tough days.
How do you stay motivated and energetic?
Jess: The hardest part is that there just aren’t enough hours in the day. But sometimes when you have less bandwidth, you can be at your most productive because you don’t have any other options. Because we’re gluttons for punishment, we also have two children, a 5 year old daughter and a 2.5 year old son. You do more with less, when you’re super busy. Because John is in it full time, he keeps us on-task and motivated.
Kids dominate our mornings and evenings. Our 6am to 7:30 is getting dressed and fed and out the door. I’m at work 9-5, so most of my time spent on the business is 8:30PM to 11ish, and on weekends. John is in it all day, every day.
Are you updating Jess throughout the day?
John: That’s one of the challenges. The most strategic things we talk about together. But so many things happen in the course of a day when you have a brand-new business, and it’s just you. So you have to be willing to make decisions otherwise you’ll just be paralyzed. We generally save the most important topics for the nights, after the kids are down. But as our kids get older, we’ll definitely let them know what’s going on. We don’t want to shield them from the struggles of small business. We want to share the wins and the losses with them.
Were you nervous about starting a business together?
Jess: We were nervous in different ways. The benefits of being a couple is that we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The downside is that we’re also living together so you can’t step away from it. The hardest part is probably being able to shut it off and focus on other things.
John: Totally. I would also say that, in a husband-wife work scenario, you have to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses, and you have to be able to swallow your pride and put your ego to the side for the sake of the business. If you can make it objective, rather than getting your emotions wrapped up, and be able to admit when you’re wrong, that will make for a much more productive work dynamic. It’s all consuming, but you need to be able to shut it off and think about other things. That’s one benefit of Jess having a full-time job. With two young kids, who are very energetic and hilarious, they command our attention as well. That can be a nice departure from the business. But lots of people have said they can’t go into business with their significant other.
Jess: So it’s not for everyone!
What’s the Minneapolis food community like, and the resources available for makers?
John: It’s a great community of makers here. There’s people in the thick of it, running their own businesses, and then industry veterans. We’ve got a deep flour milling history here, Hormel is in Minnesota, Land O’ Lakes, General Mills, Target, so there’s a deep history and foundation of food in the state. And there’s a nonprofit called AURI and a nonprofit put on with the University called Grow North, and then Midwest Pantry‘s Morning Meetups – they have a combination of panels, speakers, and networking events.
What’s a challenge you didn’t anticipate when you started, and how are you tackling it now?
John: Scaling the business, once you’ve got the concept, and making meaningful strides. Our intention was to hit the Minneapolis and Twin Cities Farmers Markets and prove the concept, talk to customers, and get feedback. That shaped a lot of our plan. The feedback was great. So now we’re at this point where we’re graduating from the farmers market and focusing on e-commerce and specialty grocery, and those are different problems that we’re facing now than we were in the first few months.
Jess: The community has been so open to people in the maker space and it’s a nurturing environment, but one of the things that’s been surprising, that you don’t know until you’re in it, is that there is a big gap between being a small-scale maker product and a nationwide brand, which is what we’re hoping to accomplish. Making sure that we’re keeping the integrity of the product while we’re making the leap, transitioning to co-packers, and all that.
What kind of tactics did you use to introduce not just a new brand but a new sub-category?
John: Instagram really helps. We haven’t done any paid advertising yet. But slowly but surely, as a result of being visible in the local community and following the right influencers, we’ve been able to cultivate a loyal following. We put stories up, and sometimes we do professional posts but sometimes it’s just stuff we have on our phones, authentic stuff. Strategic collaborations have helped as well. One of the collaborations that we did was with Beth Dooley, a James Beard-award winning writer. She’s fantastic and she came up with some recipes for us, which we put on our website. Those type of things have gotten us good traction.
Jess: Demoing has been really important for the local merchants that we’re in. People expect your product to be intuitive, to know what to put it on and what to pair it with. It’s been a little surprising that people want that kind of level of instruction. Now we’re figuring out the right message to send. 6 months ago we started putting stickers on top of the jars that provide instruction on pairings. Things like that help us adapt.
Where do you go when you have questions?
John: It’s a combination of Internet, podcasts, and our own person network. There’s some great podcasts! We love Haven’s Kitchen’s In The Sauce podcast, and of course Nosh, BevNet Taste Radio, and Unfinished Biz.
What are your strengths and weaknesses, and how do you divide up the business responsibilities?
Jess: I have a psychology background and I worked in marketing for years, so I have an analytical and data-driven mind. I’ll tackle things from a more numbers-driven, objective place than John. John is quintessential extrovert who moves quickly and makes decisions. One example is that we just launched on Amazon in the past few months and wanted to get it off the ground. John was like, “I’m just going to flip the switch and turn it on,” and I was like, “No, we need to figure out the back end, the codes and the boxes and the fulfillment before we move ahead.”
So that’s how we balance each other out. I want to have everything together, and sometimes I need that push from John to say “this is good enough, and we have to go with it.” That’s one way we balance out.
John: I agree. Frankly, Jess is smarter than I am. I need her brain to keep us afloat! I have a startup background, and in startups you have to move quickly, be fearless and take chances. It’s an incredible time to be in food, so we need to strike, but that doesn’t mean to move recklessly. You can move intelligently and fast, and make headway.
Jess and I overlap when it comes to our values. Humble is premium quality, and we’re never going to compromise on our ingredients, being clean label, and having a transparent ingredient list. Some of the day-to-day stuff, like the relationship stuff, or where we choose to sell the product, we can work through disagreements. But fundamentally, we have agreement on where we need to go.
What are your most memorable moments so far?
Jess: Last summer was the first time we laid it all out, and anytime I was at the farmer’s market and got to see people’s reactions to the product and see people get excited about something. Even though those are little wins, it’s really important in the early days to get that validation that you’re on to something. And now that we’re on Amazon, we get orders from all over the country. We’re like, ‘how did this person find us?’ We’ve shipped a few times to Hawaii. Those are the things that make it fun and keep it exciting.
What are your short-term and long-term goals for Humble?
John: Short-term, we want to further develop our e-commerce channels, with our own website and with Amazon. We’re excited about those two channels. We have our eye on other strategic retailers, as well as potential foodservice, and we also have some other innovation in our pipeline, like an additional flavor and a single-serve concept. And we can’t lose sight of the accounts we’re in in the Twin Cities. We want to nurture those accounts, so we’re going to get help with sampling. We’re also looking at partnerships, whether that’s with institutional capital, angel investors, or other partners in the business.
Long-term, we want to have an international brand. We’re much more than this current iteration of Humble. Consumers are evolving in what they buy, and we’re positioned well specifically in the plant-based segment. At some point, I’d love to have a team and a company where people are empowered, have autonomy to do their jobs well, find meaning in their work, and help us create something special together through our collective hard work.
We’re also an inclusive employer. We work with a local company called Inclusive Networking, and they create customized employment for employees of all skill levels. If we could continue to be an inclusive employer, that’s where we’re going to have the most meaning, and that’s the kind of stuff that will allow us to push past the challenges that lay ahead.
What tools do you use to run the business?
John: We use Quickbooks, we use Square for point of sale, we use Squarespace for our site, and we use Shipstation for labels and postage. I spend a ton of time in Google Calendar and the whole G Suite.
What books have influenced you?
John: Two books stick out. One is Choose Yourself by James Altucher. It’s about making a bet on yourself and choosing to live a more intentional life, rather than settling. Another is You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero.
I’d recommend them both, for having the right mindset and believing in yourself. It takes a ton of courage to take the leap. It’s the most terrifying decision we’ve made, but it’s already paid off, and great things are ahead because we had the courage to do it.