Meet a Maker: Nick Mendoza, One For Neptune
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone working harder to change the food system than One For Neptune. The brand’s three co-founders are all remote from different timezones, meaning there’s someone working on their mission – to promote sustainable seafood through delicious fish jerky – just about 24/7. “The sun never sets on One For Neptune’s operations,” says co-founder Nick Mendoza.
Consumers might initially balk at the concept of fish jerky, but after tasting the three extremely palatable flavors (Smoked Sea Salt & Juniper, Fiery Cajun, and Honey Lemon Ginger), people tend to change their mind. And the awards, which are constantly rolling in, also help.
We talked to Nick about the state of seafood, building the perfect Kickstarter, and finding their customer base.
Had any of you started businesses before One For Neptune?
I had a whole career in marine science and was at this alone for a little bit. Garrett is my CFO and he worked in commercial real estate and finance, but wasn’t an entrepreneur. James, our CMO, and I met at a wedding in Sri Lanka and he’s a serial entrepreneur for sure. He’s started 6+ businesses. He had almost essentially retired at 34 when I met him, but he was looking for an exciting challenge to take on and all his businesses had been in the e-commerce space previously. Never actually producing a product and starting from scratch, but mostly webshops and e-commerce platforms. He’s a great asset.
How does the entrepreneurial life compare to what you imagined?
You don’t have a clear idea when you get started with something like this, what your life is going to look like. I absolutely love it, including the stress and uncertainly, including driving 20 straight hours in a UHaul to deliver our first 18,000 packet order last summer. Things like that, that are insane undertakings but you’ve got to do it if you want to keep your business going. I think I thrive on that.
What’s surprising to me is how much I enjoy the uncertainty and being on the road constantly, because it feels like it’s all for a purpose. I don’t have any kids, but it certainly feels like I do with the business. So that’s something I didn’t expect – being so invested, to the point that it’s all you can think about. That’s not something you experience until you create something, as a maker.
What is it like having three remote founders?
I wasn’t sure at first that it would work, but it’s actually an effective system because, especially with James being in Lisbon, he’s almost on an inverse time of day as us. If I’m going to bed at midnight after having worked all day, James is waking up and I can say here’s where things are right now, I’m signing off, but I’ll talk to you in the morning. In a way, there’s this round the clock advancement of things. The sun never sets on One For Neptune’s operations!
That outweighs some of the challenges. When there’s physical stuff to be done, that falls on my shoulders mostly, but we come together for a lot of shows, and we probably 5 times a year we’re all together. Garrett and I are in the same place more often because Southern California is a hub for us and we go to more of the events and gatherings together. As we grow and scale, we’ll see if it’s maintainable.
What’s the production process for One For Neptune?
We have a co-packer in the Seattle area, and all our fish is also sourced from the Washington/Oregon coast. It’s great to have a really short supply chain and cold chain, which is important to us. The US imports 90% of its seafood from abroad, it’s the most internationally traded food commodity on Earth.
Some Fish caught on the California coast might be freighted to China, and then some of it is sent back and sold here. It’s this crazy and unsustainable, carbon-intensive system. We know where our fish are, and those fish go a very short distance to where they are turned into a shelf-stable jerky.
Was it hard to find that co-packer?
It was! Because a lot of jerky manufacturers won’t touch fish, and the majority of seafood processors don’t have capacity for the rotary packaging and stuff that we need. So it was difficult. The one thing I’ve learned is that you never know where you’ll get your lead or connection when you have business problems. It’s always the most random ways. So the lesson is to talk to as many people as possible because you never know what’s going to materialize.
Your Kickstarter last year was a huge success, raising far more than you had anticipated. What was your process there?
We took so much time preparing that. Our launch date was originally May 5th, because we felt ready and had the production capacity, but we kept pushing it off to ensure that everything was going to be just right. Even in terms of the seasonality! We researched the success of campaigns at different times of the summer. There was a lot of thought into every aspect.
At the end, we even restructured how we did the video. We were running ads that our Kickstarter was coming soon, and we did have help on that front from an ad agency. I really care about the sustainability – it’s so core to our mission – and we always believed that the health aspect would capture the customer’s attention, so we focused the video on those aspects. But it became clear from the ads that someone was 5x more likely to sign on when they saw the taste test.
You can tell someone that something is healthy and sustainable, but that person is still going to say ‘fish jerky? How does it taste?’ That was a really valuable insight because it doesn’t matter what your value offering is, if a consumer isn’t going to enjoy the experience of eating your product, they’re probably not going to buy it once, much less more than once.
And so the video starts with taste tests, with customers being hesitant and then really enjoying the taste. We paid attention to every detail of what makes a successful launch, and talked to people who have done Kickstarters that did well. That’s sort of our nature – we overthink everything. In that case, at least it worked out.
Did you think that you would overfund?
We felt confident that we’d hit the goal, but we didn’t think we would hit it in 6 hours and double it in 24 hours. We had a plugin that would make a funny sound every time we got a contribution and it was such a dopamine rush. It was very startup-y. It’s a good memory.
How does your transparency tracker work?
There’s a bit of custom code that went into it, but we use Fish Trax, an intermediary traceability platform that serves as the arbitrator between a brand who wants to convey their sustainability and the seafood suppliers that they source from. The good thing about seafood is that for safety reasons, when you’re sourcing domestic US seafood, everything is pretty highly tracked.
That’s the importance of going directly to the fishermen and the processors when sourcing our fish. It’s really when you’re buying from international brokers, fish that have gone through 4-5 international buyers and sellers, that you get a high level of fraud. There were some metastudies done that in some cases, 68% of white fleshed fish was mislabeled. That means if there’s social inequity or even slavery in the supply chain, there’s no way to root it out without that traceability.
So it all comes down to our relationship with our sources, and then that 3rd party who can be the point of validation, and then a bit of back-end tech to display the data that we get directly. At the moment it’s not overly complicated, since now our production runs are one big batch. We have the framework moving forward to scale it, but it’ll always have to be a priority – and it will be.
Do customers use it?
People definitely are. I do think we may need to build clearer instructions. The interesting thing, and I think it’s the case with other companies that have traceability features, people like knowing that it’s there, so they almost take it at face value, thinking they don’t need to go on and try it. So we would like to get more people using it, but it’s something that when we meet someone who is familiar with the brand, they’ll say “oh you’re the fish jerky that you can track,” even if they’ve never done it themselves. I think that’s valuable in and of itself.
What’s a challenge that you’re dealing with right now?
Something that we’re really trying to understand at this stage, because we’re growing in every direction with new groups of people interested, is who exactly our biggest supporters and evangelical consumers are, and getting our brand aesthetic and messaging around those people. Because – this is a good thing and also can be the kiss of death – One For Neptune appeals to a lot of different groups. Mothers of young children, the keto community, the outdoor community, weekend warriors. All these sub-groups of people are showing themselves, but you’ve got to focus your energy. Knowing exactly who our best consumer is and putting our marketing efforts in that direction. The key to that is data, and as a small brand that’s a challenge. Getting the right data, and quickly enough that you can make the decisions you need to make.
What motivates you to keep going?
I think about the moments when I get goosebumps, and one was on a flight recently. I was chatting with someone and they’d heard of the brand, and they’d tried it and really liked it. It was like, oh my gosh, this crazy notion I had a year and a half ago, that I was never sure was actually going to amount to anything, now strangers on a plane have heard of what we’re doing. That’s really inspiring.
And seeing repeat orders, and people who tell their friends because they subscribe to the product as well as to the vision of what we’re trying to do with seafood sustainability. I never imagined being the founder of a snack food company when I was on a career track toward food systems and seafood sustainability research and science. This is me realizing that the best way to tell a story, and get people to understand, is with a consumer product.
What are your biggest priorities for this year?
We are continuing to focus on e-commerce because it’s a cost-effective and data-rich way to scale. You get information back about who is buying the product in a way that you don’t necessarily get when you focus on brick-and-mortar. Which is also more expensive, as a small brand trying to reach retailers and support your sales there.
So continuing the rate of growth in e-commerce is our main priority. And then testing in-stores, everything from placement and types of channels, to be ready at the start of next year to pursue larger distribution in retail and approaching that with the right strategy. We’ve heard from mentors and advisors that it can lead to failure for some brands, to take on an opportunity for major distribution, not realizing the cost and amount of human time and infrastructure needed, and whether it’s the right partner to grow your brand. We want to leave no stone unturned before we make that choice.
What kind of tools and services do you use to run One For Neptune?
We use Asana for project management, the Google Drive, and there’s quite a few pieces of software plugged into our website for analytics, loyalty programs, subscription services. Dashboards for email marketing. AirTable! Our website is on Shopify, which I would highly recommend.