15 Minutes With Erika Kerekes, Founder of Not Ketchup
In my 15 minutes with Erika Kerekes, founder of Not Ketchup, I learned how a wife and mom of two teen sons fired up her entrepreneurial spirit, drew upon her marketing experience and started her own business. Erika’s “Not Ketchup” fruit based marinades and toppings “with no tomato in sight” calls upon people to “dip differently.” Within a year, Erika’s spunk and hustle got her brand in artisanal food markets and other stores (including Whole Foods) in California, and high end food stores in Connecticut, New York, Georgia and Texas.
Not Ketchup is also available online which means if you’re reading this, you can order it. Below is the lowdown on Erika’s Not Ketchup journey.
LC: Where did you get the idea for your business?
EK: For years I’d take my kids to a u-pick cherry orchard in southern California. They were really enthusiastic about it and we’d end up with a bathtub full of cherries which I’d use to make jam. After years of making jam I got bored of it! My teenage boys don’t eat a lot of jam. They eat burgers. So I decided to turn some of the cherries into a ketchup. It was so good that I continued experimenting with fruit “ketchups” and made everyone who came into my house, including the mail carrier, taste them. Everyone loved them and I realized no one else was making products like these for grocery shelves.
LC: What were you doing before and how did that lead you to this business?
I was working in marketing and public relations and was laid off in 2012. I started the interview grind and after two months there was this vibe. I felt I was being told in code, that I was old and expensive. People don’t want to pay for experience. So I started working for myself as a marketing consultant and launched a food blog. I knew I was done working for a company. I co-founded LA Food Blog club and then in 2013, my consulting work was going great! I started to invest my own money into Not Ketchup. I’m entirely self-funded and own 100% of Not Ketchup, and for now that’s the way I want it to stay.
LC: Boom! Business is born. It must feel scary and great at the same time.
EK: YES! Well, kind of. I decided that after decades of working for other people, it was time to invest in myself. Many people share this philosophy, but it’s hard to venture out sacrificing the security of steady pay. Bills come every month. I have teens heading to college. My business venture needs to be a calculated risk. I must continue to generate income through my marketing consultancy, handle family responsibilities with my husband, and then invest funds into Not Ketchup. It’s not like I can abandon the primary business just yet.
LC: And the husband was on board?
EK: Yes! My husband and entire family was on board which is important. I’m so grateful to my family. This year has been absolutely nuts. I’m traveling to stores, doing events and meeting so many people. It’s never-ending but I love it. Plus I have my clients through my consultancy so time is absolutely a challenge.
LC: But the marketing skills is what got Not Ketchup into stores within a year. When you know how to get attention, things happen fast.
EK: YES! Marketing is everything and too few businesses understand the power of brand awareness. My marketing experience helped me tons. A lot of businesses pay others because they don’t know how to market or they think they know how but don’t which only wastes time and money. I had marketing skills, so I hit the ground running. In-store promotions are hard work. I did them all myself. I’m only in business a year so it’s still new for me.
I want to be the person who see the reaction when Not Ketchup for the first time. I want to be hands on.
LC: So what’s the big marketing tip you can share based on your experience launching Not Ketchup?
EK: Step one, figure out your business or product’s story. Step two, shorten the story. Then, tell that story the same way over and over. Get your business description so tight it flows within seconds. What is it? What makes it special? How did it come to be? Nail those three questions.
LC: Oh you’re preaching some truth right now. I love talking to fellow marketers. YES! Keep it short!
EK: Very short attention spans. Shorter now than ever.
LC: Everything needs to be said in 140 characters or less. At the same time, you have to promote and tell your story and get it out there.
EK: Exactly! In my first year I practiced what I call “buckshot marketing.” I did some of everything, including spending money on things that came my way unexpectedly like a celebrity gifting suite at the American Music Awards and a promotional food truck tour with Stonefire Breads. Going into 2015, I have a better sense of what worked and what didn’t, so I know what to say yes (and no) to. I’m doing social media, sponsoring blogging conferences, a lot of store demos, online ads, giveaways, and partnership opportunities with other food brands. You name it. I’ve either tried it or plan to try it. In the food world, bloggers are HUGE! 80% of my sales are due to bloggers. When I ask customers how they heard of Not Ketchup, 8 of 10 times it’s from a blog. People like you help TONS!
LC: I’m a blogger who like you is a marketer so I come at products and businesses in a different way. I like to get real and make people understand it takes grit to get to glory. Speaking of grit, what’s an obstacle you face in this start up phase?
EK: Oh that is true. It’s a lot of work. I mean a lot! The biggest obstacle was and still is time. I still spend at least half my time working for other clients. That revenue stream has allowed me to invest in Not Ketchup at a much higher rate so I need to continue with the consultancy. Plus there’s my husband and two sons (although they’ll tell you they haven’t seen much of me in the last year). So my time is spread thin.
LC: Would you consider taking on a partner to help lighten the load? I totally see you on Shark Tank and getting them to fight over you. Lori Greiner, Kevin O’Leary a.k.a.”Mr. Wonderful” and I’m thinking Robert Herjavec would battle for sure.
EK: Hahah yeah well my Shark Tank application is complete and I am ready to go when I get their call. That would be amazing! When considering a partner I have to think strategically. I’m not ready just yet. When the big demand comes then I’ll handle it. When you have that big order or several then you have something to show investors. When that happens the investor may want me to work Not Ketchup full time. The possibilities are certainly driving me forward.
LC: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned during this business journey?
EK: Trust your instincts. A lot of people have given me advice and shared their experiences, and I listen to everything. However, in the end I make the decision I think is right, even if it’s counter to the advice I’m getting. Trusting the gut is so important and not letting fear get the best of you. This extends in other areas as well. I was asked to shoot a pilot for a show on Food Network. During it people were questioning the brand name, Not Ketchup. I dug my heels in on that one. I stuck to it. You must stand up for what you believe but, also listen to the market!
LC: What would you say to your 16 year old self?
EK: Great things are coming and you’re going to love the ride.
LC: What business book or resource you recommend?
EK: I really liked Rubies in the Orchard by Lynda Resnick, the owner of Roll International (a large food conglomerate). The woman really is a marketing and branding genius. She made decisions that everyone thought were crazy (giving fruit brand names, e.g. Cuties; the iconic POM Wonderful bottle, which is expensive and extremely difficult to manufacture) and has revolutionized the way produce is sold and marketed. She’s big on trusting the instincts.
LC: Well Ms. Erika your story is awesome and when you get the call for Shark Tank you better let me know. I’m adding you on social media so we’ll be in touch.
EK: YES! Absolutely! This was so great! Can I send you some Not Ketchup to try?
LC: Yes please.
Erica sent me all 4 Not Ketchup flavors to try. Since she loves to get the “first taste reaction” from people, below is a video of me trying each flavor with some home made chicken nuggets.
Got a great story about your brand or service? Connect with me, let’s partner and get that story out there.
Lisa Concepcion is a marketing consultant and after the lesson learned in this interview, labels herself as the “Barbara Walters of Business.” Her “Lisa’s Lowdown on Business” blog, vlog and YouTube interview show, allows her to promote businesses and the people who run them in an authentic, real way.