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From Seed to Startup: how Melbourne Bushfood made their idea a reality

Follow along as we discover how startup founders transformed their idea 'seeds' and built them into successful businesses from the ground up.

In this series, we're joined by a range of extraordinary founders to retrace their steps from the thought that first sparked the idea for their business, through to commercialisation and running a startup. Each startup had a different blueprint for building their business, with fascinating stories to read about their wins, setbacks and plans to shape the future of food - and if you're an aspiring entrepreneur, you might find some helpful info about how to grow your business and leverage your ideas.

This week? We chatted to Hayden Marks, Founder & CEO of Melbourne Bushfood!

The idea

Food Futures: Hey Hayden, how did you come up with the idea for Melbourne Bushfood? What was the question or problem that you were trying to solve?

Hayden: The process of creating Melbourne Bushfood was less about working out how to solve a problem and make money with it, and more about questioning why we weren't utilising native foods. After living overseas for a couple of years where people would ask me what Australian food was like, and I would instinctively answer things like pavlova and vegemite, I returned home and went to university to study journalism. During my study, we were asked to write about a niche topic - I decided to write about native foods and researched them for the first time, discovering that we have 6,500 different native foods in Australia and utilise almost none of them, we have so much variety and live in the driest continent, yet we're growing super water intensive plants like cotton. Melbourne Bushfood was started as a way to raise awareness and address the lack of availability of native foods.

Retracing the steps of Melbourne Bushfood

Food Futures: If you had to plot the timeline of having the idea for Melbourne Bushfood to launch what would that look like? And were there any programs that you participated in or actions that you took which were useful over time?

Hayden: The growth of Melbourne Bushfood has happened over the last three years. The foundation and idea behind the business really started with the moment that I was introduced to a native ingredient for the first time - I tried wattleseed with its amazing coffee, chocolate and hazelnut aroma and it was delicious, and this inspired me to start to research native ingredients and their availability.

After this, the steps that followed were:

  • Finding out where to source the ingredients - I spent a lot of time on Google and contacting people involved with native foods. I learned about the sustainability of native ingredients and discovered the cultural importance of native foods and engaged with First Nations people to learn more.

  • Queen Victoria market - we sold six different native food herbs and spices at the market, which was a big step up that gave me a lot of confidence to continue

  • Focussing on our social media and growing our e-commerce platform

  • Defining our mission and building a strong team of ten people

We also took part in the Food Futures 2020 Ideas2Business early stage accelerator focussed on the native ag + food sector. This happened at the start of the scaling period for Melbourne Bushfood and was great to connect with other businesses and honing different aspects of the business.

The beginning: gaining ground and scaling up

Food Futures: Once you'd had the idea for Melbourne Bushfood, was there anything that you did to validate your idea like market research?

Hayden: Not initially and it wasn't intentional! After the first six months, I went to Queen Victoria Market and talked to people about native foods, listened to their feedback and sold six different native food herbs and spices. We realised that people were interested in it, but just didn't know how to use it, which is why we started to develop products like chocolate which were really successful and became what we grew from.

Food Futures: After you'd tested out the idea at Queen Victoria Market, how did you start to gain traction?

Hayden: It was a hundred percent social media. It started around the beginning of the pandemic - I'd stopped selling at the market because we weren't allowed to go anymore and it made me question whether we should stop altogether. I took two weeks, sat in my apartment and did nothing except for reflect on what I wanted to do and decided to give this one last final push. I was taking online courses on how to do things like run an Instagram page and Facebook and Google ads and built my skills and grew the business from there. It was perfect timing because at that time people were wanting to eat things that were local and native ingredients answered that problem for a lot of people. People were also spending a huge amount of time online, which was perfect because I'd started to put all my energy into our online e-commerce at that time.

Food Futures: So when you first started to gain that traction, was there an initial surge in interest in Melbourne Bushfood and what was your approach to scaling the business?

Hayden: It went from zero to a hundred - it was almost at a point where it was unsustainable because we were growing so fast. When you're growing a business, you want to make sure that the products that you're offering are good, the information that you're putting out is correct and that you're doing the right thing - because we were growing so fast it was all hands on deck and was super intense.

There was one point where we had to shut the business down for five days and stop taking sales to keep up with the demand and get the orders out. It was around this point that we decided to pull back, stay where we were in terms of growth, get the right people on board and have been doing this since. This year, for example, we have strategies in place behind product releases and our approach ensures that we stick to our purpose and that we're growing, but we're not doing it unsustainably. It was an amazing experience and we were really lucky to experience it, but there were some challenges along the way that we had to address as well.

Team-building, the market & mentorship

Food Futures: How did you go about building a team through this? What does the structure of your team look like and how did you fill any capability gaps that you might have had?

Hayden: It happened organically. As a small business, you can't offer huge salaries, but you can hone in on making your business a really awesome place to work where people feel excited about what we're doing, feel empowered and are connected because we share the same values. This was a huge part in acquiring our talent. Because I was doing everything at first, it was about asking where I was spending most of my time and whether I could have someone else do it, and for most areas the answer was yes. I hired first for the things that took up the most time for me.

Food Futures: And how did you develop an understanding of who your customers would be as you were growing the business?

Hayden: It was product dependent - the customer segment for the plants that we sell is really different to the food products. As we had so much traction, the customer segment started to find us organically as we released new products - so we didn't have to do a huge amount of outreach and working out who to sell it to because we were the front of mind for a lot of people which was really helpful. We had a lot of interest from consumers - a few months ago, we opened a front of house retail store and nursery because people want to learn and engage with the products, and we get lots of positive feedback from this.

In the beginning stages, when we had a lot of traction, it was a process of controlling the growth, bringing it back to a sustainable level and making sure that people are wanting to come back - part of our mission is to make sure that native ingredients are accessible and that people want to engage with them, so if they have a bad experience they're not going to native ingredients again which is what we don't want to happen.

Food Futures: Throughout this process, did mentorship play a role in building the business?

Hayden: Definitely - it offered new ways to think about things and helped me to change directions and shift my focus. I don't have a set mentor, but I think of everyone around me as a mentor because they're constantly teaching me something and helping me to grow as a person and a professional.

Food Futures: What has been the best aspect of building Melbourne Bushfood and what has been the most difficult?

Hayden: The best thing has been the connections and the people that I've met - listening and learning from people with amazing lived experiences and talking to people involved with native foods has been incredible. The most difficult thing has been accepting my own inexperience with managing the business and taking on responsibility - being able to accept that there are things that I don't know and that's okay. As long as you're constantly learning, you're good.

Food Futures: If you had to mentor another entrepreneur who is just starting out, what advice would you give them?

Hayden: Don't overthink anything - you've got nothing to lose, especially as a young person. Even if things don't work out, you still have time and you're only going to regret not doing it!


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