Not everyone can say they turned a yogurt-making hobby into one of the hottest food startups in the country.

But, if you're Siggi Hilmarrson of Siggi's, you can.

From Finance to Food

Siggi didn't start out as a dietician, nutritionist, chef, or even an entrepreneur. He moved to New York City from Iceland to get his MBA at Columbia University and took a job on Wall Street.

"It was a management consultant job and I was a very poor fit for that," Siggi said.

He took some time to think about what he wanted to do to reignite his passion, and landed on yogurt making as a hobby. But it didn't stay that way for long.

"It all started when my mom sent me a recipe for skyr that I asked her for. I started making it in my kitchen, and it gradually became a lot more intense. I realized, after reading about yogurt history and making it in the home, that to make it really prosper you have to make it in a dairy plant," Siggi said.

The First Customer

Siggi continued experimenting with different combinations of ingredients, searching for the perfect balance of texture and flavor in his skyr (Icelandic yogurt). He eventually got some space at a plant at Morrisville College, and started seeing results right away.

"I took it around to friends and family. One of my friends worked at Murray's Cheese and I gave it to her more so to say, 'hey, I sort of have this intense hobby with yogurt - can you give me some feedback?' And she did," he said. "She gave it to her buying committee."

It turns out, that was just the connection Siggi needed. Just a couple months later, he got an email from the buying committee saying that they would stock his yogurt if he could make it on a regular basis.

"That was the first sign that I could have something more than a hobby," Siggi said.

Siggi's second sign was a promise from a professor that he would invest in the burgeoning skyr business.

"My professor said, 'Well if you quit your job to do this, I'll be your first investor,'" Siggi said. "So I had both a customer and an investor."

Building the Business & Brand

Siggi dove into building his company, finding a smaller manufacturer that could produce his skyr in larger quantities. He quit his finance job and the next year, started selling it at local farmers markets in downtown Manhattan.

In the first few years of Siggi's, the team didn't have enough budget to proactively market their product. They began hand-labeling all the cups with the information that a hungry consumer could want. In 2007, just one year after quitting his job, Siggi landed a deal with Whole Foods.

The bigger deal spurred the team to design a new logo and packaging.

"We knew we had to speed up the work on getting a proper label," Siggi said. "We thought about it, and didn't want it to be too contemporary, but we also wanted you to be able to look at the label and have a very good sense of what the product was without necessarily reading it."

That decision led to the simple, elegant design of the yogurt cups that you see today in any Whole Foods or Starbucks.

Paying it Forward

Siggi's journey wasn't all easy for him.

"We went through great hardship in 2008," he said. "That was the most difficult time in my life for sure."

Siggi and the team had to deal with six intense months where numerous challenges arose. It was enough to make anyone want to give up.

"When I thought about failure, it was absolutely unacceptable," he said. "I just said, 'I'm going to make this work no matter what.' I went into a sort of survival mode."

Now, Siggi shares his story with the hopes of inspiring and helping other entrepreneurs. His biggest advice for founders in the midst of building their first company?

"Remember to take care of yourself. I think that's a mistake I made," he said. "Remember to take the occasional day off. Make sure you sleep and eat well, especially when you're early on in the business and are really broke. You try and save money on yourself, but that's not a good way of saving money. If you don't recharge, you run out of steam."

Overall, Siggi said, it's always better to get started sooner rather than later.

Published on: Nov 3, 2016