QMy company is entering a new and evolving market. How can you create demand for a product when most potential customers know nothing about it?

Mark Caron
New York City

When we started Amy's, in 1987, selling frozen vegetarian potpies, the mass market wasn't ready for our products. There really weren't any frozen natural foods in grocery stores. Most people thought health food tasted like Birkenstocks.

The most important thing in your early days is establishing relationships with customers who are already passionate about your product and will spread the word about your company. We talked constantly to buyers at trade shows and to the owners of small health food stores. We never spent much money on marketing.

There's no magic way to make customers want your products. As an entrepreneur, you have to look really hard at the market, examine what's out there, and leave the rest to your judgment. If your market is nascent or nonexistent, you may face a lot of resistance. At every stage of my business, whenever I would tell people that I was launching a new product, they would tell me it was a bad idea. This happened when we introduced our first product, and when we came out with frozen Italian and Indian food lines. My executives told me we couldn't go into the canned soup business (we were a frozen food company, after all). But I tasted what was out there and knew we could dramatically improve on that. Our soups quickly became No. 1 in the organic and natural soup market.

Growth may be slow at first, but that can work to your advantage. In our first 10 years, we added a few health food stores, distributors, and grocers each year. We often spent years developing new products, getting the taste of our foods just right. (My wife and I taste everything, of course.)

Once customers start to discover your product, however, you have to be ready to meet demand. In the mid-'90s, the organic food market suddenly began to take off. We had been growing steadily, about 20 percent per year, but in 1997, our sales grew 80 percent. At this point, we had 36 products, enough to fill a small section in the frozen food aisle of the national grocers that now wanted our product. Surrounded by Stouffer's and Swanson, we knew it was crucial that when we went national, we had enough products to tell a compelling story to customers.