Watching a friend's entrepreneurial dreams fade was the spark that ignited Aihui Ong's own startup passions.
After failing to woo retailers like Whole Foods, Ong's friend had no choice but to shut down her gourmet, all-natural stir-fry-sauce business. Seeing how much money and passion her friend had poured into the project, Ong sought to create a platform with which artisanal producers could gain notoriety and avoid the perils that befall so many entrepreneurs looking to expand their companies. A few months later, Love With Food was born.
The Foster City, California-based Love With Food is, like Graze and MunchPak, a subscription snack-food service. Customers who sign up receive a bright red box every month filled with snacks from small producers. But that's where the similarities end.
Unlike other companies, Love With Food also uses its subscription service as a means for providers to conduct market research. Small producers pay to have their snacks--which Ong insists must be organic and free of artificial ingredients--distributed to her subscribers. In exchange, they receive a report of consumer insights that can help them improve their product and develop a fan base. Ong noted that this kind of market research is significantly cheaper and more reliable than traditional focus groups, and it also subsidizes the cost of the boxes for her subscribers, which go for as little as $7.99 per month.
The concept is certainly catching on with consumers. With thousands of paying clients--Ong wouldn't say exactly how many--the company's 2014 revenue topped $3 million, up 2,859 percent from 2011 and earning it the No. 129 slot on the Inc. 5000.
As much success as her company has enjoyed in just a few short years, Ong was not always poised to be an entrepreneur. In fact, prior to launching Love With Food in 2011, she worked for eight years as a financial software engineer for companies like Sony, General Motors, and 21st Century Fox. Life for Ong was comfortable but unfulfilling.
"I woke up one day and realized that counting people's money isn't fun," she says. "I was no longer happy with what I was doing."
After a bitter divorce that stripped her of half her assets, Ong quit her job and decided to travel the world. Over the course of a year, she visited 20 countries, including rural regions of Egypt, Romania, and China. She relished the opportunity to experience other cultures, but it was also during this time that she witnessed poverty in a way she hadn't before.
"In the U.S., you turn on the switch and there's power, you turn on the faucet and there's clean water," says Ong, who grew up in Singapore when the country's infrastructure was still developing. "We take it for granted."
When Ong returned to the U.S. with newfound determination, her travel experience inspired her to try to address some of the issues she was exposed to while abroad. Knowing that many low-income individuals in the States grapple with food insecurity, Ong decided to incorporate a charitable component into her business model.
For each box delivered, Love With Food donates the cash equivalent of one meal to food banks across the nation, like Share Our Strength and the Feeding America Network. To date, Love With Food has provided an estimated 694,918 meals to hungry children in the United States.
Success With Food
Today, Love With Food is enjoying its perch as the 129th fastest-growing private company in America. Ong also graduated from the 500 Startups accelerator program in 2012, which helped her land sizable investments. After plowing $50,000 of her savings into the company, she raised $650,000 from other investors, as well as a more recent $1.2 million second round. The company has earned praise from customers, who compare receiving their monthly box to "Christmas all over again," as well as from celebrity food personalities like the Travel Channel's Andrew Zimmern.
Where she once had to go to food shows by herself and persuade artisanal producers to use her subscription service, she now runs a team of 16 and finds that the foodmakers she once had to win over are now courting her. She recently returned from the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York, and she described how purveyors approached her to pitch their products after recognizing her company shirt.
"It's surreal" she said. "It makes me want to cry."
Love With Food is still young, but Ong would like to see her company diversify its snack boxes--there are currently three, including a gluten-free option. She'd also like to become the largest platform in the country to help introduce new producers to consumers. It's an ambitious goal, to be sure, but, given the progress that Ong has made in just a few short years, it seems wholly possible.