When I started the “CPGers Who Rock It As Entrepreneurs” blog and podcast series, I focused on the people who left the corporate world entirely to start a new venture. Imagine my surprise when I learned that there is a different way to go about entrepreneurship, a less typical but, perhaps, a smarter way to scratch your entrepreneurial itch without putting all your eggs in one basket. Meet our today’s guest, Doug Allan, the Co-Founder of True Cubes and simultaneously Vice President of Marketing at Jackson Family Wines.
OY: My very first question to all entrepreneurs is always about their founding story. Tell us how it happened for you.
DA: I have to take a couple of steps back to illustrate how my previous life experiences led me to start True Cubes. I worked in the Wine industry for 15 years and also got an MBA at UC Irvine. There, I took an entrepreneurship class where the final assignment was a business plan competition. Two of my classmates and I started an actual company, Stacked Wines, based on our business plan, instead of going back to corporate after graduation. Stacked Wines offered innovative, Lego-style packaging with 4 individually packaged glasses of wine. Our product enjoyed quick success, got distribution in Walmart and was featured in Time Magazine and got a lot of other great PR. The company was acquired and I went back to work in the corporate wine industry. A little while later, I was approached by an engineer who has been working on a clear ice cube tray out of his garage for the last three years. He saw my interview featured in the press and asked me to partner with him to help bring his innovation to market.
I spent an additional year figuring out the product positioning and brand story. Today, True Cubes is the leading clear ice cube tray in the world (many copycats have emerged in the five years since the launch).
We ultimately found funding for True Cubes from a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised enough money to get us started.
OY: So, what is True Cubes’ raison d’etre? What problem are you solving?
DA: Any adult beverage aficionado is familiar with this problem: cloudy, yucky ice with air bubbles, chlorine, lead, calcium, magnesium and other pollutants of the water that is used in regular ice cubes. It can easily ruin the taste of the drink and the entire experience. What my co-founder figured out is that it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, when Mother Nature freezes water it does it top-down vs. outside-in like most commercial freezers do. The top-down freezing process pushes all the impurities to the bottom and creates ice that is crystal clear. True Cubes mimics Mother Nature and creates perfect ice cubes by freezing water from top-down and capturing the impurities in a bottom chamber. The bottom tray can then be cleared out and reused. The product is completely analog and doesn’t need to be plugged in, simply stored in a regular freezer. It is so efficient in purifying ice that you can use even unfiltered tap water.
OY: How do you sell True Cubes? What kind of distribution channels do you use?
DA: I have been focusing on building distribution for the last five years. Amazon is our largest distribution channel by far. However, I discovered that selling direct to restaurants and other food service companies is a viable option, too. Many of them email me because they hear about True Cubes from their patrons. And, in turn, the restaurant workers tell patrons about True Cubes when they try them for the first time in their venues. This, in turn, drives our retail sales. I have not yet built the retail chain distribution, it takes a lot of resources, but I would love to figure out a new pricing strategy and find a distributor partner some day.
OY: How much does True Cubes cost?
DA: MSRP $45 but Amazon sells it for $39.99. We also sell True Cubes on our own website. In fact, for Shopperations blog readers, I am offering a 20% discount on truecubes.com if they apply promo code "shopperations".
OY: You had a chance to work on both startup projects and in large CPG enterprises. Which do you enjoy most, and does your dual experience help you succeed?
DA: I quite like them both. It gives great balance, perspective and helps me leverage my various strengths. For instance, I love that in my side project with True Cubes, I am the boss, and since I don’t have co-workers, I do not need to manage personalities and bring others along to make a decision. I move extremely fast and don’t get analysis paralysis. In my day job, I shift to be a team player who needs to justify, substantiate and validate my recommendations. While it takes longer, it helps me think things through and hone my communication skills.
My startup experience helped me be more decisive and pragmatic in my day job. On the other hand, the strategic, methodical approach, the value we as CPG marketers put in understanding consumers and shoppers, served me really well when I was building True Cubes branding strategy. It is evident that we are a real brand and not just a physical product if you look at our Amazon page. I learned so much in the process that I could write a book on how to launch CPG brands on Amazon! (OY: That is a topic for our future blog post!)
OY: How do you juggle the demands of the full-time corporate job and a side business?
DA: It’s all about “separation of church and state” and managing expectations. I work on True Cubes exclusively between 5 pm and midnight. I do not flaunt my side hustle at my day job, although the fact that I have a side gig is not a secret for my colleagues. It also helps to manage expectations with your business partner. Long time ago, we agreed how to share duties and when to get support by outsourcing work. For example, in the early days, I did all marketing by myself, but a year ago, I brought in a social media company that handles this work for us.
The fact that we bootstrapped our company and don’t have outside investors (except our Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign) allows us to grow at our own pace and not feel stressed by the investors’ expectations. Sustainable, steady growth is possible if you have a good product, because it often sells itself. We get a lot of free press from the media, for instance, we were featured in Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and America’s Test Kitchen. Word of mouth is how many customers first discover us.
OY: What advice do you offer for aspiring entrepreneurs?
DA: If you start a company as a side business, do not lose focus on your day job! That means you will have to work harder and give up some things, such as hobbies, vacations and friends. Until you are ready to leave, stay committed to your day job.
As to how to do it, I recommend two things:
- Find a mentor to guide your process. I am happy to offer my help because I find it rewarding to help entrepreneurs. Just recently, I coached a founder who is launching a spirit infusion kit. I would love to meet more aspiring entrepreneurs who want to do it respectfully and in the right way. I can help them cultivate mental strength, discipline, focus and practice the “separation of church and state” that I mentioned earlier.
- Make progress everyday or every other day, to move your idea forward. My motto is “it’s better to do something wrong than nothing at all!” Emails, phone calls, research on Google... That’s where a mentor can help focus your attention. Someone who has done it before, they can help you create a roadmap.
Doug can be reached on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dougallan/
Or via True Cubes company website: https://www.truecubes.com/