When Desk Life Project was lucky enough to be included among the winners of the Cosmopolitan Magazine Pitch Palace competition, not only were we thrilled to have the chance to go along to a glamorous photo shoot and appear in the magazine, we also got to spend the day chatting to the other winners, a bunch of truly exceptional female founders.
One such inspiring woman was Rushina Shah, the brains behind Not.Corn – a healthy sorghum snack, and the first of its kind in the UK. We’ve been dying to get her on the blog for some time now, and finally she’s sharing her story right here. From starting her first entrepreneurial venture aged just 14, to quitting a successful job at Procter & Gamble to pursue her own business, Rushina’s Startup Story is filled with amazing advice for those looking to start their own business.
Hey Rushina! I had the chance to taste Not.Corn recently and LOVED it! Tell the community all about Not.Corn, what do you do in the business?
Hi Caitlin! Over the years, I had been constantly searching for easily accessible snacks which not only taste delicious but do not contain any refined sugars and ‘nasties’. I became more and more fascinated with diet and nutrition and realised that a lot of products which claim to be healthy are in fact not. When I saw my aunt popping an ancient Indian/African grain (called sorghum) which was not the traditional corn kernel, I became instantly intrigued. As she had eaten the popped grain as a small child in India, she was familiar with its amazing benefits. But my instinct was one of apprehension as I had already seen a number of products which claimed to be ‘healthy’ and were in fact not.
I became obsessed with learning more about this grain and spoke to experts in India to understand more about it. I even sent the popped grain for nutritional testing and the staggering result was one that I could not question. It was then that I decided to develop Not.Corn at home so that I could offer others a genuinely healthy snack and allow them to experience a sense of discovery given that it is the first of its kind in the UK!
After doing the test trade with Pink Parcel, this gave me the conviction that I needed to quit my corporate job as a Brand Manager at Procter & Gamble, in order to pursue my dream full time!
My official title is ‘Health Hustler’ (haha) – I don’t have one specific role. One day I’m working with the manufacturer to produce new recipes and products and on another, I’m working with a lawyer to draft up shareholder agreements. No two days are the same!
Incredible! And what were you up to before starting the business? What made you change direction?
I decided to take the leap in 2017 to leave my corporate role in Brand Management (at Procter & Gamble, having worked on brands such as Pantene, Durex and Ariel Megabrand in the FMCG industry for over 5 years). I also have a previous creative background, having also worked at Saatchi & Saatchi and McCann Erickson.
I decided to take the jump to start up my own business, as I have always had an entrepreneurial spark from a young age. At the age of 14, I set up my own business through a Business Enterprise Scheme. I sold heat sensitive mugs which revealed a picture when a hot beverage was placed inside it. The business was a great success and I made £1,500 profit within a month. I also organized a charity event at the age of 15 where 1,000 children attended. I made £15,000 for an orphanage in Goa where I opened up a library with the funds that I had raised.
I have always known that I would eventually start my own business and have always been driven to do so. I therefore, gained the relevant experience that I needed within the FMCG industry to learn how to manage and sell a product so that I would have the knowledge to do this for myself.
How do you stay inspired when you are so busy?
I keep inspired knowing that if I don’t make my business a success, no-one will. I regularly take time to remember what stimulated me to be an entrepreneur – the thrill of building my own enterprise, the sense of accomplishment when reaching a milestone and my vision of where I want to take my business. I also continuously learn from other founders within the industry in order to keep me motivated.
What steps did you take to start your business?
Before I took the step to quit my comfortable corporate job, I had to ensure that there was a viable business. I did some extensive research on the market, competitors and the product itself to ensure that I definitely had something unique. I also spoke to consumers and retail buyers and gathered as much data as possible.
It was when I got the nutritional testing data back that I realised my product was far better (in terms of micronutrients) than anything else on the market and that there was a huge demand from consumers and retailers. I then started producing the product in my kitchen at home. My first order was for 1,000 units which I produced and packed in my kitchen!
My 3 flatmates were absolute babes as the whole flat was filled with popped sorghum but they never once complained! I then realised that I needed to find a manufacturer to fulfil larger orders as I grew, it was no longer feasible to produce the products in my kitchen.
That first order must have been a great moment! What has been your proudest moment so far?
I have experienced that being an entrepreneur is extremely challenging, but also rewarding! My proudest moment was securing a contract manufacturer to produce Not.Corn for me. This might seem like a minor accomplishment, but it is extremely difficult to produce Not.Corn as the sorghum grain does not pop in the same way as popcorn. I was faced with a number of contract manufacturers who simply said that it was impossible to produce.
However, hitting these road blocks made me even more determined to find a solution. The most satisfying moment was asking a contract manufacturer to try something that they had never done before (after 2 years searching for a way) and finding a solution to the manufacturing process which I had been told was impossible. Making the supposedly impossible happen was extremely satisfying and showed me that the more difficult it is to do something, the more difficult it will be for someone else to replicate and the more rewarding it was when I finally found the solution!
In terms of other things that I am proud of – we were voted the Best Gluten-free Snacks Company by London Enterprise and were a finalist in the Natwest Great British Entrepreneur Awards! Being recognised for the work that you are doing makes all of the daily challenges so worth it! Another proud moment was seeing my products on the shelves of Wholefoods and Planet Organic. This had always been a dream of mine!
What’s the most important lesson you have learned since starting Not.Corn?
When someone states that something is impossible, they are stating their own limitations and not yours. Prove them wrong! I was told a number of times by a number of manufacturers that what I was trying to do with my product development was impossible. There were so many times where I thought to myself I can’t keep doing this; I’m not getting anywhere. But I didn’t give up. It’ll pay off in the end!
When someone states that something is impossible, they are stating their own limitations and not yours. Prove them wrong!”
You were a runner up in the Cosmopolitan Magazine Pitch Palace competition, congratulations! Do you have any tips on pitching your business?
Alongside showcasing your product, showcase your personality. You could have the best product in the world but if you don’t show enthusiasm and passion for your business, it won’t interest your audience. Sometimes it’s also better to show yourself as a small business instead of pretending that you are bigger than you actually are. People like to hear a founder’s story and prefer this to feeling like they are being spoken to by some random person from a large corporate.
Also, know who your audience is and tailor your presentation to them. There have been so many times that I have heard someone regurgitate a presentation which is clearly, for example, for a retailer and not suited to the audience that they are speaking to. For example, if I went into the Cosmopolitan Magazine Pitch Palace with lots of data, Farrah Storr (the Editor) probably wouldn’t have been as engaged. Instead, I told her (and the other judges) about my story, which made me and my products more relatable and interesting to hear about!
How do you stay organised? Any tips or tools?
I bought myself a Kikki K planner! I’m one of those people who has lists about their lists! I also read somewhere that writing a to-do list every morning will make you more productive and crossing things off on your to-do list is super satisfying! I start my day by jotting down what I want to get done by the time I leave the office. Even if it’s something that was on my list from the day before, I still write it out again as the goal for the day!
Would you say you have a healthy work life balance? If yes, what do you do to maintain this, and if no, what would you change?
I have to be honest – I think there is more that I can do to have a healthy work life balance. I often work 6/7 days a week as I also go in store to sample my products (I always think that it is better for consumers to meet the founder and hear the story behind the product as they try it). At the moment, I see it as something I just have to do until the business really takes off. Once I am in a position to get some more permanent help and employees, I’ve unfortunately let my work life balance go a bit. But then when your job is your hobby, it doesn’t always feel like I’m working! (I know that’s not an excuse though!)
Any advice for people who want to start their own business?
Just do it! I have spoken to lots of friends who have brilliant ideas, but are always too scared to take the leap or are waiting for that perfect moment before they do. Of course, take calculated risks but unless you just do it, you’ll always keep waiting for ‘that moment!’
What do you have planned for Not.Corn this year?
We’re working on some exciting new product development and have some more retail listings to announce soon – watch this space!
Where can everyone find you and connect with you?
You can find out more about Not.Corn and try it for yourself via our online shop here www.notcorn.co.uk/shop.
You can also follow us on social media (@notcorn_uk) to find out all about what we are up to!