Linda Monique is the founder of ALMO milk, which is a five year old almond milk business that has a huge global presence. After overcoming some huge personal and business obstacles, Linda has persevered in making her premium brand a success.
This has included overcoming the “logistics nightmare” of being an Australian grown company, completely changing her target market after a company swooped in on her idea and managing changing global regulations and labelling. To name just a few!
Linda almost abandoned her business idea to move back to a life in London when she was discouraged by the fact no-one wanted to manufacture her product.
She had previously had to leave London in just a matter of days to due an autoimmune disease leaving her very sick for a long period of time. However, there is always a silver lining and Linda used this time in hospital to reassess her future goals and a job that would suit her. Enter entrepreneurship!
Already fascinated by her story? As were we! So read her full interview below, where we get into the nitty gritty of launching ALMO to where it is now.
Is your background business at all? What were you doing before ALMO?
“So I did a double degree at the University of Melbourne, I majored in management and also arts. I did a really broad range of subjects… from psychology, through to history. But it was actually in my final year of University that I undertook a summer project which was consulting. And we went through a 3 month intensive of, let’s say, McKinsey style grooming – which was how to analyse businesses, companies and set them up for success.
“So I took that knowledge and also combined it with my love of design. Whilst at the University of Melbourne I actually did an exchange programme over to a business school in Milan which had design-centred thinking and design-centred subjects. Everything from industrial design, fashion design… aspect of any design you wanted!
“I thought ‘Is there such a thing as food design? Is that a thing?’ and I started exploring that area of how we eat, why we eat and what we eat – and why cafes are successful. The history, the origins, the designs. Dissecting all of them.”
That was just because that was your passion? Rather than thinking ‘there is an end goal for me here…’
You were just doing your own thing – something you enjoyed?
“Absolutely! And I think it’s important in your twenties to really focus on exploring your passions without any sort of financial agenda.
“So I funnily enough got invited back to that University and I was guest lecturing in food design… Then I was invited to exhibit at Milan design week and London design festival. All this time I was really playing with food and exploring cultural aspects, sustainability… etc.
“Also I have a passion for cooking, so combining both food and cooking and business without just being a chef in a kitchen (I was a private chef for a period of time!).
“I took off to London eventually and just found myself picking up any job that I could – I took anything so long as I could stay!
“I ended up working for high net worth individuals doing consulting and cooking on the side – and setting up my own business in food consultancy.”
What was the defining moment when you decided you wanted to found ALMO?
“It was quite interesting because I was leading a really great life in London and had everything set up and it all crumbled really quickly. I have an autoimmune disease so for over 10 years I was in and out of hospital and I sort of ignored that.
“I did somethings to try and improve my health but it got to the point where I basically had to leave my entire in life in London in a matter of days and I ended up back in hospital in Australia really sick for a long period of time.”
“And it was during that time that I had an opportunity to think about what was going to be sustainable in terms of a career – entrepreneurship for me wasn’t the first thing to go for, but it was out of necessity for my situation.
“And at this point where I had hit rock bottom I thought there was not a lot to lose. Combining the passion for food and analysing markets, I saw that almond milk was becoming really popular…
“For me it just seemed like a calling. I had worked with Australian almond growers previously and realised just out of frustration that there was no Australian grown almond milk on the market. We were drinking US almond milk which was shipped over.
“I thought – we just need to make a really premium Australian grown Almond milk, with Australian almonds, supporting Australian almond growers. It really was as simple as that. That was the default answer.
“It was originally meant to be for the café market, so think Bonsoy of Almond milk – a really premium almond milk that you could use for coffee. And so began a very long journey in setting up ALMO.
“For 12 months there was no-one in Australia that could or wanted to manufacture our Almond milk. So halfway through I was about to give up and move back to London for some jobs here and there – and in a last-minute attempt to make ALMO work I went to New Zealand to see if there was a manufacturer over there – which there was! So I ended up having to ship Australian almond to New Zealand and back.”
At least that is closer than the US!
“Yes ,well funnily enough, also New Zealand was closer than Perth. Still it was logistics nightmare! I had to throw myself in the deep end and we launched the product! Because of packaging and manufacturing constraints, we ended up positioning the product in the retail market, not cafes – we dabbled in cafes but saw a larger opportunity to go into the retail side of things.
“So the first year was really about growing our distribution across Australia, so finding the right ones to help us grow. I guess there’s many methods of growth for food and beverage businesses – whether that’s putting own trucks on roads and distributing yourself or tapping into a network or trying to play in the major league of Coles and Woolworths from day one.
“The second year was all about bringing manufacturing back to Australia. We just continued to doorknock and wait until someone built a facility. And in the January we started developing and launching new products.”
How did you expand ALMO overseas, as you have said Malaysia is your biggest market?
“From day one being forced to learn to ship almonds from New Zealand to Australia… I think it made logistics seem just like another step in a business process.
“But the power of social media has really changed the game in how we network connect and build business! Our Korean counterpart actually found us on Instagram – it’s a coffee roastery – and after two or three messages we connected on WhatsApp and all of a sudden we had basically sold our first palette to Korea just via a WhatsApp conversation.”
“I know! And to think that that’s how you could possibly grow into Korea is crazy!
“So it really changes my mind on how you can grow business, become international when you are still small and to also use that focus and strategy in exporting to Asia as part of your marketing strategy from day one.
“Even packaging changes. Almond milk is not allowed to be called vegan in Korea; China doesn’t approve camomile blossom extracts so we can’t send camomile over. Every country has different things.”
How do you find out those kind of things then?
“Through experience! And we were even sending stock to Paris and Amsterdam at one point… but the biggest challenge for us to date has been the regulatory changes globally in labelling.
“So we’re not allowed to call ‘ALMO milk’, ‘ALMO’ milk or ‘almond milk’ due to labelling laws in Europe.
“Here in Australia we’ve been impacted by the new 10c deposit scheme in NSW and NT so almost every year we’re having to change our packaging to comply with international regulations.
“That fast paced change does have an impact to small businesses but it also presents an opportunity for us to look at how we market to Asia for example – whether or not we use QR codes on the back of our products to connect, not to our website, but to WeChat.
“So it’s really exploring these new opportunities for marketing that is fascinating and where we grow from there.”
Learn more about marketing compliance and how to manage this correctly with labelling in particular, by listening in to our podcast episode with Tessa Court. Her business is all about this exact problem and she gives amazing advice on how to handle regulations globally.
How have things changed for you since inception?
“So ALMO was founded in 2015 and we launched the product in March 2016 at Melbourne International Coffee Expo…”
And who is ‘we?’ What does your team look like now, versus the early days?
“So at the time it was actually myself, and my brother helping me out in the business, to begin with. Then there was a period of time, a year, when I was working full time in a contract role and balancing the business on the side.
“That second year it ending up organically growing with contractors and getting third parties in quite heavily.
“We’re now a team of 4 in the office and we rely on outsourcing everything. So I definitely don’t think it’s about the people power I think it’s about the technology power and systems power and process powers – if you have the right systems in place that is.”
And what do those four people do?
“Sales manager, Operations manager and Dispatch/Admin. Finally me – business development, marketing and new products. You can be exporting products with just 2 people these days!”
How did you know when to divert from your original plan of cafes to retailers?
“Well definitely upfront we had one player in the market which we originally approached to contract manufacture our product – and instead they became our number one competitor in the café market.
“The level of aggression and aggressive marketing and sales tactics, I was just astounded by and I think that took me by surprise.”
“So we could not compete with a company that was putting millions of dollars behind marketing and putting out a team of 30 sales reps on the road to offer free products to get cafes to switch. And knowing how price conscious cafes are and the oversaturated market in Australia, logically it didn’t make sense to focus our efforts there, but to know that our competitions weaknesses were that they didn’t have a barcode, the fact that we would be the first Australian grown almond milk in retail stores and the really interesting aspect was there was fresh Almond milk around but it had short shelf life, and producing a long life product was all about strategy.”
What would be your top tips for businesses?
“Always go back to your company values, and if you don’t know those, start with your personal values. Keep them as a pillar to make decisions around packaging, design, marketing – everything.”