Michael McDevitt | Crain's Baltimore

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Michael McDevitt

Background:  

Michael McDevitt founded Terra’s Kitchen in Baltimore in 2015 because he wanted to provide quick, wholesome meals that saved time in the kitchen so families could spend more time connecting around the dinner table. Terra’s Kitchen’s nutrient-dense meals are on the table in 30 minutes or less, and their sustainably-sourced ingredients are delivered in a climate-controlled, reusable vessel. Terra’s Kitchen recently expanded its on-the-go menu through brand partnerships with Revolution Foods, Siggi’s Yogurt, Convergent Coffee, Suja Juices, and Baltimore-based Michele’s Granola.

The Mistake:

The mistake that’s most memorable to me is waiting too long to reach out and have conversations with our customers.

Before you ever launch a startup product, it’s been pretty well shown you can’t look for total consensus. You have to assess what the options are, make a decision, and run full speed ahead and change things on the fly as you go.

We decided early on what the purpose of our company would be, and I was guilty of making that purpose my purpose—what I really wanted. We started this business because I wanted to create a way for me and my family to have healthy, convenient dinners around the table. I wanted to spend more time with my family recreating the family dinners I had as a kid. We were set on helping people reconnect around the dinner table and have good conversations, and that’s what a lot of our messaging was driven around.

We were probably 16 months into being live when we paused and started connecting with our customer base. Customers told us they love the product but didn’t relate to the purpose. They loved that we provided them healthy and convenient meals, but they also loved it for different reasons. They loved it because it allowed them to have extra time to do what they wanted to do.

We were guilty of force-feeding them to spend that time around the table connecting with family. Some customers have families and some don’t. We were self-limiting our audience by forcing our purpose upon them—that was a big aha moment for us.

The beauty of our business model is we have direct touch points with consumers.

The Lesson:

The lesson is we can better serve our customers, and better drive our growth, by letting them lead us, as opposed to us trying to force them down a road. It’s kind of like the path of least resistance. They’re our customers, they know what they want, let’s give them what they want.

As a company that’s made up of an executive team that’s had success in the past, we thought we knew too much. The beauty of our business model is we have direct touch points with consumers. You have the ability to talk to customers, so why try to make guesses or predictions of what’s working or not working for them. Simply by making the calls and talking to customers, our efficiency in how we make decisions exploded. There were no more debates around the table of whether we go with this or go with that. The data is very clear—this is what customers are saying, let’s give them what they want. All of a sudden we had so much more time to focus on giving them more of what they want, and didn’t have to spend time trying to predict what they want.

We took too long to talk to our customers, but since then we’ve realized what the strong attributes of our product are to them. We’ve changed messaging, changed how we feed them, and we’ve seen our growth excel by making those alterations.

Every company out there can benefit by talking to their customers. Having a dialogue with open-ended questions and without a bias of what you want them to say, is only going to give you clear direction on how you can better serve your customers. Every business has a customer in some sense, and creating an environment that rewards them, and you, for reaching out and listening to them, can be a very strong strategy for basically every company.

Mike McDevitt is on Twitter at @mike_mcdevitt and Terra's Kitchen is at @TerrasKitchen.

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