Episode #45: Stephanie Downs – Making India Even More Meat-Free
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“People often say to me, ‘why are you taking a product there, aren’t they all vegetarians?’ That’s an absolute myth – 70% of India eats meat.”
I’ve been hearing about this plant-based startup in India called Good Dot for the past year. No website until recently, but people I’ve talked to were really excited about what the company was aiming to do. So I was really looking forward to talking with Stephanie Downs – one of Good Dot’s ‘three CEOs’, as she puts it.
The other two are part of the core Indian team, which Stephanie joined when she was looking how to best leverage her past business experience with her desire to make an impact. And from the sound of it, Good Dot is absolutely making an impact in India – a country with more vegetarians than the entire US population.
And as for the rest (the 70% of people who aren’t vegetarian) – a ‘hardcore’ meat eater in India may eat meat 3-4 times per week, according to Stephanie. Replace just one of those meals with their plant-based alternative, and you’re 25% closer to another vegetarian.
We often point out the issues of food security when discussing vegan diets. But the fact remains that a lot of products on the market today are still very cost-prohibitive to a lot of people. That’s one of the major points Good Dot is addressing, and I’d say of the major reasons for the excitement surrounding their launch.
This interview shows how plant-based foods can be brought to emerging markets, and how to build a vegan startup that’s truly a force for good.
Main things discussed in this episode
- Why ‘vegan’ isn’t a very common term in India.
- How Good Dot sold 350.000 units in just 2 months of operations.
- Their Indian distribution network that makes this possible.
- Making plant-based solutions accessible to everyone.
- Building a business with the aim of scaling up.
- The Indian startup ecosystem
Stephanie Downs - Good Dot
Jerry Sever [00:21] Today we’re talking about the plant-based industry in the country with the highest percentage of vegetarians in the world, and the second largest population. I’m talking about India of course.
I’m joined by Stephanie Downs, the co-founder of Good Dot, which is a plant-based meat start-up that I’ve heard a lot about in the past year. Although, they’ve been keeping things under wraps until very recently. The wraps are off now, and I’m very happy for the opportunity to give you a better view of Good Dot’s mission and purpose. Stephanie, welcome to the show.
Stephanie Downs [01:12] Wonderful, thank you, Jerry. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Jerry Sever [01:15] Thank you for joining me, because like I said, I have been hearing things about Good Dot for the past 12 months. I’m really looking forward to learning more about it. Before we get to that, I’d to learn a little bit more about you. What’s your background, where are you coming from, what did you do before you decided to take on India’s plant-based meat industry?
Stephanie Downs [01:40] Sure. My past has been a little bit of a lengthy one as far as just finding what was really my personal path in life. My background is all from a business standpoint, primarily in marketing. I’ve worked for various high-tech startups and IBM.
In 1999 I started my own internet marketing company, and that was wonderful, but after a couple of years of it, I just didn’t quite feel fulfilled, so I started volunteering at an animal shelter, which was, I joke, my gateway drug into the animal rights movement. It was how I got started. I just went there to walk a couple dogs and hug some puppies, and the next thing I know I’m on the Board of Directors and running the annual fundraiser, so I was hooked.
That led me to become a vegetarian and ultimately a vegan, and I wanted to do more. I wasn’t sure what that was, but I started putting steps in place to be able to step away from my company, and I was able to do that in 2006. I started doing work for PETA, doing corporate negotiations, reaching out to companies and getting them to implement larger decisions and such to change the impact on animals. I also started a charity in 2009 that did spay and neuter programs in the Caribbean.
So I’ve kind of sat on both sides of the table so to speak, the corporate side, and the non-profit side, but even then, something didn’t quite fit. I was very fortunate to learn about what was going on in the social enterprise space of plant-based meats and plant-based products, and that’s kind of what lead me here, was being on both sides of the table and ultimately feeling that something in the middle was the right fit for me.
Jerry Sever [03:16] So it was actually hugging puppies that started everything?!
Stephanie Downs [03:20] It’s all their fault!
Jerry Sever [03:26] When exactly did you get into the plant-based meat space, or start thinking about it?
Stephanie Downs [03:32] That we can actually blame on Bruce Friedrich, who I’m assuming that you know. It’s all Bruce’s fault that I now live out of a suitcase! It’s wonderful, I couldn’t have been happier that the paths crossed. I’ve known Bruce from previous work, and when I heard about what was happening with The Good Food Institute I reached out to him. Originally just thinking I could somehow help The Good Food Institute.
I forgot to mention, in 2014, I sold my internet company, so I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next.
I crossed paths with Bruce about what was going on with The Good Food Institute. I was thinking maybe I could coach entrepreneurs, or somehow help through GFI, and he literally said to me “well, what I’d really like you to do Steph, is would you start a company”. At that time, it wasn’t really on my mind that I was going to start another company, but he planted the seed. I started doing some looking around and ended up connecting with the team in India. That’s kind of how it all got sparked, so this I can blame on Bruce!
Jerry Sever [04:30] Nice, so then you went to India with that idea. What led to India?
Stephanie Downs [04:37] Actually that was just a wonderful coincidence. Bruce had planted the seed, and I was looking around. I actually looked at various opportunities, looking at possibly joining some companies that were in the US, I also went to Europe and met with various companies, I went to a conference in Hong Kong. I spent about four months just looking at the marketplace trying to find something that somebody wasn’t doing yet.
I think I was very blessed that I got to come at it from that angle because a lot of people invent a product in their kitchen, or come up with some idea and then they try to find a market for it. I got to come at from the opposite. I was looking at the entire marketplace, be it vegan leathers, cheese, meats, dairy, all the different products, looking for something that wasn’t being done.
What really stuck out to me was, as an industry I feel like we’re doing an amazing job with the next intellectual property – inventing that cheese that’s a little stretchier, or that burger that’s going to bleed, just constantly improving the products. What I felt was real missed opportunity that we’re not focusing on, is how do we scale these products? How do we get up to a mass scale so we can get it to a price that people globally can afford it, and also get the distribution out there? Really, I would guess, only maybe five percent of the planet really has easy access to these products right now. I just felt all of that was a real missed opportunity.
While I was going through this search, a group in India had been brewing for some time already, and they reached out to The Good Food Institute because they’d been trying to bring plant-based meats to India. I actually was just coincidentally cc’d on an email, and I immediately jumped at it. I’d been to India in 2012, and fell in love with the place. I just felt like it was a perfect fit. If we could produce something in India that we could sell on the Indian market and get out to all the villages and hundreds of millions of people out in remote areas, we could solve what I was looking for, and what this group in India wanted to accomplish, which was to bring this product to their market.
Jerry Sever [06:39] Right, so just generally speaking of India, what was your impression of it the first time that you were there? Especially from a vegan standpoint?
Stephanie Downs [06:50] When I came in 2012 I was vegan, I’d been vegan for a little over a decade. Vegan is not a common term here, which is why we call the products vegetarian meat versus vegan meat, even though the products are vegan. It’s not a well-known term here. Dairy has a different meaning in India than it does in other countries. It has very spiritual meaning, it has a strong connection to their faith. Things are positioned very differently here. I’m so lucky to have the local partners that I have. I could have never done this without them and all of that local knowledge. When I came here, I fell in love with India because it’s so culturally different. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s alive and I feel that they do an amazing job of living in the moment and enjoying life, I fell in love with the place. But vegan is not so easy here, you have to work at it.
Jerry Sever [07:44] Yes, I remember from various vegetarian Indian restaurants that I’ve been to, you have to work really hard to avoid dairy and cheese in your food.
Stephanie Downs [07:57] Yes.
Jerry Sever [07:57] It’s vegetarian, you can eat it, but it’s dairy.
Stephanie Downs [08:01] Yes, so it is different. There is a bit of a movement beginning to come up here around dairy, but it’s definitely going to be more of an uphill battle I think here than for some other countries.
Jerry Sever [08:10] What is the role of dairy in their society? You mentioned it has a very spiritual meaning, and I know a little bit about that, but I’d love to hear a bit more.
Stephanie Downs [08:20] Yes, this is something that I don’t want to talk to too much, I know enough to talk about the basics. In the Hindu culture, which is the primary religion in India, the cow is sacred. So the milk that comes from the cow is all part of that ritual. In India, they have a closer relationship to animals than we have, at least to America that I can speak to. It’s very much a part of the Hindu culture, the relationship with the cow.
Jerry Sever [08:48] I remember that the few Hindu temples that I’ve visited, I was really surprised to see how much milk they donate or offer. You just see milk cartons in front of those altars, they’re just sitting there.
Stephanie Downs [09:02] It’s also seen, because India’s roots are in vegetarianism, as a strong protein source. Paneer, which you’ve probably heard of, is a type of cheese that is in a lot of dishes and they view it as a protein source. For vegetarians, it’s very much something that is an important part of their diet.
Jerry Sever [09:23] So the basic idea behind Good Dot, and the team that was working on these plant-based meats was, I would assume, not to just go completely vegan with it, but to replace the meat in the diet of the people?
Jerry Sever [09:40] Correct, before I got involved there was a team here led by a wonderful group of people. Some of the key players were Deepak Parihar, Abhishek Sinha, and Taranum Bhatia. They were all working very hard to look at the market. They’d been traveling out of the country for years. Abhishek’s sister Shruti had been going to different countries and taste testing products. They’d been contacting companies in America and having products shipped in.
We face some different challenges here, with importing being a challenge from a cost standpoint. Here they’re looking at these products around the globe and also taste testing them here. Trying them in Indian curries, which was something that was very interesting during the R&D that they were doing. When you stew something for hours, that’s a different way of making than we do in America where we throw it in a pan, we sauté it for a couple of minutes, and we’re done! They had been for some time trying to find a solution that would be a fit. Nobody was really thinking along the dairy lines, we’re very much going after the plant-based meat space. That’s what the R&D was around, which Abhishek heads. Our products are vegan, and we will never have any animal products in them because everybody involved is mission aligned. But dairy is not something that we talk about in our messaging.
Jerry Sever [10:59] Continuing the meat thing, do you see that meat consumption might be perceived as a bit of a status symbol in Indian society?
I know that from many developing societies, it’s like a stage that we in the West have already passed, and we’re still dealing with the consequences. I think that for societies that are kind of trailing behind, that’s something that if we could help them pass it without as many hurdles as we had, it would probably be better in the long run.
Stephanie Downs [11:34] Yes, I often will say to people here don’t go down the path that the West has gone down. Learn from our lessons of factory farming. There are a couple of points here that listeners will probably find interesting.
First of all, most people often say to me “why are you taking your products there, aren’t they all vegetarian?” That’s an absolute myth, seventy percent of India eats meat. They used to be more of a vegetarian country, but slowly meat-eating, or they call it non-veg, is gradually taking over so to speak. That was something that the partners, Abhishek, Deepak, Taranum and Shruti, they saw that problem coming and they want to provide some type of a solution. It’s something that we have an opportunity to kind of head off at the pass, even though seventy percent is out there.
The other thing is, they have here, I would say for the most part, at least in the Hindu communities, very much what we in the West would consider flexitarians. You’ll speak to somebody who will tell you that they’re a hardcore non-veg, hardcore meat-eater, but when you ask them how often do you eat meat, they’ll say three to four times a week. In America, we’d call that a cheating vegetarian. We have an opportunity, and if we only get one of their meals per week, we’ve now just influenced 25-30% of their diet that we’ve been able to take away from eating animals.
It’s a very interesting dynamic here. There’s also, which is very fortunate, no negative connotations of being vegetarian. In America, which is what I can mainly speak to, it’s very much like meat eating is considered manly. We don’t have to deal with any of that here, which is wonderful. The team felt, and then when I came and took a look I agreed, that it was just primed for something. It was a great opportunity.
But like you said earlier, it is growing, something has to be done or maybe 10-20 years from now they could all be eating meat. It’s happening quickly because it’s becoming a status symbol. They have a significant, as you hear about in the news all the time, enormous growing middle-class in India. With that extra discretionary income, people are choosing to start to add meat to their diet in some situations. Also, where we see it, even more, is with the younger generations. They maybe don’t eat meat at home, but they eat it when they’re out with their friends and it’s kind of a way to rebel against their families. It’s kind of an interesting thing in India, they actually have a term that’s called “closet non-veg”! It means that they eat meat, but their family doesn’t know it, they do it in secret. We’re going to have a lot of fun with that on social media of course.
There’s just a different relationship with animals, meat, and killing in peoples’ minds here. It’s a real opportunity for us to turn to the tide, so that’s why we decided to jump in and to go after this.
Jerry Sever [14:21] The meat consumption, I would assume that beef is very low, do they even consume any beef? Are there sectors of the society that are fine with eating a cow? Or is that completely off the menu?
Stephanie Downs [14:36] It is, and actually according to a UN report, India over the next 20 years is expected to be the second country as far as the increase in beef consumption, they’re expected to be number two behind China. They’re also by far considered to be number one in increased consumption of chicken meat, eggs, and pork. It’s happening. Beef is eaten.
There are also Muslim communities in India, and it’s not in any way tied to their religions not to eat beef, so that is consumed. Although if you were to read in the news, that causes a lot of tension in some regions. In some areas, they’re actually banning cow slaughter and banning beef consumption.
You see more eating of beef in Southern India. Down there also you see much more consumption of meat in general. There are 28 States in India and we’re in a State called Rajasthan, which is an extremely vegetarian area. Very far north, very far south, those tend to be the biggest meat-eating communities. It varies by region.
Jerry Sever [15:41] What kind of solutions is Good Dot bringing out to address this? What are the initial products that are coming out?
Stephanie Downs [15:49] The first one that we’ve launched into the market, and you’re right, we were very quiet for a long time, we wanted to get all our R&D done, and thanks to Abhishek we just really nailed it, the first product that we’ve come out with is called Vegetarian Meat.
If you were Indian and you ate this, you would know, it’s very similar to the texture of mutton although we decided to call it meat because that’s more of a general term people use. They won’t say we’re going to have mutton for dinner, they’ll say we’re going to have meat for dinner. It’s chicken, fish, and meat, everything else falls into that meat category.
So it’s a vegetarian meat. We have taste tested it with a lot of people in the West. It’s interesting, people really like it, but they can’t quite describe it because in the West we don’t eat goat meat very much. That was the first product that we brought out. It’s been wonderful because it’s the same price as mutton, so that puts us right on par with the cost of meat, which is very unique. As you know, in America and in Europe, most of the products are much more expensive than actual meat. Ours is exactly the same price as mutton. Also, we’ve done blind street taste tests where we don’t tell people what they’re about to eat as meat, and of course they’re non-veg, so we know it’s okay to give it to them. We start talking about it as chicken or mutton, and people can’t even tell the difference, so it’s wonderful. That’s our first product that we’ve come out with.
We’re actually getting ready to launch a product in the next month called Proteiz, which is something that’s kind of unique to India. They have a product here, or a category of products called soy chunks, which is something that’s very popular with vegetarians. Think of it maybe like dehydrated tofu. I don’t really know quite how to describe it. We don’t have anything …
Jerry Sever [17:35] Like TVP, like textured soy protein, or is it different?
Stephanie Downs [17:39] Yes, a little bit more like that. Maybe a little bit tougher. They put it into various dishes, again, as a way to add protein to their diet.
The distribution channel that we’re working with requested that we come out with something that they could sell to their vegetarian community. That’s an interesting thing in India. In America, and Europe and such, a lot of times people are raised meat eaters and then they become vegetarian later in life, that’s the most common path. Here it’s the opposite. Many, many people are raised vegetarian and then they start eating meat later, or they don’t start eating meat. There’s a large community here that don’t want something in their meals that looks like meat. They maybe want to increase their protein intake and eat healthier, but they don’t really want something that looks like meat.
So this product, Proteiz, is going to satisfy that community. For us, it’s a win because we want to give them something that’s going to satisfy that craving so that they’re not pushed toward eating meat, in the mission of saving lives. We’ve come up with a product that we feel is superior to what’s currently in the marketplace. Our product is a soy-based product, but it has no soy taste or smell. It is going to be competing against the soy chunks in the market.
The third product, which will be coming out in the Spring, is our chicken product. The R&D has been done on that, and we’ll be coming out with that as soon as capacity allows.
Jerry Sever [19:03] And this is all produced in India and sourced from Indian suppliers?
Stephanie Downs [19:07] Correct. Everything is produced in India. We’re in a city called Udaipur, which is very fortunate. It’s a wonderful place to be able to be. My partners, Deepak, Abhishek, and Taranum, they were already located here so it was a good fit. We started about a year and a half ago as far as the team connecting, and then we started building the factory January, which we finished it by July. We did a soft launch in August. Now we’re actively in the marketplace just in this last month.
Jerry Sever [19:43] So the Indian production, you mentioned that the vegetarian meat that you’re doing is priced pretty much the same as mutton, how do you accomplish that? I think that’s a really big challenge for brands in the States and Europe, the products are still price prohibitive for a lot of consumers.
Stephanie Downs [20:08] For us, the only thing I can disclose is it was just a matter of R&D. We do have a lot of advantages in India as far as direct access to all the raw materials. I think there’s only one ingredient that we have to have imported. Everything else we can get access to here. Whereas many of the other companies, they have to import different portions of their products. We also have the advantage of everything here is less expensive. The land, the factory rental, everything that we’re doing we can get cheaper than what the Western world is paying for.
This was our mission. We set out to develop a product that anyone could afford and we could distribute anywhere. That’s actually something that I haven’t hit on yet, but our product doesn’t require refrigeration, which was something that was a very important part of our R&D and figuring out. Our products are packaged in such a way that we can move them anywhere without refrigeration and they’re shelf stable for up to a year.
Jerry Sever [21:09] Are they dehydrated, or do you just make them so they’re shelf stable?
Stephanie Downs [21:15] We just make them so they’re shelf stable. We use technology that enables us to sterilize the product, but it doesn’t use any preservatives. It’s just a unique packaging technology.
To your question of how did we do this, how did we come up with the product at that price, it really was about spending a lot of time researching lots of equipment. Abhishek and one of our other R&D partners, Haresh, I can’t even count how many hours everybody spent looking at different equipment and going out and meeting with people just looking for those technologies. Initially, we also looked at all the things that other companies out there are doing and met with a lot of equipment manufacturers. It was just too cost prohibitive, so we just really thought out of the box and came up with some unique equipment that accomplishes the same task, but without the high price tag.
Jerry Sever [22:07] I’m going to just pry a little bit more, and feel free to tell me that this is classified, but what exactly do you use for your products? How much of it can you disclose? What are they based on?
Stephanie Downs [22:19] I can talk about what they’re based on because that is public information as far as the ingredients on the pack. The primary ingredients are soy, wheat, and pea in the vegetarian meat product. It also has quinoa flour, chia flour, it has all kinds of different grain flours and protein isolates, but soy is the primary ingredient, followed by wheat and pea. The Proteiz product, the product that’s coming out next, is a gluten-free product. I can’t yet disclose the formula for the chicken, but those are the ones that I can talk about it.
Jerry Sever [22:58] And the technology that you’re using, is this something that you developed in-house?
Stephanie Downs [23:04] It was a combination of working with equipment manufacturers, but also having custom work done. It was a little bit of a combination. We tapped into experts, but we also brought some of our own R&D to the table.
Jerry Sever [23:15] Because what I wanted to ask was, considering that your price point is so low, is this something that would work in other countries in other markets too?
Stephanie Downs [23:26] Yes, absolutely. That was one of our driving factors. I was personally realizing how few people in the world could actually afford the products that are currently on the market. I didn’t know this until researching about a year and a half ago, that 80% of the world lives on less than $10 US dollars a day. That’s not their food budget, that’s their life budget. So when you consider that a normal bag of plant-based meat costs about $6, that’s just not doable. Also, all of those products have to be at least refrigerated, often frozen, to hold their texture. You can’t move that kind of products around developing countries, or with companies that don’t have the infrastructure, or if you can do it, it adds a significant amount to the price.
So absolutely, we have a lot of interest from international, which is going to be my key role on the team, looking at how we can do our global expansion into all these regions that don’t currently have access to these types of products.
Also, to put it in perspective as far as the pricing, a pack of meat as they call it, is about 250 grams average weight in the marketplace if you were to go buy a Beyond Meat or Gardein, or something like that. That’s the same weight as our product, and our product costs about $1.75 US retail.
Jerry Sever [24:43] Wow, that’s really amazing.
Stephanie Downs [24:45] Even if we export, it can be done in very economical ways. So yes, we certainly hope to expand and we’ve got a ton of interest. We just have to figure out the right ways to do it. We’re very fortunate because of the other members of the team, Abhishek who is overseeing all of our India operations, and Deepak, I joke with people it’s like having three CEOs. We’re a very strong team and I am not personally concerned about it.
We don’t want to lose focus on India because we have such an amazing opportunity here and the product is selling really, really well. We’ve already sold at this point over 350,000 units in just a two and half month period. That’s kind of unheard of. The product’s moving very quickly and we don’t want to lose the opportunity, but we also went into this thinking we wanted to find a way to get products to the world.
Jerry Sever [25:35] Wow, two months operating and 350,000 you said?
Stephanie Downs [25:40] Correct.
Jerry Sever [25:41] What’s the market like? Is there much competition for meat alternatives, or not that many?
Stephanie Downs [25:48] Not really. We’re definitely kind of paving the way so to speak. There are a few other players but they have small distribution and they’ve been around for a while. I think the reason they haven’t really taken off is they’re very much more targeted at the vegetarian community. If you look at them, or you cook them, you could never fool somebody that it might be real meat. I don’t want to say it’s the TVP of the 80s, but it’s not a high-quality product that looks like meat, tastes like meat, that type of thing.
There are some players, I don’t want to be arrogant and say that we’re the first, but we’re the first to really come at the market with a product that really replicates meat and also we’re doing it in a very aggressive way. We’ve brought on investors from India and abroad, and we’ve built quite a team. We came out the gates of a large factory. We’re going at it very aggressively. We have an enormous distribution partner, which I haven’t had a chance to talk about, but that’s one of our secret weapons!
Jerry Sever [26:48] That’s going to be my next two questions. The first one, regarding not just investors, but the whole plant-based vegan/vegetarian startup scene, is there any sort of scene in India? Because I know just a tech startup system is pretty well developed but is there anything comparable to what we’re seeing in the States or Europe in terms of vegan and vegetarian startups happening there?
Stephanie Downs [27:18] Not nearly as much. There’s maybe a couple of others that I can think of, and I know mainly because every time they contact GFI they ask me if I can help them out and I end up talking to them to try and help them get going! But no, there’s not nearly as many here happening in India. There’s obviously a big startup scene in India, but not around the plant-based space, there are more around other types of technologies. So we’re really, again, one of the first to kind of forge forward in this space.
Jerry Sever [27:51] And the investors, I’ve spoken to a few of them from the States and Europe, but what about your Indian investors? What sort of capital supports and things like that are there in India?
Stephanie Downs [28:05] We were very lucky. It took us all of three weeks to raise the money that we originally put into our seed round, which again is unheard of. We joke, we’ve just been so fortunate. We’ve worked very hard to be in the right place to get lucky, but here in India, we’ll say it’s been from private investors. There are various people who knew some of the partners involved and they believed in them, they believed in the mission, and New Crop Capital from the States is involved in the project. They were a big part of getting us started when Bruce encouraged me to start a company, he pretty much said we’ll back you, we’ll help you get started. It was an amazing situation. They’ve been incredible to us, and we have various Indian independent investors.
Jerry Sever [28:50] Yes, like I said, the second part of this question was going to be the distribution, because to get to that number of sales in such a short time, how did you work with your distribution partner to accomplish that?
Stephanie Downs [29:05] This is an extremely unique situation. Chris Kerr, of New Crop Capital, jokes that it’s going to down in the history of plant-based meat phenomena of things that happened.
Our distribution channel is a very unique model. India is very different. They literally have millions of small villages where maybe a couple of hundred people live and it’s very spread out. Over 80% of India lives in remote areas. A year and a half ago, when we were first looking at this opportunity and I was analyzing and we working as the team to figure out our go to market strategy, what really just kept brewing in my head and was keeping me up at night, was how are we going to get this out to people.
Because even if we got into all the largest grocery store chains here, the names are like Reliance Fresh, and Big Bazaar, if we got into all of those nationwide, we would only reach 3% of the Indian market. Of the products that are out there that are currently in the marketplace, that’s where you tend to see them, more in niche areas. Like there’s a company here called Nature’s Basket, that would be their version of Whole Foods, and they have 40 locations across India. When you look at that, we would have touched such a small percentage of the country, and again, we really wanted to do this on a large scale and try to disrupt what’s happening here with factory farming starting to come in.
We were so fortunate. This particular distributor, they have a direct selling model. They have 1.2 million agents around India that literally go village to village, restaurant to restaurant, to tiny grocery stores everywhere, and they sell products to these people. They’re already selling into them cooking oils, flour, crackers, soaps, and different types of products for households and small businesses. So now we’re one of the products that they’re carrying. They have 75,000 stores around India, so we were immediately in 75,000 locations. And we have 1.2 million people that are gradually getting trained, and they’re out there talking about our products.
Just in the month of November, we spoke at various RCM events (the distribution partner) in front of 30,000 distributors. We spoke at one in Delhi in front of 10,000 of their distributors that had come in for training. It’s a very unique model, but it’s going amazing.
Jerry Sever [31:20] So you’re basically just starting out the gate and you’re already hitting all the little mom and pop stores, or what passes for mom and pop stores in India.
Stephanie Downs [31:32] Exactly. We could have gone the traditional model, like the big grocery stores. Of course, here they have the same as we have as far as food brokers and distributors, but it’s very segregated, it’s just different.
This is just unbelievable, this is like hitting the lottery. It’s just an amazing opportunity. It doesn’t come without its challenges. We have to really train people how to talk about the product and cooking demonstrations. It’s just unique, they’re actually going into people’s homes or inviting them over and making them a meal, and then selling them the product. It’s something that would be absolutely unheard of in America, but it works here, and it works really well.
Jerry Sever [32:12] So I’m guessing the overall feedback from actual users must be pretty positive?
Stephanie Downs [32:16] Yes, it is. For example, mutton traditionally people would pressure cook it, or they would boil it. We’ve had some of those challenges where we’ve had to update the cooking instructions or do some videos, nothing’s going to be without its kinks, but once we get over those hurdles. We’ve also had to translate the instructions into a couple of languages because there are over 20 different languages spoken in India. We’ve had to go through some of those growing pains, and learn our lessons.
But all in all it’s just been 99.9% of the situations has been amazing. We have over 500 YouTube videos about us that we haven’t created. People are loving it. They’re making videos, and they’re posting it, and sharing with their friends. We’ve only put our Facebook page up about two and a half months ago, and we have 30,000 followers already. It’s really already catching on and we’ve barely done anything to really get it to this point.
Jerry Sever [33:17] Wow, that sounds like it’s not just the distribution. You’ve actually got that viral growth that everyone is striving for.
Stephanie Downs [33:27] Exactly. I think it’s only going to pick up more and more. In the last month, we had three different celebrities Instagram, or whatever you call that, about us. PETA India is giving us an award in about two weeks for being an innovative company. We’ve already been featured in some news articles. It’s wonderful, the response. People are just loving it. I don’t know how to describe it.
When I came to meet the team for the first time and traveled with them, some around the country, I wanted to speak to restaurant owners, and people at grocery stores, I would talk to anybody who would talk back to me, taxi drivers, people sitting next to me on an airplane. I was trying to get everyone’s perception, whether they were veg or non-veg, and you could just see they were excited about this idea like it sounded interesting. They were like, oh I’ve been thinking about trying meat, and this would be such a better way to go if they were veg. A non-veg would say, oh I’d really like to eat a little healthier, or I feel a little guilty about killing animals, this would be such a great thing. Everything about it felt so good, and the team here felt so great. We’ve really been very fortunate.
Jerry Sever [34:33] That’s another thing that I still wanted to explore. The team behind Good Dot, especially the people on the ground in India, how did they get together and what do they bring to the table?
Stephanie Downs [34:47] What brought them together was really just a love of animals, we all share that. Some of the key people, Abhishek Sinha, has now come on as our CEO of India. He came about it through his wife and his relationship with Deepak. They would feed animals. There’s a lot of street animals here, cows, donkeys, and other things. They would take care of various street animals. Abhishek actually has a unique story in that he had a very prominent job in the government, quite high up here in India. People actually think he’s pretty crazy for leaving his job to do this, but he was willing to roll the dice to because he loves animals so much.
There is a whole group of people, really it was led by Deepak and Taranum, Abhishek’s wife. They were looking at all these different products. Then Vernabe ended up joining us later and he actually ended up heading up all our R&D and just putting the whole factory together, he just does that. I can’t describe it, he’s just so passionate about it and constantly inventing and working with new things. Deepak, I joke that he’s the glue that holds us all together. Deepak knows how to get anything done, he handles our finances, our legal, all the operations, procurement, HR, and he gets everything done. If we need permits, or whatever. Everybody loves Deepak and he can push anything through. Abhishek’s wife, Taranum, is actually going to be handling our giving program. We’re going to be giving 5% of our profits to animal charities and she’ll be overseeing all of that when we reach a point that we’re able to do that.
Jerry Sever [36:30] And the rest of the team, how big is it actually? You mention the factory and all that, how many people work there?
Stephanie Downs [36:36] We’re about a 100 now. We have the factory staff, and then we have the rest of team, the finance department, legal, R&D, and so on, but we’re already at about 100 people.
Jerry Sever [36:48] That’s pretty big, not just by start-up standards.
Stephanie Downs [36:51] Yes, my parents are constantly asking me, how many people are you employing, they very much love that we’re employing so many families and helping them. It is a good feeling. I enjoy visiting the factory and seeing everybody doing that work and helping make their lives better. We also pay them 30% more than the industry standard for what people normally would receive in a factory job. We do other things like try to recycle waste, and bio-recycle materials. We also have a rescue goat that we rescued from a butcher shop. His name is Guddu. Guddu the Good Dot Goat. We also have chickens that we’ve rescued and we’re doing a partnership with Animal Aid here in India in Udaipur, it’s a well-known charity in India. We want to be rescuing animals and supporting them. We kind of just all around very mission aligned.
Jerry Sever [37:46] Considering how good it’s going for you, and what you know about the market, what do you think is the overall potential for plant-based brands in India? I’m not sure how many listeners we do have in India, but if anyone is considering launching something similar, hopefully not direct competition, but addressing another niche in the market, how easy or hard is it to enter?
Stephanie Downs [38:16] Well, there are two perspectives on that.
I think Abhishek and Deepak would give a similar answer to me, but I have of course the perspective of going to the other side of the planet to try and help open a company, which adds a different level of complexity. I think we face all the challenges that any startup would, but I will say I don’t think it’s just my perspective as a lowly foreigner in the proverb.
India has various levels of complexity. I would say it’s harder here to do a startup than it is in like, let’s say, America. They are still developing in many ways and there are lots of complexities with banking and it’s harder to get investment funds here if you don’t have people that believe in you. In America, we have so many incubators and all this stuff going around startups. The Indian market is complex. I could have never in a million years come here and done this without local partners.
For any of our foreign competitors that go to come here, it will be a challenge. The complexity of the consumer, and how they perceive things. But if you’re an Indian company looking to start up in this space and you can get past those initial hurdles of the funding, I do think that the market is enormous. Obviously, it’s four times the size of the United States. You have more vegetarians here than we have people in the United States. It’s an enormous group. And as I’ve mentioned before, the mentality around, and openness, to vegetarianism is there. As we discussed at the beginning, veganism is different, that’s a much more complicated topic as far as taking people’s dairy away. But there is a lot of openness to returning to a vegetarian lifestyle.
The market is primed for that, but there are challenges that we face here that American companies can’t even fathom. We can lose electricity at the factory a couple of times a day. We have to have special generators to deal with that. They’ll have the monsoon season here and roads will get washed out. They deal with things that we just can’t even fathom. Sometimes I don’t think we realize how lucky we are in many ways. At the same time, they’re so resilient and they’re so determined. That’s something that I love about the Indian population, they don’t see obstacles. They will find a way around it.
One of my favorite stories, it’s just the smallest example, but to me, it just embodies this determination and this never give up attitude that they have. I brought this blender from the United States, a Vitamix, you might have heard of it …
Jerry Sever [40:45] I have one actually.
Stephanie Downs [40:46] I like to make these shakes with cucumbers and all these different types of vegetables, spinach and broccoli, and such, so I wanted a really powerful blender. I couldn’t find one here, so I brought it with me. In my stupidity, I plugged it into the wrong kind of plug and I blew it up! Literally, flames came shooting out the side. So I said something to my assistant, and she was like, oh my uncle’s an electrician, I’ll have him look at it. He took a look, and he said you just blew out the circuit board, I can replace it. I called Vitamix, and in the perfect American style, they were like, no you just have to throw the whole thing away, we won’t sell you a part! I was just like why? Doesn’t all this end up in a landfill? I can replace this one part. They absolutely refused. I said I guess there’s nothing I can do.
I go back to America for like a month, or for some trips, and I come back and she’d given it to her uncle and he drilled a hole in the side. He put on a new knob, completely rewired around the circuit board, and put in a new one. It only has on and off, there’s not 20 speeds, which I didn’t need anyhow, but you know what, he fixed it, he refused to give up. To me, that’s the habit here and it’s just an amazing spirit.
I apologize, I didn’t mean to get off on such a tangent, but India’s very unique.
Jerry Sever [42:00] I can totally relate to that because I see that living in Mexico they have the same attitude. If it’s broke, fix it.
Stephanie Downs [42:10] Nice.
Jerry Sever [42:10] Yes, the consumerism that’s so prevailing in the States, and growing in Europe as well, is definitely not as entrenched here, and from the sound of it, not in India either. If you have something and it doesn’t work, then obviously you’re going to take it apart and see what you can do about making it work again.
Stephanie Downs [42:32] I guess the ultimate story I’m trying to come around with is, to go back to your original question, I think that there’s a big potential here, but people who come here definitely they’re going to need local partners, or they’ve got to be ready to think out of the box. They might have to their formulas and their messaging. It’s very different. It’s not like going any place else, so they’ve got to be ready for a challenge.
Jerry Sever [42:54] I was thinking of another personal question back when you started, and then forgot, and now I’ve remembered again – you mentioned you sold your internet marketing company in 2014, right?
Stephanie Downs [43:08] Correct.
Jerry Sever [43:09] From my calculations, that means you were running that company and you were working with PETA, and with charities, and with GFI, and going to India and all of that. How did all of that run in parallel? Just as a lesson to other entrepreneurs who are juggling multiple projects, how did you manage yours?
Stephanie Downs [43:34] Well, a lot of it was actually fairly methodical. As I was mentioning, when I started volunteering at animal shelters in 2001-2002 and I really got involved, I made a conscious decision that I knew I wanted to get into doing good so to speak, but wasn’t really sure how to do that, and being single I needed to be able to support myself. So I intentionally started taking my company into a model that would enable me to step away from it. I knew I wanted to build it to a point where I could bring somebody in to run it for me and I could step away, so I had done that. I spent about 3-4 years building it to that point, and then in 2006, I was able to step away.
When I started doing work for PETA in the 2006-2007 timeframe, I was maybe doing a couple of hours a week in the business, and it had been that way for a couple of years. I’d been looking around and just doing a lot of traveling and trying to decide what to do. It’s fortunate I had built it to a point where I didn’t have to be involved, but it was supporting me and these dreams I wanted to take on. That is a challenge. As I mentioned, Good Food Institute, and others, I don’t think a week passes where I don’t get an entrepreneur that comes to me and wants to chat.
It’s a challenge, if you don’t have a financial structure behind you, you have to be willing to bite that bullet. Investors aren’t really going to want to start paying for your salary out of the gate necessarily. You have to be in a situation where you can afford to take that jump. Even with us in our current venture, we worked for a very long time before any type of compensation began happening.
Jerry Sever [45:13] Now that we’re wrapping this up, two questions that are future related. One is for Good Dot, I have a pretty good idea, of what the answer’s going to be, but what are the future plans for not just the Indian market, but overall?
Stephanie Downs [45:29] I think of course we want to dominate the Indian market, that’s a big focus. We’ve already put plans in place and they have already started the appropriate steps to double our capacity by February, so that’s all in the process, and we want to continue to grow and bring additional products to the market.
I’m personally very excited about the chicken product when that comes because it has a very good international play. Then we do want to start looking at the global markets of course. We can go into the developed countries where products are already available, but we’ll be able to bring a product to market that’s much less expensive and more on par with the cost of chicken and other meats. Also, food service is something that the industry hasn’t really been able to tap into yet because of the prices. I also personally am just very excited at looking to see if we can find partners in areas that nobody’s doing this yet. Nobody’s worrying about Africa, and nobody’s bringing it into Indonesia, those types of regions where we can get into.
So we’ve still got some thinking and strategizing to do, but there are various different directions that we could go in.
Jerry Sever [46:37] Nice. I’m really looking forward to seeing what direction you chose, and what happens there.
Now the final question, if we just take a wider look at things and try to imagine what could happen over the next few decades. This is not just Good Dot, but the world in general, what’s the best possible outcome that you can imagine?
Stephanie Downs [47:01] Well, this all has a special meaning for me because with my work at PETA I was out working with corporations. I worked with Tesla on their vegan interiors, and I even had to work with some companies on slaughterhouse systems, and glue traps. I do believe in leather and fur it’s exciting for me to see all these different things that are evolving.
For me, and I think also I probably speak for my partners at Good Dot, we want to see a world where all the solutions that are out there cost the same as the animal-based products. They provide the same quality and same satisfaction for people so we just make it really easy for people.
Sometimes I get irritated when I hear people say, why are you developing something that tastes like meat when there’s so many good vegetables and such available. I don’t think that people are really thinking through the human condition, change is hard, and that’s why 90% of diets and fitness plans that get started fail because change is hard. What I would love to see in 10-20 years from now, is that all of the alternatives that are out there, there’s such good animal-free alternatives, that we just make it so easy for people that we can just start to take the animal out of the equation.
Jerry Sever [48:10] Exactly. Yes, I totally agree with that. Stephanie, like I said, I’m really looking forward to seeing what else you come up with. I’m really glad that Good Dot is finally out in public. I think it was Sebastiano who first mentioned your name to me, and he was really impressed with what you were doing.
Stephanie Downs [48:35] Wonderful, wonderful.
Jerry Sever [48:35] Then Bruce, and Nathan Runkle, so I just knew that I had to talk to you, and I’m really glad that I did.
Stephanie Downs [48:42] Well we appreciate you reaching out. We’re honored to be included with the other speakers that you’ve had on the show. One of these days we’ll have to also get to maybe talking to Abhishek or Deepak, maybe we’ll get them on the show down the road when we have new developments and new news.
Jerry Sever [48:56] I would love to do that. I would love to hear their perspective too.
I said that was the last question, but I’ve got another one that’s just completely standard. Where can people find out more about Good Dot? You mentioned your YouTube channel. Just so people can look you up and see what you’re doing.
Stephanie Downs [49:16] Really the best place to go is www.gooddot.in, also if they search Good Dot on Facebook they would find us, but I think the website is a great place to start. It talks about our story, and the team, and our products, and our mission. It’ll just give them a really rounded perspective on us and what we’re up to.
Jerry Sever [49:38] Yes, do you have Guddu the goat on the website as well, just to make an appearance?
Stephanie Downs [49:41] We don’t, but he will be out on social media this week.
Jerry Sever [49:45] Good, it’s always nice to have a representative there.
Stephanie Downs [49:48] Absolutely. He’s our mascot. Abhishek is so diehard, he’s such an animal lover, and he just went to a butcher shop one day and bought all the animals that they had and said these guys aren’t dying today.
Jerry Sever [50:00] That’s awesome.
Stephanie Downs [50:02] So we’ll be talking more about Guddu on the site, and it’s pretty exciting that right inside the factory we’re making plant-based goat meat.
At this point, I think I calculated that we’ve saved something like 1300 goats, based on the weight of the goat meat minus the bones. I ran this whole calculation in how much our meat weighs, and the packets. Goat weighs a lot more than a chicken, so we’ll be able to save chickens faster when we bring our chicken product to market. But it’s pretty rewarding to know.
We’ve had various stories on social media where a distributor will film somebody who says I was hardcore non-veg, and now that I’ve tried this I’m not going to eat meat, I’m giving up meat and I’m going eat this. It’s pretty exciting to get those stories.
Jerry Sever [50:53] Awesome. Well, Stephanie, it was a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us and for sharing this.
Stephanie Downs [50:59] Happy to be here, thank you.
Jerry Sever [51:01] I’m looking forward to talking again at some point in the future.
Stephanie Downs [51:05] Absolutely, we’d be honored.
Jerry Sever [51:07] Great, have a nice evening, it’s evening over there?
Stephanie Downs [51:10] It is, it is.
Jerry Sever [51:12] Have a nice evening then.
Stephanie Downs [51:14] Thank you, Jerry, have a good day.
Main website: Good Dot
A big reason Stephanie joined the Good Dot team in India: The Good Food Institute
…and one of their early investors: New Crop Capital
Press Release on Good Dot receiving PeTA India’s Trailblazing Business Award
An earlier project Stephanie worked on: Tesla’s vegan interiors
Finally – another two plant-based entrepreneurs whose mentions lead me to Good Dot:
Episode #19: Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni
Episode #44: Nathan Runkle
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