The process of scaling a business is a double-edged sword for a female founder. Despite a game-changing idea, women have been facing greater challenges when it comes to launching products than men – from securing investment from VCs to attracting clients. But even amidst adversity, Siddhi Mehta, founder and CEO of RHYTHM108, the healthy food startup, continues on her mission to make a difference in the world by changing the way people eat. “If you want to build something that lasts and you want to really change things to the core, treat life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she says. “You won’t find satisfaction in your comfort zone.”
But for Mehta, it involved more than getting out of her comfort zone as she relocated to Switzerland with her husband a decade ago. And this move was a completely different experience for her as she was accustomed to living in metropolitan towns. However, she turned that challenge into a business opportunity. The soothing atmosphere in Geneva made her realise the importance of “slow living.” “I had built a lot professionally but the choices always felt a bit empty,” she recalls, pointing to her engineering background. “When I moved to Switzerland and discovered the beautiful Alps and the amazing sense of wonder and simplicity they instilled, I also formed a closer connection to nature and the food I was eating through farmers’ markets.” It was then that the idea of RHYTHM108 came about in 2013.
Her journey was far from easy though. Mehta learnt her first business lesson early on after she spent her entire budget of £5,000 to hire what she thought was “the best product development company.” “After weeks of work, the product came back tasting like sawdust,” she says. This taught her that to enter any industry, it’s essential to study the know-how. “[I] then bought two volumes of The Microbiological Safety and Quality of Food, opened the front page and learnt about barriers, water activity, rancidity and everything I needed to know about bringing a product to retail,” she adds. “It was a valuable lesson – you don’t have to be an expert but you need to know enough to call it out.”
This was just the beginning. Mehta’s path to make RHYTHM108 a success was enwreathed with obstacles. “We had ingredient suppliers let us down, machinery breakdowns, pallets tipping on a truck, customers not paying us on time – at one point, my trade fair stand was vandalised the night before the show started,” she remembers. However, this didn’t extinguish her entrepreneurial spirit. “At times everything that could go wrong, does go wrong and we just buckle down and take on the challenge step by step and with a positive can-do mindset. We learn from each experience to make our team stronger, so we can go further.”
As if those hurdles weren’t enough to leap over, Mehta even had to face undertones of sexism from suppliers and investors. “I’ve been in meetings where I’ve been asked if my husband helps me to understand the numbers and financials behind the business and I have to remind them that I have an engineering degree from Oxford so I can understand numbers pretty well myself,” she says. Additionally, she was asked whether she plans on having children and how she would manage work and home. “[These] are things that aren’t really asked to male colleagues,” she adds. “When this happens, I move on to the next meeting with a clean slate and kept pursuing what I need to. They wouldn’t have been the right partners in any case as we wouldn’t have shared the same values.”
Another challenge was to obtain enough funding. And Mehta used a combination of bootstrapping through sales and credit lines from suppliers to get the company off the ground. Having a tight budget made her capitalise on social media and live marketing to increase brand awareness. In fact, she continues to follow the same strategy today. “So we handed out as many products as we could – at markets, at fairs, via social media, on the train and even outside stations and shops where we wanted to be stocked – and this is still what we do,” she says. She also used local cafes to attract customers as stocking in supermarkets was far from easy. “There is limited space on the shelf of every supermarket, your product needs to sell much better than the product you will be replacing,” she says. “That’s why we built our company by working with independent retailers and cafes.”
Indeed, Mehta’s strategy of going slow and steady, which circles back to her earlier advice about tackling business like a marathon, resulted in her products making their place in Switzerland’s Coop and even in the UK’s Sainsbury’s. In fact, the sales escalated every month as more people started becoming increasingly fitness-focused. Today, her healthy treats are available in over 5,000 locations across the globe with plans to expand further and France might be the next stop.
Even after tasting success, it wasn’t just about making profits that kept her going but rather her desire to disrupt the food industry. “Starting a food company was always about making a change – the current landscape of food is dominated by old conglomerates, who have been doing things the same way over generations,” she argues. And looking at her persistence, we’re sure to say Mehta is definitely on the right track to do things with a method that’s the opposite of the existing titans on the market.
While the food industry has a plethora of entrepreneurs launching startups, Mehta believes a good product coupled with a desire to have a positive impact on the world are the key ingredients for whipping up a sustainable business. “The vegan, plant-based and organic food market will continue to grow as they both support an alternative farming system that maintains a healthy soil and a healthy environment – which is essential to a sustainable future,” she says. “That’s what makes it incredibly rewarding – that biscuit by biscuit, chocolate by chocolate we’re slowly laying the brickwork for a new type of food industry – one where trust and mindfulness will be at the forefront.”
Though having the so-called male privilege can encompass power in business, Mehta’s ongoing entrepreneurial endeavour is testament that female founders are indeed taking over in all sectors.