Monday Motivation with Agathe Assouline-Lichten, Co-Founder and CEO of Red Velvet NYC

female founders, food startup, gender gap, NYC

Mondays can be rough, and sometimes we can use some motivation. Our #MondayMotivation blog series brings you tips and life hacks from industry leaders and some of the most creative entrepreneurs out there.

Agathe Assouline-Lichten is the Co-Founder and CEO of Red Velvet NYC, a subscription service that makes gourmet baking easy by delivering everything you need to create a delicious dessert, including pre-measured ingredients, right to your door. Agathe sat down with PE to discuss what motivated her to start her company, how she’s managing a bootstrapped business, and why it’s so important for entrepreneurs to connect to other founders.

What inspired you to start your business?

I started Red Velvet two years ago, when I discovered how challenging it was to bake at home. I was on the hunt for lady fingers to make homemade tiramisu, but after visiting six different grocery stores, I still couldn’t find any!  In New York City, where some of us  use our ovens for sweater storage over cooking, baking can be a real challenge. Even outside of big cities with tiny kitchens, baking is often viewed as cumbersome, daunting or intimidating. I knew there had to be a better way to make tiramisu, or any other homemade dessert.

I grew up in the gourmet food business, so I’ve always been passionate about quality homemade food and sitting around a table with family and friends to enjoy it.  I’ve been cooking and baking from a young age, and was always tasked with dessert for any home celebration since no one else had an interest in making it (though they did want to eat it)!  When dinner meal kits popped up five years ago, I was an early adopter, eager to see what Blue Apron was all about. I loved cooking at home through an easy solution since I worked long hours. But having the sweet tooth that I do, I was frustrated that there was never a dessert option. That’s when the idea for Red Velvet came about.

Red Velvet is disrupting the $12 billion home baking industry in the United States, and our business model is helping us get there. We have an a-la-carte menu with about 25 kits at any given time, sensitive to seasonal flavors and dietary restrictions. Bakers have the option to purchase a baking kit, or they can sign up for a monthly subscription model where they get to enjoy different recipes each month as they fine-tune their baking skills. Additionally, we have a boutique where bakers can add on bakeware or cake and party accessories.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

To this day, the company has been bootstrapped. We’re very close to profitability, which is really exciting. However, having limited working capital, no funds for marketing or advertising, and constantly doing everything in a lean way is very challenging. It forces me to be very creative, but it’s still hard to run a business day-to-day!

What’s been the greatest reward?

Owning something that I am truly proud of brings me immense joy, and it’s an experience that has taught me more than I could ever imagine. I grow every day, and I’m thankful for that.

Can you describe a problem you’ve solved in your business and how other early-stage founders can repeat your success?

As a bootstrapped company, working capital is always a pain point. It forces us to make tough decisions, like when to order more supplies, ingredients, or packaging material. We’re always trying to find the right balance of when to pull the trigger to buy something, or wait and risk having inventory shortages. Without a lot of working capital, we’re forced to shop around to find the best prices and to find the most flexible vendors, who can work with a small and growing company.

We spend a lot of time researching the best supplies at the best prices—it takes time, but in the end, it’s extremely valuable. We care so much about the quality of the product we create, and we aren’t willing to bend on that, so for us, it’s about getting the client the best price while trying to maintain a healthy margin. Other founders in this space should spend a lot of time on price comparisons and shopping around. It’s time consuming to find great quality at the right price, but in the end, it’s worth it.

What changes would you most like to see in your industry, and how are you working to make those changes happen?

The food tech industry is primarily male-dominated. Women-owned businesses in the food space tend to be quite small and end up staying that way. While they may be successful and turn a profit, they don’t make as big an impact on the industry. I’d also like to see more women, including myself, pursue [investment] funding when the time is right.

Who or what motivates you to keep going, even when things get tough?

My family and my partner are so incredibly supportive. My sister is my original co-founder, and I ask for her advice the most. She’s my rock, and I trust her judgement on everything.

Can you provide a few updates on what’s new with your business or what you’ve accomplished since you attended the PE Intensive in April 2017?

In the summer of 2017, we won the Campbell’s Real Innovation Challenge, for being an innovative food company and adhering to the Campbell’s Real Food Philosophy. In Fall 2017, we started to wholesale to major e-grocers and launched on Amazon. So far in 2018, we’ve expanded nationwide and have some really exciting partnerships coming up that will take us to the next level. We’re also entering retail, which will solidify our presence in the market.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out?

Create a network, join meetup groups, and create a community for yourself. Talk to as many entrepreneurs as possible. It’s so lonely being an entrepreneur, so you have to create a support system for yourself. You learn so much from others, and it’s important to create a forum where you can share knowledge.

What do you do every Monday morning to prepare and motivate yourself for the coming week?

I wake up on Mondays excited for the week ahead. Over the weekend, I make sure to take care of myself, as I am usually exhausted by Friday night. I exercise, enjoy New York City, visit family, and spend quality time with my boyfriend and my dog. Come Monday morning, I know what I need to accomplish, and I’m both ready and excited to tackle it!

For more #MondayMotivation, check out our interview with Kerranna Williamson and Amy Dye Domangue, Co-Founders of ALIS Health, a healthcare and technology company that delivers women’s health diagnostic services, including genetic testing. Kerranna and Amy sat down with PE to discuss the challenges of running a healthcare company, the big mistake they made early on, and how they’re working to make genetic testing accessible and affordable for everyone.