Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Pic's Peanut Butter's Pic Picot on faith and luck

To mark the arrival of the Vodafone xone business acceleratorIdealog is interviewing heaps of established New Zealand innovators, as well as the founders of the 10 startups selected by Vodafone to receive mentorship, funding and the potential benefits of working with a global network. For this edition, Idealog editor Henry Oliver speaks with Pic's Peanut Butter founder, Pic Picot.

Henry Oliver: Peanut butter isn’t the first thing people think about when they think about innovation, but you’ve managed to come up with a product that’s filling a gap that no-one knew existed. What are you doing differently?

Pic Picot: It's a bit of peanut butter and that's basically it. We didn't put sugar and the like in it, that's what first upset me with peanut butter and so I just made some for myself and I guess my enthusiasm for it helped encourage other people to try it and they liked it too. So it's just grown.

So you were a disgruntled peanut butter eater?

Yep, I've always loved peanut butter and I just got really cross when I bought a jar that had sugar in it and I knew it would come. We never used to have sugar in our peanut butter in New Zealand. It only appeared ten or twelve years ago.

At the time there were cheap peanut butters and there seemed to be very expensive organic peanut butters and very little in the middle. Did you see that as a gap?

And, no, I never saw it as a gap in the market. I wasn't looking for a gap in the market at all, I just wanted peanut butter for myself. Granted, there were a few organic peanut butters around but they weren't ridiculously expensive but they didn't taste good. I don't know when we started getting organic peanut butter on the shelves here but the regular stuff was becoming really horrible. A lot of the retailers were convinced that the only thing people were interested in with peanut butter was price.

How did you convince them otherwise?

It wasn't easy. The first order we got from the Foodstuffs group in Wellington, they ordered a pallet of it and it arrived in the warehouse and the guy in the warehouse looked at it and looked at the price on my invoice and said there was no way he could sell this so he stuck it in the corner of the warehouse. I had to go back to the buyer who actually ordered it for me and this guy had complained to this woman's boss. The boss had said, "Don't do anything with it". Anyway, this woman got in touch with her boss's boss and said, "Look, I really believe this is going to work," and it did. She did really well, she stuck her neck out. We were coming up against what's in places like the U.K. where they think peanut butter's got to be cheap, because that's just a cheap food, but it's not. It's a really good food. It's really nutritious. It's a fantastic product.

I first saw your peanut butter at a weekend market. You’re now in every supermarket in New Zealand and seemingly all over Australia. How did you get there?

Yeah. We got people eating it. We went to the markets, and people got to have a taste and have a try and realize that it's quite different to what they've been eating. Peanut butter lovers are a bit special. If you eat peanut butter you eat it every day, and this is what I've been like. I've always had peanut butter every day, but once you realize there's something that's better than the stuff you've been consuming, you change. So many people say, "This is all my kids will eat." "This is all I ever eat and I tell my friends about it." It's a funny thing but it's sort of cult-y, and it used to be something that people were embarrassed to confess that they liked peanut butter because it was seen as a kid's food. With gaily covered lids and little cartoon characters on it, it was sort of thought of as kid's food. You didn't talk about liking peanut butter. When we put it in one of the fancy shops or one of the delicatessens places you could see they say, "Oh peanut butter, oh god no. We drizzle olive oil on our toast in the morning." That sort of thing.

I think we've changed that. I think we've made it different for people, and I think we've made it okay for people to enjoy peanut butter and people are acknowledging that it is a really good food. We started off by actually getting people eating it and then we went to the supermarket. A lot of people come to me and they say, "Look, how do you get your stuff into supermarkets? There's an awful reputation in them that's nasty and they won't buy our stuff though and they offer us peanuts for it, so to speak."

Supermarkets don't buy anything, it's the consumers that buy stuff and the supermarkets are just a channel. We started off doing the markets, telling people about it and getting people eating it and buying it online from us and then we started saying to the guys online, "You could get this cheaper, you wouldn't have to pay for postage. I got your local supermarket to stock it, so go and ask them." If a supermarket listens to a sales guy who comes along and says, "Hey, look I got this stuff, you need it on your shelf." They won't last very long at all. If they don't listen to the customers, that's the end. Customer pull is a very powerful thing in the food trade.

At what stage did you know it was going to work?

We had four growth stages and the first one was when I bought a stainless steel concrete mixer and a ton of peanuts from someone who would sell me a ton. I set myself up in the garage and started selling at the local market. I knew that people would buy it because my friends liked it. I'd made some in the oven that my friends liked so I knew I could make peanut butter that would sell okay. Then it sort of grew. The mix stage was pretty easy, we had to move to a little factory because the market was getting toey about us selling stuff we made in the garage at home. I got some people working with me and we got up to maybe a thousand jars a week or 500 jars a week. The next stage was nerve-racking. I wrote off to China online and ordered 30-40 thousand dollars worth of machinery and waited nervously until that turned up. I really felt like I had a lot on the line at that point. The next stage was when I took everything I had, all of my retirement money, which was about a quarter of a million dollars and went off to China and bought a whole pile of stuff and came back and set up a factory. I had no qualms at all that it was going to work by that point because I knew we could sell as much as we could make.

So you’ve got these nice jars and I’m sure other customers, like myself, reuse the jars and in doing so wash them and find that under the label you’ve got a little poem...

My first year I was making the stuff I was actually doing a full-time course in creative writing in NMIT at the Polytech [in Nelson] and I just loved doing that. I think it was one of the best things I could have been doing. Just making a bit of peanut butter at home on Friday afternoons but the rest of the time I was off learning how to write. I think that gave me the courage to actually give the peanut butter itself a bit of a voice that was different to all the other products on the shelves. A long time ago I was in a friend's shower, and I had all the shampoo around on a ledge above me and one of them was bright green and I got this stuff had a sniff and it smelled like mint sauce, so it was really strong. Then I looked at the label, and this label said, "Bob's Shampoo. It smells like mint sauce." And I thought, "Wow! This is phenomenal. This actual stuff is actually talking to me like I would show it to a friend." I felt a huge surge of affection from this bloody shampoo and it's so refreshing not to see, "Forest-flavored bloody mint shampoo with all the purity of natural herbs from forest glades." Something a little bit personal, that you would actually say to a friend, "Look, have a go at this shampoo, it smells like mint sauce but it's really nice."

So you wanted to give the peanut butter its own personality? Or, your personality?

Just to talk to people as if you think they're intelligent people. Who on Earth would talk to people like a copywriter. I think a lot of promotional stuff involves this weird language that is supposed to be what's used but I don't think it respects the people it's talking to. I don't think that's really important. I've seen products advertised that say, "Contains desecrated cane juice." Because they're terrified of saying sugar. People can read that. People aren't stupid. These people think I'm an idiot. I'm sure that happens. I never want that to happen with our peanut butter.

You do quite subtle, interesting marketing. Like instead of people using your jars to drink out of, you’ve given them peanut butter in tumblers that they can drink out of.

That lifts the re-usability aspect of the jars to another level. When they buy the peanut butter they're getting a drinking glass instead of a glass jar, which is great for bottling and putting stuff in, but a lot of people would just put them in the recycling anyway. I think with the glasses, what we're doing now, people will really buy them and use them and it means that there's actually nothing going to waste. It's a neat thing. The thing about preventing people from drinking out of their jars, we had a bit of a struggle with that in the marketing department, "We admire customers who are drinking out of jars already and they'll feel wounded if we tell them that this is not a nice thing to do," but we got over that.

You’ve taken Australia, you’ve mentioned the UK. Where’s next? Are you going for world domination?

We want to be the best-loved peanut butter makers in the world. We don't want to be the best-selling peanut butter. I'm happy for JIF and Skippy, which are disgusting worldwide American brands, all loaded with sugar and muck, for them to be the best sellers, but we want to be the best-loved. I'd like to be available in pretty much every market in the world. We don't like being the most expensive. In New Zealand and Australia, we're looking to be premium-mainstream, but in other places in the world we're happy to be out there with the most expensive ones because we're the best. I say that, "Try this, this is the best peanut butter in the world," and I keep nervously trying other peanut butters because I have to sort of try it out but I've never found anything that's as good. It's just been a phenomenal thing. It's just luck, really.