Baiba Soika about her attitude to entrepreneurship
Would vegshelf have been successful five years ago? Definitely not, says the founder. vegshelf is a B2B platform for plant-based food products to enable restaurants and stores to not only discover or find all the emerging plant-based and vegan food products, but also to source them.
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Baiba Soika: Us, founders and entrepreneurs, we need to be very, very mindful what kind of companies are we building, what kind of impact that has.
Ann-Christin Schmitt-Rogalla: Willkommen zu unserer ersten Folge von #NeueGründerzeit in englischer Sprache. Ich bin Ann-Christin Schmitt-Rogalla und habe heute Baiba Soika zu Gast. Das ist die Gründerin von vegshelf. Wenn ihr Englisch nicht so gut versteht, könnt ihr euch gerne das deutsche Transkript dieser Folge durchlesen. Das gibt es zum Download auf gründen.nrw.
Hello, Baiba. I am so happy to have you here today and to welcome you to our podcast and I am so excited to hear and learn more about vegshelf. Can you explain to me and our listeners what vegshelf does?
Baiba Soika: Yes, sure. Before that, thank you very much for having me, my pleasure. Yeah, you are right, we started vegshelf, actually started working on vegshelf back in 2019 on the concept. But officially founded our company in August 2019. And what is vegshelf? So, vegshelf is a B2B platform for plant-based food products, so we enable restaurants and stores to not only discover or find all the emerging plant-based and vegan food products, but also to source them. And so at vegshelf we have essentially two goals. So one is, we believe that all the amazing healthy food products should be more accessible in all kinds of channels. Meaning retail food service, so starting from the small coffee shops to the supermarket chains. So that is the one thing to make plant-based food products accessible. And the second goal is to make the wholesale easy. And that’s where kind we touch my background. My background is in sales and food product marketing and distribution. And I know very well what are the kind of business practices in that B2B world and wholesale world. Basically, it still is all based on the trade fairs, on phone calls, on emails. So that’s the second goal that we are trying to achieve, to innovate and digitize the wholesale and to make it really easier.
Ann-Christin Schmitt-Rogalla: Okay. The demand for plant-based food is growing the last few years. What do you think - would vegshelf have been successful five years ago?
Baiba Soika: Definitely, not. Actually, the whole story of vegshelf starts from my and my business partner’s personal kind of experience. So we shifted towards more plant-based diet, and every time you would do grocery shopping or would eat out in restaurant, we would be like, come on, like why there is such a few products, just a small tiny shelf in the supermarket or just very few or no options in restaurants. So we thought, but meanwhile we knew that there are these amazing brands developing these innovative products. When we started working on vegshelf in 2019 I remember very well that there were many people who are like, come on, it’s just a trend, you know, the same like avocado toast. They all go away, right? I was never a big meat eater, I was kind of vegetarian, flexitarian in that like kind of area. Personally, for quite a long while, I’ve been following all the developments for quite a while and I knew I was 100% sure that this is not just a trend. So that’s not gonna be just like one year euphoria of vegan that all just go away. And that proved to be right. Yeah, I’m very happy about that, but yeah, sure, five years ago no chance. And that goes actually from, I would say, from both, from the kind of plant-based trend and the movement side. But then also from the B2B sales digital tools from that side, because five years ago there are so many businesses just like you know going only to trade, there’s no looking so much into digital, using digital tools at all for their business purposes. And now, where the Covid accelerating and kind of pushing us to work from home and they’re closing all the trade fairs, we see even more the trend of using more digital tools also in businesses has been accelerated tremendously. We needed Covid as the final push - decided that’s the future.
Ann-Christin Schmitt-Rogalla: Yeah, that’s true. You mentioned that your surrounding called you a little crazy when you started founding vegshelf. How does it feel to do or to start a business if the surrounding does not really stand behind you or how did you handle that?
Baiba Soika: That’s a good question. Well I’ve been, I think if you ask my parents, I was always stubborn from the moment I walked. If they would say to me, go on the left I would go on the right. So because I thought that was the way. Yeah, jokes aside, it is actually very hard of course. If you don’t have a support system or people are really questioning your ideas. But I think also it’s actually good. Let’s say if your friends start questioning your idea over dinner it trains you actually for the pitch to investors for example. When they ask you hard questions and then it also pushes you to think from this particular idea or the project from all kinds of various sides. And think over, analyze, read more, do more research, talk with your users, verify whether I or what I believe or whether the person who was confronting me is right. So, it actually is good, but of course that requires a lot of believe in yourself. And believing in what you can do. So, it is hard but it’s do-able. But it requires a lot of inner work as well, of course.
Ann-Christin Schmitt-Rogalla: You and your fiancé founded vegshelf together. So be honest. Who of you had the idea?
Baiba Soika: That’s right. So we are running it together and I was the initial founder. So the idea originally comes from me, but since we are partners in life and partners in business a lot of experiences, they overlap right, so and of course, even at the very, very beginning, he was the one with whom I was discussing, with whom do you think, you know. Also discussing, all the like, where the industry goes. How can we solve this problem of that there is not enough plant-based food products in stores and retail. And also that for emerging brands, food brand it’s very hard to get into retail and food service. So how can we solve that, right? It wasn’t the plan actually that he will join. So, it also happened gradually and that was also something you know, us for many great things you need the time test and that’s what we had you know, to really test. We’ve been working on some not so serious projects before like networking, meet ups and so on, we’ve been working together, so obviously we knew how it is, but when you start a business you want to make sure that the person that you were working with, you know the person very well. And over the time it brought that we are as a team we are very, very powerful. We complement our skillset, our experiences are diverse, professional experiences, so yeah, it’s been great so far.
Ann-Christin Schmitt-Rogalla: How can I imagine that, did you sit together at the kitchen while having breakfast and one of you said, okay, let do this.
Baiba Soika: As far as I remember the idea of vegshelf concept in somewhat in that direction started actually, it was somewhere in the back of my mind beginning of 2019. And then it was the time when I was running this export management company and going to a lot of trade fairs, like some of our customers. But in that company were also plant-based manufactures and that was also the time when I was the first who shifted a plant-based diet after watching some movies and reading some books. I realized, okay that’s absolutely the way. And then somehow, you know, I brought this discussion at home and then we discussed that. Yeah, so from all kinds of sights, right? From eating plant-based, why it’s important. Not only for human health, for animals, for environment, but also from the B2B practices why trade fairs are so inefficient and so on. You can say someone that it kind of started maybe at their kitchen table but not over one particular breakfast but probably over and over the time, you know. Just discussing it more and more and more and kind of, yeah, going through various layers.
Ann-Christin Schmitt-Rogalla: So what does a normal working day, a typical workday looks like for you?
Baiba Soika: So let’s describe the day kind of the perfect day that I am aiming for to be every day. I wake up usually around six in the morning, then I do a workout, I am a morning fitness person. That’s really high energy for the day. Then actually, sometimes I have a breakfast, sometimes I just have a coffee or matcha. And then I start working. How I would say around one, I think the typical, the typical time for lunch break. I spent a lot of time at the laptop. So working with the computer, it’s a digital company, so it’s a lot of work in the office. There I would say, it’s nothing kind of super interesting, yeah so, not really going to places, especially with the Covid lockdown. Then making sure to have a break also around five, six and then we usually also take the walking meeting with Marcis to discuss some challenges that have come up during the day or so. Then dinner and then usually also back to work a bit and then we, it really depends at this point for the last, I think this year has been absolutely crazy in a good way, I mean externally in a bad way of course of the Covid, but for us it’s been very busy and good. And then we finish walk around, sometimes twelve in the night, sometimes ten, it really varies. But yeah, you get the back side of the not so beautiful start of life.
Ann-Christin Schmitt-Rogalla: Yes, it’s not like what you see on the outside, it’s always different what is behind the scenes.
Baiba Soika: Absolutely. Usually, you know, whenever this topic comes up, I’m very honest and outspoken. Because I really don’t like how these start-ups are positioned with all the media glory and all it’s beautiful and over night’s success, because it’s never the case. It’s not hard to start a business, if you just go to the registration office and submit a paper and it’s done. That’s the super easy part. But the difficult part is to really build a company.
Ann-Christin Schmitt-Rogalla: You are born in Latvia. When did you move to Germany and why did you move to Germany?
Baiba Soika: So that’s correct. I’m originally from Latvia and I moved to Dusseldorf around three, four years ago with a break here and there. And the main reason actually was that my fiancé Marcis, he, after graduated his university in the UK, he started working in Dusseldorf as an engineer. So we were having a distance relationship. Along this relationship and at that point I was living back in Riga, Latvia, working as export manager, as employee with no actual plan even starting your company. So, I was just very ambitious, very driven employee with somewhat clear career development. So, I think it would happen so to many young professionals. I worked like crazy. I worked during the working hours, after the working hours. So, and what happened, I had a burnout. Yeah, so, and as a result, I had also some health issues that need to be solved right away. And that was the kind of moment which I’m actually super grateful. Now, when I look back, because it was a perfect thunderstorm for me. Stop for a moment, look what you are doing, look at your lifestyle, you know. It’s not sustainable to go like that. Since I need to recover after the surgery, I realized that I really wanted to make a change, also environment where I was living, I really decided, okay I will just pack my bags and move to Dusseldorf where Marcis was already. And at that point it was actually a very crazy kind of idea of mine and my parents they were like, what are you gonna do there, you know? And I really had no plan or whatsoever. I just, I was like okay, I will just pack by bags and come here, see what it’s like and in the worst case, I can always go back and live in my parents place. And then figure it out for further on. Yeah, so, that’s been crazy.
Ann-Christin Schmitt-Rogalla: Thank you for sharing that. I read that you are a repeat offender and you already had a company in Latvia before. What do you think, where are the differences building a company in Latvia compared to building a company in Germany? Are there any differences or what are your experiences concerning that?
Baiba Soika: That’s right. Before vegshelf I was running an export management company back in Latvia. Which actually was running from the distance at the first, because when I moved here in Germany at that point I didn’t have any business. After travelling and living also then in between also in the UK and Japan that was the time I was in the UK. That was a time when I start a company and registered that in Latvia. So it’s kind of a complex story. The first company was really managed from the distance a lot. And yes, I’m lucky that I had these two experiences of starting a company in Latvia and in Germany. Latvia is very, as you probably have heard, it’s a small country, it’s very digital I would say when you compare with some of the big countries of Europe like France or Germany and that you can also see, had in impact also on all kinds of practice levels how big they are or they are not. So registering a company in Latvia, I would say, it’s super, super easy. You probably have heard that in Estonia, of EID and citizenship, registering a company there also from the distance is possible. So that’s not that good in Latvia but it’s very, very similar.
Ann-Christin Schmitt-Rogalla: So how does it feel to start a business in a country which language you don’t speak so well? How are you doing the bureaucratic matters? Even for me it’s hard to do that in Germany and I speak German, so I can imagine it’s very hard for someone who is not speaking the language.
Baiba Soika: It is, it is. Yeah, I think that’s also something I needed to really kind of mentally prepare. There are multiply challenges, you basically, when you come to new country, you need to start everything from the complete blank page. So you have nothing, you have no support system. You have no network, you have no knowledge about the local business ecosystem. Yeah, over the time, you just get a thicker skin and the things that seem challenging go upsetting at first, now they are peanuts.
Ann-Christin Schmitt-Rogalla: What do you love most about entrepreneurship?
Baiba Soika: That’s a good question. How I see entrepreneurship, it’s my medium of expression and creating an impact in the world. That’s my kind of tool to create a change. That’s how I see that and I think, us, founders and entrepreneurs, we need to be very, very mindful. But what kind of companies we are building, what kind of impact that has. And at last it also serves inspiration for others. So that others believe, that’s possible to start a company in a foreign country and go through all the obstacles and yeah, just believe in yourself. It’s a lot of responsibility actually to be an entrepreneur. While I’m talking I realized that.
Ann-Christin Schmitt-Rogalla: That’s so inspiring. Thank you. My last question for you, Baiba. What would you say, is your advice for anyone listening to us, thinking about founding a company?
Baiba Soika: Well, I would just say, just do it! Believe in yourself. There will always be people in close circles, even in family, which was also the case for me, in the family, in the closer friends, you will always have the people who question you, who don’t believe in you. But whatever they say, you just go for it. Find a way that keeps you focused and centered. Find this kind of choice for you, that works, whether that’s fitness, as it is for me or it’s something else that keeps you focused and centered and gives you additional energy just to push through any challenges that come your way. Just be brave, be bold and just make your dreams reality.
Ann-Christin Schmitt-Rogalla: Thank you so much. Baiba, thank you so much for your time, your answers and your personal insights. I really enjoyed talking to you and I wish you, your fiancé and vegshelf all the best, all the success you can get and yes, thank you so much.
Baiba Soika: Thank you, my pleasure being here.
Ann-Christin Schmitt-Rogalla: Ich hoffe ihr habt genauso viel Neues erfahren wie ich, und ich sage Danke und bis zum nächsten Mal. Und wenn ihr weitere Gründungsgeschichten ansehen, anhören oder lesen wollt, dann schaut doch auch mal unter gründen.nrw rein.