Interview Food People
Yesterday at – Max van der Heijden
Willem Sodderland, founder of Seamore, is an entrepreneur at heart. After finishing law, he worked for four years as a strategy consultant for a large international company. He then started his own business and hasn’t done anything else since. In his 25 years as an entrepreneur, he founded a number of companies that, in his own words, were mainly about revolution. ”I’m not a big fan of the development of small steps. I love the revolution, the big steps that seem impossible, but maybe they are possible.” Like developing products from seaweed. Sodderland is married, has three daughters and lives in Enkhuizen.
What is your relationship with food?
“My relationship with food started early. I started cooking when I was 12, simply because I was interested in it. I had an aunt who was a cook. My parents divorced and after that my mom decided she wanted to go back to college. So me, my brother and my sister were asked to cook on Saturday night when my mom was home late from college. When I was a student, I was the designated cook in a house of ten guys. I am also a real foodie and always interested in trying new ingredients. One of the first businesses I started was a chain of juice bars called Juicy Details, and food played a role in my other ventures, such as the marketing agency Buzzer. This is because we have put 150 to 200 new products on the market. And many of these products were food or drink. The personal interest in food has rubbed off on my business life.”
What role did that relationship play in founding Seamore?
“Before I started Seamore, I had been at Buzzer for nine years. It was a revolution in the marketing world at the time. It was all about word of mouth as a more democratic source of advertising. I had been doing that for nine years and it worked , which automatically made it less interesting, and then after consultation with my co-founder I stopped at Buzzer. And that’s when the search for something new started. Every year we go to Ibiza with the family and in the evening I saw seaweed salad on the menu there. It immediately piqued my interest, but I saw no seaweed on the beautiful plate which the waiter placed on the table for me. So I went to get a story.”
“Then I was told that the green tagliatelle, which I had mistaken for spinach-based pasta, was the seaweed. That’s when the gears started turning in my head and all the elements of my story came together. involved with new concepts and innovative ideas, I developed a sort of radar for it. Part of the inspiration was personal, my wife and I had wanted more vegetables and less carbs on the menu for some time. I also knew that feeding the planet would be a huge challenge in the future. Imagine if you could replace pasta with a vegetable that already looks like that, that seemed like a potential revolution that could be very interesting.”
How do you pick up something like that?
“When I returned home to the Netherlands, I immediately started doing research. What is it, where does it come from and where can I buy it? These were important questions for me. I quickly realized that seaweed could become one of the main food sources. In Asia, for example, it has been used for cooking for a long time, although it is mainly about taste and less about health and sustainability. I saw a possible revolution that would require a marketing effort. The seaweed products on the market were unavailable for various reasons attractive And it is necessary for the revolution to succeed and to market products attractively is my speciality. So I took the leap and decided that the next revolution would be seaweed.
The thing about retail is that it is quite ill-equipped to bring innovation to the market
What was it like to make the move from marketing to food?
“On the one hand, it wasn’t a big step, because it wasn’t new for me to bring a fairly radical innovation to the market. I had done that before with Buzzer. What was new and also really a learning experience was the retail industry .Retail is really its own specific world with huge challenges and its own laws of nature Laws that I didn’t find all logical One of the biggest problems of retail is that it is quite ill equipped to bring innovation to the market chains like Albert Heijn and Jumbo is established on a large scale, with companies like Unilever and Nestlé making products that are easy to understand, so I wanted to revolutionize that too. It turned out to be too much of a challenge to do that. We’ve partially succeeded in that to bring the innovation to market, so for the last step we also looked for a buyer who was already longer and bigger in the industry. Scale is very important in retail. But retail does not provide a good resource for smaller companies to achieve scale. Even if there is a demonstrable customer group for an innovation, retailers don’t connect it to a product: you have to do it all yourself.”
What was the biggest challenge on your way?
“The slowness of retail and the retail channel itself was a big challenge. One hopes, with some naivety, that the supermarket will think along and see the ‘bigger picture’ of the desirability of healthier, more sustainable foods. The big challenge is the public in making the supermarket aware that your product exists and making it easy for them to try it. The supermarket can facilitate it, but they don’t do enough. They only offer a price list of promotional items that cost €50,000 for a little attention . On top of that, because it is an innovative product, you can only test 100 to 200 supermarkets, which makes it impossible to get that investment back. The biggest challenge was that instead of being a proactive matchmaker, especially between products, the supermarket and the consumer and creates barriers. A bizarre example is that supermarkets only have a margin of 8% on fresh meat and 35 to 50% on meat substitutes. recreating in the outside world helps, but it is not n ok to get people on the shelf, and that’s where the biggest challenge lies.’
You had big growth ambitions for Seamore in 2018, for example you wanted to grow from eight to fifteen countries and from three to ten products. What has become of it?
“You have to link ambitions to the amount of capital required for this and the ability to implement it. It was especially with the capital that it went wrong in the end: We remained underfunded. In the beginning, we immediately started working for five to six countries. it involved a number of countries in Europe, Singapore and Australia, we also worked on America. It went very well at first. But with the limited resources we had, it wasn’t a good idea afterwards. It was too much of a challenge to give enough attention to all those markets. I’m good at creating publicity through word of mouth and “through influencers, but it wasn’t enough to make those products a success in the supermarket. This requires much more local attention, something like that takes time, you have to build relationships and we couldn’t do that at the time. In addition, the resources, money and people were lacking. That is why I arranged a large investment round at the time, but it did not deliver what we hoped. Therefore, the company was eventually sold to a buyer who already operates on a large scale.’
You sold Seamore to the flavor specialist a while back, what’s next?
“I don’t know yet. If De Smaakspecialist wants it, I would like to have a limited strategic role for a period of time. Since the takeover, I have also been contacted by other parties for a role that has to do with seaweed and/or food. But I will especially go further, in search of new revolutions, for example, I am involved in an international scale-up that extracts protein from microalgae.”
Do you think you or Seamore can change the world?
“For a while I was less than happy with the impact that Seamore has had in seven years, for example in terms of revenue. But partly because other people have pointed that out to me, I’ve changed my mind about that and I realize we have a huge impact Many people have changed their minds about food because of Seamore and are eating seaweed pasta, bacon, wraps and seaweed chips every week. Because of our approach, because of how we have laid out seaweed, the whole our approach inspired a lot of people to do similar things. a lot of seaweed companies have come up and a lot of food companies have been created because Seamore was able to get people interested in new ingredients and all that globally. So I’m super happy impact we’ve had. Seamore has definitely changed the world in a positive way.”
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