Katlin Smith is the founder of Simple Mills, a food company that produces all natural, grain-free, gluten-free, refined sugar-free, paleo-friendly, almond flour-based baking mixes. She hails from North Carolina and has transplanted to Chicago to grow her business. She personally testifies to the health transformation that comes from reducing refined sugar and processed foods from your diet, and has created a product that supports her beliefs.
On why gluten-free:
Katlin personally chose to become gluten-free because she was experiencing health and joint issues. A friend recommended trying to remove gluten from her diet.
“Three months before I started this business, I wasn’t gluten-free. I was eating whatever I wanted and I wanted to start a pasta shop – which is kind of the opposite of gluten-free.”
“I don’t think everyone has to be gluten-free necessarily. People find different things that work for their bodies. I do think that people do better when they eat less sugar and less processed foods. Many times, gluten is accompanied by processed foods and refined sugar. It’s better to say you’re going to eat a diet of simple natural ingredients versus to just be gluten-free.”
“I found such a marked difference on how I felt when I started eating a clean diet.”
Katlin says that one of the most intimidating things about trying a gluten-free diet is that people just don’t know what they can eat. Within her first few days of being gluten-free, she found herself in a grocery store looking for something to eat. She wandered around for 45 minutes before she gave up and left with just an avocado. Now, a few years later, she is an expert on how to find and combine the right healthy ingredients to make delicious food.
On health foods in the industry:
Katlin cautions that just looking for a gluten-free or healthy sounding label doesn’t always tell the true story. You need to look at the actual ingredients in the food that you’re eating.
“I think one of the most common misconceptions is that gluten-free and ‘health foods’ are actually healthy. Most gluten-free products tend to be pretty bad for you. Many of the gluten-free flours have a glycemic index that is almost that of table sugar, and it’s just a bunch of empty carbs. You’re not getting any vitamins, minerals or protein. You’re really just eating it to eat. The same is true for other ‘healthy foods’. They are just labeled that way as a marketing ploy.”
On getting started as a business:
Before Katlin started Simple Mills, she was a consultant at Deloitte and traveling the road 4 days a week. After experiencing her own health transformation, she began to think about how other people could benefit from what she had learned.
“I actually sat on my porch one afternoon and brainstormed all the different ways that I could make the process (of getting healthier foods) easier. It wasn’t just for me – but I honestly didn’t know where it was going. I’m not sure I believed that it would make it this far at that point.”
She kept her day job, and began working on her ideas at night and recipe testing on the weekends, using her friends and family as her guinea pigs. “I probably went through 90 different iterations before coming up with the product we have today.”
After about six months she had created her first product and after another month she was selling it online. Her first retail store customer was her local Whole Foods. She actually first reached out to Whole Foods for research purposes, but ended up diving into a meeting about placing her product on the shelves. Shortly after she started selling Simple Mills products in Whole Foods, she quit her full-time job and was also accepted into the MBA program at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business where Simple Mills won the New Venture Challenge in 2014.
On looking back and looking forward:
So how will Simple Mills continue to grow and scale? “Step by step… step by step. One day you need monitors and so you go and buy monitors. One day you realize you need a VP of Sales, and so you go look for one. It’s all about the little individual building blocks and putting them together.”
Katlin highlights the value of finding the right advisors in your personal and professional network. “The most helpful thing is having good advisors – ones that have been there and done that. At the very beginning, I was lucky enough to have a friend who had just started a food business. Then, I knew a woman who was in 25 Whole Foods stores. Then, I met another Chicago entrepreneur who owned a food business in thousands of stores.”
“We’ve built this business very quickly and a lot of that has been because they’ve given us the help and advice to get us there faster.”
On a winning team:
Simple Mills has grown to a team of 6 women. What’s the secret to making it click?
“Honesty. Our ability to talk to each other in an authentic way. We tell the truth to each other, we talk through issues as they come up and we attack it head on.”
For favorite healthy Chicago eats, Katlin gives a shout out to Lyfe Kitchen, Kitchfix and Arize Kombucha. Looking back to the beginning, what would she tell herself? “Just go and do it. I’m not usually one to regret things. I think we’ve been extremely fortunate. I wouldn’t’ change a thing.”