This morning I had a chat with Kyle’s friend Eric Horowitz, CEO of LIFT Enrichment. He is a chef based in Los Angeles who spent a lot of time in Italy over the past 10 years. His company partners with 80+ elementary schools to empower kids to improve their health and learn to cook. We talked about the origin of Selo Oils, my time living in Europe, and how I met Kyle, my business partner.
As a Godfather myself, and cousin to 10+ teens, I definitely understand where Eric’s passion for teaching the young ones comes from. My family is very big on cooking. In fact, many of the recipes we use for family dinners hail from the Selo (Croatian word for village), each carefully crafted by several generations of Selo grandmothers. There is nothing more special than preserving and passing along a family food tradition, especially when it is paired with a premium Croatian olive oil like the one from our family farm.
During our call, Eric did a fantastic job reminding me how bad my memory is, and helped me clarify the Selo Oils timeline. I had no idea until this morning how absolutely terrible I am at calendar dates. I literally couldn’t recall what month of what year I arrived in Prague, Czech Republic, how long I stayed there, when I first sold my little test batch of olive oil online… and all that was fairly recently.
So, I thought I’d write about all that here in one place, and embed some of the top highlights (and tweets) from the very beginning of our journey until now. I’ll end with some thoughts about where I think I see Selo Oils going in the near future.
March 2015: The Corporate Job In Eastern Europe
I had to dig up the acceptance letter from the corporation I was working at in Prague to find out when I arrived. As a dual Canadian-Croatian citizen, I was able to pack up my bags and fly out to Europe just two weeks after I got the offer. I booked a flight the day I heard the exciting news.
A friend of mine, a Czech (also from Canada), was studying to do his MBA at the time in beautiful Prague, in the heart of Central Europe. One thing led to another, and based on his recommendation I ended up applying for a job that was perfectly suited to my skill set in software development at the time (I had been working as a software developer at various startups and agencies for about 5 years at that point—I was 24 years old).
Sometime between my arrival and September 2017 I met up with Kyle, my current business partner. I already knew of him through some of his blog writing. I had an app idea for one of his businesses, but it ultimately didn’t work out due to some technical issues. Lesson: don’t plan an app around an API you can’t control (likewise, don’t plan a business around a supply chain you can’t control!).
While that app didn’t work out, we managed to keep in touch over email and Twitter. We figured that at some point in the future we’d come up with something great. We just weren’t sure yet. But that was just the beginning of our story!
October-November 2017: The Olive Harvest
In October, I quit my job. I couldn’t take the monotony of it all. It was a great job, but I was always an entrepreneur at heart. Everybody in my immediate family either owns a business or is some kind of contractor. Bottom line, working at an office was just not a viable option for me long term. I put in my time, but that leg of the journey was definitely over.
Before I returned to Canada, I made a point of visiting my grandparents in the Selo. They live in Canada as well, but they wouldn’t be back for another 6 months. I booked my return flight to Canada two months ahead and took a bus down to Croatia.
I felt like such a badass quitting my job, and like a fugitive as I crossed the border. Haha. I’ve never quite left a job as abruptly as I did before that. I’ve only ever worked at risky startups and small agencies that tend to flop! Because Mammoth hunting is in my blood…
Anyway, I was in Croatia during the olive harvest in November. And that’s when things really turned around. During the annual harvest, all the villagers get together and help pick each other’s trees. Some families have 50, some 100, some 800.
No matter how much we have, we all pool our time and resources together until every last olive has been picked. We do this by hand, and sometimes with hand rakes.
At the end of each evening, we drive the farm fresh olives to the local press, then store the olive oil in our basements where they sit until summer. During summer time, the families sell their goods to tourists, mostly at the pijaca (piazza for those of you familiar with Italian).
December 2017: The Market Test!
So I had a crafty little idea. I filled up a bunch of pristine Jamnica mineral water bottles (a Croatian National treasure, of course) with olive oil. I stuffed my backpack full, about 20 liters, or 4-5 trees worth of olive oil if you can imagine. In return, I left about half my clothing in the Selo.
This turned out to be a great trade, because I managed to sell all 30 bottles in a little over a week using a single blog post and a simple WordPress website I set up to collect payment. Whenever I got an order, I went to the local Canadian Tire, purchased some bottles, and printed some labels from the cheap color printer I had at home.
Now that’s what I call a Lean Startup! Unfortunately, clearing a large volume of olive oil for export from Croatia was a little trickier. To actually make money in this venture, we would need to pull some strings. This took over half a year to set up
June 2018: Importing Selo Olive Oil
Even with the produce in hand, it took a lot of time, and a lot of secret information (people hide good information over there like buried treasure) before we could figure out how to ship it out. You see, most of Croatia’s 20 million olive trees are used to produce olive oil for local consumption. Less than 10% of it is exported!
Look it up on Amazon yourself. There are only 5 olive oil brands from Croatia that you can even get your hands on. They come from the provinces of Dalmatia and Istria. There are about 1 million people living there in total. This is not exactly a big place.
At the end of the day, in order to get Croatian extra virgin olive oil into North America at competitive rates, you need a company registered in Croatia, an agricultural export license, the right connections, and a special food-grade olive oil tub.
Although waiting for that liquid gold made me very anxious, overcoming those challenges with my family got me fired up, because not only was our produce unique, there was a significant barrier to market entry that other potential American competitors would have to surpass before they could try their hand themselves.
This was a good sign. If you know absolutely nothing about the Croatian olive oil industry, it will take you a good 6 months just to get some out of the country.
July 2018: An Epic Partnership
It was all coming together! But Mammoth Hunters need good frens too! Preferably with gigantic spears sharpened by 6+ years of digital marketing experience. A lesson I learned from previous startups was that if you want to capture The Mammoth, you need an Epic Tribe! This was exactly the opportunity we were pining over so many months ago at the Serbian restaurant in Prague
Kyle was in the process of experimenting with drop shipping but was not satisfied with the cheap Chinese products with which most digital marketers had started their e-comm careers. Given that his writing had focused on Eastern Europe so for long, we aligned very quickly on the vision. Selo Oils was becoming a reality.
August-September 2018: Incorporation, Bottling, Shipping!
As soon as I heard the olive oil was about to be shipped, I set off to incorporate the company.
Finally… after what seemed like forever, all 1000 litres of olive oil arrived in my hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. We really wanted to get this ship sailing, so we ordered 1500 bottles, labels, corks, and heat shrink seals right away!
After a frenzied weekend of vacuum pumping, bottling and labeling, we felt we had just enough bottles to satisfy our launch date demand.
October 2018: Selo Oils Inc Launches on Shopify!
It was October 1, 2018. The Big Day…. and I was dead asleep.
That was just the first 45 minutes. It went on like that all day long. But we’ll let you guess how much we sold 😉
It’s January now. The New Year has come and gone.
A LOT has happened in the last few months, and as fulfilling as it has been to get the company from its startup phase to a place where it’s generating recurring revenue, the best has yet to come.
If you LOVE real extra virgin olive oil as much as I do, consider purchasing some of my own hand-picked, first cold pressed, extra virgin liquid gold, direct from my family farm in Croatia.