FOUNDERS: Justin Hall, Benoit Gueiysse, Olivier Ausseil and Rob Lawler
What problems do you solve and what products or services do you sell?
Tahi Spirulina is New Zealand’s only true spirulina producer because we are the only spirulina farm in the country. Out in the world, nutrition is consistently on people’s minds at the moment. People want to make choices either for ethical reasons or for specific health requirements. So our goal is to provide them with a plant-based source of nutrition that is often lacking in other areas.
Whether you’re vegan or vegetarian, and looking for something to help supplement elements of your diet, or you’re a flexitarian and looking to reduce your meat consumption and balance it out with more plant-based nutrition, we can help. Spirulina is a fantastic product because it’s packed with protein, all plant-based, and it is full of minerals and micronutrients. It has iron to help stimulate energy, and it’s loaded with antioxidants. It also has phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc. So, it’s this little powerhouse of plant-based nutrition.
We felt that growing spirulina here in New Zealand was a great way to address that need, but we’re also conscious of what’s going on in our environment. Population is going up, land is getting used, and resources are being consumed, so we need to look at how we’re producing foods and do it in a way that’s better for our bodies and better for our planet. We’re producing the nutrition that people want, and we’re doing it in a way that we think will improve New Zealand’s environment along the way.
Who and where are your target customers?
Our target customers are anyone looking for that bundle of plant-based protein, micronutrients, and antioxidants – pretty much anyone who is looking for specific health benefits or wants to supplement their diet. That’s where spirulina fits in perfectly.
There’s a body of research out there that says that a high proportion of Kiwi women, particularly those involved with sport or physical activity, are suffering from iron deficiency. That’s where spirulina can be a fantastic targeted product, particularly combined with our blackcurrant blend because of the vitamin C content to assist iron absorption.
At the moment, we’re just New Zealand focused but in the long-term our target customers will be global. Casting our eyes across the ditch to Australia will probably be our next step – today one of our retailers, HealthPost, helps distribute our products worldwide.
How and when did you first come up with the idea for your business?
Our co-founder and Technical Director, Benoit Guieysse has been working in the microalgae space for over 20 years. He’s a professor of Chemical and Bio-Process Engineering at Massey University, and worked in Sweden and Singapore before New Zealand.
Over recent years, he’s been looking at micro-algae as a food source instead of a way to treat waste. In 2017, he went to France to see family and friends and saw French farmers growing spirulina inside greenhouses at small scales. Most of the spirulina grown worldwide are grown at large volumes in massive 10-20-hectare open ponds farms in California, China, and India. But what he saw in France was people growing spirulina inside greenhouses through a really high-quality process that nurtured the product and delivered a high-value end product.
When he saw that, he thought that we could apply the production system to our New Zealand environment.
What are three things about your business that you are proud of?
1. Our innovation. We’re the first here in New Zealand. Spirulina has been grown around the world for a long time, but we’re the first ones doing it here. Because we use our growing conditions and our own methods, there’s a lot of learning involved, but we’re really enjoying it. So, we’re proud to be groundbreakers here in New Zealand.
2. The high nutrition aspect we’re providing to people. We’re giving people options. That’s a real big part of it for us. As I mentioned, there’s a lot of people looking to improve their diet, improve their lifestyle, improve their nutrition, and we are giving them something that’s genuinely a part of that.
3. The sustainability aspect. Ultimately, we come back to the environmental question. We’re part of the whole emerging proteins landscape here in New Zealand. We think that if we succeed in this, we can develop our growing methods and we can build the reputation of a New Zealand product. Ultimately, we’re going to have the potential to build a whole new industry here in New Zealand.
How do you market your business and what advice do you have for others around marketing?
If you’d ask us that question six months ago, it would be quite a different answer. The whole COVID-19 world has tipped everything on its head. Particularly in March, April, May, when people were going into stores that were still open, they only bought the essentials. They were going in and getting fruits and vegetables, meat and milk and eggs, and getting the heck “out of Dodge”. They didn’t want to be standing around.
For us, being an emerging brand, that isn’t easy. If people are taking time to browse a shelf and see a New Zealand grown spirulina, they’re like, “Wow! I didn’t know that existed.” But when they are whistling in, just getting their essentials, and getting out, it hits us. Like everyone else in the country, we had to divert a lot of our work into our online presence, and that’s been tough because that’s a very crowded space at the moment. So, getting heard is tough, but we’re looking at ways to get our message to cut through.
As we get to a more level footing, we’re going to be getting back out there and onto retail shelves. Because people do notice brands on shelves. Part of our goal has been to increase our product range. Now, in our food range, we’ll have our powder, our powder blend with blackcurrants, and our crunchies. In supplements, we have 100% NZ spirulina tablets and a 100% NZ grown blend of spirulina with blackcurrants. That five-product block, instead of just a single product of spirulina, is going to make us a lot more visible on the shelf, which is important. But we’ve also got to continue with our digital strategy to get our message out there.
We’re the same as any startup. Our challenge is getting some brand recognition out there, letting people know we exist. Before COVID, this meant attending lots of events and showing up in person. Today, we’re trying to achieve through digital channels, in 6 months, who knows that that will look like. But ultimately, we’re trying to get our message out there, our why, and build brand recognition.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in building your business so far?
For any small business, cash is always a biggie and building brand recognition. We have a limited pot of cash. Plus, we’re not just marketing our brand, but we’re also developing our growing methods in the background. Every startup is always faced with those two things: how much we spend by letting people know we exist and what we stand for and what we’re spending to make sure we can continue to produce it. That’s always a balancing act.
For us, heaps of people know what spirulina is. They say, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard about that. That’s a sort of pond scum, isn’t it?” Maybe someone in their family had an experience with it. So, a big challenge for us is changing that perception. The way we grow it, we have a better-tasting product, and virtually every one of our consumers says, “Wow, this tastes so good. I’m presently surprised.” So, getting the product in people’s mouths is half the battle because then they’ll go, “This is actually pretty good, and by the way, it’s really good for me.”
We’re up against a pre-judging of spirulina. For us, getting our product out there, and getting people to taste it tends to get them over the line. And for people to realise that in one single serving, that’s just one teaspoon for the average adult, spirulina really delivers the good stuff – a wealth of bioavailable iron, protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants making it one of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet.
What is the biggest entrepreneur lesson you would like to share with other Kiwis thinking of starting their own business?
Take the time early on, as frustrating as it might seem, to think about the long-term. I’ve been involved in strategic planning and advice, but when it’s your own business, you get caught up in what you’re doing and the excitement. Think about the long-term and where you’re trying to get to.
Ultimately, for any business, think about who your customer is and what motivates them. They’re the biggies. Have a clear plan for you, your partners, your stakeholders, and where you want to get to because they are your foundation. The next part is your customer; what do they want? What need of theirs are you servicing? Are you going to be doing it in the way they want and willing to pay for? If you build the foundation, and the consumer is the sky you’re aiming for, you can fill in everything else. Those are your two key factors.