With the Telstra Victorian Young Business Women’s Award and other accolades under her belt, one cannot help but wonder what the secret ingredient is in Linda Monique’s recipe to a winning business.
Being a young entrepreneur and a woman are the flavours that Almo Milk founder Linda Monique finds challenging in cooking up a successful path in the business world. Yet, at 29 years old (during the time of the interview, as she’s turning 30 very soon), Linda is already recognized with the Telstra Victorian Young Business Women’s Award. Overwhelmed by such recognition, she describes her winning moment, “It’s very exciting and I think it’s a privilege. It’s something that we don’t always get recognized as young entrepreneurs for what we do, but it was very special, especially being a woman and winning that award.”
With just a year and a half in operation, her business has already been gaining distinctions left and right. These are the fruits of her deep passion for food and the effort and labour put into it. Over the years, Linda found that she was really talented in spotting food trends, but she never wanted to end up being a chef or to work in hospitality. So, when she came back to Melbourne after working in London, she learned that almond milk was creating a profound change in the dairy and non-dairy industry. Vegan was almost on the rise and paleo diets were becoming very, very popular. With all the amazing almonds grown in Australia, Linda saw the need to create a good quality Australian almond milk.
“All of the almond kinds of milk on supermarket shelves in 2014 were US-based or using imported almonds when, in fact, Australia is growing almonds,” Linda thoughtfully said. “Basically, I just wanted to create a premium quality almond milk, one without additives – oils, sugars, or carrageenan, which is a common additive found in a lot of leading almond milk brands. So, I came up with something that was pure and clean.”
Establishing her own business was her way of quelling her thirst of having a company of her own. Also, Almo Milk’s inception came about because of another challenging factor in Linda’s life: her state of health. “I was empowered to set my own journey in life. I have faced lots of adversaries in the past. I thought it’s now or never to create my own business. Unfortunately, I was quite sick. I have an auto-immune condition and it was really difficult to manage long-term work,” Linda intimated.
She has been suffering from Crohn’s and Colitis, chronic diseases that affect gut health. But not many are aware of these conditions. During the Telstra awarding, she asked the room of about 600 people who knew what those diseases were and only 10 to 20 people put up their hands. She felt the need to speak up and raise awareness about these health issues. Nonetheless, Linda has been doing more than just giving voice to those suffering the same illnesses in silence. She has come up with a product that has become part of the solution to this health problem.
Her own demise pushed her to create a product that was suitable for her body’s needs and palate, and it came in the form of Almo Milk. “I realized that the way in which dairy milk is produced has a lot of environmental as well as, let us say, ecological issues. The health issues surrounding dairy milk and the questionable ways of farming, especially for a lot of new generations and those suffering from lactose intolerance and other immune conditions, drove everyone to look for an alternative milk to dairy. Almond milk was the answer,” explained Linda.
It took her 12 to 14 gruelling months on research and development before she arrived at the perfect consistency for Almo Milk. On the other hand, in just a few months after it was introduced to the market, Almo Milk’s popularity was spilling over three countries as it is supplied in Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore. Moreover, it is the first Australian grown almond milk product supporting 85% of all Australian almond growers, as Linda has partnered with AlmondCo, a quasi-co-operative company that now has over 140 growers under its wings.
However, it was not all milk and honey for Linda as she had to face several difficulties as a startup. One of these obstacles was the limited contract manufacturing in Australia that would fit her product’s needs, in terms of processing and packaging, which was a disappointment for Linda. Her business required a facility that could produce Almo Milk into a long-life product and on a mass-scale basis and she had to go to the ends of the earth to find a manufacturer that suited her requirements to a T. It was in the Middle Earth, in New Zealand, where she found what she was looking for.
“It was very frustrating not to be able to produce this almond milk in Australia, as we’re using Australian-grown almonds. We couldn’t find a manufacturer anywhere in Australia to produce this and we actually had to go to New Zealand to produce the almond milk. It gave us some competitive advantage though, but it was very surprising that Australia didn’t have a manufacturing that could produce a really good quality non-dairy milk because of the lack of resources,” she expressed.
And then there was funding to take care of, which was a vital part of the beginning and expansion of the business. Linda took a contract job in information technology (IT) three months prior to launching the product. Even when she already started Almo Milk, she had to continue that job eight months into the business, juggling two jobs at that time, because it allowed her to fund the entire business by herself. She also found it hard to leave the IT job because she found herself falling in love with the IT world. But Almo Milk was growing and it required her full attention. She was fortunate that her IT job was flexible enough because as soon as her business started getting big, she simply walked away from her job.
Even when she had acquired the funding, the financial risk was huge, given that she was producing 30,000 litres of almond milk. Linda was afraid that things might not go right or products might not sell, which meant that if that had happened, all her investments and effort would be flushed down the drain.
Of course, there’s also the issue of competitors, an ever-present concern for most startups, since going up against the giants in the industry is always a tough battle. On Linda’s assessment, “It is very aggressive in the almond milk industry given my direct competitors are those billion-dollar companies. That’s the really rewarding and special aspect because it was difficult to launch the product. The fact that we did it despite all the barriers to entry were very arduous, it makes it more gratifying.” In some ways, it fuelled her to grow her business and be more persistent and resilient in running her own company.
As she was into the business, there were more challenges to face, such as the need to educate the public about the differences in various almond milk products available in the market and how Almo Milk is the best option. There were some people that didn’t want their product or services but Linda found that it was important to continue to move on and think of other opportunities for the business than dwell on the undesirables.
Amidst all the business frenzy that putting up Almo Milk entailed, Linda has to make sure not to jeopardize her health. Since she has chronic diseases, she has to go to the hospital every two months for ongoing treatment. Because of this, she makes the business work for her and runs it very differently as there are days when it can be very challenging for her. Thus, she describes herself as more of a spontaneous entrepreneur where her day sits around on her priorities, whether she works from her office, her home or overseas. Often, it was starting the week on Mondays spent with a round of golf or a quiet time in a cafe to help her get through the challenging days. For Linda, health is always at the top of the list and she advises those running a business not to take this for granted.
Growing a business is a continuous process and part of that process is committing mistakes along the way, which Linda admits she is not impervious to doing. But Linda quickly learns from her mistakes and she continually improves every facet of her company, from people management to manufacturing to strategy. She found that systems and processes are critical to scaling a business, whether they are CRM systems or accounting systems. The only thing she would have changed if she had to do things all over again, was that she would have committed quicker and sooner to her business and believed in it.
Being an entrepreneur can also become a lonely journey, Linda realised as she was already on this track. On the other hand, she recognised that she can change that part by joining organisations like EO Melbourne. She’s been part of EO Melbourne since January and in almost a year in the organisation, she regards it as her special support network where the mentoring activities help her with cash flow and various aspects of running a business. One particular lesson she picked from those sessions was that as the face of her own business, she had to nurture it because it’s as much as what she puts into her business that really matters.
Other entrepreneurs, through their stories, learnings and insights, have also inspired her to focus on her business and continue to make it grow. A colleague once shared that if he would simply get on the phone and talk to his customers and clients, it could push his sales to 70% more. This reminded Linda how significant it is to connect with her customers, which is why she lives by her business philosophy of “customer first”. So, whenever she receives feedback from them as to how the product has changed people’s lives, she finds it so rewarding.
Indeed, Linda’s determination and hard work are paying off. From day one, when they introduced Almo Milk to the public at the Melbourne International Coffee Expo, it immediately bagged the Product Innovation Award. It was also awarded the 1st place in the New Zealand Pride in Packaging Awards and was a finalist in the Communication Design: Branding and Identity Category of Good Design Australia.
On top of these awards and her recent Telstra recognition, her biggest victory arrived in the last few months when Almo Milk became truly national across every state in Australia. They have distributed in Darwin, Tasmania and a lot of regional towns. With its good intentions, great taste and promising product, the brand continue its upward curve as it expands nationwide and overseas with more than 400 outlets and growing. Also, apart from New Zealand and Singapore, Linda is eyeing Shanghai as another city abroad to enter in the coming months. “We do see that market is growing substantially in Asia given that 90% of Asians are lactose intolerant,” Linda remarked.
Linda has learned how to deal with her challenges, pains and sufferings. She battled it out and never gave up. Her advice to budding entrepreneurs, “Health first, business second. It’s not about money, it’s not just about making it big. It’s also about finding a balance in life.” Recognizing the importance of health and how her product comes into play, Linda continues to nurture her Almo Milk for the many customers who need it the most.