Ask Max Wittrock, co-founder of mymuesli, for the secret of his success and he’ll give you a simple answer: come up with a product that has a clear USP. With this motto, the muesli mixers from Passau, Germany, are now even conquering the national supermarket shelves.
The table tennis table in the Berlin office is less a sign of a laid-back start-up culture than a clever way of resolving two issues at once: “We really do have meetings at the table, and that saves space,” says Max Wittrock, smiling as he picks up a bat. “And table tennis, of course, is pretty good at clearing the mind.” The office, located in a courtyard in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, is where the company plans and markets the products to be mixed at its Passau headquarters, home to the world’s first muesli mixing machine. The student start-up founded in 2007 by Wittrock, together with his college friends Hubertus Bessau and Philipp Kraiss, has long since become a medium-sized business.
DIGTATOR: You mixed your first mueslis in the kitchen of your shared flat. How did make it from there into Europe’s supermarkets? mymuesli
MAX WITTROCK: After opening our first store in Passau in 2009, which, after a few refinements, performed very well,
mymuesli “went offline” in 2012. In “Temma” in Cologne, a cross between a large food mart and mom-and-pop store, we had the opportunity to test how our muesli would perform in supermarkets. Today you’ll find mymuesli in many supermarkets in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Was that a difficult journey?
The challenge for us was finding the best way to position a brand offline that, up to that point, had only had to work online. How do you make the transition from a website to a multi-channel provider? Mymuesli has, of course, changed in the process from “Your individual organic muesli” to “Your favorite muesli.” Regardless of whether you choose your own mixes, whether we mix it for you, or whether you shop online or offline: we offer you a huge range, always made using natural ingredients that are as functional as possible. And with a dash of awesomeness. Never just any old standard product.
Back at the beginning, and with more or less no start-up capital …
… with exactly 3,500 euros (laughs) …
… you tried to scale a digital business model. How difficult was that?
When we started up eight years ago, or about 100 years ago in online terms, the digital world was more manageable.
Facebook was still very small. And Twitter? Did Twitter even exist back then? In any case, if you had something to say, you wrote it in a blog. And many of these bloggers found the idea of mymuesli amusing, quirky, or both. So alongside classic media, whose PR was a great driver for our success right from the beginning, we got a lot of attention in the blogosphere. That helped us enormously in reaching our first plateau.
It was, however, particularly important to have a clear unique selling point: the world’s first organic muesli mix that you can put together yourself online. People can dream up all sorts of great campaigns, but with no budget it would be pretty difficult to get anywhere with a bad and unclear USP.
How did your marketing look after this initial success?
We could of course talk about that for hours, but I’ll try to be brief: our idea was, and still is, to test different channels with small budgets and then to invest more in the channels that work. That sounds mundane, but it’s a pretty important point for us. Furthermore, we love campaigns whose effectiveness we can measure well. Over the last few years, Hubertus has worked really hard with the marketing team to constantly improve our testing and measurement processes.
What does that mean in practice?
For example, we don’t really like sticking adverts on the sides of buses, or doing other things with a high degree of waste coverage. That may work very well for other companies, but we prefer to focus on online marketing, whether it’s on Facebook or by email with our newsletter. We can observe and measure our performance in each of these channels very accurately. It’s simply a lot easier to do that with a newsletter than with an advert on a bus.
As we don’t have any venture capital and have to manage on our cash flow, it is essential for us to work profitably at all times. If a certain measure works well – for instance, if a Facebook ad produces good results – then we can increase the budget for that. The more you work in small steps, the better you’re able to plan your budget. But the riskier it is that, well, the steps you’re working in are too small.
“Our most important marketing instrument is word-of-mouth marketing”
You mean that you loose sight of the big picture beyond these refinements?
Exactly. Whether my ads are seen by just five people, or whether I send every Munich suburb its own map of directions to our mymuesli store on Viktualienmarkt in the center of the city, the measure could well be an effective one. But I’d be putting in too much work to get there. It’s all about finding the right balance. There are two points here that are vital for us. Firstly, our most important marketing instrument is word-of-mouth marketing, in other words recommendations from one person to another. Secondly, we pay a lot of attention to our brand. The brand comes first, before everything else. That means we have to be particularly choosy about selecting the right marketing channels. I wouldn’t want to give away mymuesli ice scrapers, even if I could measure its performance really well – because it would probably scrape a mymuesli logo in every single windscreen. Although that would actually be a pretty good idea.
Have you not received any criticism that mymuesli’s premium brand may become ordinary next to the raisins on the supermarket shelf?
No. Firstly, we’re not taking anything away from our customers. Just like before, customers can choose to order online only, to purchase products in one of our stores, or to buy them at the supermarket. And many customers frequently switch between channels depending on what is most convenient at any given time. We want to make it easier for everyone, plain and simple. But mymuesli should of course be presented and sold at supermarkets in a reasonable way. Here, we had to minimize the loss of control you experience when you no longer sell your own products directly.
How do you manage that without hundreds of “secret shoppers”?
By developing a system that guarantees that our products are always presented in the way we want them to be. The work on how customers see your brand no longer comes from you directly, but indirectly instead. It’s only natural that every food brand wants to retain some control here. And retailers, on the other hand, also have their own interests in mind, even if it’s just customer foot traffic patterns in the store. But we were able to demonstrate that our ideas and shelf layouts work really well and lead to an increase in sales. With mymuesli, for example, product selection is very important – as you know, we have a huge range.
And the powerful supermarkets understood those ideas and put them into practice?
Yes, our dialog with the supermarkets works well because we can prove that working on presentation can really pay, and that customers are happier and buy more when they can choose from a wider selection of products that is logically structured. Of course, we didn’t invent the supermarket, so it’s a question of combining the store managers’ experience with our own. Together, our learning curve has been pretty steep.
There is one disadvantage of having round tins, though: there are countless ways you can put them back onto the shelf! I think the first thing every mymuesli team member does at the supermarket is to meticulously turn around our tins so the logo is facing outwards (laughs).
Is there ever a clash of cultures – start-up versus supermarket?
At the beginning they introduced us to a lot of terminology. I’d never heard of terms like shelf maintenance, but that’s simply a part of retail marketing. Just like every brand, we have always tried to make improvements from the very beginning, together with building up a classic sales structure with office and field staff.
Have any other manufacturers tried to force you out of the market?
We can all co-exist pretty well, and I don’t believe we’re damaging anyone else’s sales. The other muesli products are priced completely differently and have a different philosophy to ours. Our matcha muesli, for instance, is positioned in its own price segment and represents a completely new product concept. Those who buy it won’t necessarily buy less muesli from the discount store as a result. And innovations don’t tend to damage business. For example, right now Tesla isn’t really causing BMW any harm; in fact, they actually seem to be getting BMW and other manufacturers to construct great electric cars themselves.
So is mymuesli perhaps the Tesla of the muesli world?
(laughs) I’d really like to read that headline in a few years. But for someone to write it with a clear conscience, we’d probably have to grow a little bit more. And go public.
“If 500 people email us every month asking for peach muesli, then we know it would probably be a good idea.”
How do you keep your products innovative? How do you develop new ideas?
In many different ways. Philipp, who takes care of purchasing, gets to see a lot – new ingredients on the market, for example. Furthermore, he keeps an eye on many different segments of the food industry, which in turn provides us with new ideas. Our product manager Anne has lots of ideas for new creations, too. And then, of course, there’s our customers: if, for example, 500 people email us every month asking for peach muesli, then we know it would probably be a good idea.
But how do you go on to choose which product or which idea to put on the market?
It would be more difficult if we only sold our products in supermarkets. But online, we can test out a new muesli using beta packaging – not the normal, elaborately made tin, but perhaps one with just a label on it. And if people like it, then we might go on to sell it in the mymuesli store. But sometimes we just know: this is going to work.
What’s next for your start-up?
We want to improve and try out new things. For instance, we’ve long had our eyes on the office segment, as people tend to eat a lot of junk at work. So Hubertus came up with the idea of a muesli board: a large, really stylish white wooden board with round holes. You can fill it up again and again with our
mymuesli2go cups. For the last few years, our range has also included tea, coffee, and oranges for juicing. So there’s a lot to do.
Just one more question: Do you and your colleagues eat muesli every day at the office?
I can say for sure that the three founders have been eating muesli every day for the last eight years. And our employees, of course, all eat muesli as well. Sausage sandwiches will explode if they’re brought into the building.
Text: Friedemann Karig
Foto: Viktor Strasse
Translation: Toby Skingsley