In this Q&A, you’ll hear from Katie Wilson, co-founder & CEO of BelliWelli, maker of gut-friendly snack bars. Katie discusses the stigma associated with serious digestive issues like IBS and how she created her clean-ingredient, functional treats in her family’s kitchen.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on at BelliWelli?
Katie Wilson: BelliWelli offers a functional and healthy snack alternative — the FIRST gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, and certified low-FODMAP bars on the market.
We’re creating a movement around the very common—but rarely talked about—struggles of digestive health, which affects over 70% of US adults.
BelliWelli is leading the charge in the functional food space with ingredient transparency and a product that is safe for anyone to enjoy, including those with digestive issues, autoimmune diseases, and recurring yeast infections, as well as those struggling with weight gain, food allergies or intolerances, chronic fatigue, and more.
How did you come up with the idea? What key insight led you to pursue this opportunity?
KW: In 2016, I began having serious gut issues. I’ll spare you the details, but anything that you could imagine that comes along with having an unhealthy digestive system, I experienced.
I visited doctors and testing centers, and I ate unique diets. If it involved exploratory tubes, scans, or unique vitamins, I’m pretty sure I tried it.
Fed up, I started calling gastroenterologist after gastroenterologist, only to learn that, across the world, gut health-related issues were on the rise in the last eight years.
After being diagnosed with IBS, I discovered Facebook groups dedicated to similar problems that I had — IBS, bloating, food intolerances, and more. But there weren’t any solutions on grocery store shelves that helped combat this sometimes-crippling illness.
When things got low, I found myself complaining to my husband, just wanting to eat one single chocolate chip cookie. Forever an optimist, my husband got to work, enlisting the help of a food scientist and dietitian to create a gut-healthy chocolate chip cookie that I could safely enjoy.
After many batches, we had our first cookie bar.
Elated, we decided to share our cookies with the Facebook groups we had discovered on our journey. We spun up a website, called our product IBSimple, and woke up to hundreds of orders.
How did you turn your idea into a company?
KW: Those sales via Facebook groups—as IBSimple—began in June 2020.
In the first month, we received over 800 orders and ended up having to pull three all-nighters. Luckily, we had lots of help from friends and family to fulfill them all.
This was the moment when we realized this was a product that really resonated with a large group of people, so we decided to run the business out of our home. We invested all our savings into packaging, ingredients, and market research. I was still working full-time, and my husband watched our baby during the day.
We bought shelving and ingredient containers and converted our single-oven kitchen into something as close to a commercial kitchen as we could. We would package all of the bars into heat-sealed wrappers, pack all the boxes, get the labels printed, and, then ship them via UPS.
We ended up doing around $50K in sales within the first five months, with most of the orders coming from our Facebook community, word of mouth, and Instagram.
We wanted to raise money to launch officially with a manufacturer, and in August 2020, we got our first investment with participation from three of my old coworkers at Match.com.
We officially rebranded and launched under the name BelliWelli on March 26th, 2021 (right around the birth of my daughter). Since its launch almost a year ago, we’ve had 30% sustained growth month over month, raised another $2.5M dollars, and expanded both digital retail and brick-and-mortar presence.
How big can this get? What’s the addressable market and how do you go about capturing it?
KW: 70% of adults suffer from gut issues, and the functional food market is currently a $280B market.
What sets BelliWelli’s product apart from its competitors in this space is that—aside from the benefits to your gut—it is certified low-FODMAP and made entirely of clean ingredients.
A majority of the bars or cookies found in the grocery aisles only focus on things such as protein or energy and don’t take into account the artificial or unnatural ingredients that tend to cause a lot of individuals’ gut issues (like bloating) in the first place.
Something we’re proud of, this year, BelliWelli launched a nationwide “Hot Girls Have IBS” billboard campaign in LA, New York City, Portland, and Orange County. Its goal is to bring awareness to IBS and gut issues by generating public attention and driving conversation around the chronic health issues — and it has gone viral on social media with over 3M views and had celebrities posting it organically.
The campaign has led to an over 40% increase in sales and doubled customer count in just a few months.
Who is the core customer? How are you acquiring customers? And how will you grow the customer base?
KW: BelliWelli is made for anyone looking to improve or manage a healthy and happy gut. It is completely free from gut irritants and alcohol sugars, so there are very few restrictions for those with intolerances or sensitivities.
Looking at your road map, what are some of the milestones you’re targeting over the next 3-6 months?
KW: BelliWelli has plans to launch into key national retail accounts that will help further awareness of the brand and widen our audience reach. We will also be launching new seasonal flavors and have some fun celebrity collaborations in the works.
Our main goal is to exceed $5M in revenue by 2023!
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