When Ali Lazowski, CEO and founder of Bare Life, was in college at John Hopkins University, she knew something wasn’t right.
She doubled over in pain when she ate. She weighed 250 pounds, about 100 pounds more than she weighs now. She never felt well. First, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Later, after seeing a rotation of specialists, Lazowski was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Hashimoto’s disease, Lyme Disease and a host of co-infections. For five years, Lazowski says she had a fever every day. “It was horrendous,” Lazowski says. “It created a base level of pain and inflammation in my body.”
It also didn’t help that Lazowski, who saw traditional medical experts on the East Coast and at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and homeopathic doctors, had got bitten by “the world class tick with everything.” That caused other infections to persist in her body and cause more damage.
It took years for Lazowski to piece everything together. In addition to surgery and medication, what Lazowski ate had a major impact. “Food became such a huge part of it,” she says. “With IBS and everything, that would control how we could treat something else. It was a puzzle weaving everything together, but at the root of it was what I was putting in my body.”
Lazowski was told to give up gluten, dairy and refined sugars. She cleaned up her diet, but still struggled with her sweet tooth and constantly being cold. She started making hot chocolate brewed with coconut milk. While attending support groups for people with cancer and Lyme Disease, Lazowski always brought a thermos of her hot chocolate to share. “When they remove your thyroid, you have trouble regulating your body temperature,” she says. “Other people were having similar reactions and kept asking me where they could buy my hot chocolate.”
Lazowski knew she had a good business idea. In 2017, she crowdfunded $9,467 of the $55,000 she requested on Indiegogo to make an organic, dairy- and gluten-free hot cocoa. It helped Lazowski launch Bare Life, an allergen-friendly food brand in West Hartford, Connecticut, in September 2018.
Here’s how Lazowski turned her recovery from cancer and chronic illness into a business that now sells on QVC, Amazon and Whole Foods Market.
How did crowdfunding help you scale?
Ali Lazowski: I was literally mixing the hot chocolate in my kitchen for myself and friends when we started. The crowdfunding campaign really helped us scale because we had orders and funding. So we were able to jump all the way from my kitchen, which is, you know, you can't run a business from.
How did you come up with your packaging?
AL: I designed the packaging myself. A lot of this is trying to bootstrap it. I did a lot of reading and grocery-aisle looking and was inspired by them.
Because I’m such a label reader, I want to know really quickly what is in something and if it’s gluten-free and dairy-free. I know what I want on a label. So I wanted to put that on our packaging. I don’t want to have to guess. I love foods that you can use it for other things. I love recipes. That clarity helped with what I wanted to do with our packaging.
How are you able to source organic ingredients, like vanilla, especially during the pandemic?
AL: It has definitely been challenging. Everything has been slowed down. But we thankfully have some really good partners we’ve worked with for a couple of years. And we’ve vetted backup suppliers. That was a big thing I learned from some mentors I had early on. When I said I had a supplier, they said, 'great, you really need three.' With the vanilla, we don’t use flavoring. We use pure ground vanilla. That was something different on the market; there was less competition for it since many companies use vanilla flavoring or natural flavorings.
Are there certain buzzwords that have helped you sell Bare Life Coconut Hot Cocoa Mix?
AL: Being plant-based is one of the biggest, even more so than vegan. But that’s also really important. Overall, I think clean ingredients and the simplicity of our ingredients. People don’t want all the random junk in their products. And being able to say, ‘You just have to add water’ for a grab-and-go and it’s not a multi-step process. It’s very simple and that appeals to people.
How has QVC impacted your business?
AL: QVC has completely changed our business. It’s just been like a rocket ship. They’ve been supportive and the amount of awareness we’ve gotten has been the most wonderful thing. They’ve given us tools to help us grow. We’re up 300%overall from last year in sales. I’m now looking at adding more product lines to our collection.
What were you doing before QVC?
AL: We were on Amazon first, but only for about five months before QVC, so we were building our presence. Everything helps each other. Some of the local outlets have featured us and that’s helped with awareness. Also seeing feedback from people is super important.
One of the best things we’ve done is our social media presence on Instagram. We’ve spent a lot of time cultivating Bear Ambassadors, microinfluencers with people who like to eat cleanly and naturally and have been champions for the product.
How many brand ambassadors do you have now?
AL: We have 25 right now and growing. Isabel Albin, who is our assistant social media and brand communications coordinator and also runs Isabelle’s Plate on Instagram, has helped so much. She is an influencer herself and I put her in charge of our social media.
It was the most genius thing I did because she’s amazing and connects with a community of microinfluencers herself and gets people to try our product. And then other people have reached out to us when they’ve seen our work with other microinfluencers and its grown from there.
How did you get connected with Diane Rubizhevsky, the food broker who works with QVC?
AL: Diane found us at a vegan expo, that was more like a farmers’ market, the New Jersey VegFest Asbury Park Vegan Pop-up Shop in February 2020. It was right before things got really wild with COVID.
I had mostly done stuff in Connecticut, mostly in the New England area, and it was our first time doing an event in the New York-New Jersey area. I had no idea what to expect and it was crazy-packed. So many people. So many samples. It was a fantastic day.
I remember doing our, ‘It’s dairy-free, it’s gluten-free, just add water, it’s vegan' pitch and Diane came up behind the booth and said, ‘I want you to know my name is Diane and let me tell you what I think we can do.’ I was totally shocked.
What tips do you have for working with QVC?
AL: Diane has really helped us navigate. But if you have questions don’t be afraid to reach out and ask them. QVC has such a robust team and everyone has their own areas of expertise and you can go to them and say, ‘What do you think about this?’ Or 'Is this an option?’
You’ve been on QVC twice. What was the biggest challenge?
AL: Our biggest challenge was restocking in time. Our recipes make it so you can use it all year round, but the primary hot chocolate season is December. We had shipping delays and production delays that really slowed everything down. But QVC was flexible and supportive with us. I’ve learned that you have to be on top of the supply chain and ask: ‘Are you really shipping them? You’re telling me you’re shipping them, but has it shipped and where is it?’ And then go to your backups and see.
Our supply chain is a work in progress for us. If you just sit there are and are like, they told me it’s going to be here next week, especially where it is right now, odds are you’re not going to get it. It’s a very active process.
Can you share an example?
AL: One of our ingredients, a coconut milk powder, got stuck in China. I was getting told it was shipped but I had this feeling they weren’t sending it because they weren’t sending tracking information. I speak Mandurian. So I was on the phone, on Skype, on WeChat for a solid week.
This was a couple of weeks before we were going to be on QVC in October. I was up all night, asking, where is this? It turned out they hadn’t even shipped. Turns out the documents I got were forged. I had to get someone else to go in and get it and actually put it on a shipment. We didn’t end up getting the ingredient until two weeks before we were supposed to be on air.
It was a real crunch. We get the coconut milk powder from a farm in Vietnam. But we’ve found there has been a global shortage of coconuts due to COVID. They had some in a warehouse waiting to be shipped in China. They apparently decided to use a new freight forwarder and that’s where all the trouble started. I’m proud I stayed on top of it and got to use my Mandurian skills.
What business tips do you have for other natural food brands?
AL: I have a very entrepreneurial family. A lot of my family members run their own business, so I’ve had an entrepreneurial boot camp at the dinner table since I was like four. I was always encouraged to throw out solutions to ideas.
I joined the reset Impact Accelerator program out of Hartford, Connecticut, in 2018. They help grow startups and businesses with a social focus. It’s not just tech-based but open to consumer products and services. It has a roadmap and does product samples at the end with its expo to get feedback.
As a solo entrepreneur, I didn’t ask questions. This helped me push out of that and ask for feedback, ask for questions and help. I also was mentored by the Small Business Administration and have a small business advisor.