Entrepreneur Shelley Gupta on Startup Funding, Pitching, and Mentorship

Shelley GuptaShelley Gupta is the Founder and CEO of BāKIT Box, a subscription-service baking company offering culturally diverse recipes through baking kits with pre-measured ingredients brimming with global flavors. Shelley conceived the idea during the pandemic after realizing a gap in baking options. She began experimenting with no-fuss baking ingredients while maintaining her corporate career in marketing. Today, BāKIT is available nationwide, creating delectable cultural baking experiences for households, with features in the Chicago Tribune, Bake Magazine, and CNET.

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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Shelley Gupta discusses BāKIT Box and the inspiration behind the brand
  • The evolution of BāKIT Box since its inception in 2020
  • Lessons learned while growing a new business
  • Startup funding options and learning the art of pitching
  • What is the importance of having mentors as an entrepreneur?
  • Learning how to pivot in business
  • How diversity impacts entrepreneurial opportunities
  • Shelley shares what inspires her creativity
  • The future of BāKIT

In this episode…

Do you have an innovative business concept you want to realize? Embarking on an entrepreneurial venture could help you do so. However, the journey can seem intimidating and overwhelming for innovators uninformed about where to begin.

CPG entrepreneur Shelley Gupta explains that besides having a business plan, entrepreneurs should secure funding for startup costs. Joining early-stage funding organizations and entering pitch and award-based competitions are some ways to navigate the arduous process of searching for investors. Shelley highly recommends practicing your pitch with a network of supporters to make pitching experiences increasingly comfortable. Pitching opportunities can be as short as one to two minutes, meaning that your elevator pitch should include necessary facts and your concept’s market potential. Additionally, Shelley explains it is helpful to research judges involved in entered competitions to learn the criteria they prioritize. Above all, obtain a mentor. Entrepreneurship, on its demanding side, can be lonely and stressful. A reputable mentor listens to your concerns, gives honest feedback, and allows you to be vulnerable and transparent about challenging experiences.

In this episode of the CPG Troublemakers, Aalap Shah interviews Shelley Gupta, Founder and CEO of BāKIT Box, about startup advice for inexperienced entrepreneurs. Shelley discusses the lessons she learned as a new business owner, startup funding options, the art of pitching, and why it is essential for entrepreneurs to have mentors.

Resources Mentioned in this episode

This episode is brought to you by 1o8 Agency. At 1o8 Agency, we are a holistic digital marketing agency that cultivates brand growth through creativity and innovation. We jump right in to create solutions with measurable marketing intelligence. 

The result? Our clients see increased engagement and increased e-commerce traffic, which equals more sales and profitability for our clients.

Episode Transcript

Intro  0:01 

Welcome to the CPG Troublemakers, the place where brands and makers, food and beverage nerds, and investors all gather to cause a little bit of mischief. We welcome industry leaders, whitespace thinkers, and channel partners to come together to turn problems into opportunities, or, at the very least, have a little fun along the way.

Aalap Shah  0:26  

Hi, everyone, I’m Aalap. I’m the Founder of 1o8 and the host of today’s CPG Troublemakers podcast, welcoming Shelley Gupta, who is the Founder and CEO of BāKIT Box, a Chicago-based subscription baking company founded in 2020. Their kits offer customers a selection of culturally diverse recipes and deliver pre-measured ingredients straight to your door. Welcome to the show, Shelley,

Shelley Gupta  0:46 

Thank you so much for having me.

Aalap Shah  0:48  

I’m excited to have you on and learn a little bit more because I love this category. And my kids and I have had a ton of fun working with your products for about two to three years now, ever since I met you.

Shelley Gupta  1:00  

Yeah. Awesome. Thank you.

Aalap Shah  1:02 

Well, so tell us a little bit about your business.

Shelley Gupta  1:03  

Sure. So, it started off truly as a kind of like a pandemic project. To be honest, I have always loved to be creative in the kitchen. And naturally, I took up baking along with everyone else in 2020. But something that really stood out to me was that there really aren’t baking solutions on the market. There’s a lot of cooking solutions. But when it comes to baking, you’re like, truly on your own. And so that’s kind of how the concept started. In addition to really being on your own, I just noticed that there’s very little, if not no diversity in the baking category today. So BāKIT Box was really born with those two ideas, you know, at the forefront of bringing diversity to baking, and giving people a solution to learn how to bake from scratch. So today, we offer a bunch of different recipes. And we’re really focused on all of our recipes being inspired by different countries from around the world, and introducing you to not only those flavors, but also to some really fun kind of educational components about those regions about those flavors and the recipes.

Aalap Shah  2:12  

Awesome. I mean, I love kind of seeing the education that you provide the inspiration and you’re right about the diversity too. It’s it’s really nice to see something that’s so genuinely authentic and interesting, right, and a great activity for people of all ages to participate in. Tell me a little bit about the evolution because I know when you first started, you would actually even give folks that ordered actual eggs and raw materials. Tell me a little bit about how you’ve evolved your product since 2020.

Shelley Gupta  2:43 

Yeah, oh my gosh, that felt like forever ago, and it wasn’t that long ago. So we started off to your point, like we really wanted, my goal was to be a solution for baking. So that included giving everyone the all the pre measured ingredients, including the perishable items, I really, really wanted to make that work and try to try to incorporate the perishable items because you know, sometimes when you want to bake something, and you’re you’re ready to start in that moment, and you don’t have enough butter or milk or eggs in your fridge, we really wanted to make sure that we were being all inclusive. So we did, we started off with milk products, butter products, any dairy produce. We even had the eggs, which was a very, very quick lesson to learn that that’s not going to happen. When we when we first launched the business, we were just shipping and delivering through Chicagoland. So it was feasible. But as soon as we grew outside of Chicagoland, those eggs, were never going to survive any shipping. So we had to sadly start rethinking the perishability and the whether or not we are going to continue to be kind of a cold, a cold chain company. So over time that did evolve. We also a big piece of that was you know, just talking to our customers and understanding like where’s the value here. And we learned that although having all the perishable items was awesome, and it was a nice value, it was more convenient for them to have something shelf stable that may sit on their porch for a day or two before they’re ready to open the box. Or you know, if they forget to pop it in the fridge. You know, it ends up being spoiled. So we learned very quickly that that wasn’t as important to them as the convenience factor. So over the last over the first couple years we we move towards a shelf stable product, which we are today.

Aalap Shah  4:33  

I’ve always really admired how much you use customer feedback in all your innovations and your website and how like your brand has evolved. Talk to me a little bit about that expansion out of Chicagoland and the Midwest, international, like what kind of challenges did you encounter and and why did you move to that platform?

Shelley Gupta  4:50  

um, when we started Chicagoland it was really, I mean, we were just getting in business. So it was kind of a test for us to see what the more It was saying and to your point, you know, listening to our customers, I remember my first delivery was me in a rental car, knocking on people’s doors because we didn’t even have a delivery platform or, or I had no idea even how to set that up yet. So when we started to expand, it was really, it was one to like, you know, gather more data and try to grow the business and market outside of the Chicagoland area. And also to kind of challenge ourselves a bit like, let’s get a national delivery platform or delivery partner on board. Let’s see if there are pockets of the country that are doing better than others. And it was it was really a learning, learning environment for us. And naturally, kind of helped us get things in place that were needed for us to be able to grow anyway.

Aalap Shah  5:44  

I love hearing that. I love hearing that. And I think it’s it’s great to see that evolution and how you’ve grown. I’m sure you’ve encountered some challenges along the way. What are what are some pivotal pivots that you’ve had to make throughout your journey from 2020 to now approaching? 2024?

Shelley Gupta  6:00  

Oh, man! So many. So the first one, I kind of mentioned it, but the perishability was a big challenge. The eggs were one thing. I mean, that was, as I mentioned very easily lesson to learn, when it just there’s no great way to package eggs for shipping. But the we were still providing perishable items for a good year or a year and a half, maybe? I don’t remember exactly. But for us the challenge was, as we all know, the temperatures are rising. And we had one of the hottest summers. And was it just last year 2022. And, yeah, and so there was a week or so in particular, that was like, the whole country was like over 100 degrees, I’m sure, much hotter in some areas. But we were really struggling with how we were going to keep our perishable items cool. And although you can test test test with ice packs, and cold packs, and all that stuff, you just cannot account for the rising temperatures and the, you know, unexpected changes that happen. In addition, I remember the exact week that we were testing this UPS had a staff shortage, and they were not picking up every day. And we just it was quite a nightmare for us. A ton of packages were left not picked up out in the heat. And then a lot of them were not delivered or sitting out and many, many, many customers were receiving, like imagine like literally liquid butter and curdled milk, it was horrible. And so you know, you have to make really quick decisions, I refunded everyone I reset packages out, you just do a lot of damage control in the moment, but the bigger strategic area was okay, let’s go back to the drawing board on perishability. And we ended up making the decision after going through the customer discovery and learning kind of what I mentioned that that wasn’t as important to our customer, we took a few months to redesign and we got rid of we got rid of the perishability. And we actually added in a different kind of like an alternative to our, to our dairy products at the time. That was probably one of the biggest pivots that was only last summer. Wow.

Aalap Shah  8:11 

I mean, that’s, it’s pretty cool to to not only be able to survive that challenge, sleep through, like get any sort of rest, right. And then think about the future and how you change. And I feel like that that pivotal moment, I’m really helped you think about how you move forward, right and your evolution in the product today. Talk to me a little bit about I mean, one of the things that I know about you and your team is that you’re extraordinary at fundraising and and really taking the stage right to advocate for your product, for your innovation for your brand. Tell me about some of the success that you’ve seen there in raising money for this venture.

Shelley Gupta  8:49  

Yeah, thank you. I appreciate that. Um, so raising money is always hard. And you know, we’re in an environment that’s extremely challenging right now. So I’m very, very lucky to have had some kind of early believers in the brand. I started. I guess the first thing I was doing for funding, though, was pitch competitions. Anywhere that was like award based opportunities I was applying for and still am. So that’s kind of the first place I started. The first funding that we got was through Chicagoland through tech rise in Chicago, where it was all virtual, because it was still mid 2021. And we won, I believe it was 20,000 competing against four or five other companies. And it was the most amazing feeling in the world, that someone someone believed in this concept. And I think that was really a driving factor for me to keep going and to keep advocating for the brand. Over the next year or so I brought on some angel investors that are really now advisors and partners and people I really lean on to help make business decisions. Very

Aalap Shah  9:59 

cool. I mean, it’s because I have the opportunity to talk and I know you do with other startup founders and CPG innovators like this is a really, really hard, not only hard conversations in this economic environment that we have in 2023, but even post pandemic, right, like, it was just such a challenge, like, how did you even think to, to go that route of the pitch slams in the in the business plan competitions? Talk to me a little bit about more of how you hit upon that idea?

Shelley Gupta  10:30  

That’s a good question. I don’t really remember. I think, yeah, it’s but it does, it feels like so long ago, to be honest. I, you know, something that I truly still do to this day is just talking to everyone. I have a lot of founder friends, people like yourself, and many other, you know, individuals that are trying to build something in this environment. And so you just, you know, you, you learn along the way that there are these opportunities, I was never in the startup world. So I wasn’t familiar with these organizations that exist that are opportunities for potential funding, or, you know, services or something that kind of helped you get started. I, our first incubator, I guess I’d call it that we joined. It’s called The Hatchery. And that was kind of the first stepping stone to learning about some of the opportunities that do exist in Chicago. So I don’t remember exactly how it came up. But you just, you know, I would suggest for anybody listening, like join those organizations that are around you, that are focused on startup and early stage, founders, because that’s where you learn about whether there are opportunities for that kind of stuff. I’m signed up for our every newsletter that might announce a pitch competition or an award based, you know, opportunity to apply for funding.

Aalap Shah  11:49  

And I don’t want to make it more competitive for you. But are there any kind of points that you think folks like I should know, as we think about those competitions? Because it’s, it’s overwhelming, right? I was just at one such pitch slam at Expo East a couple of weeks ago. Like you see, I mean, those founders pour their heart out in those pitches, right. And it’s, it’s very competitive. Any kind of tips or tricks or learnings that you have, from, from those experiences that you can share?

Shelley Gupta  12:21  

So, I think a big a big part of is just make sure you’re practicing. And you’re, you know, a pitch is sometimes there as short as you know, a minute or two, and you only have that much time with someone. So really, really, really practice and ensure that you are hitting the most important factors, learn who the judges are, find out if there is some sort of criteria or something that they’re looking for. And you don’t always get that. But just sometimes the story you want to tell isn’t what’s going to make the decision. Like sometimes it’s just the facts, or the market potential or the traction, like, it’s making sure you’re hitting on all those points and practice because they see people in the industry. Don’t take that for granted. Use use your network to make sure you get it right.

Aalap Shah  13:07  

I love that advice. And in that same vein, talk to him about mentors. I know both you and I really have a great network and folks that we turn to what are some of your experience shares on founders, having mentors and and having that conversation? What are some tips and best practices that you’ve found that you can share?

Shelley Gupta  13:26  

Oh, it’s so important. It’s like definitely so important to have mentors and people around you that you can be truly be open and honest with about what’s going on in the business. Being a founder, all of you know this firsthand. It’s hard, and it’s lonely. And you don’t always feel like you have an advocate next to you. So mentors, and, you know, people in the industry, or people that just are familiar somewhat with your business is so so important. I think a big tip is I learned this kind of from my Tech Stars group was mask off, like you got to be able to take the mask off, be fully fully vulnerable and transparent about what’s going on and the challenges that you’re facing. Because you really won’t get real feedback if you’re still kind of putting on a little bit of a show. And we all have to do that as founders a lot of the time but find people that you can truly trust and who will be open and honest with you too and give you real feedback.

Aalap Shah  14:22 

That is so such awesome advice. I love that mask off to it’s just so important to be real honest, transparent, authentic, right like an ask the questions that you really want to ask without fear or hesitation. That’s what I’ve learned to alongside with your tips. So you know, I’ve had a front row seat to seeing how your brand has evolved since I first met you. I still remember when you call me and the summer of 2021 or 2022. Your product was different on your website infrastructure was different. How has this pivot to a I’ve been really focused on and I love the diversity and experience that you bring to the table with this evolution. How did you come up with this? And I know we covered it maybe a little bit earlier on, but talk to me about the success or some of the learnings you have from this transition into, or this evolution as your subscription business here.

Shelley Gupta  15:11  

for sure. So, um, as I kind of mentioned, we’ve obviously pivoted a couple times, but most recently, it it kind of came from stepping back a little bit and being very thoughtful around, what am I doing? What am I building, I went through TechStars last summer, and that was kind of a stepping stone for this, because they definitely make you do a lot of reflection on, you know, your core product and like, what is your solution? What exactly is the value that you’re providing customers and in doing so, it also triggered a lot of customer interviews, discovery, just getting in front of the customer, or getting in front of even potential customers, and asking all those questions that, you know, you want to know, I, as a founder, I have an idea of, you know, what my customer wants and who they are, but it evolves over time, and you need to keep talking to them, and really learning. So that’s kind of what happened last summer. And so summer of 2022. And onwards into the fall, we were doing a lot of customer discovery. And we, we learned that majority, it was like 70 plus 70% plus, of our customers were parents. And we were finding that the value in the box was really to create family time and create those bonding moments that, you know, you don’t have that often these days, you know, we live in this like crazy world where kids are growing up so differently than, you know, my generation or your generation. And you know, having those moments of sitting with your grandma, your mom or whoever in the kitchen, and baking don’t happen as much as they did when we were younger. So our customers were very vulnerable with us too. And they shared that the reason why they chose bake it box for you know, whatever day that they were planning to do, it was mostly a majority of the time was for trying to connect with a family member. And very often it was a kid and one of their their children, nieces, nephews, something like that. So that really triggered something in our team to kind of dive a little deeper into and see if we could provide more value for that customer base. And through a lot more interviews and a lot more prototyping, we decided to kind of shift direction slightly and really focus on family focus on kids between the ages of kind of like three to 15. But there’s a bit of a sweet spot around like six to 12, where it’s not only a fun activity, but in between the, you know, actual baking, there’s some knowledge, there’s some education, there’s some fun activities and games around the country that’s being represented and turning it into more of a full cultural family experience. And I’m really happy that we got a chance to talk to people about it and really hear about like, what are you know, what are you lacking in, in your, you know, in that in the activity side of things in the household? Like what are what are you looking for some of the feedback we also found was just around, you know, baking projects, you might be used to doing baking projects. So how can we enhance that experience for you and teach you a little bit more about this unique recipe that you potentially never made before. So it was a very, very, very long process, it took probably about nine months or so to from ID from the idea to get it truly live and on the website and all of our new we did new packaging, new branding, new website, as you know, all of that launched on July 1 of 2023.

Aalap Shah  18:55 

What I think is super cool is that, you know, as entrepreneurs, we rarely we start with an idea right? And we see it grow and evolve and you are so open to shaping those ideas to the feedback that you get and and that can be rare in entrepreneurial journeys. Talk to me a little bit about that because I know some entrepreneurs out there are really hesitant to make such a big change. And, and will continue to pursue the idea at all costs. Any tips or advice on how to think about changes or big changes like this in terms of consumer segmentation, branding, all that good stuff. Whatever I’m trying to get to is that entrepreneurs have that sunk cost mentality right? I’ve already spent X amount of dollars on on building my brand like this and to change it. If you are admitting or you’re being vulnerable, right to not only investors and colleagues and but also to your consumer. So I have such great admiration for the transformation you’ve gone through. What are some ways that entrepreneurs can kind of cope and manage through that?

Shelley Gupta  20:04  

It’s hard. So, like, I completely can resonate with the founders that also have a hard time with that. Because when you have an idea, and you fall in love with your own concept, you know, you just you do everything in your power to make it work. But I think a huge skill of being an entrepreneur is that, you know, the markets not necessarily going to be the perfect fit for your idea. Sometimes, like, you need to shift and adapt and, and to what the market saying, in addition to continuing to follow your passion, it’s kind of like a blurred line of like, how do you how do you do both those things. And for me, the the transition for all all of these pivots that I mentioned, were, were difficult decisions, because you feel so passionate, and so confident about that, whatever that idea was, at first, you know, for example, the perishability, I, I, I wanted that I wanted that to work. But you, if you don’t adapt, you’re just you’re I don’t think you’re gonna get anywhere, unfortunately. And so, in terms of tips, I think for me, the way I helped myself, I guess, process those changes was really kind of stepping back and thinking like, what is my bigger picture? What is the purpose of me wanting to build this brand, because I could be very narrow, focused and say, this particular product is what I’m selling it if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Or I can think about it a little bit bigger. For me, it’s the bigger picture as cultural diversity in baking and educational kind of family time. And we want to bring all those things together. Can I do that without eggs and butter and milk? Yeah, I can do that. It may not be what I wanted at the time, but you pivot based on what people are looking for, and what’s solving the ultimate problem that your product is supposed to solve. So it’s really hard. I mean, when I shifted towards more family oriented products, it was a hard decision to close the door on other markets and other segments, knowing that, you know, the young professional, potentially, a young adult that doesn’t have kids or young adult, that’s not necessarily trying to spend time with the children for this product, I might be closing a door to those people, and they may not want to purchase thinking that it’s more of a kid’s brand, I had to just be accepting of that. And that’s really, really, really hard to do. But again, you just got to think about bigger picture, what do you what are you trying to solve for and if you can still do that and feel confident in your, in your brand and your idea in what you’re passionate about, then I think you’re on the right track.

Aalap Shah  22:39 

What awesome advice. And it makes me think too, about our backgrounds, right, as minorities like, how has that played a role as you build a business, any opportunities or challenges that you’ve encountered along the way?

Shelley Gupta  22:52  

Yeah, I mean, it play definitely plays a huge part in this brand, especially given the cultural diversity element of it. I mean, growing up in I grew up in Canada. So in an Indian Canadian household, you’re already kind of mixing these two very, very, very different cultures. And growing up in, you know, 80s, and 90s, we didn’t have access to diversity the way we do today. And naturally, it’s evolved over time. And we’ve seen it evolve in food. And in meal solutions. We just we haven’t seen it in baking yet. But it’s definitely played a big part for me because other you know, other cultures, other cuisines is such a, just something that I find so fascinating and so interesting. And as I was, as a kid, I didn’t have access to it. But when I became a little bit older, and had the ability to kind of find my own access, it became a big part of who I am, I love to travel, I love to try new cultural experiences, in my travels, or even not in my travels. So that really drove a lot of the curiosity and the creativity around how I want bake it to be. So that’s definitely been a huge impact. And then in terms of just outside of that, I would, you know, just absolutely like, I’m so happy and blessed to say that I have a lot of great minority and female founders around me. And there are just really, really, really amazing people doing amazing things right now. And it’s so there’s a lot, we have a lot of room for growth in this department. But there are a lot more opportunities these days for minorities and for female founders. So I’m very grateful to be building a company that has these opportunities. And you know, we know, not even just a few years ago, those those didn’t exist. So I am very grateful for those individuals that are purposely focusing on the minority groups and the female founders and helping us build and helping us scale.

Aalap Shah  24:46 

Agreed, agreed. I know it’s been awesome to see it right. And I feel like we’ve made incredible, incredible strides and just seeing the innovation and I love the word that you use curiosity right that we can bring to the table. And seeing it accepted by the market it’s very rewarding all around. Totally. One of the things that I you touched upon this in the question that I asked, What’s your inspiration?

Shelley Gupta  25:12

So many things, probably touched on it. But culture and differences in culture is a huge inspo. For me, I find it so especially in food, I find it so interesting that you can take the same ingredients and make call it 10 different things that are from 10 different countries, from 10 Different very, very rich cultures. And it’s really comes down to like tradition, it comes down to, of course, some baking technique. But it’s so fascinating to me. And I’ll never forget, I made jelabi, actually, for the first time. And like, which is like a sweet Indian dessert. And I took it to a friend’s party. And I just like to listen to the crowd that was like coming in and out towards the little dessert table. And I heard three or four different people taste it and be like, Oh my God, this reminds me of whatever the word was from their country, and a very diverse crowd of people. And it, that’s the kind of stuff that inspires me, because it just comes down to not being aware of what we’re capable of, I could take the exact same ingredients with a maybe a little bit of a different technique and create something completely different from a different country and learn about a new region of the world. And that’s so cool to me.

Aalap Shah  26:27  

I love it. And coincidentally enough, like I remember this, like 20 years ago, jelabi was one of the first things I’ve ever made. I didn’t have you know, your infrastructure or your your recipe to go over with it. But it’s just something that is part of my identity as well, right? And foods growing up and super curious as to how to make it and it turns out, like most of the ingredients were things I already had. And you’re right, it’s just about putting them in the right combination and technique to get the results. All right. So what’s next for BāKIT? You’ve pivoted you made this transition, you’re getting some feedback and success. What are you seeing as your brand evolves in the next 12 to 18 months?

Shelley Gupta  27:09  

Yeah, I mean, um, you know, we’re just in a really, we’re very much in a growth phase right now. So for us, our goal is to get more boxes in people’s homes, and for people to experience the bacon experience. And hopefully, they like it. So far, feedback has been great. So that we can continue to evolve, continue to build more recipes and more educational components into our boxes, and really just increase our offerings. So our focus right now is, is I want everyone to try it. Because I know you won’t be disappointed. And give us a shot. I know we’re a new brand. But that’s our goal for the next little while.

Aalap Shah  27:46  

Awesome to hear. How do we find you, Shelley?

Shelley Gupta  27:48  

And we’re on Yep, our website is bakitbox.com or on Instagram, same handle. So definitely come check us out.

Aalap Shah  27:59 

Awesome. Thanks so much for taking some time out of your busy day to be on our podcast and wishing you a ton of success ahead.

Shelley Gupta  28:06 

Thank you so much.

Outro  28:08 

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