Erbology turns powerful plants into wholesome snacks, drinks, oils and recipe ingredients for everyday eating. Since embarking on the Nutrition Greenhouse program they’ve made huge strides, launching 11 new products, and securing a listing with Ocado. We asked their mentor, Lee Chung, to tell us a bit about the experience and what she and PepsiCo are getting out of the programme.

It seems fitting that the first time I met Irina Turcan was in a garden centre in Warwick Avenue in London. We were sitting in a little oasis of a café, nestled in among wonderful flora. And at its heart Erbology – the company she has co-founded with her brother Victor – is all about celebrating powerful and unique plants.

It was fascinating to listen to Irina – especially her incredulity at the ‘quick-fix’ way of living she’d become used to seeing in London. Synthetic supplements, fad ingredients and non-stop lifestyles seem quite normal to me, but they are completely at odds with Irina’s experience growing up in Moldova in Eastern Europe. In the course of our conversations, she transported me back to her childhood when she would unquestioningly eat plants I’d never even heard of such as sea buckthorn. She once told me a story about having an upset stomach in London and looking for activated charcoal as the obvious remedy, but she couldn’t find it anywhere. Although activated charcoal isn’t part of the Erbology range (it’s not a plant) the story brought home to me how ingredients which are only now being seen as having powerful properties have long been part of Irina and Victor’s story. 

With start-ups such as Erbology, there’s something very compelling about the founder’s story and personality. Irina’s passion is at the heart of all three things which have most struck me about what it takes to be a successful start-up:

  • First, remember to try and look at things with fresh eyes as much as possible. Don’t forget that spark of inspiration in everything you do. This is what will make you stand out from the crowd and, even more importantly, make people care. 
  • At the risk of sounding like a bad motivational speaker, don’t be afraid to let your light shine through. Your passion, personality, and voice create the story. That hooks people in and takes them along with you. You are the one who – more than anyone else – believes in your company and that belief is infectious, so don’t be afraid of sharing it.
  • Being a start-up means hard graft. You have to do everything, with limited resources and before yesterday. Believe that you’re probably doing an incredible job of it and roll with the knocks. Everyone has them and you’ll emerge stronger as a result if you learn from them. Just make a note not to use that supplier again or listen to that particular consumer and move on!

PepsiCo too can learn a lot from the start-up experience. Even though we’re not an overly process-oriented company, we do have a lot of processes to follow. It can take well over a year for us to get from idea to market.  Seeing what Erbology achieved within the Nutrition Greenhouse window of just a few months was inspiring. I think there’s a lesson about not being afraid to fail. And they have no option but to get everything done quickly. Although I know that Irina loved our meetings and got a huge amount out of them, she would also be thinking, “I should be out selling” at the same time.  

We’re more risk-averse at PepsiCo, and rightly so, but I think there’s a balance to be struck between verifying everything in detail and going with your instinct. I think we could learn to say, “That’s enough verification, now. Let’s go.”

The Nutrition Greenhouse experience has been wonderful for my own development, too. In particular it has opened my eyes to the power of networks. Start-ups don’t have extensive resources and knowledge at their fingertips so they use networks. To help me tackle some recent challenges at work, I’ve consciously gone out to other teams and picked their brains and people are usually only too happy to help.

I hope that the Nutrition Greenhouse experience helps remind us about the importance of passion, especially in marketing. It’s too easy for us to develop distance from our products. Entrepreneurs are living their product day in and day out, so they’re always holding on to that spark that makes a brand compelling and authentic.

I’ve loved being part of this programme. It has helped me to grow and I love the way it challenges our thinking and broadens our horizons. Spending time with Irina has given me so much: I’ve learned as much from her as she has from me. If you’re ever offered the chance to be a mentor in this program, my advice is: seize the opportunity with both hands.