We recently chatted with Mark Kirkland of Salt Lake City about his experience taking his product, Candwich, from idea to market. Read on for the Q&A below, check out the website, and follow the startup on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to keep tabs on the growth of Candwich.
Q&A with Mark Kirkland, founder, Candwich
Tell us about your business and what makes it stand apart from the competition.
The original concept was to put food in a soda can so you could sell it through a vending machine. They’re already being serviced — you don’t have to reinvent the can, you don’t have to reinvent the trucks. … The first concept was cookies, but I was looking for a more nutritious option.
It’s military-developed technology — they had a pocket sandwich that’s healthy, tasty, and stays fresh for an extended period. The minimum requirement for the military is three years at 80 degrees for the shelf life.
There’s not really a direct competitor. HotPockets? Uncrustables? But both of those are frozen, and you have to microwave them or thaw them out; mine is just open it and eat it. We have a new product that will have a self-heating liner using hand-warmer technology.
It’s not just grab-and-go. If you have a Candwich, and you don’t happen to use it then, you can use it a year later.
Once it’s sealed inside the can, it will stay good for quite a while, so it’s great to have on hand. Plus, they’ve got a good nutrition profile.
About half of all the food produced every year spoils before it’s used. We’d like to introduce this technology to parts of the world where they don’t have good refrigeration or transportation.
What inspired you to start your own business?
My wife and I were making cookies, and we put them in the freezer. I like to eat them cold. I was drinking soda and eating a cookie, and I thought that if I stacked these cookies in a can I could sell them in a soft-drink vending machine. … There are millions of vending machines, and it would just fit into a can. This was back in the ‘90s.
I went for it full time in the early 2000s. I had another business, and I sold that business so I could work on this full time.
What obstacles did you face as a startup, and how did you overcome them?
The obstacle for every startup is money. Back then, especially, if you weren’t a .com no one wanted to look at it you. It was really hard to raise money. I eventually found investors, and one guy loved the product. He gave me a big check, but then he’s stringing me along with promises of a bigger investment. In 2008, we were stalled waiting for him to give us the money, and the financial crisis hits. It turned out he was running a Ponzi scheme.
He went to prison, and all the people who’ve been giving him money are trying to get the money back, but he used that money to invest in my company. So we had to settle. It took several years because they wanted money, and I’m trying to fill orders to outside companies. I had to try and settle and fill orders, so I ended up settling, finally. I was sued for $3 million with penalties and interest and whatever. Something had to give, and it was filling orders.
Sometimes things happen. Nobody knew he was doing this. Everyone thought he was a legitimate businessman. I could either give up or start over — which is what I’m doing now.
What happened though, I got millions of dollars in free publicity. It went viral around 2010, 2011, because The New York Times did a story about the investor. The headline was that he was supposed to be investing in real estate, and instead he’s investing in a canned sandwich company. I actually got less than 1 percent of that money, but it went worldwide.
The publicity was great. Wal-Mart sees it on The Today Show and they went crazy for it. But I needed money to produce, because it wasn’t like Wal-Mart said, “Here’s an order for 10 million cans.” So I had investors, but the legal problems from the Ponzi-scheme guy scared people away, and they didn’t want to get tangled up, and they didn’t want to pay for the old debt. It was a huge missed opportunity.
How do you know who to trust? That’s the big thing.
It’s hard to get attention on a crowdfunding campaign because there’s so much competition.
Let’s talk a little bit about marketing. How are you primarily marketing the product right now? How are you getting the word out about Candwich?
You know, we’ve gotten the word out a few times accidentally — and we weren’t ready for all the attention that it got. It’s a novel thing. It’s unusual. And so now, you know, we’ve rebooted. We’re ready to market; we want to go online.
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What strengths do you bring to the table as an entrepreneur?
I’m resilient. I believe in my product. I know it’s a great product. I’ve seen the reaction of people when they get it, and it’s good. And I don’t quit.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since starting the business?
I haven’t made it yet. You can fail. And I’ve been all in for a long time. But it’s still a good product and idea, and I have another bite at the apple. Apple turnover Candwich. In a self warming can.
You’re going to run into unforeseen things, everybody does, so if you try to keep things as simple as possible, it’s still going to be complex.
Thanks for taking the time to tell us about your product, Mark, and best of luck as you bring Candwich to the masses!