A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.
I know nothing about the consumer-packaged goods market, so it was clear at the outset that I was not a value-added investor. This allowed me to listen to Kelley’s pitch from the point of view of fellow entrepreneur, rather than critical, potential investor.
Impressed by Kelley and knowing that her story would inspire and inform other entrepreneurs, I was pleased when she agreed to chat with me, despite her breakneck schedule.
John Greathouse: Hey Kelley, I know you are crazy busy, so thanks again for taking time out to share your entrepreneurial journey with my readers.
I wish every entrepreneur could see you give your investment pitch, as you do a very compelling job of conveying your passion and tenacity. It’s clear you love what you are doing and that you will not be denied.
As I recall, you initially came from a big corporate background, but (you) moved to Ojai, CA to help your dad consolidate some of his business interests.
What elements from your corporate world have you been able to leverage at Lark Ellen?
Kelley D’Angelo: Thanks John, I appreciate the opportunity. Working for Pacific Bell, AT&T, SBC Telecom was a phenomenal training ground. I found my own management and hiring styles and learned how to effectively deal with personnel performance issues. I learned how to organize my responsibilities and about financial models, and how to work against deadlines. Probably the most impactful thing (that) working in a corporation taught me is that I despised bureaucracy and that I wanted to work on my own. Poorly run meetings are my personal pet peeve and I attended way too many of them.
Greathouse: You didn’t have (food) industry experience. How has this helped and hindered you?
D’Angelo: Ignorance is bliss and that definitely was the case with me when I started this business. I never considered that I couldn’t make it work. From day one I have always assumed that I could find a way. I often think that if I had known how capital intensive and competitive this industry is I may not have started it. But, I decided early on that I would push forward as long as the company was growing organically.
In the first 6 months of operation I contracted with a food manufacturer. I was naive and didn’t understand the business. I trusted his knowledge and experience and didn’t do my due diligence. He ended up being a con artist and walked away with a fair amount of money. I almost lost the business but decided to bring my equipment back to my home town and do it myself. I began to read and network and learn and have now educated myself on the industry. In the end, my beginning experience, though unpleasant, taught me that I am capable and that I could do it on my own.
Greathouse: Why did you decide to start Lark Ellen Farm? What were your initial plans?
D’Angelo: I had just finished three years of working with my father and helping him get to retirement. I was looking for what was next when I literally stumbled onto this business.
Health concerns led me to new food choices and new recipes. I started at the Farmer’s Market and the business just organically grew from there. As soon as I saw the potential I set my sights on building a national, trusted brand of clean, healthy and grain-free products.
Greathouse: Where did the name Lark Ellen Farm come from?
D’Angelo: I live on a small, half acre farm, the “Lark Ellen Farm,” named after our street, Lark Ellen Avenue. The street was named after Ellen Beach Yaw, an opera singer from the late 1800’s, who had an extraordinary vocal range. She was dubbed “Lark Ellen” because her voice at its highest pitch resembled a Lark. Ellen was from a poor family and sang in concerts to raise money for singing lessons.
As her fame grew, she became philanthropic and started an organization to help young boys which later become the Lions Club. Ellen was a strong, charitable woman who used her talents to build her life and help others and this is the type of role model that I want to be.
Greathouse: Wow, that is a great story. I had no idea the Lions Club organization owes its origin to an opera singer. Very cool. What a great role model.
Like all startups, you’ve experienced your share of challenges. What motivates you when things are tough?
D’Angelo: The desire to succeed and to do well by those who have put their trust in me. As a single mother of two children, I want to show my children that they can achieve all their goals and dreams with hard work and determination. On several occasions however, it was them, in their wise and kind way, that reminded me that I could push on. My amazing employees are a critical motivator as well. I couldn’t build this company without them and I want them to have the experience of building a successful company from the ground up.
Greathouse: What do you want people to know about your brand?
D’Angelo: We provide peace of mind for our customers by going to extra lengths to make a high quality, nutrient dense premium product that they, and their families can enjoy without concern. We handcraft our products in our own facility where we focus on making healthy, delicious versions of traditional favorites.
We actively demonstrate our concern for the environment and we are charitable. Mostly, we believe in being kind to each other, other species and the Earth. We want to share good, organic food and kind thoughts with others. To that end, you will find an inspirational quote on the bottom of each of our pouches of grainless goodness. My favorite is “If you don’t take care of your body, where are you going to live?”.
Greathouse: If you could start over what would you do differently?
D’Angelo: Nothing. I believe every experience happens exactly the way it was meant to.
Greathouse: Those are words to live by, no doubt. Last question, where can people find your products?
D’Angelo: You can purchase our product at Lark Ellen Farms or Amazon.com. At retail, you’ll find us at Whole Foods in So. California, Sprouts Farmer’s Markets throughout the US, Vitacost and approximately 500 stores throughout the country. We had a very strong 2018 and we moved into a new facility at the start of 2019. We’re ready to scale!
Greathouse: Great. Thanks again Kelley. You’re an inspiration to not only your children, but to me and, no doubt, every entrepreneur who reads this interview.
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Photo credit: Lark Ellen Farm