17. April 2019
How the startup SENS got its cricket bars into German supermarkets
The key to making insect a mainstream food is selling it in supermarkets. At least that is the strategy of SENS, a Czech startup producing bars, bread and flour from crickets. And where else to go than to Germany, a country where consumers yearn for sustainable products and like to experiment with food, right? "Insect protein is a big topic in Germany now. Thanks to that supermarkets want to work with us which is great because we can directly negotiate with them," says Radek Hušek, who co-founded SENS together with Daniel Vach.
When did you decide to expand into Germany?
Originally, we wanted to focus exclusively on Germany. We were afraid that Czechs would not like our insect idea too much. In the end, however, the Czech market positively surprised us. We started our brand here, we are quite well-known, and even though everything is not sun and strawberries, we work here and we are happy about it. Now, we’re going to Germany.
What are the differences between the German and the Czech market?
In Germany, nature conservation is an important issue and the market with organic certified products is huge. The products are popular not only because of their nutritional value but also because of their positive environmental impact. Consumers as well as supermarkets are interested in this type of products. In the Czech Republic, buyers were afraid to put our insect bars on shelves because it was too new, whereas in Germany, our bars are being sold because they contain insect protein. By having a theme that resonates in Germany, we are able to reach the management of large supermarkets, which would otherwise take years.
“Based on my recent experience from Europe's largest sports and fitness fair, FIBU, I have to say that there is a lot of interest in cricket protein in Germany. Thousands of people came to our stand to taste our cricket bars and they all left positive feedback. I would say that Germans care more about the sustainability and nutritional aspects of our products than Czechs. ”
In which supermarkets are your products sold?
We sell our bars, bread and cricket flour in Tegut, a premium supermarket, which has 300 stores across Germany and which brings food innovations. We also cooperate with REWE and EDEKA, which can recommend our products to their franchise stores. We are part of the EDEKA Foodstarter platform and Edeka Foodtech Campus, which is an innovative program which allows us to ask EDEKA’s marketing people about their opinions on our sales.
Do you work exclusively with supermarkets or do you sell in smaller shops, too?
We also try to sell in healthy lifestyle stores, fitness centers and yoga studios, but because German supermarkets communicate with us so well and take insect as their topic, we can get to places where we would otherwise not get. For example, when our products were first introduced to Penny Market, our eCommerce sales increased, too. We do not want to neglect other channels, but the key to making insect a mainstream food is selling it in supermarkets.
What else do you want to achieve in Germany?
Our goal now is to focus on B2B partners who support us. We found out that there are two types of partnership. Either the partner likes our topic and explains to its customers why it is good to eat insect bars. For example, Tegut labeled insect as the protein of the future and they promote it in their stores. Or the B2B partner expects our product to start selling on its own. However, we think it is not possible to put our bars onto shelves and expect that they will get sold. Many people have never heard of eating insect. Our products definitely need explanation in the store.
“The German market with innovative and healthy food is much more developed. We compete with more products and brands – even in the category of cricket protein bars we have direct competition unlike in the Czech Republic. However, our bars, bread and flour win against other products because of their taste, quality and ingredients. ”
Do you do sales yourself or does someone help you with it?
We originally started selling products ourselves, but we soon encountered a problem – the Germans working in retail wanted to communicate with a native speaker. Therefore, in the middle of 2018, we hired a sales representative with experience from a food startup and started to do standard B2B sales. We later promoted him to a country manager and now we are about to hire new representatives who will work under him.
How do you find suitable candidates?
Mostly through LinkedIn. We have always done the recruitment process ourselves and I must say that it is time consuming and expensive. At the beginning, a few people are engaged, but in the end the whole team has to get together and decide whether or not to hire the person. Recruitment includes several rounds, a case study and a role play. We test candidates thoroughly and I would definitely recommend it to everyone. In general, if a startup wants to hire someone capable, it either has to pay a lot of money or it must have a great vision. Only a few Czech startups can motivate Germans by money. Therefore, my recommendation is to have a vision and not to be afraid to talk about it.
How do you keep in touch with your German colleagues?
I am convinced that to build a great team you regularly have to meet the people you work with. That's why we have an office in Berlin and rent a room in a shared apartment. I spend about half of the month in Germany. If I relied only on Skype and Slack, I wouldn't find out a lot of information. We do not expect that our German colleague will be constantly motivated, and therefore we try to be with him. We communicate almost daily and often meet in person.
What kind of work do you do when you are in Germany?
I collect feedback from customers and buyers and talk to our sales team. When REWE Dortumund listed our products, I went to the shops and talked to customers and shop owners to find out how we could sell better. It is very important to do this in the food industry. Products are rarely finished and have to be constantly tuned. Therefore, it is important that the founder is in the field.
What did you have to do to start selling in Germany?
We had to establish a German company, which was costly. But without the German entity GmbH supermarkets wouldn’t cooperate with us, so you have to calculate in advance if it pays off. As far as legislation is concerned, since we are part of the EU, the demands for companies in the food industry are harmonized. It is well-known that the Czech Republic is very strict in this respect, and by first starting here we have met about 99 percent of conditions.
Did you have to change anything about communication? What about the German language, for example?
I would certainly not underestimate German. It is not possible to write texts in Czech and then have them translated by a Czech who speaks German. Despite the fact that our texts have always been translated by Germans, it happened to us several times that customers found our website to be untrustworthy because of grammatical mistakes. Therefore, I would definitely recommend having a professional German copywriter.
What plans do you have for the future?
Germany is a huge market, so we plan to focus exclusively on it in 2019. Great opportunity lies in countries like Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, which are interested in the environment as much as Germany, if not more. Denmark, for example, perceives insect as a protein of the future and promotes it. Last year alone, insects were mentioned 30 times during prime time. If we are successful in Germany, it will be easier to get to these countries.
Has anyone advised you how to go to Germany?
We had to do 99 percent of work ourselves, but we got some help from the Czech branch of the German bank VR Volksbank. There are Czechs who help Czech entrepreneurs go to the German market.
Would you recommend the German market to other startups?
Yes, the market is great. Since Berlin and Munich are close, you can quickly test your product there. At the beginning, we spent a lot of time going to meetings and getting feedback. When we saw that the Germans liked our idea, we decided to focus on their market and work on it at full stretch.
Radek Hušek is a co-founder of the SENS startup. Prior to working at SENS, he sold his first company, which he founded during his bachelor studies at the University of Economics, Prague. He was admitted to the London School of Economics for master's degree, but did not start because he was fully engaged at SENS.