• Advice

5 Things Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Sriracha

Imagine starting a company without spending a cent on marketing, only to find that people wear your product name proudly on hip t-shirts, put your product’s label on their babies, and you have a worldwide fandom who loves you despite (or because of?) your efforts not to talk to anyone.

This is the very unusual brand story of David Tran, the maker of Sriracha, a.k.a. Rooster Sauce.

Along with solar panels and self-tanning products, hot sauce is one of the 10 fastest growing industries in America. Huy Fong, Tran’s company based in San Francisco, sells over $60 million worth of Sriracha hot sauce (that’s about 20 million bottles) each year.

And if that isn’t enough sriracha love, the sauce was also the subject of a dedicated cartoon in The Oatmeal. Now that is fame.

It’s highly unlikely our brands will ever achieve Sriracha status. But David Tran can teach entrepreneurs a thing or two about great products and great leadership.

1. Love it.

In an interview with Quartz, Tran said that his dream “was never to become a billionaire,” but just “to make enough fresh chili sauce so that everyone who wants Huy Fong can have it. Nothing more.”

He loved sriracha hot sauce, a traditional hot sauce from Si Racha, Thailand. After being unable to find good hot sauce options, he decided to bring the recipe to the US and sell it to Asian immigrants like himself. Turns out immigrants weren’t the only ones who loved it.

We’ve heard it again and again: passion makes good business. Acknowledging your customers’ passion and making the business about their passion makes great business.

2. Let your fans do the talking.

I’m sure you read that headline and said, “Ugh! If only I were successful enough that I didn’t HAVE to talk about it -- but I do!”

That is true. You do have to talk about it. But talking about your product or your freelance business selectively to key touchpoints; don’t expect that talking about it excessively on social media channels or putting postcards into peoples’ hands at networking events is going to win you a million fans. Social media and marketing is not always the solution.

Sending pitch letters is almost always more effective than starting up a Twitter account just to talk about your business. Syndicating your blog posts with another blog you’ve developed a relationship with can be more effective than constantly sending them out to your same audience on Facebook.

We live in an age when authenticity rules. As well it should. Millennials hate brands who try too much or talk too much, and love brands that feel “real,” built by real humans and operated by real humans and especially underappreciated, niche things, even ones with terrible websites and no Facebook page.

“Brands are also seen as more authentic by this generation when they are simplistic in the process and ingredients they use,” Nicole Granese wrote in MediaPost. “Millennials especially have a desire for honesty and transparency; they value things that are as close to their real form as possible.” Tran’s sriracha fits the bill. If Millennials aren’t your current customers, they’ll be your future ones.

3. Make great partnerships that align with your brand.

Tran sources chilis only from one farm: Underwood Farms in Valencia, CA. He’s been sourcing his chilis from here for over 25 years. That farm grows 4,000 acres of red chilis for Sriracha.

“From the time they’re picked to the time they’re grounded is about 6 hours,” Craig Underwood told CBS News last week. Tran wouldn’t have it any other way.

Demand it outpacing production, and it would be easier (and probably cheaper) for Tran to get his chilis somewhere else. He doesn’t.

Having reliable business partners that you can trust is essential when you start your own business. The two businesses support one another, and without Underwood’s chilis, Tran argues that his sriracha wouldn’t be as good.

4. Don’t be afraid to go slow and start small.

Tran started from nothing, mixing chilis on the streets of Los Angeles in barrels. He came to America from Vietnam as a refugee on a large Taiwanese ship -- called “Huy Fong” (which became the name of his company). He built his company without any investors. He was very, very far from an overnight success. It has taken 33 years to get to the point where he is now.

Start small. Start slow. Build up relationships over time. Ignore the bloggers and marketers telling you easy ways to get rich quick. Build a business out of real relationships and really good product. Builds brand authenticity and presence that will last.

For freelancers, this is why many keep a full-time job before they make the leap into self-employment. Or have several small companies, slowly nurturing each without relying on just one to bring in all your income. Build relationships with other freelancers and other people just starting out.

5. Give back.

Give back to your customers. Feel grateful for every customer or client.

In his interview with CBS News, he told the reporter, “I want to say thanks to the American people. They accept me when I [was a ] refugee. I try to do something to give back to the American people.”

No matter how successful you are, I bet that if you carry this attitude of humility and appreciation for your customers, you will only see your business grow.

Show your customers how much you appreciate them. Write them personal notes and send them birthday cards and congratulate them on promotions. Great entrepreneurs never forget that their business is their customers, not their product.

Anyone else feel a pho craving coming on?