Sam von Hardenburgh spends her days making mobile apps as an experience designer for the digital agency Kettle. But her nights and weekends are spent working on a pretty sweet side project.
Von Hardenburgh is the co-founder of Obelo, a New York-based company that sources raw, pure-cane sugar called panela from Latin America. The idea came from her interest in organic products, and her partner, Said Fayad's, desire to share the unique flavors of his native Colombia. Fayad is also a creative, having worked at various agencies as an art director and consultant for brands like Cadillac, Spotify and Visa.
"We went into business together because we wanted to apply our combined experience, from advertising and product design, to something personal and see what we could build together," von Hardenburgh said.
The company's signature product, panela, has a molasses flavor with caramel notes and is often used in coffee. Due to minimal processing, it retains most of its vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and also has a lower glycemic index than other sugars.
Von Hardenburgh had her first taste on a trip to Colombia.
"It's important for us to step out of our world here in New York to find new stuff that inspires us," she said.
When she returned to New York, it was almost impossible to find panela that came close to the product she had on her trip. That's when she and Fayad started thinking about forming their own company.
"I had a little bit of experience in food from working in bars and restaurants while in college," she said. "But Obelo has been a significant learning experience as we are learning about how food systems work and the role that products, specifically panela, play."
Day job helps side job
The two are focusing on growing locally, getting the product on more shelves and in front of chefs and mixologists who are looking for a new ingredient with a story and flavor to add to their menus. So far, they're selling to small markets in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Boston. They plan to expand their online shop to include additional products they find on their travels.
"I work on Obelo similarly to how I work on digital products. It's iterative and constantly evolving," von Hardenburgh said. "We built a brand that started with panela. It's already evolved in small ways, like the design of the back label, and in larger ways, like how we tell our story on Instagram and the new products we've added. It's really exciting to build our own brand and apply our experiences from our day jobs in fun ways."
Von Hardenburgh and Fayad's experience with branded content and social media has been integral to telling their own brand story. The pair generates almost all of their own content. Last summer they created a short playlist of tropical tunes to celebrate the magic of summer in New York while drawing from the sounds and experiences of traveling Latin America.
Von Hardenburgh's Kettle co-workers have been supportive, sampling her product and offering words of support along the way. But she admits that while support from friends and family is important, it's necessary to also get feedback from people you don't know.
"Friends and your mom are going to tell you it's amazing, because it probably is. But you really want feedback from people who don't know you or what your product is. They will be super honest," she said. "Really listen to their questions and feedback because it'll show where your brand story or messaging isn't clear. Just like in product design where you see drop-off, it's an opportunity to tweak it and make it more engaging."
She encourages others thinking about taking on a side project to ask why they want to start a business and to be really honest about the answer.
"I try to be super efficient at my day job so that I have time and energy to be productive on weekends and work on Obelo," she said. "It takes a lot of hard work and grit to build something on your own, even with a partner. You have to have a lot of patience and passion to make it happen."