Helen Guo | The Cereal School

Helen and her partner, Dylan, are the founders of The Cereal School, a company that’s single handedly transforming how you start your mornings. They loved cereal, but didn’t love the sugary, chemical-laden ingredients that came along with it. So, Helen and Dylan created the first protein-rich version of the popular breakfast food and replaced the synthetic components with natural ones. The Cereal School officially launched just under a year ago, and has successfully made cereal healthy again.

A New Kind of Cereal

Like most adults, Helen and Dylan used to love eating all sorts of unhealthy meals, but stopped once they were older. The more they thought about it, the more they realized this might not need to be the case. What if they could turn so-called bad food into good food?

“A lot of the junk foods we were eating as kids still remained junk foods,” Helen said. “We saw a huge opportunity in these nostalgic foods that people ate growing up, but then gave up.”

The obvious choice? Cereal.

“We really felt like there was a huge opportunity to deconstruct the cereal industry by offering a product with way less sugar and carbs, but more protein that was comparable to what people are actually eating,” Helen told me. And just like that, the concept behind The Cereal School was born.

Helen and Dylan knew they had something special despite people telling them their mission was impossible. They began testing novel formulas, which meant filling up their small New York studio apartment with large quantities of ingredients.

After seemingly endless trials, Helen and Dylan finally found something they felt confident in.

Going to Market

It was time for Helen and Dylan to take the next step by producing on a large scale. They started calling around to see if they could get into a large production facility, but kept getting rejected.

“We called many manufacturers and they all said no, this is not possible, or else these big companies would have already made it,” Helen said. 

Eventually, the duo found one manufacturer that was willing to let them test drive their cereal recipe in his facility, as long as they paid him. Helen and Dylan immediately flew to the Midwest to take up the offer.

Helen and Dylan were pleasantly surprised when everything went perfectly as planned. “We got lucky with the initial formula from our kitchen,” Helen said, “and converted it to something production ready.”

Finally, with a great product in hand, it was time to figure out the business bit. Doing so would prove to be easier said than done.

Early Struggles

Learning to run a business

Although Helen and Dylan knew they had something special with their product, neither had ever run a business before.

“Figuring out how to market to customers, how to sell our product, and how to advertise was difficult,” Helen said. Making the cereal was one thing, but figuring out how to actually get people to purchase it was something entirely different. Helen, undeterred, got to work.

“I learned how to run ads and built our site myself,” Helen said. “It was really challenging because we had no money and couldn’t afford help.”

Early challenges aside, Helen is grateful that she learned more about the various intricacies of business before turning it over to someone else. “Learning it ourselves allowed us to be in a stronger position to evaluate other people,” Helen said. Now that The Cereal School is starting to hire employees, Helen feels it’s helped her spot qualified applicants.

Knowing where to focus

“When running your own business,” Helen told me, “it can be so easy to lose focus. There’s so much that needs to get done, and often not enough manpower. This can make it difficult to determine which tasks are most significant.”

Luckily, Helen knew early on where to put her attention. “Focusing on the things that are driving 80% of growth is more important than doing a little bit of everything,” she said. 

For example, Helen knew that Facebook and Instagram were going to be two of the biggest traffic drivers, so she didn’t bother trying other forms of social media. She cautioned against spreading oneself too thin, especially early on, as that can lead to burnout.

Helen also mentioned that although marketing is crucial to success, you should never lose sight of your merchandise. “Your product is what’s bringing people back,” she said. “How fast are they receiving it, what is their unboxing experience like, are you constantly improving it?” These are questions she encourages other Shopify entrepreneurs to consider. She also emphasized that customers want to know their feedback is valued. “People respect you for that and it makes really loyal customers,” she told me.

Growing the team

The Cereal School has grown much faster than Helen and Dylan had anticipated. Of course, they want their company to expand, but with expansion comes another dilemma: outsourcing. That’s The Cereal School’s biggest hurdle right now.

“How do I bring out talent in people?” Helen pondered. “How can I train them, and how can I create really solid processes so we can continue to be as efficient as possible?” Helen and Dylan are currently working to find solid solutions to these questions that work for their business model. Just like creating their product, it’s a lot of trial and error.

Success Starts with the Product

The Cereal School was met with early success. In fact, the store generated almost $100,000 in sales on the first day. “Our ringer on Shopify just kept going off,” Helen said, “And we eventually had to mute our phones!”

Helen attributes the positive outcome to the product itself. “We were first to market. Nothing like this existed,” Helen told me. The Cereal school had found a very unique niche in the health and wellness world, and had virtually no competition.

“When people are trying to cut out carbs and sugar, one of the hardest things is maintaining their new diet,” Helen said. “We were able to sell ourselves as something that helps you stay on track.” And when eating healthy means you can still have cereal, it’s no wonder that it’s flying off the (virtual) shelves.

Never Undersell Yourself

Helen’s most important piece of advice involves knowing how to price your product.

“You don’t need to undersell yourself,” Helen said. “I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes.” To figure out a fair price, Helen suggests comparing your products to those that are similar. For example, The Cereal School’s products are expensive when compared to other cereal brands. So, Helen looked toward another product category, protein bars, to compare pricing. Considering the nutritional benefits of her cereal (high protein, no sugar, low carbs) it was an easy comparison.

“For us to have healthy margins,” Helen said, “this is what we have to sell it for. It’s an expensive product to make.” Luckily, The Cereal School’s customers weren’t deterred by the product’s price.

“The moment you start selling,” Helen told me, “if people start buying, you know it’s not too expensive.” The Cereal School’s numbers speak for themselves in this category.

Spend Where it Matters

When starting your business, Helen suggests you think before you spend.

“Don’t waste a lot of money building your site,” Helen told me. “You don’t know anything about your customers yet. Focus on the product and the experience first. The most important part of business is understanding how to market to customers and what language speaks to them. Figure this out rather than wasting finances on a shiny website. That can come later.”

What's Next for The Cereal School

“2020 is going to be a big year for us,” Helen said. “We spent 2019 launching, and 2020 will see us expanding our product line and giving customers what they want, as well as continuing to improve our product.”

Because of their massive growth, Helen and Dylan are now looking to expand their team. In other words, The Cereal School is hiring! Are you experienced in project management and/or executive assistant work? Are you interested in working hard for a company you believe in? Please send Helen an email at hello@thecerealschool.com.

Even with all the hurdles, entrepreneurship has been extremely enjoyable for Helen. “It was really exciting in the beginning,” she said. “We created something out of nothing.” In the end, that’s what entrepreneurship is really about: the joy of creation.

Ryan Chatterton

Judge.me Editor, Content Strategist, Digital Nomad, Coworking Influencer, Lover of Wine & Tacos