Laureen Asseo: Founder and Co-CEO of Fresh N Lean

Episode 306

Hear how Founder and Co-CEO Laureen Asseo created a delicious, organic preheat-and-eat meal and company that you can’t help but love. What started as a friend and family packing meals in tupperware business has grown significantly since 2010. And you will understand why when you hear her story. Hear all about her inspiring journey and all of her lessons and thoughts on this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone, it’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I am super thrilled to have our next guest here Laureen Asseo, who was the founder and CO CEO of fresh and lean, and such an interesting story, she actually co founded the company with her brother Thomas in 2010, when she was only 18 years old, super, super incredible. Fresh and lean is an organic preheat and eat meal delivery service. What started as a friend and family packing meals and Tupperware business has grown significantly over the years. And I’m super, super excited to hear all about her journey, how she’s seen being a co CEO and dealing in a startup world. And she’s incredibly determined. She’s a mission driven entrepreneur with just a super incredible story. So without further ado, welcome Loreen.

Laureen Asseo 1:42
Thank you so much.

Kara Goldin 1:43
Yeah, absolutely. So how do you describe fresh and lean to your friends, when they say what is fresh and lean?

Laureen Asseo 1:51
I would say in simple words, fresh and lean is an organic meal delivery service. And it is really focused on quality ingredients, fresh ingredients. And we make incredible meals and ship them directly to your door.

Kara Goldin 2:06
So the idea for the company, I was doing some research, and I mean, super, super incredible about the personal story. But can you share a little bit more about that?

Laureen Asseo 2:16
Absolutely. So it started, like you mentioned when I was 18 years old, I was going to school at the time for apparel, manufacturing and business management. So before jumping into this business, I had aspirations of starting a sustainable line of clothing. And was doing that. And at that time, we got some pretty scary news about my father’s health. And you know, originally, my parents immigrated here from Europe. And so the food quality in Europe compared to the food quality here in the US, is so vastly different that through the 20 years, or 25 years that they were here, and eating the processed foods and a lot of the ingredients that quite frankly, are restricted in Europe, but are allowed to be put in our food here. My father gained a lot of weight and unfortunately had health issues. So at that time, the doctor told him Look, you have to do something super drastic, or we might not see you very soon, it might result in a heart attack or something of that nature. And what we did was we kind of band together and I started making meals for him. He went strictly vegan, and through eating better food whole, you know, whole grains, organic vegetables, he was able to reverse his health issues, lose 85 pounds and really get back on the right track. And once we saw, and really what I saw what good nutrition was able to do for him. I thought to myself, this is not only incredible, and such like a simple solution, like we don’t have the secret sauce, right? It’s just going back to the basics. And how can we do this for so many millions of Americans that are in the same predicament right? People don’t have a lot of education on food, at least they didn’t 12 years ago. Whereas now we’re super fortunate to be in an environment where people actually care what they put in their bodies. And so back then I just thought, Look, there’s a huge opportunity to help a lot of people. And that’s really what I wanted to do. And that’s what I focused on over the last 12 almost 12 years now. And it’s been really incredible. So I started in my one bedroom apartment on the weekends, because I was still going to school, making meals and Tupperware containers for friends and people who, you know, we’re in my parents Pilates class and things like that. And once I graduated from the program that I was doing for fashion, I you know, had I guess there was like a fork in the road. Do I continue down this path of this food company that I kind of started my apartment, or do I follow a career in fashion and ultimately, I decided to take the journey of starting this food company and really trying to impact many lives as possible.

Kara Goldin 5:01
I love it. So it’s one thing for you to, you know, have these recipes, have friends of your family who wanting to buy it, but how in the world did you actually take what you were doing in your one bedroom apartment and turn it into a business?

Laureen Asseo 5:18
Well, so it was very, very difficult for many, many years, I would say that, you know, one of the things that I think kind of sets us apart from the others is that we’ve never taken any outside capital. And so everything that we had to do was through organic growth. And a lot of that at the beginning was like guerilla style marketing. So we would do a lot of presentations, we would go try to make partnerships with gyms, we would go to doctors offices, we would do all of these different things, just trying to put the word out, I would say, like, on the marketing side, one thing that we really focused on was SEO, and how do we, you know, do more with less, and then just really tried to get the word out. And then as we, you know, started getting a little bit bigger, we always reinvested it into the company. And that side of things is really on Thomas. So, you know, Thomas, when he joined, really kind of took the marketing into his own hands, and, you know, doing the SEO, which is not something that I was very familiar with, my big focus was how to scale the business, how to make operations, smooth, how to manufacture not only for 10 people, but for 10,000 people, and so on in sourcing and recipe creation, delivery driver, all of those things at the beginning. And so, you know, marketing and really growing the brand and getting the word out, there was something that I needed help with. And that’s where, you know, Thomas came along and really complimented me in that way.

Kara Goldin 6:44
Was he in consumer products? Or what was he doing?

Laureen Asseo 6:48
Prior? He was, you know, working for a consumer, yeah, consumer product company, just trying to figure out like, where he fit in the career world. And so I think for him when he obviously, it was very family driven, right. So when he saw the impact that I had an our Father, and the impact that it could have on so many people. And also, it just kind of made sense for him to at that point in his career to kind of make that shift. It just made sense for him to attract it to come help.

Kara Goldin 7:18
Was he working in a tech company? Or did he know like, how to you mentioned SEO? I mean, yeah,

Laureen Asseo 7:24
it was like an E commerce company. And they sold goods. So it was like an E commerce company that sold goods and products. And he had, you know, he was working side by side with the owner of that company, and was able to learn from him. And I think that just like I did, I didn’t come from a big manufacturing background, I had really no, no experience in manufacturing whatsoever. And we just learned as we went. And so I think a lot of that is true for Thomas as well, and what he had to learn going through marketing.

Kara Goldin 7:56
That’s awesome. So it was just the two of you initially, just trying to figure this out. How many skews did you have in the first iteration?

Laureen Asseo 8:05
So originally, fresh lean was a vegan company. And so we only had the vegan menu. So we would have 10 entrees, who would have breakfast items, but they were all vegan. And then about two years after, we realize that the market, you know, for vegan is much smaller, especially 12 years ago, you know, 12 years ago, that idea of mailing people food was very foreign. I remember people barely knew how to pronounce quinoa. And so it was it was just like a funny thing that we had to deal with. And so with that being said, about a year, after we launched maybe two years after we launched, we decided to include meat product, which was a big game changer, because obviously it appealed to more of the masses. But at the beginning it was all vegan, mostly entrees. So there was like 15 skews.

Kara Goldin 8:52
Interesting. And so were you hearing from consumers that they really liked to see meat on the menu as well and a combination of the two of them so so interesting. And you had mentioned like gyms and and doctors offices. Is that where you started? Like, did you go just direct to consumer initially? Or were you actually trying to get it into places, retail places or or gyms are things I

Laureen Asseo 9:15
know, we’ve always focused on direct to consumer that’s really been our bread and butter. So we’ve done a little bit of retail here and there. But direct to consumer just seemed like a market that needed to be filled. And so the first customers I ever got was at a Tupperware party that we hosted. And it was like 25 people and under 25 People 20 of them signed up for the program. And so you know, still to this day, I have the little paper forms that they filled out, and so on. So it’s really interesting to see, but that’s how it originally started was through that way and our goal was to really grow the direct to consumer space.

Kara Goldin 9:54
So so interesting. So you mentioned like you change the menu from vegan to add Getting some meat, knowing what you know, today as an entrepreneur, were there any, you know, is there one thing, if you had it to do over again, you would do differently?

Laureen Asseo 10:10
There’s so much to be honest with you. But I would say, you know, looking back now, I think packaging iteration has been huge, you know, going from the Tupperware container to trying to go to something that looked a little bit more professional than a Tupperware container. So it’s like a takeout container. And then figuring out, you know, I had this idea one time of how can I prolong the shelf life a little bit, okay, I’m gonna put it in a vacuum sealed bag, which was an absolute nightmare, I spent hours for like 150 meals, trying to vacuum seal them, and the top would break. So I would take it off. And I would I was, you know, doing that until two, three o’clock in the morning, just trying to figure out why these different ways to do the packaging. And then from there, we were able to purchase a machine that, you know, actually did a very professional looking heat seal, and those kinds of things. So I think a lot of what we learned came from learning from our mistakes, and then needing to grow from them, and then make it better. Even on the shipping. I mean, we used to pack the meals with like the peanut like no stuffing peanuts, so that they wouldn’t move around, which was like, not sustainable in any way. Also, it was a lot of labor. And when the people got their packages, they were like, What is this, you know what I mean? Like it’s meals with a bunch of peanuts. And then you know, learning that you have to be thoughtful about how you shipped to high altitude places, because some of our packages would go to Colorado and they would pop. And then we had to change our settings on the machines. So just throughout the years, like no matter what we were dealing with, and no matter what kind of issue or problem I was trying to solve, it’s always a learning experience. And so obviously, if I knew what I know, today, back then I would have skipped like 10 packaging iterations to get to where we are today, which is a much more professional looking packaging. It upholds the quality 10 folds, it keeps the food beautiful, and so on. And then, you know, a more sustainable liner in the in the package, a stronger core gut box, like there’s just so much and that’s just on packaging alone. You know what I mean? Like then you dive into manufacturing and production. And that’s a whole other can of worms. Were you

Kara Goldin 12:24
always going national from the beginning? Because you’re based in Southern California, right?

Laureen Asseo 12:28
We are. And we actually just got a building on the East Coast that we’re going to be opening here in December. So we’ll have an east and west coast presence. But historically, we have only been on the West Coast. And yes, to answer your question, it was very important for me from the beginning to be national, I wanted to figure out a way, again, the mission and the ethos of the company was, you know, to try to help as many people as possible. And the people who, in my opinion needed the most are the people who don’t have access, like here in Orange County or Los Angeles, we have access to so much on the food and nutrition side, meant a lot of people in you know, middle America, even on the East Coast, it’s a different situation, you go to those grocery stores, and it’s different. And so for me, it was so important. And again, it’s not the case now now, there’s so much progression in the food space, which is beautiful. But 12 years ago, it was the case. And so it was important for me to have a national presence so that we could reach as many people as possible from the beginning.

Kara Goldin 13:31
Yeah, definitely. And I think there is not as much organic in some states throughout the US, but they do have access to more and more of that type of food. But I still think having prepared meals is probably not as plentiful in many of those cities versus the coasts too. So very true. Really, really interesting. So how have you gotten the word out about fresh and lean? And like how I mean, obviously, SEO, but also I feel like people need to try the product. And you talked about Tupperware parties in the early days. But how did you get the word out about it?

Laureen Asseo 14:10
It was a lot through friends and family and a lot through trying to just like show our faces, right show the brand show the faces try to get people to try the food as much as possible. It was just one of those things where we had to just keep going. It’s not something that we do now. You know, now we are so fortunate to have a great marketing team. We were able to finally a couple years ago do TV ads, we were able to grow our social media, we’re able to just have a fantastic team but in the beginning, it was really really leaning on SEO and leaning on getting like you said the product in people’s hands and doing a lot of those like tasting parties, I guess you would call them

Kara Goldin 14:54
so for SEO. I totally agree with you. We’ve done that a hint as well and it’s definitely SEO has been critical. How would you describe it to people who are not? Maybe people who are listening who are not really that familiar with SEO? What do you think is kind of the key thing that they need to do? Because you need to have you need to have stories right about in order for SEO to kind of work?

Laureen Asseo 15:16
Yeah, I would say what worked for us is a lot of blog posts. You know, on the website, keywords, were really important figuring out, you know, what are the key words out there that people are searching the most? How do you rank on those key words? Burling getting content out there. So like, the content that you put on your website is so important, because if you’re going after certain keywords, people need to be able to find it on your page, right, or when you type it in on the browser, it needs to be able to pop up where where you are. So we focused a lot on writing blogs, getting contributors on the homepage, using very specific language, really understanding and honing in on what keywords really made sense in our industry. Is it vegan meal delivery? Is it ready to eat foods? Is it? I don’t know? You know what I mean? Like, there’s just so many of them. And again, like I said, That’s not my strong point. Yeah. But I just know that I personally had to lean on people who knew better than me. But that’s a lot of what we did was just making sure that our content and blog posts on the website had External links had, you know, just just trying to connect as much as possible with the outside through our content. And basically,

Kara Goldin 16:30
that helps you just show up in like organic search, right? So you had exactly we’re doing ads as well. But just for somebody who’s not as familiar with why SEO might be really, really helpful. So you explained it great. So I can imagine not having any experience and the food industry, maybe there were a few people who were like, We don’t know what Laureen is doing. I mean, she’s the naysayers, I call them the doubters out there. What was some of the worst advice that you got from some people that you just had to sort of? I don’t know, brush it off, and just figure out, okay, how do I move forward?

Laureen Asseo 17:10
Well, I think a big one is, you’re just not going to make it. I think that, you know, the food industry historically has been let has been very male led, you know, a lot of the big manufacturing companies like Nestle, they’re just, again, historically very male lead, they’re very, very old, successful companies. And you know, being 18 years old, being a female, trying to make it into this, you know, food world that really has a backbone of manufacturing, had a lot of people coming in and being like, first of all, we don’t understand what you’re doing, you’re not going to make it and the way that you’re doing it, we don’t believe in. And so a lot of it was to say, Look, I can’t let that drag me down, I believe in what I’m doing, which is the most important thing to me, and no one else is doing what I’m doing. And so it’s really easy for anybody to come in, whether it’s in my position, or in anybody’s position, I find that people, which is really sad, would rather be negative than positive towards others. You know, it’s easy to come in and try to slam what people are doing or trying to throw them off of their course or whatever, you know, the situation is, and I had to learn early on that I couldn’t let it affect me. At first, it was really difficult even in meetings, if you know, I had male counterparts sitting next to me, like my brother, whoever. And if a question needed to be asked, they would address it to Thomas, even though it was for me. And so you know, I had to learn to speak up for myself, and to really put all the the crap aside and say, look, what it comes down to is the knowledge of what I can and can’t do. And I think that my work speaks for itself. You know, the proof is in the pudding at the end of the day. And so, you know, as far as the naysayers are concerned, I think there’s a lot of them. But especially in our industry, and the beginning like your your product isn’t going to hold up, your packaging isn’t good. The way that you manufacture isn’t going to work yet. We’ve been able to do it profitably for 12 years, and we grow year over a year. Yeah, it was very difficult, though. And I think that being a woman that was young didn’t help.

Kara Goldin 19:17
Yeah, no, definitely. And I think hopefully, you’ve been able to see some of those people since those meetings in early days, I had those very similar situations along the way. And it’s always really fun because the story seems to change like we always knew you were going to make it and everything. And it’s it’s fun to see those people who have who sit in my memory as being the naysayers and the doubters, for sure. So fresh and lean started in 2010. And you’ve now founded a company and help scale a company. What are some of the big things that you’ve learned along the way? Maybe it’s all perforations maybe I, you talked about packaging. It’s interesting you mentioned about when you’re shipping to certain places, and you’ve got to treat it differently. before it goes, we actually I actually just interviewed the founder of sprinkles cupcakes. And she told this really funny story That wasn’t funny to her at the time. But when they got to Arizona, I mean, it’s such, you know, a hot climate, and even different from Southern California where they’d have totally different packaging when I went went out the door, because the cupcakes were just done melting. They were just melting. Sure, yeah. And they’re all about, oh, put it on the counter. And it’ll be fine for a couple of days. Well, it wasn’t. And so, you know, she really learned the hard way, and had to figure out different types of packaging and different wrappings in order to do that. Anyway, it was really interesting. So how about you, though, anything, anything else like that?

Laureen Asseo 20:53
I mean, I think that what it kind of resonates in that story is like I was saying, like packages exploding, you’re getting the people and them saying, like, look, I took one out and like the whole bottom is covered. And like, you know, the meat, like another meal because it exploded in transit. And so just learning how to really make a strong package. And you know, one of the things that we still deal with today is we would love to offer, you know, the opportunity to peel the film back very easily. And I think that’s a big thing on the user experience that we’d like to do. But my biggest thing is like we don’t want to compromise, convenience, for quality. And a peelable seal is a less perfect seal. So our food is, you know, vacuum packed in a tray, the film, you have to like cut it, and things like that. But doing that was a lesson from the past, which was, if we don’t have a perfect seal with very good integrity, your meals will pop in transit, which is not at all what we want to do. That’s a terrible customer experience. And so there’s, you know, little things like that, that we learn every day. And still today. And I would say a big thing for me is, you know, being surrounded by the people that I’m surrounded with, whether it’s you know, the people on the floor, in fulfillment, actually packing the products, or the people in the kitchen making the food, I think the greatest lesson that I’ve learned has come from them has come from, you know, understanding how to deal with different people from different walks of life, how to communicate properly with those people have to build a team that’s so important, because I wouldn’t be where I am today, we wouldn’t be able to ship the meals that we ship if it wasn’t for our employees, and they’re so important. And through that creating, you know, a second chance hiring program, which is also super important to me, to give people opportunities to better their lives, which again, just to meet all goes in this really important mission of the company. And just to help. And I think that that doesn’t just stop at our customers that we’re feeding, but it also is internal work as well. So there’s so many things that I’ve learned over the last 12 years, I’ve grown tremendously as a person as well. And all of those things are just from lessons that not only were taught through the sales of the business and having to pick ourselves back up and just say, look, failing is not an option, how are we going to make this work? How are we going to be creative to find a solution, and also just the people that you meet along the way, which are just so impactful, at least to me in my journey.

Kara Goldin 23:23
I love that that is such a great description, and it sounds like you’re, you know, willing to learn along the way. And also, you know, you’re just super curious about everything. And you know, you didn’t have all the answers, but you were willing to roll up your sleeves, especially when you saw a problem and figure out how to fix it. That’s probably my most favorite thing about being an entrepreneur, I always describe it as a puzzle, and that you are building the puzzle without the picture. And that’s how I you know, describe it to people you know, every day, you probably wake up and you think you’re gonna be doing one thing, and then you end up doing another thing most days. But it’s a lot of fun. And you feel like, you know, sometimes you’re doing things that nobody else has done in the industry. What is the thing that you’ve enjoyed most about being an entrepreneur,

Laureen Asseo 24:16
there’s so much I feel like, you know, you focus on all the hardships, but there’s also so much positive, I think being able to dictate my own journey personally has been huge, I think also creating something that, again, has impact and has meaning. I feel really, really good about waking up every single day knowing that I’m doing the right thing for my life. And that is in helping others and hopefully empowering others. I get to talk to a lot of my employees. And I think that again, I wake up every day and I feel very thankful that I’m able to you know, provide jobs and things like that. So I think being an entrepreneur has so many different facets, but when you build The company, you know, a lot goes with it. And there’s a lot of support that’s needed. And so you’re not only creating something that’s being sold for consumption potentially. But in building that you’re also creating a lot on the back end, that, to me, is really meaningful. All the people who take so much pride and work so hard, on the back end of everything that we do, is also makes me feel really good. I know, I want to continue to give people opportunity to work and hopefully do what they love, and continue to create a fantastic product that we give to our customers, and grow our brand. And I think all of that is the really special part about being an entrepreneur.

Kara Goldin 25:43
No, I love it. It’s such a great answer. So super, congrats on everything. I’m so inspired by you proud of you. And I really think that you’ve done an amazing job. What do you hope others will learn from your journey?

Laureen Asseo 26:00
I think that the biggest thing to me would be to just follow what you love, do what you love. I think there’s a lot of people that go into business to make a lot of money, which I think is the wrong mindset. I think if you go into business, and you start a company to make a lot of money, it’ll probably fail. And you’ll be really disappointed. And I think that if you do what you love, and you follow your heart, and you don’t forget why you started or where you came from, I think that’s what really builds successful businesses, because it’s a really good mindset to be in. And so, you know, for me, I hope that people look at the journey that we’ve been on, and just seeing the growth, and seeing the struggle, but seeing the perseverance, and I think that that’s really important is to persevere and really believe in your mission, really believe in what you’re doing.

Kara Goldin 26:48
You definitely have shown us that it’s not based on age, when you’re starting a company, it’s based on an idea and your ability to go and execute that is so key and having the right partner, I love that you’re working with your brother, and you’ve been able to build something that you all really are helping people in so many ways. So thank you again, it was terrific for me, certainly to hear your story. And this conversation is really, really great. So I thank you for having me appreciate. Absolutely, thanks again.

Laureen Asseo 27:23
Thank you so much.

Kara Goldin 27:24
Thanks all for listening to this episode. We hope you enjoyed it. And I want to thank all of our guests and our sponsors. And finally our listeners keep the great comments coming in. And one final plug if you have not read or listened to my book undaunted, please do so you will hear all about my journey, including founding, scaling and building the company that I founded. Hint we are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Thanks everyone for listening and goodbye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening