Molly Fienning on how Red Clay turned her into a hot sauce fanatic and CEO
Describe your business in a few words?
Red Clay is a cold-pressed, made-for-foodies hot sauce and hot honey brand, named “Tabasco for the 21st century” by Food and Wine Magazine and “a hot honey to elevate your meal” by The New York Times. Crafted by a talented Southern chef, we focus on delicious flavor, sustainably-sourced ingredients and enhancing your plate of food, instead of overpowering it with too much heat.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
Ten years ago, I started my first CPG business Babiators–aviator sunglasses for babies and kids. In 2014, when I was pregnant with our second son, all I craved were martinis and oysters–and I could clearly have neither! So our first date post-baby, my husband took me to our favorite oyster bar in town. The bartender asked if I wanted hot sauce with my oysters, describing how thoughtfully the restaurant’s chef crafted it to honor the local Fresno peppers. I tried it and thought it was the best thing I had ever tasted. My husband and I met Chef Geoff that night and we co-invested to launch Red Clay as a brand a few weeks later. I genuinely wanted to help bring this beautiful sauce to market. Red Clay made me a hot sauce convert AND a hot sauce CEO.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
I’m a born-and-raised NYC girl who went to Harvard to study Electrical Engineering & Computer Science. Five years later, I re-met a Southern boy from Harvard who had become a Marine Corps fighter pilot. We fell in love, and I found myself a military wife living in Charleston, SC raising our two sons Sawyer (9) and Fox (5). We started Babiators together in 2010 and since then have sold 4+ million pairs of our aviator shades for kids. In 2014, I invested in Red Clay as a founding partner, and in 2018 I stepped in as CEO of Red Clay to scale it nationally. I’m a serial entrepreneur at heart and love the creativity of building product-based businesses and developing authentic relationships with consumers.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Nope! For most of my life, I wanted to work for the government in intelligence. When I fell in love with my husband and realized I’d be living near military air bases for many years, we moved to rural Mississippi and I realized that I had to start my own ventures if I wanted to do consistent work that challenged me. Once I launched our first startup, I realized how natural a fit entrepreneurship is to me, my personality and my strengths.
Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received when starting out was from my husband’s college roommate (and Co-founder of Warby Parker), Dave Gilboa. He launched Warby a year before Babiators, and he advised that no matter what your budget is, you have to launch with PR to generate earned media. And seeing this now a few times over with our businesses, I 100% agree.
Launching any business with some form of PR partner is essential to a business’ ability to grow by getting the word out to the right customer base. You cannot try to sell your product to everyone or you’ll reach no one. You have to be thoughtful about who your customer is and speak directly to her and more people like her. Whether it’s influencer gifting, print media, online media, TV or podcasts, a good PR partner helps you craft the right story and share your brand & products with your specific tribe to grow and scale.
We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?
When Whole Foods Market and the Fresh Market both ordered Red Clay for their stores, we were thrilled and knew we had to find the right co-manufacturing partner to scale and grow with those grocery accounts. We reached out to hot sauce makers all over the nation and every one of them used heat processing (boiling their peppers) to make sauce. We weren’t willing to sacrifice our cold-pressed technique — since that’s what makes Red Clay delicious and healthy (a raw, live, fermented probiotic that elevates your food with flavor).
I was nervous that we’d be hand-bottling the large orders late into the night for months!! Then, our Head of Operations inspired me to think outside the box to find the right partner. We started reaching out to fresh pressed juicers and kombucha makers and found a juice factory who was willing to partner with us on our cold-pressed, fermented processes. We were able to stay true to our company’s values and process, honoring those fresh local ingredients–which is what makes Red Clay unique. AND we didn’t have to hand-bottle thousands of bottles of Red Clay! Phew! 🙂
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
For me, in this lifetime, I’d like to be useful and of service to others somehow. And I’m learning more and more that I am able to do that by using my experience in entrepreneurship to guide or mentor others along their own entrepreneurial journeys–specifically other female leaders). When I hear from someone that my advice helped her business or her personal well-being somehow, those are the times I’m most proud of the work I’m doing.
When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?
For me, so much about hiring is whether that person works well in the day to day with you and the team you’ve built, which is truly hard to gauge during an interview. That said, when you’re searching, I recommend looking for someone with a positive attitude, a willingness to grow/learn/change, an excitement to work hard, a passion for the brand & its mission and some of the skills you’ll need (if not all of them already) for the particular role.
When I’m speaking with a candidate, I am myself: are they excited about the business? Do they truly understand what you’re trying to accomplish? Are they a positive and cheerful energy? Have they demonstrated an ability to work hard in the past? Those are things in my head when I’m speaking to someone.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic, a third of our revenue and projected growth came from foodservice and hospitality, which diminished to zero in March of 2020. To compensate, we trimmed expenses quickly and leaned into our digital presence and influencing gifting…which served us well as many people transitioned into purchasing their groceries and food products direct-to-consumer.
We gifted chefs and food influencers across the country, one of whom was Jenna Bush Hager. A few days after gifting her, I was on a call with our Sales Director and could hear endless pinging in the background of his phone. He said to me, ‘There are 800 people on our site right now!’ I knew that magnitude had to be TV. Jenna Bush Hager held up two bottles of Red Clay on the Today Show, declaring them among her favorite things. We sold $30,000 of product in a weekend.
It was a pivotal moment in 2020 for Red Clay. Things went from work, work, work because we might not make it to work, work, work because we can’t keep up with sales. Jenna’s and Hoda’s support made a transformative impact in our growing business.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
At Red Clay, we’ve built a strong brand name and engaged customer base for our hot sauces and hot honey across the South, and we’re excited to expand further into new regions of the country. Up next, we have California in our sights!
In addition, we’re launching a collection of chef-driven Red Clay seasonings and spice blends, inspired by the beautiful fermented pepper mash that’s left after we cold-press the juice out of our fermenting peppers. Spicy margarita salt, spicy Bloody Mary salt, Spicy Everything But the Bagel Salt and more!
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
There’s nothing more important than love and loving relationships with yourself and others.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?
Success in small business is a marathon, not a sprint. You’re signing up for years of consistent, hard and FUN work, but it’s not a quick fix. A million small decisions contribute to whether or not a small business succeeds. Few things ever do go the way you expect, and there’s no one right-or-wrong decision that can make or break you. The key to success is perseverance and being willing to pivot, flex, change course when you feel you and your team needs it.
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
Since I work very hard during the day, I care a lot about making bookends of my day beautiful and grounding. I love making breakfast for my family and being there for our boys’ storytime and bedtime. And for pampering myself, I like to do some sort of prayer, journaling, reflection in the morning with my coffee before I start work and an evening walk along the waterfront in Charleston to unwind alone or sometimes with my husband or a friend. Being deliberate about a slow beginning and end of each day grounds me from the turbulent ups & downs of building a business that we ALL experience, especially this year.
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
There is no such thing as balance, so don’t even try to achieve it. All the different facets of my identity make the complex, loving human I am (woman, mama, wife, girlfriend, CEO), and the roles blend together in beautiful chaos.
The most important lesson I’ve learned is we as a culture need to stop multitasking. If a woman tries to do everything at once, she’s doing nothing well, depletes herself and frustrates those around her. I want to start a renaissance of the value of uni-tasking. The art of the uni-task: to be fully present in whatever we’re doing right now, this very moment. My kids, my husband or my work can feel my full attention when they receive it, and they flourish. If I’m playing Legos on the floor with my son while simultaneously, distractedly answering a text to a colleague, no one’s cup is getting filled.
We also need to make sure to take quality time away and leave space for PLAY. Even when you love what you’re doing, running your own business is all-encompassing and can exhaust you. You need to make sure you make time for inspiration and joy outside of work too–with family, with your friends and alone creatively. Time to pause and bring back a fresh perspective can do wonders for your own well-being and your business’ growth.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
I ironically didn’t like hot sauce before I tried out Red Clay!
Also, my childhood dream was to be either a wizard or an international spy.
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?
1. I need 7 or 8 hours of good sleep to function. I have a regular bedtime routine (that requires not looking at screens at night) and make sure I’m in bed by 9pm if I’m not going out that night.
2. I need to play to function. I book regular time to rejuvenate/take breaks/stoke the fire of happiness & joy alone, with my girlfriends, with my family so I don’t burn out on work.
3. Don’t try to do your entire to-do list at once, or you’ll get overwhelmed and shut down. At the start of each day, I write down the three things on a note card that are the most important tasks to get done that day, and I do them first while I’m caffeinated (and before there are too many other distractions calling my name).
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
An Entreprenista has big plans to put her own stamp on the world (and also have a blast while doing it!). She knows life is beautiful and precious, and she plans to do as much as she can while she’s here with love.
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