Interview With Katina Mountanos
Describe your product or service:
“Kosterina is a wellness brand centered around the extraordinary benefits of high-antioxidant extra virgin olive oil from Greece and the clean Mediterranean lifestyle. Kosterina’s hero product and ingredient is an ultra high-antioxidant extra virgin olive oil from Greece, a super ingredient that works from both the inside and outside to provide significant health and skincare benefits.”
Describe your company values and mission:
“Kosterina is reinventing the olive oil category within expected and unexpected channels. With decades of tried-and-true expertise and a direct connection to olive farming, Kosterina leads with transparency, authenticity, and heritage. Kosterina EVOO is authentically Mediterranean, delicious to smell, taste, and cook with, and, above all, loaded with health benefits. This ethos permeates through all of Kosterina’s products and is further underscored with the launch of Kosterina Skincare. Kosterina Skincare utilizes innovative new technologies that avoid the use of emulsifiers altogether.”
How are you funded? I.e. type of funding, number of funding rounds, total funding amount.
“We’ve raised $5 million in venture capital.”
How big is your team? Tell us a little about them!
“We have six full-time staffers and a total of 12 with contractors and freelancers. I refer to them as the dream team; they’re incredibly passionate about the Blue Zone and our mission to help people live a longer, more delicious life.”
How did you come up with and validate your startup idea? Tell us the story!
“After years of enjoying EVOO pressed from my family’s olive trees in Southern Greece, I took an EVOO sommelier course and became enamored with the idea that this heritage oil was the key to longevity and health. In fact, the average Greek person consumes 17 kilograms of olive oil per year, but Americans consume less than one. I wanted to create a brand that naturally educated consumers about the health properties of this delicious oil.
As I continued to learn about the space, I was shocked to discover that many of the olive oils in the US are not what they say they are. In fact, the majority of olive oil in US supermarkets is mislabeled as extra virgin. So, we partnered with Greek farmers to develop a premium, delicious Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil for the US market. Specifically, we created one that’s authentically Mediterranean; delicious to smell, taste, and cook with, and, above all, loaded with health benefits. Our extra virgin olive oil is rich in polyphenols (antioxidants) due to our usage of early harvested Koroneiki olives, sourced from the Peloponnese region of Greece.”
How did you come up with your startup's name? Did you have other names you considered?
“My first name is Katerina, and my husband’s is Kostas, so Kosterina was the relationship shorthand our friends gave us — and eventually even our wedding hashtag. I started the brand, Kosterina, after our wedding and realized not only was it a beautiful representation of our Greek names and unity that helped create the brand, but I also already owned [the] URL. I’m reminded of our story every time I hear the brand name or read the label, as family and the Mediterranean lifestyle are at the bedrock of the brand.”
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Did you always want to start your own business? What made you want to become an entrepreneur?
“I was lucky to work for two incredible entrepreneurs at Quidsi (an ecommerce company that sold to Amazon) who inspired me to want to start my own company. They gave me so much autonomy very early in my career, and it was exhilarating. I knew I could never go back to big corporate life for the long term.”
What was the biggest obstacle you encountered while launching your company? How did you overcome it?
“We launched in January, right before COVID of 2020. With the rest of the world, we ran into major supply chain issues, like the international glass shortage. We had the unfortunate luck of running into these issues in that crucial first year when you need to prove yourself to retailers. But, we’re a team of passionate endurers. We persevered and made it through the other end, dedicating our time and energy to ensuring we were making our orders in time and are even stronger after having dealt with such a crisis in the infancy of our business.”
Who is your target market? How did you establish the right market for your startup?
“We have two main demographics. First, we cater to health-aspirational customers. This is a group of health-focused consumers who want to make better choices about what they put in their bodies. Second, many of our customers are foodies and know the choices they make in the grocery store have a direct impact on the quality of meal they’re preparing at home or product they’re gifting.”
What's your primary marketing strategy?
“We’re in Whole Foods, so much of our marketing is in-store through promotions and demos. Getting customers to simply try the product is key, as they can instantly taste the difference.
Secondly, we know that content is paramount. We work to promote healthy eating and living through the Mediterranean lifestyle via Facebook, Instagram, and now TikTok. We also have a weekly wellness newsletter, and we also focus quite a bit on recipe development. We’ve launched a podcast, ‘The Inquisitive Olive,’ focused on health and high performance, which has more new episodes debuting this Fall.”
How did you acquire your first 100 customers?
“This was all through word of mouth. The product is inherently sharable at the table, so our first customers could share with friends and family in a natural setting where people gather.”
What are the key customer metrics / unit economics / KPIs you pay attention to to monitor the health of your business?
“NPS [Net Promoter Score]! We have an all-time NPS of almost 90, which is unheard of.”
What's your favorite startup book and podcast?
“My favorite startup book is definitely ‘Pour Your Heart Into It,’ by Howard Schultz, of course, discussing the rise of Starbucks. My favorite startup podcast has got to be ‘In the Sauce’ hosted by Ali Cayne and founder of fellow Whole Foods darling brand, Haven’s Kitchen. The show is a ‘how-to’ in the food CPG business that’s quite aspirational and an excellent listen for those looking to grow.”
Is there a tool, app, or resource that you swear by to help run your startup?
“There’s nothing more important than the basics. Shopify is my favorite tried and true tool, specifically because it’s seamless for subscriptions. I also use Remarkable, which is a digital notebook that looks like real paper. It helps keep me organized, especially when I’m on the move.”
What is something that surprised you about entrepreneurship?
“The incredible highs and lows have been the most surprising. You can think your company’s failing and also be on top of the world, all in the same day. Also, being a founder is all-consuming. I live, breathe, and sleep Kosterina, even when my focus is also elsewhere.”
How do you achieve work/life balance as a founder?
“I have three young children, and it forces work/life balance. No matter what’s going on with the business, there are markers throughout the day I can’t miss — getting them ready for school, dinner at 6:00 p.m., and bedtime. It helps me redirect focus on my family, and as a founder, you need that help.”
When did you know it was time to quit your day job to focus on your startup?
“I began Kosterina as a passion project while I was still in a full-time role at a large company. We had one SKU — our Original Extra Virgin Olive Oil — for several years, and one day, I decided to run an NPS survey, which is a way to gauge how likely it is customers will recommend you to others. From my experience in retail, I knew that a good score was something in the ‘50s or ‘60s, but our first NPS survey score came back at 100. I realized that even though the product could always be improved, that consumers loved it and that we were onto something.”
What was your first job and what did it teach you?
“I grew up in restaurants. My dad ran several, and now he has a catering hall, so I was always helping out. It’s where I fell in love with food but also where I learned how much hard work goes into the back of the house. It was apparent every day that you have to be efficient and cost-effective to keep afloat in the food industry.”