After being in the food industry for 11 years, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also failed hard and succeeded. It’s the failure part no one ever wants to write about. The mistakes and horror stories that made my company what it is today. And that’s exactly why I wrote this guide for you.

I want you to learn from my mistakes so you (hopefully) don’t make the same wrong decisions. My goal is for you to build a profitable company that supports your family, makes tasty food, and is, most important of all, fun for you to wake up and build every single morning. Let’s get started:

25 mistakes I've Made Running My Food Business

25 Mistakes I’ve Made Running My Food Business

1. Not thinking my ideas through

I used to be a fan of writing my ideas for food businesses on one sheet of notebook paper (if I could even get it out of my head). But, that isn’t enough to flesh out the idea of starting a food business. You have to think about marketing, operations, production, sales, accounting, distribution, packaging, labeling, hiring, etc.

My advice? Write a business plan. Even if it’s just 3­5 pages. Get something down. Then, research your idea to see if you really can make it happen.

2. Not protecting my legal assets soon enough

In July 2014, we received letter from a large condiment manufacturer asking us to stop using the name of one of our mustards because it infringed on their trademark.

While I wasn’t up for spending thousands of dollars in legal fees, we ultimately decided to change the name. That taught me I needed to protect all of my legal assets and slowly build a legal portfolio. You should do the same if you have a unique company name, product name, or slogan.

3. Putting everything on debit cards

The food industry is cash ­intensive. That means a lot of cash is going out. At the same, you’re waiting 30 – ­60 days for your cash to come in. For the first four years of my business, everything was purchased using a debit card.

While that worked when we were just starting out, it failed me as we tried to grow. The value of credit cards is you get 30 “extra” days to pay the bill. That’s nice when invoices from your suppliers climb into the thousands. Before you run and finance your food business on three credit cards, make sure you have the money in the bank to pay them off.

Otherwise, you end up in debt. And we all know debt sucks.

4. Thinking I could make the product myself

mustard on display

Promoting at a local farmer’s market over the weekend.

In 2007, I made the first jars of Green Mountain Mustard with my Dad on the stove at my parent’s house. We made three jars, then nine, then twelve. Within weeks it became 36 jars a night after work ­ three times a week. That was exhausting.

Rather than continue the trend of slaving over a hot stovetop, I looked for a co­-packer to produce my product (read about my experiences in the The Ultimate Guide to Profitable Co­-Packing). Why did I co­pack? Simply because if I spent all my time making the product, there would be no one to sell it. And if you don’t sell your product, well, you don’t make any money.

5. Thinking I could do everything myself

There’s a lot involved when running your own business, as I’ve already mentioned. As a single­founder, I thought I could do everything. You know, Chief Cook and Bottlewasher kind of thing. Newsflash: I can’t. I started outsourcing data entry, online order shipments (thanks, Mom!), retail store leads, and more recently events, demos, and farmer’s markets.

All so I can focus on growing my company. When you’re starting out ­ I’d say the first year or two ­ you can probably do it all yourself. However, as you grow, you’ll want to bring on some team members to off­load what you don’t want to do.

6. Not hiring a professional packaging designer

hidden cost of mustard

My rebranded mustard line after working with a designer.

In 2014, I spent $6,000 to rebrand Green Mountain Mustard. It’s the most money I’ve spent to do anything in the 11 years I’ve owned a food company.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. When starting out, I designed my own labels ­ and they were poor print quality, looked like every other Vermont company’s products in the grocery store, and quite frankly, they were pretty ugly. I needed a change, found a designer (who is now a great friend, too), and redesigned our packaging. Now, I sell a lot of mustard simply because it looks cool. Walk the summer or winter fancy food shows. You’ll notice how there are a ton of companies with beautiful packaging. That’s your competition. Make your packaging just as, if not more, beautiful.

Here’s a look at what my labeling used to look like. Looking back, it was pretty amateur.

gourmet mustard

My original DIY packaging / branding.

7. Not measuring a correct net weight for my product

This was my first production error. I produced 1,200 jars. And screwed up the net weight. My co­packer said she was using 10 oz jars. That meant 10 oz of mustard, right? Wrong.

The volume of what you put in the container is not always the container size ­ just compare the volume of cement compared to feathers. The net weight is completely different. We ended up having to sticker every single label by hand. A nightmare? You bet. Get your net weight correct the first time.

8. Not searching for the best packaging solution

I picked a 9 oz straight­sided jar because it looked nice and was inexpensive. But, everyone else and their mother uses the jar for their product. I can count several Vermont producers alone. Along with the importance of packaging design (see #6), it’s also important to choose the right container for your product.

Don’t choose the cheapest because it’s cheap. Think about how you want your brand represented on the shelf and when you’re holding the product in your hands. Then, make your packaging decisions. And find the best price. Ordering a pallet of anything is going to be cheaper per unit ­ the same with ordering 3­5 pallets. Shop around and bargain, just like you would when you’re buying a car.

9. Ordering far too many labels, just to get a better price

I’ve made this mistake 3 times. I’ll learn eventually. The first time, I had the net weight problem. I tossed 3,000 labels. Then