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Q&A: Russian healthy snacks entrepreneur looks West
August 10, 2017, 1:25 pm

Elena Shifrina’s Bite health snacks were the first-ever Russian food to serve as the “official snack” of the London Marathon this year

Healthy snacks entrepreneur Elena Shifrina was Forbes Startup of the Year in 2013, Ernst and Young (EY) Startup of the Year in 2014 in the Food Project category, Russia’s Exporter of the Year in 2016 and a mentor and jury member of the Forbes Young Billionaires Club in 2016.

In an article earlier in August, Forbes called her “the face of the healthy snacks sector in Russia”.

The health bar snacks, Bite, produced by her company BioFoodLab are distributed in 14 countries in addition to Russia where 2.5 million bars are sold every month.

The former model and oil executive spoke with The BRICS Post about the challenges young Russians face in order to build a successful business, and what Russian entrepreneurs should expect when breaking into European and North American markets.

THE BRICS POST: Given your experience, how difficult was it for a Russia-based food company in particular to break into Western markets?

Every country has its own specific rules, and you have to adjust to them to operate successfully.

The other pressing issue for Russian entrepreneurs seeking to break into Western markets is whether their product is sufficiently innovative. Competition increases dramatically once you exit the Russian market, especially as your operating costs typically rise. You need to ask yourself if your product has what it takes to win over the consumer.

If you cannot answer “yes” to that question, then you need to think hard about how to improve, or pivot your product.

For some Russian entrepreneurs and foreign consumers, there might also be a mental issue at play at the moment.

This is not something that we have experienced personally, but you can imagine that some might feel slightly inhibited, when considering Western expansion, by their belief that anything Russian at the moment is painted with a negative brush in the media. For us, however, our transition has been smooth thanks to the global strength of the product.

We did not experience any particular difficulties per se. When we provided product samples to partners and consumers at an exhibition in the UK, they were immediately impressed with our Bite bars, noting their unique, well-defined taste.

The British especially liked our kumquat bars. One of our primary advantages is that we do not add sugar to our products. For example, we do not mask its use through supposedly beneficial syrups, such as Jerusalem artichoke syrup. The UK does have strict standards and technical requirements for brands and packaging, and this could indeed serve as an obstacle for some companies looking to expand globally.

With your recent success as the official snack of the London Marathon will you now be targeting North American food markets?

Yes, of course. One of our strategic export markets is the United States. We understand that the competition will be formidable, because the healthy food market began developing much earlier there than in Russia.

At the same time, we have a loyal audience of Bite consumers in the United States, who make purchases on our online store. We also held taste-tests of Bite among runners in San Francisco, Boston and New York, and the feedback was very positive.

There has been a lot of Russia bashing in mostly North American press; do you feel this poses a market challenge for Russian entrepreneurs such as yourself trying to break into West European and North American markets?

This is, of course, more a political issue than anything else. In our case, it hasn’t prevented us from negotiating with partners. After all, Russia has been discussed prevalently in the media over the past several years, and this has actually piqued the interest of foreign business communities in Russian goods, especially Russian food products.

I think that when exporting Bite [health bars] to the US market, the only difficulties that could potentially arise would involve logistics or customs.

In the UK, though, we were able to cope promptly with any new requirements that we were presented, and we are expecting a fairly streamlined entry into the US market as well.

By Firas Al-Atraqchi for The BRICS Post