“Pursue and persist. Just keep getting up.” – DAVID WINTZER
“My guess is that 80 percent of people would have quit by now,” says David Wintzer of his venture, the first and only banana-flour company in the United States. After hearing his story, one might put the estimate closer to 99 percent.
The long road to success hasn’t been for lack of vision or genuine intentions. Indeed, WEDO Gluten Free is committed first and foremost to the health of its customers and making a difference in the world by giving back. Rather, the arduous journey was inevitable because the founders are pioneers in the food industry, forging a new path every step of the way.
In 2008, David traveled to Kenya as part of a humanitarian mission to provide microloans for entrepreneurs. While there, he worked with a group of women—WEDO, or Women Entrepreneurs Development Organization—who produced banana flour using a simple and streamlined process. Green bananas were peeled, sliced, dried, and milled into a smooth, fine flour. No additives, no preservatives—just a wholesome and versatile product for everyday cooking.
After returning home, David explored the market viability of bringing banana flour to the United States. The demand for gluten-free products and Paleo alternatives was on the rise, and banana flour was the perfect replacement for its wheat-based counterpart.
Impressed as he was by the product’s unique attributes, David was also motivated by his interactions abroad. “There was such a sincerity and kindness in the way our hosts welcomed us,” he recalls. “There was a beautiful exchange of mutual admiration and gratitude that sparked a change in me. It made me want to pursue a path of connectedness and it helped me truly see the world as a whole.”
With this perspective, David was driven to promote well-being at home and provide economic opportunities abroad. He teamed up with his long-time friend Todd Francis to create WEDO Gluten Free. Having integrated banana flour into their own diets with positive results, the pair was guided by a belief in the product and their own ability to start a business while doing good in the world.
Introducing a new food product in the United States is no small endeavor. If studying FDA regulations and import specifications seems yawn inducing, imagine combing through these details for two years. David invested countless hours in self-education on the subject, all while sustaining full-time work to save enough funds to launch the venture.
Even with his newfound expertise, the next few years were complicated by setbacks.
Hoping to source from the women he had worked with in Kenya, David invested a summer abroad and thousands from his savings to build a small production factory in the country.
He spent long days overseeing construction, guiding contractors on strict specifications to bring the building up to code. Away from the construction site, he spent time securing operating documents, whiling away afternoons waiting for approvals. When specialized equipment arrived in the capital, he made long trips to ensure its safe transport back to the factory, assembling teams of day workers to unload the unwieldy machinery.
After months of investment, everyone had high expectations for the new facility. The output needed to be sufficient to fill large containers that would make shipping costs viable. The flour also needed to be produced quickly enough to hold a long shelf life after distribution. After several weeks of touch-and-go operations, they discovered the output was not adequate on either front.
Short of establishing a second facility, there was no option but to shutter the operation and look elsewhere. “Breaking this news to our suppliers was one of the most difficult and heart-wrenching conversations I’ve ever had,” says David, “let alone the immense blow to WEDO’s progress.”
He began the search for an alternative and found a supplier in the Philippines. At this point, all of the founders’ savings had been spent, so they looked to family and friends for loans and invested everything into a large order from a company there.
While waiting for the delivery, David and his team devoted their time to securing product orders. They contacted grocery stores and food suppliers, restaurants, and bakeries. Dozens of new customers were eager to test the flour.
On the day of the expected shipment’s arrival, David got a call from the port authorities. There had been a leak in the shipping container and mold had spread throughout the cargo. No bag was salvageable. The entire consignment was useless. The authorities wouldn’t even allow the shipment to be unloaded.
“It was absolutely crushing,” David recalls. “We had dedicated years to making this a reality and we had to admit defeat in that moment. All of our customers were expecting the product and we failed them. We had overpromised and under delivered.”
To say they were back at square one would be generous. After nearly five years of effort, the team had no product, they owed money, and they still needed reliable suppliers.
They were able to secure a small investment to travel to India, Ecuador, Peru, and back to the Philippines to meet with several producers. Eventually, they found suppliers in South America who were equipped to meet their needs. At last, WEDO was ready to place its third order.
The only trouble was that every last penny of the investment had been spent on visiting the facilities.
At this point the team turned to Kickstarter. After exhausting all other avenues, they hoped crowdsourcing would provide the necessary jumpstart to get WEDO off the ground.
While this period may have been a low point, one wouldn’t know it by watching their Kickstarter video. At once comical and informative, the short film follows David through his parents’ garage as he “slices” bananas with a power saw and “dehydrates” them with a blow dryer before “milling” them with an antiquated device. It seems his deadpan expression will break into a smile at any moment, revealing the lightness and humor he seeks to infuse into WEDO’s marketing.
Being able to take this quirky, playful approach is one of the elements David enjoys most about running his own company. “I love the freedom to express myself. I don’t have to ask for permission or wait for someone to tell me the approach is right or wrong. That’s how I know I’m successful in spite of any outward measure of success—I’m able to explore my own creativity and bring it fully to life.”
Thanks to this genuine approach, WEDO had an enormously successful campaign. Seven hundred backers supported them with $35,000—enough to secure another shipment and enter the next phase of growth.
Looking back, David believes the company’s current success is due in large part to all of the bumps along the way. “We are living proof that it isn’t easy, but also that good things come to those who wait. You have to pursue and persist. You have to keep getting back up.”
In fact, the idea of not getting back up has always been more frightening to David than failure. “There would have been so much more pain if I hadn’t tried,” he says. “There would have always been the terrible question, ‘What if?’”
David doesn’t allow himself to ask that question very often. Even though it may be intimidating, he never lets fear stop him from reaching out for help when necessary. “One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is how often people say yes,” he says.
“Recently we reached out requesting advice from a prominent expert by sending a handwritten card with a package of banana-flour cookies. She is at the top of her field and especially busy, but she gave us almost an hour of her time and opened a lot of doors for us. The package we sent was simple, but the gesture was genuine. If you have a sincere story and great product, people believe in you.”
Now in over 400 stores, WEDO banana flour is finally having the impact David always envisioned. “We often hear from customers telling us how important the product has become in their diet—not just as a substitute, but as a staple in improving their health. These stories thrill me. Knowing we are making a difference makes my heart sing.”
It isn’t just the customers who benefit. For every product sold, WEDO donates a portion of the profits to the World Food Program. This decision was made early on, before banana flour was even on the shelves. Since day one, the company’s founders have been committed to giving back.
The other element present since WEDO’s earliest days is David’s tenacious drive for self-improvement. He consistently invests in himself. Every month he sets aside three percent of his income to spend on business-related education like magazines and books. He is committed to expanding his knowledge both within his field and as an entrepreneur.
“You can’t become content in success,” David cautions. “I believe in the idea that success is never owned. It is rented. Rent is due every single day. If you become successful and then complacent, the game is over.”
This voracity for constant improvement will ensure that WEDO continues to grow. Now that it has proven itself as a pioneer in the food industry, the company can explore new frontiers for distribution and expansion. “Success will follow if you follow your heart,” David believes. Indeed, that strategy has helped him stay the course when so many others would have given up long ago.
Excerpt from Take Back Monday
Copyright © 2015 by Rebecca Burton and Robin Konie