Spring Sheep takes sheep milk from start-up to fully fledged New Zealand industry
Spring Sheep’s challenge in taking a sheep milk industry to the world
In 2016 CEO of Spring Sheep Milk Co., Scottie Chapman joined the Te Hono partnership, attending the annual Stanford Bootcamp. At bootcamp he announced Spring Sheep Milk Co was going to lead the creation of a new industry for New Zealand. Four years on from this announcement he explains what the bootcamp experience gave him, what actions he has led Spring Sheep to take post-bootcamp, the challenges faced and the results delivered so far.
“Going to Stanford for me was a big deal because I was one of the start-ups in the group; I wasn’t one of the big companies. I thought Stanford and Palo Alto were going to be the main, cool inspiration. It was cool, but what was inspiring and what mattered was the group of people I attended bootcamp with, and how the professors that delivered bootcamp provided us with an environment which allowed us to be really open; an environment that genuinely allowed us to operate without boundaries between us. It was an enlightening experience to get that feeling that I could say what I think, amongst people who are very experienced and good at what they do. When I left bootcamp I felt I could do anything – the lone nut, the fast follower - that’s just normal there. No one thought it was weird I wanted to start milking sheep.”
Creating a new sheep milk industry meant challenging current ways of thinking
One of bootcamp’s premises is to challenge engrained ways of thinking and doing. Scottie’s biggest outtake from bootcamp was from a task given to the group the first day, which was to solve the [worlds’] biggest problems.
“We were asked to look at the problem on earth from the moon and work backwards. The professors placed a restriction on the task - we weren’t allowed to come up with a solution until four days later. Everyone wanted to solve it straight away because that’s how we’re programmed – fix it and move on to the next problem, because in business there’s always a hundred things to do. The solutions we got to were really interesting – they were much better than what we would have got on the first day if we had been allowed to try and solve it straight away. It’s thinking I apply at Spring Sheep today, even when the hundred new to dos keep coming.”
At bootcamp Scottie announced what Spring Sheep was going to do. One year into the company’s journey he stood in front of many of the primary sector leaders and explained that Spring Sheep was about to create a new industry for New Zealand.
Creating a sheep milk industry required solving two problems
“When we said we would set up an industry for New Zealand we defined that as one that would be scalable; to turn sheep milk into an industry that was similar to goat milk; preferably bigger, but along those lines, providing a sustainable and environmentally sound alternative and a product that is more easily digestible and better for consumers.”
When Scottie made the announcement, another Te Hono partner told him he had a challenge on his hands – he was trying to solve two problems: working out how to milk sheep in New Zealand (others had tried sheep farming for milk before and failed) and creating a market without having sold anything yet.
“We knew creating supply and demand at the same time wasn’t going to be without its challenges. But there were well considered reasons as to why I was happy to invest and bring people along on the journey. I knew we had a superior product to cow’s milk, and we should be able to create a market for it. The people around us knew how to get to those markets, and New Zealand is really good at farming sheep.
"That’s not to say we haven’t been surprised by anything. Gaining market access was more challenging than we thought it would be. We solved the supply side and we knew consumers wanted an alternative product, but getting across borders has been a slower process than we imagined.
"We are now in Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, China and NZ with more markets opening. We were a start up for the first four years and now we’re a scale up and have actually made this an industry as opposed to just a company."
From sheep farm to the Spring Sheep boardroom – people matter
Pursuing this large goal required the right people and attitude from day one.
“We had to put 100% into this from the start. We don’t have an existing business providing cashflow to test a new product in market, this has to work or we’re dead and buried. We’re fortunate to be surrounded by really good governors, support and a lot of people that want to make Spring Sheep and this new industry work. As things go wrong, we can’t get scared and pull back, as there is no business as usual to go back to. We spend millions of dollars a year and that’s ok because we’re on the right path and we absolutely have to keep going. We’re focused and we have a fantastic team of people who are prepared to try things and move on. No one ever gets knocked down for failing.”
Looking ahead Scottie knows the demand for sheep milk is likely to increase.
“I’m fairly confident we understand what that will look like for the next five years. The questions are is this latent demand going to be 10 or 50 times the size of current supply? How do we ensure we don’t oversupply and work on having to fix it, instead ensuring that we get it right from the start? We need to be very careful we hold supply and have levers to turn on and off. At the moment we’re turning on all the levers. We need to be about two to three years ahead on thinking as to when we limit and how we do that.”
When Scottie is ready to return to bootcamp he knows he’ll be stepping into a space and interacting with people who are completely open and are looking for change.
“The change is hard, but we all want to achieve it because we know the status quo is not the way forward. Te Hono is the conduit to the change we need to make happen. There’s value in being the first to change and the consumer will pay those who lead."