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Sir Kensington’s final shareholder letter: 10 lessons from 10 years of entrepreneurship

In their final message to their early investors, the founders of the Unilever-owned condiment brand reflect on their journey.

Sir Kensington’s final shareholder letter: 10 lessons from 10 years of entrepreneurship
[Photos: courtesy of Sir Kensington’s; gresei/iStock]
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More than three years after announcing the sale of the gourmet condiment maker to Unilever, the cofounders of Sir Kensington’s have moved on. Scott Norton, who stayed on as the brand’s CEO, will advise and invest in startups through N+1 Ventures, launching this week. His move follows the departure of Mark Ramadan in 2019. Ramadan is now CEO of food company Hu, a New York-based chocolate and snacking business. They shared their final letter to their early investors exclusively with Fast Company. Edited excerpts follow:

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Ten years ago, we started Sir Kensington’s to change the way America thinks about condiments by zagging when others zigged. After growing the business, being acquired by Unilever in 2017, more than tripling in scale since the acquisition, and finalizing plans to hand the reins to new leadership, we reflected on how the experience has shaped how we act as leaders. These 10 lessons resulted from mistakes, challenges, pain, and failure, but also taught us resilience, openness to change, and commitment to trusting our own intuition.

1.) Leave room for magic. Don’t let logic control you.

Even if we had conducted a thousand focus groups before launch, no one would have suggested that we name our company after a fictional British knight.

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The bigger you get, the more you have to resist letting the spreadsheets and PowerPoints limit your thinking. Taking logical analysis at face value can lure you into a false sense of being able to predict the future. Resist deterministic thinking and over-forecasting, so you may embrace the possibility of alchemy.

2.) Your secret ingredient is people. Quickly recognize and invest in your force multipliers.

Precious few team members will have a profound effect on your business. Recognize those people early, and do everything you can to keep them engaged, curious, and passionate. Talented team members proactively move to the biggest opportunities and seize them. They see challenges as growth opportunities for both themselves and the company.

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Their good habits will shine onto others as they host informal teach-ins, go the extra mile to recruit and onboard new team members, and take ownership by bringing order to ambiguous opportunities. Find ways to appreciate them. Give them a voice in crafting the company.

3.) Contrarians often spot opportunities that others overlook. But being a contrarian doesn’t mean throwing out every industry norm.

Determine where you want to be distinctive and different, and where it makes sense to match industry practices. At the beginning, we tried to reinvent every wheel—sourcing our own custom (inconveniently shaped) glass jars, rejecting the wisdom of industry “experts,” and reorganizing a department every time someone left the company (or so it seemed). While this approach led to solutions others hadn’t cracked, it also led to expending lots of energy internally rather than in serving customers.

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Over time, we learned to be deliberate about what tried-and-true standards to adopt and where to focus our creativity to be truly differentiated. Know what you want to specialize in and organize the company around that.

4.) Embrace the gift of feedback. What feels like friction is actually polish.

You will always accomplish more if you can surrender your ego—be open to feedback, encourage others to give it to you, and model a culture that makes having difficult conversations cathartic rather than taboo. Criticism can be personal and painful, though be grateful for those who shine a light on your blind spots.

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Healthy feedback isn’t just criticism. Giving praise is a sign of strength and trust, not weakness. Sharing authentic praise more often than constructive feedback contributes to a culture of psychological safety. As much as possible, reward the accomplishments of teams as opposed to individuals. Explicitly frame behavior as praiseworthy not because of what the team did for you but what they did to make the company stronger.

5.) People might not remember what you say. But they always remember how you make them feel.

Like it or not, the emotional energy of the company takes its cues from you, and if you have a cofounder, your relationship. Take a moment to set your leadership intentions about how you want to show up before a meeting. Learn to talk authentically about the emotions you’re experiencing even when they are fear and sadness—not just the excitement and anger, which are already normalized in the American workplaces.

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The experience of entrepreneurship is a roller coaster, with high highs and low lows. In either case, respond, don’t react. With practice, you’ll develop an equanimity through these extremes and be a rock for your team to lean on. We highly recommend getting a leadership coach to level up your game and your partnership skills here.

6.) Develop your storytelling abilities. This will amplify everything you and your company want to say.

Humans are emotional creatures who have, over time, gained the capacity for logic. Stories create emotional stakes and enrollment and can unlock a sense of purpose. Storytelling is crucial to present a compelling vision everyone can get behind, and to make employees and customers feel a part of something bigger than themselves. No matter what business you’re in, you are in the human energy business. Take every opportunity to practice storytelling and encourage your team to step into their natural talents here.

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7.) The best people will join your company for a “why,” not a “what.”

You’ve probably heard this countless times, but it bears repeating. Recruiting and retaining the best people will be fundamentally easier if you have a clear “why” and purpose for your company (see previous lesson). This purpose can’t be “to generate cash flows,” but it doesn’t have to be reversing climate change or saving the world either. Why do you care, beyond the money? If you don’t have an answer, then how can you expect others to?

8.) Culture comes from the top, the bottom, and everywhere in between.

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When it comes to values, culture, and behavioral norms, it’s a truism that it has to come from the top. People look to the leaders’ actions about what truly matters, not the words in the handbook. The choices you make about ethics, inclusion, and the integrity of your word set the standards for your team, and those choices need to flow through all parts of the business.

Tolerating breaches of these values at any level of the organization is to implicitly declare they don’t matter. There will be times where you must play the role of enforcer to hold people to account on these standards, and you must do so regularly, equally, and consistently. There will be times when someone calls you out, too. This is the sign of a healthy culture. As difficult as those moments are, embrace them as part of the mantle of leadership.

9.) Gross margins are your ticket to freedom.

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Gross margin measures the value you capture by doing your work—what your business earns by transforming what you buy into what you sell. Gross margins define the fundamental health of the business more than any other metric. Recognize the margin necessary for your financial independence and define a plan to achieve it. If you don’t, you’ll be structurally reliant on external funding and lose control over your own ship. Identify which features and benefits customers are actually willing to pay a premium for, and which ones are interesting only to you. And, contrary to popular belief, gross margin challenges only get more painful as you scale, not less.

10.) Be prepared to give if you expect to have to take.

In every relationship with suppliers, customers, vendors, and employees, there will be gives and takes. Working with your partners as partners, rather than simply extracting the maximum amount of value out of them, is the key to a successful long-term relationship. Negotiation and conflict resolution get easier with creativity. Instead of starting with what you want, find ways to give the other person what they need. Start a contract negotiation by asking yourself what you can give that your partner needs before you ask for what you want.

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By no means have we mastered these lessons, but hope they serve you as they’ve served us.

Scott Norton and Mark Ramadan are cofounders of Sir Kensington’s. Ramadan is CEO of Hu, a New York-based chocolate and snacking business. Norton is founder of N+1 Ventures, which will advise and invest in startups.