A community-builder shares the tools, habits, and routines that helped launch his new food startup

🗝 The Keyring // 007

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If you’ve spent time on the internet, chances are you’ve run into Kevin Lee.

Maybe you know him from Product Manager HQ – the 8,000-member Slack community he started in 2014 (before starting communities was cool). Or perhaps you associate him with the epic Tweet profiles he assembled (before writing epic Tweet profiles was cool). If you’ve been following him lately, you might have noticed that he just launched immi, the world’s first low-carb, high-protein instant ramen.

Regardless of how you encounter Kevin, it’s hard not to come away impressed by his devotion to creativity, ability to execute, and the authentic way he engages with others.

On the heels of immi’s impressive launch, I was excited to talk with Kevin about the tools, habits, and routines that have helped him transition into the founder role. In particular, Kevin shares:

  • 📅 A detailed breakdown of his schedule

  • 🛠 The tools he uses for work each week

  • 🤝 How he builds relationships online

  • 🔎 The way to find a great co-founder

  • 📚 A syllabus for aspiring founders

and plenty more…

The Day to Day

Explain your job to me, like I’m five.

I’m the co-founder of a better-for-you Asian American food brand called immi. 

Tell me about immi

Our first product is the world’s first low-carb, high-protein instant ramen. It’s got lots of fiber and is 100% plant-based. It’s essentially a delicious and more nutritious version of instant ramen that will leave you feeling full but not bloated. 

My co-founder KChan (we’re both named Kevin, so we append our last names and go by KLee and KChan) and I spent the past decade working in the tech industry. We switched to food & beverage because we both grew up in Asian-food families and wanted to help our parents better manage health conditions arising from poor nutrition.

How do you spend your time these days?

Pre-launch, we spent a lot of time in the kitchen iterating through noodle and broth formulations. 

Friends thought we were insane because we went from spending 100% of our days behind a computer to hand-rolling over 200 noodle varieties in our own kitchens.

Now that we’ve publicly launched, we’ve reverted to knowledge work, and are usually parked in front of our computer screens.

I currently handle marketing and growth, so most of my workweek is spent talking to various marketing agencies and freelancers and planning upcoming experiments. We’re in that interesting early-stage launch phase where we’re testing everything so that we can find a channel that works and double down.

Here are examples of some things I did over the course of a recent week:

Monday:

  • Spoke to a food video agency to discuss the cost and timeline of producing Buzzfeed-style recipe videos. 

  • Wrote a creative brief for our next lifestyle photoshoot. We do photoshoots often to ensure we have plenty of visual assets for social and our website.

  • Called one of our company’s advisors to get a backchannel reference on an influencer agency we’re considering.

Tuesday:

  • Joined my co-founder in a weekly operations call as he covered our efforts to optimize packaging, streamline fulfillment, and lower shipping costs.

  • Chatted with our fulfillment provider to debug a few customer issues and figure out a playbook to handle these cases.

  • Customer support tickets have risen alongside growth, and it’s starting to become unmanageable. I recorded several Loom videos walking through how I might address common tickets, and pasted them into our standard operating procedures document to share with our customer experience teammate.

Wednesday:

  • We are looking to bring on an affiliate manager freelancer, so I spent most of the morning evaluating a few candidates and smaller agencies.

  • KChan and I hopped on a quick press call with Fast Company as they wanted to write a short feature about our founding story.

  • We then hopped on our recurring weekly 1:1, where we discuss items from independent workstreams that we’d like the other’s input on.

Thursday:

  • Spent some time writing an agenda for a two hour deep dive with one of our company branding advisors.

  • Reviewed an updated deck from our paid social freelancer that walks through his weekly creative & copy experimentation process.

  • Blocked off the last few hours of the day to prepare peer feedback for my co-founder. We used to do these quarterly but have switched to twice a year until we hire more people.

Friday:

  • We’ve started to get more inbound requests from IG influencers to join our affiliate program. It’s still a manual process to get them set up as affiliates with custom discount codes, so I wrote a standard operating procedure with plenty of screenshots so that anyone on the team can easily learn how to do it.

  • Blocked off an hour in the afternoon to sign postcards that are going out as part of a few influencer boxes. When I’m done, I walk to my nearby UPS to drop off the boxes. We’re not set up with our fulfillment provider to automate these boxes yet, so I’ve been shipping them manually myself for now.

  • I drafted an update post for our beta community to give them a behind-the-scenes look into what’s been going on at immi in the past few weeks of the public launch.

I won’t sugarcoat this - my past few weeks have been a little insane. I’m still trying to automate low leverage activities (i.e. processing returns) so I can find the time to do higher-level strategic planning. 

As much as I’d love to get back on a maker’s schedule with long, interrupted blocks of time, it’s been tough with all the new responsibilities that got added to our plate recently.

What tools do you use at work on a weekly basis?

  • Slack: My co-founder and I live 15 minutes walking distance from each other, but we work remotely, and Slack is our preferred choice for real-time communication

  • Notion: We both use Notion for project management and as our company wiki. We store almost everything in Notion (including individual call/meeting notes), so we have full transparency into each other’s work at any given time

  • Superhuman: E-mails

  • Vimcal: Superhuman for calendar

  • Google Drive: To store any assets that feel strange to keep in Notion

  • Gorgias: To centralize and respond to customer support tickets

  • Loom: For recording training videos to send to other team members

What's a problem specific to your line of work that you want a better solution for?

Everyone I know who has started a food or beverage brand has struggled to find a manufacturer. There isn’t a clean database, or online marketplace for manufacturers, which means you spend a lot of time cold calling or cold emailing and praying one will take a chance on you. 

I totally understand the incentives around why these manufacturers benefit from information asymmetry and can see why it is in their best interest to keep the market inefficient. But I still wish there was an easier way to find them!

Your Toolkit

Which of your skills creates the most value for you and your company?

I’m pretty good at quickly making friends with people on the internet (and IRL during non-COVID times).

I grew up as an only child of Taiwanese immigrant parents who came to this country with no money and no social capital, so I had to get good at learning to ask strangers for help. 

It’s allowed me to meet and befriend a lot of amazing people who have opened doors for immi.

What’s your advice for someone who wants to get better at building relationships online?

Get comfortable with joining and participating in online communities around topics that interest you. 

I used to spend a lot of time in niche Slack communities around growth, CPG, health & wellness, productivity, product management, and more. After you join a few of these, you’ll eventually get invited to a few smaller, private communities.

Over time, you’ll notice different personas in these communities. Some folks are fast to find new information sources. Others lurk quietly but respond to questions with thoughtful, well-crafted responses. A few are hyper-connectors who know what everyone is working on and always graciously offer to make introductions.

Look for opportunities to reach out, provide value, and develop genuine friendships. As you get more comfortable, set up calls and eventually socially distanced in-person meetings.

Relationships built online should be no different than ones built in person - you always want to strive to give more than you take. 

What is a mental model that you often turn to when confronting a challenging problem?

Early on Saturday mornings, I’ll do a weekly review where I ask myself a series of questions including:

  • What is the hardest problem I'm thinking about?

  • What would solving this problem look like if it were easy?

I’m pretty sure I stole these two questions from a Tim Ferriss book, but I’ve always loved pairing them together.

If you have high anxiety like I do, you might find yourself exaggerating problems to a point where they seem insurmountable. I’ve found that asking that second question helps me simplify the problem and come to an actionable next step.

Here is the template that I use for my weekly review.

Following the Path

What advice would you give to someone who thinks they might want to follow in your professional footsteps?

Before starting anything, invest 99.9% of your time in finding the right co-founder.

Start with your current and former colleagues. Pay extra attention to any co-worker who has always impressed you with their work, especially if their process feels opposite to your own.

KChan and I met a decade ago as PMs at a mobile gaming company called Kabam and we couldn’t have had more opposite working styles. He would take any ambiguous open-ended problem and crank by himself to get from 0 to 1. It didn’t matter what the problem was or how technical -- he would do the independent first principles research to figure out a flawless solution.

Meanwhile, I was the guy who saw a problem and immediately thought: who are the right people in this company who have been here before, and how can we use their advice & input to build the best possible solution? I’d figure out what skillsets were missing and get the resources to recruit the right team.

For the first six months at Kabam, we found each other incredibly annoying because we always approached problems with very different working styles. But once we found our groove, we became a Batman and Robin-like match. 

Some people start companies with their best friends in life. I think that’s amazing when it works. But it can be dangerous not to have work-life separation. KChan and I are good friends, and we hang out regularly, but we also have different social groups. We’ve discussed that it’s really nice to have that separation where we’re not talking about work 24/7 in our social lives.

If someone had six months to read and study before stepping into your job, what topics or resources would you put on their syllabus?

  • Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss: an investigative book into the deceptive practices of food conglomerates in the U.S. It will get you seriously amped up to improve the quality of food in this world.

  • The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt: This book changed my life. It’s a book about industrial engineering (a fancy term that means the optimization of complex systems) disguised as a fiction novel where some guy has to figure out how to optimize a factory before it goes out of business. It teaches you so many valuable life skill sets around identifying bottlenecks, improving throughput, and getting more output out of the work you do.

  • High Output Management by Andy Grove: I’m a couple of decades late on this one, but it’s an amazing book for anyone who wants to run a high-functioning org.

  • How I validated my idea for Kettle & Fire by Justin Mares: you might just save yourself years of working on a food product that no one actually cares about.

  • Every single piece of writing on Julian Shapiro’s website. Especially his guides to growth and writing.

  • And, obviously, The Jungle Gym.

Who are three people in your field whose work you admire, and why?

Note: I admire the work these people have done, but I don’t know any of them personally. So I really hope they don’t turn out to be huge jerks in person. From public sources, they seem like decent people. But, you know, never meet your heroes...

  • Hamdi Ulukaya (Founder of Chobani): This guy raised sheep in Turkey, immigrated to the U.S., and bought a yogurt plant with an SBA loan and zero experience in yogurt. He then managed to grow Chobani to $1bn in sales. 30% of his staff are immigrants or refugees (even though he gets death threats for it). Not to mention his employees own 10% of the company. What a legend. 

  • Nick Kokonas (Founder of Alinea & Tock): Spent over a decade as a derivatives trader on Wall Street, then decides to start a fine dining establishment with Grant Achatz. Proceeds to re-invent most aspects of fine dining from first principles and turns Alinea into a Michelin 3-star restaurant. Then he starts a tech company called Tock to take the brilliant reservation system he coined at Alinea and democratize it for other businesses around the world.

  • Rene Redzepi (Founder of Noma): Rene is the founder of Noma, which has been named World’s Best Restaurant four times. I’ve written a whole tweetstorm that better summarizes the extreme constraints he puts on himself and his team to generate creativity. But suffice to say, he’s amazing.


Five Takeaways

Whether you’re starting a business of your own or just want to build stronger relationships online, here are five insights you can take from Kevin to make progress in your own career.

  1. Automate low-leverage activities so you can find the time to do higher-level strategic work.

  2. Making friends online is much easier when you join the right virtual communities. Strike up conversations and move them to 1:1 Zoom calls.

  3. Relationships built online should be no different than ones built in person - you always want to strive to give more than you take. 

  4. To overcome a serious problem, ask yourself what you solving the problem would look like if it were easy.

  5. When you’re looking for a co-founder, keep in mind any co-workers who produce high-quality work using complementary skill sets.

A big thanks to Kevin Lee for sharing his insight.


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– Nick