Leadership

How cold-calling a farmer helped launch this entrepreneur's yogurt company

Courtesy of Koel Thomae

About 12 years ago, Aussie ex-pat and Noosa Yoghurt co-founder Koel Thomae was sitting in a Colorado cafe, thinking about starting her own yogurt business when she noticed a flyer for a local dairy farm.

She immediately decided to cold-call fourth-generation farmer Robert Graves, she tells CNBC Make It, to pitch her yogurt business idea.

"When you have this drive to bring your idea to life, you have to be able to push beyond your comfort zone," Thomae says. "The worst that could happen from a cold call was 'no.'"

She had just visited Australia, where she discovered a yogurt recipe and felt "selfishly inspired" to license it, combining past entrepreneurial experience and her desire to eat the dairy treat beyond her visits home. Graves agreed for them to meet at his farm.

"I gave him my pitch and I know he thought I was a little crazy," Thomae says. "But it was the moment he tasted the yogurt that we bonded over this taste like no other and since that day we haven't looked back."

Thomae had been working at start-up beverage company Izze for three years, her first big job in the U.S., when her boss at the time told her, "You're obsessing about this yogurt, so just go for it."

She founded Noosa Yoghurt in 2009. Thomae says the idea of starting her business was instinctual: "Yes, I'm going to invest my life savings into this, but what's the worst that can happen?" she said to herself at the time. "If it doesn't work and I have to go back and get a real job, then I'll figure it out."

Since Graves grew up being a part of his family farm business, Thomae says that as a first-time entrepreneur, this gave her a better perspective on starting a business from the ground up.

For nearly three years into starting Noosa, Thomae worked a second job to help pay her bills.

But in addition to her network of mentors from working at Izze, starting the business in Colorado's food community benefited Thomae in other ways.

"It's still a very much male-dominated world in food," says Thomae, so the network of female food entrepreneurs provided her with mentors and supporters through "really hard times in business," while also raising a newborn child.

Although Thomae and Graves sold the company to equity firm Advent International in 2014, it's still based out of Graves' farm. Thomae remains involved in day-to-day business decisions and long-term strategy, including traveling the world to come up with the next yogurt and flavor offerings.

The company, currently at 240 employees, made $170 million in sales in last year, Thomae says, in addition to completing a $20 million expansion of its factory to meet growing demand.

"I have to pinch myself, that I've created my dream job," she says. "And you know, that's obviously from a lot of hard work, but I feel like I'm living my dream."

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