Elevator Pitch: Meet Mike Yang, CEO of Plant-based Food Startup ‘Kindness’
January 06, 2024
Non-meat or plant-based eating is simply defined as a lifestyle that follows a vegetarian or vegan diet: no meat, seafood, or dairy products, but it's not a one-size-fits-all deal, as it varies depending on the type of vegetarianism that one chooses.
For those who embrace the non-meat-eating lifestyle, it's not just about what's on their plate; it’s their way of connecting with the world, from farmers who grow crops and communities that thrive on sustainable practices to the ecosystems that benefit from mindful choices. It creates a ripple effect that goes beyond personal health to the well-being of our dear planet.
Whether you're a seasoned herbivore or just dipping your toes into the tofu-infused waters, the non-meat lifestyle is a smorgasbord of flavours waiting to be explored. We're not just talking about salads and stir-fries here; we're diving into the flavourful journey of Mike Yang, the co-founder and CEO of the food startup Kindness.
Based in Bangkok, Mike adopted a healthier eating lifestyle at the age of 18. His awakening of self-awareness about food choices started when he witnessed how the red snapper he caught was killed and gutted for dinner. That image stuck, and the very next day, he took the plunge into the world of non-meat alternatives, embracing the vegetarian lifestyle.
After two decades (and counting!) of vegetarianism, Mike was able to conclude that "kindness is the most powerful and effective behaviour that can solve all worldly issues and fulfill the full potential of our society. “
The Beat Asia spoke with Mike Yang to shed light on his mission of creating a better world, one veggie at a time, and what Kindness has in store for the future.
How did a plant-based lifestyle influence your decision to lead a startup in this industry?
Essentially, kindness is the secret of the universe, and we all have the right and should live in pursuit of happiness that is not at the expense of others.
With that belief and knowledge in mind, I had the idea to inspire a movement and encourage all to rediscover the innate trait we were all born with, which is kindness. Thus, Kindness was born, a mission-driven brand that resonates with like-minded consumers, similar to Patagonia, Apple, Ben & Jerry’s, Toms, IKEA, etc. This includes people who believed in our WHY before anything else, HOW we do it collectively through sustainable behavioural change, and the WHAT is plant-based food but it is not restricted to edibles only. We just started in the industry where most cruelties are happening right now.
Kindness was planned around 2019 and kicked off in 2022. Personally, I changed my behaviour and habits for the benefit of others and I believe that this is the most powerful and sustainable way for true behavioural change — one that is made for others instead of ourselves.
The mission of your startup involves growing the plant-based protein market share. Can you discuss the strategies and initiatives your company employs to accomplish this ambitious goal?
The common problems faced by the plant-based industry are threefold: consumer habits, product quality, and cost. We believe that sharing our existing plant-based food formulation and processing know-how could be leveraged to address the quality and cost hurdles, as well as to lower the barriers of entry for more market-proven products to become available rapidly. This should, in turn, better compete with animal-based proteins in terms of taste, cost, and nutrition. Through partnership and collaboration, utillising existing facilities and investment, we look to lower the R&D cost and time through the investments already made by us.
On the brand-building side, we are collaborating with our partners, such as the logo of “made with Kindness” on the product packaging made with our know-how. Individually, we communicate through social media directly with consumers regarding the power of kindness and to emphasise our “WHY.”
Within Kindness' product offerings, which of these are the most popular, and what do you think is the reason behind?
My personal favourite is the Seafood Cube, similar to the fish tofu that most Asians are very familiar with. However, our idea is not to replicate meat but rather to create a new product that is simply tasty and affordable, made with sustainable protein.
We believe the texture, flavour, and familiarity of the product are what make it popular. It is extremely versatile across multiple cuisines (mostly Asian) and easy to chew and digest, which both the young and the seniors appreciate. Importantly, it is priced very reasonably against conventional proteins, on a dollar per gram basis.
The Paprioni (not Pepperoni), a paprika-flavoured plant-based protein slice, is a new offering we created just two years ago to target the pizza industry. It is also not currently offered by other plant-based brands in Asia. The Paprioni is already priced cheaper than pepperoni and has been widely liked and accepted at all the tastings we have done in the past 18 months.
With over two decades of plant-based living, what changes or trends have you observed in the acceptance and adoption of plant-based diets, and how do these trends influence your company's approach?
Having observed the PB trend since 1998, it was not until around 2017 that I felt it was different this time with the rise of Beyond Meat and Impossible. They led and opened the way for the rest of us, as well as to increase the voices of consumers, corporations, investors, and the government to mark a transformative moment.
In essence, it was the first time I felt confident of the three stakeholders who agreed on the issue of food production: the consumer, corporations, and the government. In the following years, we keenly watched on the sidelines the rapid developments in space while identifying the challenges and assessing how we could actively contribute.
When we saw that consumers and food services were ready and wanted to change but were lacking feasible options, we decided to make our know-how available to like-minded partners, starting in Thailand where there is a strong and world-class food processing industry.
As the CEO, what challenges have you faced in the market, and how have you overcome these obstacles?
The biggest challenge remains the mindsets of the ”middleman” of the food service/QSR/retail sector who also represent the most effective and powerful changemakers. They have the absolute power to influence and shape the future of food through their connection and access to consumers. However, the entrenched value remains the sole focus on the ”bottom line,” instead of the ”triple bottom line” where the sustainable corporate profits lie over the long term.
We overcome this by continually and actively reaching out and engaging with changemakers who share the same perspective — the low-hanging fruit. Changemakers like Sodexo Thailand are responsible for providing thousands of meals to their food catering clients, such as schools, hospitals, and various facilities, and they understand the influence they wield and are brave enough to make hard decisions and lead through action. They do not wait for later because later is too late. They take the initiative to offer sustainable proteins as options for consumers’ free will to decide. Together, we nurture, encourage, and inspire behavioural change, which is always best done at an early age.
Could you elaborate on the specific technologies or methodologies that your company employs to develop plant-based alternatives, and how do they differentiate your products in the market?
Our technology and know-how are not rocket science in any way; food is food at the end of the day and the simpler it is the better. What we have are simply years of experience in actual product formulation, production methods, equipment modification, product marketing, and distribution. One could describe it as a ”proprietary” formula and processing steps, but at the end of the day, all ingredients and equipment involved are commonly used.
How the product differentiates is simply our proprietary way of formulating, processing, and selecting ingredients. The result of years of trial and error to perfect each product involves much cost and time, from ideas in the lab to products on the shelf and back in order to find a version that generates satisfactory repeat purchases.
Can you share with us any recent innovations or breakthroughs that Kindness has achieved in the development of plant-based products?
Our current breakthroughs are mainly on the business development side, as R&D activities are minimal. The most recent one is the Kindness Paprioni, although it was not particularly difficult as we have experience with link products such as hotdogs and sausages. We would, however, still like to work on improving the flavour profile to include more ”fermented” taste based on feedback from some users.
You’ve mentioned entering the Singaporean market for the first time. Can you share what aspect of this expansion excites you the most?
We have been interested in the Singaporean market since our inception, although our limited resources and lack of suitable local partners have proven a bit of a hurdle. Fortunately, we have managed to meet a local partner recently who values the Kindness purpose and has the required financial backing to introduce Kindness to Singapore while respecting our strategy and approach.
The Singaporean government is by far the most supportive of sustainable proteins in this part of the world and it also lacks major conventional protein incumbents which tends to form a barrier or roadblock to sustainable protein entrants. We are very excited as it is a new market for us, where all three stakeholders are well-informed, educated, and ready for positive change.
What are your future plans for Kindness, and are there any major plans in the works?
There are, in fact, many more opportunities for Kindness now and in the near future. The purpose and mission of the brand are starting to gain traction and there are parties who are interested in using the brand for not just food but also beverages, medicines, and apparel, for example.
For the time being, we are more focused on finding additional brands or production partners regionally to transfer our know-how regarding the remaining formulations within the portfolio. We hope to achieve positive cash flow in the next few years and become self-sustaining, and in doing so, continue to build the brand and the Kindness movement.
Should there be sufficient resources, we would love to be involved in promoting kindness in schools as part of the curriculum through working with organisations such as Kindness.org. We should begin with the youth to start both generational and structural change, as it is important to remember that slavery was a common and accepted practice in many parts of the world for centuries.
For the plant-based movement, this quote sums up nicely:
“What one generation finds ridiculous (plant-based), the next accepts; and the third shudders when it looks back on what the first did (animal meat).” - Peter Singer
Enjoyed this article? Check out our previous Elevator Pitch profiles here.
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