Starting up on the journey to a sustainable future

Photo by Elle Hughes

Shiok Meats is a cell-based meat and seafood company that aims to bring delicious, sustainable, and healthy seafood to their consumers’ table, using their technology to grow meat from healthy cells instead of animals. Currently, they produce crustaceans like shrimps, crabs, lobsters and are the first in the world to do so using cellular agriculture technology.

In an age where climate change threatens the stability of food supplies worldwide, companies like Shiok Meats may well prove instrumental in providing for a sustainable, habitable future. And to start themselves off on the right foot, they were able to set strong business foundations by partnering with Sleek, a digital hub for SME’s admin needs.

Dr Sandhya Sriram, CEO and co-founder of Shiok Meats discusses her company’s origins and the journey from a research scientist to a startup co-founder. Julien Labruyere, Co-founder of Sleek, elaborates on their companies’ partnership, and how to avoid misconceptions and poor business practices that may eventually determine one’s success or failure.

Starting up on the right foot

Discussing her inspiration for Shiok Meats, Sandhya explains the passion for stem cells and developmental and cell biology shared by her and her co-founder, Dr Ka Yi Ling.

“It is no secret that the environment is suffering and threats such as global warming are right on our doorstep – and unfortunately, the meat production and fishing industries are some of the biggest contributors to this crisis,” explains Sandhya.

“Given our deep-rooted love for nature and our academic backgrounds, we wanted to play our part to make a difference and work towards an alternative meat innovation that is cruelty free, healthy for the consumer as well as environmentally-friendly.”

Drawn towards the concept of cell-based meat, the duo combined their love for science and passion for sustainability into the driving force behind Shiok Meats.

Even with worthy intentions, success in business depends on factors beyond the importance of the product. For Shiok Meats, they soon felt the limitations of using manual methods in their financial processes, and looked for a way to digitalise.

“Prior to using Sleek, most of our financial processes were manual. Hence, monthly financial closing was a time consuming exercise as it involved a lot of paperwork,” says Sandhya.

“While this process ‘worked’ well to keep the business running, it was not time efficient and unable to support our fast growing business activities.”

In many ways, their experience is not uncommon amongst startups and small businesses, who opt to manage many of their processes internally to save on outsourcing. “In a bid to save money, SME owners often want to “do it themselves”, and scrimp in the early stages,” says Julien.

“Despite a lack of capability, they are not willing to outsource business processes to more skilled individuals or service providers. However, one problem will eventually culminate into another, and they end up losing more time and money on fixing back-end operations mistakes that could have been prevented.”

Business owners may also overlook the importance of establishing infrastructure such as digitalised administrative processes. As Julien explains, the problems this brings may not be apparent in the early stages, but can build up to more serious issues later.

“There is a general misconception that a small business can succeed without necessary infrastructure in place. A new business’ first clients tend to be the founder’s friends or close contacts who know them well and are able to share feedback directly, which makes it easy for the owner to oversee everything and take quick action when necessary.

“However, when you hire your first employees and have more clients beyond your personal network, that is when a business becomes exponentially complicated and will require much more investment in its infrastructure (people, tools, process) – which becomes a problem for SME owners who initially fail to do so.”

Convenience coupled with new insight

Fortunately for Shiok Meats, they were introduced to Sleek in 2018 and began discussing their partnership. Today, shares Sandhya, they are able to capture their receipt and payment transactions on one accounting software with minimal human intervention. Breaking down the gains for the company, Julien notes that it can take up to 20 minutes to process one expense report.

“With an average of  1.5 reports being processed per employee, per month, this incurs an average cost of S$20 to process just one expense report. By leveraging digital platforms, employees can simply share a picture of the receipt and upload it into the platform, reducing the time spent on expense management to mere seconds.

“The time saved equates to greater productivity that translates into greater profit.”

Beyond the productivity gains, there are also other benefits to digitalised processes. Shares Sandhya: “by integrating this automation into our processes, not only were we able to minimise manual process and time spent on monthly financial closing processes, but Sleek also provides us with quality data and insights that lead to efficient and more accurate monthly closings and reports.”

The ability for strong processes to go beyond merely making work more convenient and to give better insight into how things can be run. “That is the beauty of accounting and finance,” says Julien.

“It unveils facts about a business that sometimes we are biased towards, like how much profit is being truly generated by a product line, vs another, after considering all direct and indirect costs.”

This information is crucial for all businesses, but especially so for those that are small, or are still finding their feet. “SME owners need to know which areas they are wasting money on, or if they are investing too much in marketing and sales ventures with no return,” asserts Julien.

“It is important to track every dollar to ensure SME owners have regular updates and clear visibility on financial health and cash flow of the business.”

Moving forward sustainably

Their positive experience with Sleek has helped the Shiok Meats team see the value in strong, digitalised processes. “We are always looking at ways that we can increase efficiency and create increasingly seamless business processes that not only give us more insights, but help us to reduce the risks of human-errors as well as time-spent on administrative work,” says Sandhya.

“In terms of what’s next, we are looking to automate the analysis of our business’ financial data in order to get a clearer financial overview to enable us to make better and faster business decisions. Additionally, we are looking to improve our internal processes starting with the order-to-collect cycle in order to increase team productivity and data accuracy.”

Describing steps for SMEs that are looking to improve their businesses, Julien shares that fundamentals be prioritised, as a strong foundation means that one can be proactive, rather than reactive.

“To identify which areas need to be prioritised, put a dollar value to each of them in terms of incremental revenue generated or cost saved. Then, start fixing the low hanging fruits first.  For example, if you adopt a certain business process, you will incur a one-off $100 fee per client.

“If your company plans to onboard 1,000 clients in the next 3 years, it is going to cost $100,000. On the other hand, an alternative option may incur just $10 per month per client but this may end up costing a lot more under the same conditions. These are things SME owners need to consider and tackle.

“Customer acquisition cost (CAC) can also be a useful metric for SME owners to track. This refers to the cost of not closing one client. For instance, if by fixing a problem in your sales cycle, you can close 10 more clients per month and your CAC is 1,000, then the value of fixing this will be worth 10 x 1000 x 12 over a year.

“Assigning a value to various business functions helps you to gauge its priority and also to track how effective you are at improving it afterwards.

Towards a stronger business community

In industries as critical to our survival as food science, establishing strong fundamentals is important to ensuring that we can move into the future sustainably. Apart from the efforts of individual companies however, strong communities are also important for long term survival.

Discussing what the wider business community do to guide SMEs towards better practices, Julien emphasises that for the growth of new SME owners, building strong networks and having extensive knowledge is key.

“This is where the wider business community can support and be great mentors to these SMEs, sharing their journeys to success via case studies and best business practices. They can also enable these SMEs to leverage connections that will give them some headway into the market.

“On the SMEs’ end, asking for help and offering advice in return is always helpful to grow their excellence in their practices. There are a lot of fantastic resources on these topics online, from marketing to tech and sales, it is all about asking the right questions.“

Meanwhile, from her experience transforming her research into a startup, Sandhya’s advice for other researches and scientists is encouraging. “Just go for it! There’s always room for innovation and technology, regardless of what your area of expertise is,” she says.

“So many of the world’s biggest (and smallest!) problems still need to be addressed, and if you feel that you have a solution that could make an impact and help someone, you should give it a try.”

On the other hand, recognising that the journey can be daunting – particularly with the challenges that may come from previously unforeseen directions, she advises stacking the odds in ones’ favour by eliminating as much room for error as one can, while leveraging, from the start, affordable technological solutions for the business processes.

“The less time you have to spend on managing business operations, the more time you can spend looking for clients and working on your product or service,” she concludes.