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Karthy Subramaniam Co-founded Fast Growing Sauce Company LITS as a Tribute to a Childhood Friend
"In 2017, I had a life changing moment when one of my best friends, Brandon Boodoo, passed away at a young age. As I continued to visit Brandon’s dad, Eddie, one of the things that helped me feel connected to Brandon was our mutual love for Eddie’s cooking and his pepper sauce."
Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host ("The Tamil Creator")
Canada
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How did you come up with the idea for LITS and the name?  Why are you so passionate about this idea?

I’ve always loved spicy food and was fortunate enough to be surrounded by many different cultures growing up, all of which had their own version of pepper sauces and spices – so the bar was already set high. The more I got generic hot sauces when I was out at resto’s, bars and fast-food joints, the more I kept wishing I had homemade pepper sauce on the go. In 2017, I had a life changing moment when one of my best friends, Brandon Boodoo, passed away at a young age. As I continued to visit Brandon’s dad, Eddie, one of the things that helped me feel connected to Brandon was our mutual love for Eddie’s cooking and his pepper sauce. At a time that I was feeling lost and was looking for a way to cope with the loss of my friend, I decided to make some of Eddie’s recipe at home. When people messaged me asking for a bottle, that’s when it hit me – making the sauce was one way I could connect with the spirit of Brandon as well as share the euphoria I’d experience while having it, with others. With our first recipe inspired by and dedicated to Brandon and Eddie, I launched the OG Boodoo as the first flavour in the LITS line-up and the rest was history.

When choosing the name, I wanted something that wasn’t a mouthful to say but also summed up the euphoric experience I’d have while having a good hot sauce added to my plate. While driving one day, listening to Gucci Mane, my friend and I were brainstorming and “lost in the sauce” kept popping up. He shouted out the acronym LITS and it was decided.

Food connects people together and connection is really important to me. I feel connected to not only my customers but also to Brandon every time I share our story and the sauce. This journey is fulfilling because it not only keeps me challenged from an entrepreneurial perspective, it also allows me a creative outlet to share something that’s less about money and more about something I’m passionate about: food.

How did the founding team come together? What was the thought process behind selecting a co-founder? (as it’s a big decision!) 

The team is still coming together as we grow however, my partner Doris has been supporting the brand ever since the start and has played an integral role at LITS supporting all facets of the business while focusing on the numbers, production, packaging, and design at any of our events. The thought process for me in selecting a co-founder is choosing someone who can envision the long-term goals of the business and realize the steps required in order to get there. Commitment and dedication towards hitting those goals especially during the early phases of the business is also very important. Doris is a go-getter and once she understood what I had planned long term, she worked hard to support in making it happen and connect the many different pieces. This lead her to be the clear choice as our LITS co-founder. 

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How did you guys get your first sale?  Who was the first retail client you landed and what was the process like to secure them?

Tip: don’t wait until everything is perfect before you start. Get it out there and modify as you go because the longer you wait, the quicker someone else will jump at the opportunity before you. When we launched our website (https://lostinthesauce.ca/) on Shopify, our first set of sales came from our family and friends that were following the journey early on. We got a lot of positive feedback and reposts which helped us grow our presence very quickly.  Once we attended more events (especially foodie gatherings), this helped us grow our presence even more. In terms of securing the sale, Doris and I already came from a sales background. This helped us transition very easily to selling the sauces as it was a product we were very passionate about. Creating a positive experience and pitching based on needs has always been key to helping us land sales while creating retention with our customers. The need that our hot sauces filled was a sauce that didn’t burn your tongue off and complemented the food being paired with; essentially flavour > just heat. 

How do you balance your full-time job with building up LITS, especially from a sales perspective?  Is there something you’ve learned from your full-time job that you’ve been able to apply to help grow LITS?

Thankfully my current and last role have been pretty flexible to allow me to dedicate time towards building up LITS. What’s helped me is creating a schedule and task list for when I’ll do LITS-related activities. Most activities for LITS in terms of sales are done online.  For any deliveries or shipments to our retailers and consumers, I schedule accordingly so it doesn’t interfere with my full-time job. In terms of what I’ve learned and apply to LITS from my full-time gig, there’s been a lot of transfer of knowledge and experience. From my last role, I learned how to sell, how to drive traffic to a product, marketing, leading a team and key factors to operational success. I also learned what works and what doesn’t for sales, and above all, customer experience is everything. You can have the greatest product in the world, but if the customer experience is lacking or subpar, your customers will soon walk. The experience is what they remember. This is something we emphasize heavily at market events we attend and the interactions we have with our customers. You’ll never see a quiet LITS booth – we’re the ones outside of our tent bringing people to us instead of waiting for them to show up. Even if we don’t land every sale, we ensure we create a memorable experience and that we leave something for our customers to talk about. There are also many things that I didn’t know at all that I’ve just had to learn independently along the way on this sauce journey – digital marketing, shipping & logistics, full-scale manufacturing – just to name a few. The learning curve has been steep at times but it’s also one of my main motivators when working. I enjoy learning new things because it all adds to my growth. 

Are you looking to continue to bootstrap the company or is raising money something you’re looking to do in the future?

As we grow, so does the need for more capital. The manufacturing industry is a very expensive one because of the costs of equipment, materials, ingredients, facility-use, labour, etc. We’ve seen a rise in many of our materials and ingredients during the pandemic especially because of the different ways it has impacted all our partners both locally and internationally. Until you sell through what you’re sitting on for inventory, you’ve sunk a lot into producing your product. As we gain more retailers and grow our brand to different products, the need to produce at larger volumes becomes ever more prevalent. In the next year, we’re going to be looking to expand our production levels to keep up with demand and focus more on a B2B model. Due to the rapid expansion, we’re going to be looking at different options to fund our growth.

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How have you leveraged social media to grow LITS?  Was there a particular channel outside of social media that surprisingly helped grow the brand?

Instagram and Google has been our main source for digital marketing. Many of our retailers found us online and reached out to source our products. It’s insane how much social media and the internet can impact a brand’s presence. Along our journey, we’ve collaborated with many foodies, bloggers, influencers, restaurants and brands who’ve helped us gain more followers and spread the word with their consumer base. The market events we’ve been at have also helped in terms of building in-person presence with our customers when they get to meet the faces behind the brand.

Where would you like to see the LITS brand in 3 years?

International and as being THE go-to Toronto hot sauce brand. We want to launch a few new products and merch as well. We want it to be as accessible as possible from as many places as possible so that everyone can get sauced. One aspect of the journey we’re really looking forward to is growing our team to have a dedicated person handling each functional department. That way we’ll have more time to dedicate towards business development, creating new recipes and products, and expanding our presence further.

What’s a failure you’ve experienced during this journey and what did you learn from it?

There hasn’t been a standout failure moment, but something that has led to very overwhelming times has been trying to do everything on our own. Although it's normal to be taking care of most things during the startup phase due to resource constraints, it’s extremely difficult and not sustainable in the long run. We’ve learned that even though it’ll cost more to have someone else do it, the time saved, and expertise gained is invaluable. 

What’s a piece of advice you wished somebody had told you when you first started LITS?

Build connections because you won’t know when they’re needed until they’re needed. There are so many moving pieces working in the food and manufacturing industry. Throughout our journey, we’ve made some consistent long-term partnerships that we work with for many of our processes. However, and COVID really emphasized this, you can’t always depend on all of them. Find backups for everything/everyone because at some point, you may need them, especially suppliers. We’ve experienced this when it comes to delayed responses, prices fluctuating heavily, suppliers running out of supplies, etc. Being agile is key to keep up with business needs especially when working in a very dynamic, fast-paced environment where timing can mean the difference between being ready for a big sales season and not. 

How have your family and friends supported you through your journey?  Have you had family or friends question any of your professional choices?

We’ve thankfully had a lot of support from our close friends and family – many of whom were also our first customers, testers, and have helped us with staffing needs on many occasions for events, production days and packaging, especially during busier seasons like winter holidays. 

As for the professional choices, we have many that will recognize and acknowledge the decisions that have built up our brand so far. However, as with most things, everyone has an opinion when it comes to what they’d do. Some will offer said opinions as just ideas, while others will suggest them as “you should do this”. While this can be frustrating at times, we try to take everything with a grain of salt. Some suggestions are helpful and taken as guidance, while others are very much unsolicited and don’t take our efforts into consideration. These things are part of any business and what set apart the doers from the talkers.

What’s a purchase you’ve made that you’ve splurged on recently in the last few years that you have no regret about?

My All-Clad D3 stainless steel set of pots and pans. Definitely a splurge moment, but worth the investment for anyone who has a passion for cooking and doesn’t want to replace their pans every few years. I’ve loved every bit of having them and I make really good use of them.

What do you do outside of work for fun? 

Cook, travel (when possible), watch anime and cooking shows. Some of my go-to’s for shows include One Piece, Kitchen Nightmares, Somebody Feed Phil, and Chef’s Table. I love exploring and learning about different people, places and foods. I think expanding beyond your norm to see what’s out there is really important to grow as a person and explore different cultures. 

In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?

I want to be remembered for pushing past the status quo to pursue my dreams, breaking boundaries, and bringing people together, especially through food and meaningful conversations. I want to be remembered for emphasizing the importance of seeking internal happiness and encouraging people to invest in things that fill their soul more than just their pockets. 

What do you think you would tell 16-year Karthy looking back?

You’ll figure it out so don’t stress if you don’t get what you want immediately. Life doesn’t work sequentially so expect the unexpected most times. Your biggest periods of growth will happen when you push yourself outside of your comfort zone.

What is your favourite book(s) you've read recently or a podcast(s) that you've listened to recently that's had an impact on you?

One of the most impactful books I’ve read (and re-read every few years) is The Dip by Seth Godin. It speaks on knowing when to start and when to quit and the importance of both. It got me out of the whole mentality of “winners don’t quit, they stick it out until the end”, and reaffirmed by decision to leave one of my first jobs after working my ass off & being teased by a promotion for far too long. I highly recommend it to anyone and especially those that have been working at something for far too long, and unsure of when it’s time to invest your energy into something new. 

What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?

That the whole “life is short, do it now while you can” philosophy isn’t true most of the time. This has caused me stress most of my life when the payout hasn’t come soon enough. Although I don’t want to wait until 50 or older to reap the rewards of what I’ve sown, I’ve come to realize that everything I’m doing now will stack up towards my end goal, to enjoy that journey, that each step is relative to my current stage in life and should be acknowledged. 

Another thing I’ve been doing more of is reverse engineering or working backwards on my bigger goals. I’ll take a big goal and break down all the steps required to reach it and chip away at those steps piece by piece. This makes the larger goal/task less daunting and more attainable which results in feeling less overwhelmed. I learned this while coaching as a sales manager with my reps. We’d list out a monthly goal, then break down what they need to do weekly and then daily in order to hit these goals. It would prove to them that its much less out of reach than they originally thought.

If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?

Although it’s not nearly enough to solve all the world’s problems, I’d likely allocate this towards more funding towards financial literacy for all ages, workshops on goal setting, and starter kits to get people who are struggling off their feet. I strongly believe that if you simply just give a lumpsum of money or food or anything else, that it won’t necessarily solve issues for the long term. There are creative minds everywhere, strong laborers and more that were born into poverty, abuse, and other unfortunate circumstances that have made them have to live to survive rather than thrive. Those individuals can’t sustain that wealth for themselves and grow it further if they don’t know how. In order to do so, we need to learn what they want to do that they don’t currently have the resources for and work with them to start their journeys and pave a path for themselves and generations to come. 

How would you describe the impact that the Toronto Tamil community has had on you personally and on your business?

My mom brought me up as a single parent and brought me over to Canada when I was four, leaving my older brothers and rest of my family back in Malaysia. Even though I didn’t have most of my family here in Canada growing up, I had a lot “aunties” and “uncles” through people that my Mom and I met in our neighborhood,  apartments in Parkdale and King west. Everyone made us feel welcome and included so I didn’t feel alone while adjusting to not having my brothers and the rest of my family here with me. All of the adopted family we gained really emphasized the importance of community to me from a young age and how much it helps when you have the support of others. 

In terms of the business, Tamils love our spice. There is no such thing as mild or even medium for that matter. There’s only extra hot. With our sauces, I emphasize flavour vs just heat and so, as much as I’ve gotten support from the Tamil community, the product currently doesn’t cater to the classic heat we’ve grown up on through all the different kinds of foods. Nonetheless, we still get a lot of support from the community and as we introduce newer hotter flavours in the future, I’m sure we’ll get more [support].

What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?

Food: kothu roti.

Dessert: Appam – every kind but especially with seeni sambol. 

What is your favourite Tamil movie?

Toss up between Jeans and Padayappa.

What does Tamil culture mean to you?

Tamil culture to me means home. The food, the music, the movies, the traditions. There’s identity tied to our culture. Although there’s certain similarities between cultures that are from neighboring places, there’s still something that’s uniquely Tamil with many things that we do. While answering this question, I had to still think hard about how to answer it: maybe it’s due to the fact that it’s difficult to encapsulate Tamil culture into defining words or having so many different influences growing up that it all blended together for me. But this made me more aware that I do need to re-immerse myself in the culture more (thanks Ara). One way I plan to do this is through a few future food projects that you’ll have to stay tuned for. 

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Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host ("The Tamil Creator") | TamilCulture.com
Canada
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