Jason Thomas is the founder and owner of Pili Hunters — the original pili nut company and one of the first to bring it to the international market. Pili nuts are the world’s healthiest nut; packed with healthy fat and flavor much like shortbread cookies but naturally better for you. They also make a fantastic food source for the keto, paleo, and vegan communities.
As a start-up business, Jason has faced plenty of hurdles. But by understanding the market and by treating his Filipino partners well, the company now makes up to $115,000 per month. Excitingly, Phili Hunters is attracting investors and has now spawned competition due to their success as the first company to bring the pili nut to the international market. In this Q&A, we ask Jason to tell us more about how he came up with his business idea and what’s next for the brand.
Who are you and what brand did you start?
My name is Jason Thomas, and I am the founder and owner of Pili Hunters. Our company sells the world's healthiest nut, packed with the highest fat content of any nut, and a flavor that is reminiscent of shortbread cookies. We sell wild-harvested pili nuts, pili nut butters, kiwot honey from a stingless bee, a hot sauce made from labuyo chili and a dark chocolate made with pili nuts.
We are currently located in beautiful Bend, Oregon. It is one of the country’s best outdoor playgrounds.
We sell heavily to the keto, paleo, and vegan communities as the majority of our products fit well into these lifestyles. However, the nut is so delicious and buttery that it appeals to any kind of consumer.
Our most impactful time so far has been my appearance on Shark Tank, Season 11, Episode 6. I got the chance to present my business to the sharks and gain exposure on a national level. We work hard to produce a great product and take pride in treating our Filipino partners well. While the sharks passed on investing, they loved the products, the brand, the company, and our commitment to helping people in the Philippines.
How did you come up with the idea, brand name and logo for Pili Hunters?
Growing up in Barrow, AK — North America’s northernmost point, I worked on arctic construction projects, where I hunted in the tundra and fished the open seas with Native Alaskans. I then set out to explore more of the world’s beautiful landscapes and its myriad cultures. I traveled extensively, from the frigid tip of Alaska to the warm beaches of Hawaii; from the desolate mountains of Patagonia to the most vibrant European cities; and from the dry Moroccan deserts to lush Southeast Asian jungles.
During my explorations, I held several unique professional roles, including serving as a high-altitude mountain guide; an archaeologist’s assistant; a glaciology field hand; a commercial fisherman; a kitesurfing instructor; and a rock climbing bum. On my kitesurfing travels, I fell in love with the Philippines and its buttery, nutritious and sustainable pili nut.
With 15 pounds of deep-fried pili nuts and a dream, I returned to the US. I spent the next few months driving from beach to beach in my swiftly ageing pickup truck, surfing and passing out pili nut samples at west coast natural foods stores.
The brand name came from my many travels, hunting and searching for all of the amazing things this world has to offer.
Our logo is tribal in nature, and recognizes the wildness of our product. As the nuts we sell are all wild harvested from the rainforest, it takes someone with a lot of courage and skill to shimmy up a bamboo pole and shake the nuts from their branches.
Describe the process of launching Pili Hunters?
We are a true start-up. It all started on a wing and a prayer and a little bit of faith that this nut would make a huge impact on the US market. Starting everything from scratch (having never run a business before), has come with a lot of hurdles. While product sales have been able to support the company as it grows, figuring out every single piece of the puzzle of running an organized business has been an exciting and sometimes taxing learning experience. We have had to learn everything from scratch, including setting up supply, packaging, distribution, marketing, and everything else in between.
Because I started in a market with no competition, I started promoting the business by putting my feet to the ground and doing the hard work of making connections with people in stores, at trade shows, and on the beaches where I first handed out samples.
Getting big name affiliates in the keto community was a huge turning point. Our connections with Thomas DeLauer and Maria Emmerich were particularly influential due to their amazing followers.
Since launch, what has worked best to attract and retain customers?
We are the original pili nut company. Being the first has its advantages both in branding and advertising. People crave authenticity and want to support small business and local producers. We attract customers through the keto community, as well as through various digital advertising channels. We try to retain customers by creating a subscription plan as well as working directly with stores that wholesale with us. Keeping presence in stores helps us to keep our product in front of our consumers.
With regards to business growth, how have things changed from a digital, revenue, customer and sales perspective?
Amazon has changed the game in e-commerce. They are your best friend and worst enemy. They always favor the customer, which can really hurt small business and people who are competing with giant factories and corporations with cheaper products and larger advertising budgets. So much has also moved to social media. Getting your product out there through influencers is key.
How is the business doing today and what does the future look like?
The business is in a great place. We are at a point where we are building out our back-end infrastructure, streamlining our product supply train and packaging operations, and moving towards a smoother, more headache-free shipping model. We are attracting investors and have spawned competition due to our success as the first company to bring the pili nut to the international market. We will continue to grow as our operations are systematized so that we can put more of our focus on growth, outreach, and product and brand development.
What’s been the biggest learning experience since starting your own brand?
Protect your product and your brand. While there are a lot of amazing people in this world, if you have a great product or service, there will inevitably be someone who tries to replicate, knock off, steal, or undercut you. Make sure that you have people sign NDAs and non-compete agreements whenever discussing the ins and outs of your business.
What are your top 3 tips on how to setup an Ecom store for success?
- Build out an inventory management system before you build out your e-commerce store.
- Take into account your product cost and merchant fees charged by e-commerce platforms. These can sneak up on new business owners.
- Use product sales to see what items are costing you and which ones are making you money. Track your metrics. Just because you love a product does not mean your customers will.
What are some of your favorite online business tools you use to run Pili Hunters?
I am not a computer guy, but my staff really likes working with Shopify. I have started to warm up to Slack a lot more as it lets us communicate in groups with our third-party contractors.
|Payments||Paypal, Shopify Payments, Amazon|
See what tools other founders use here.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts or other educational resources?
Most of the creation of the brand has been through online research and good old fashioned trial and error.
Who have been the most influential people for you during this business journey?
I really like Tim Ferris. I like how he chooses to approach work.
Any other advice you’d like to share with other aspiring entrepreneurs?
If you go with your gut and you are willing to always put in the hard work, you can make it work.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now or open to new investors?
We are always open to new investment and would love to have a chief operating officer who has built out a start-up food organization’s back-end.