P.S. Snacks Founder and CEO Nikki Azzara told the story of creating her company that makes good-for-you snacks from unconventional ingredients, starting with a line of bean-based cookie doughs. She spoke Thursday, March 29, to about 80 students as part of Penn State Startup Week.

Nikki Azzara, Founder and CEO of P.S. Snacks, told about 80 Penn State students the story of how she drew upon her passion, people, professionalism and her ability to pivot to create a natural foods snack company soon after graduating Wake Forest University in 2014.

Azzara told her startup story Thursday as part of Penn State Startup Week.

Her P.S. Snacks products are sold online, and can be found in all 47 Whole Foods Mid-Atlantic stores, plus 85 other stores across more than 15 states. Azzara's company is growing quickly and she is gearing up for national distribution.

In case you missed it, Azzara explained her vision and company mission in a one-minute video pitch following her talk:

Azzara told students how she created tasty, healthful snacks initially to solve her problem of having good things to eat that do not contain gluten.

She initially marketed her products under the Slender Seven blog and brand she created about healthy recipes all made with seven or fewer ingredients.

But once her packaged, refrigerated bean-based cookie dough snacks hit store shelves, initially in a small independent chain of organic markets, she found the products were confusing on the shelf under the Slender Seven brand.

So she re-branded as P.S. Snacks and the tasty, healthy product has been selling well, expanded its reach of stores and now Azzara is scaling up for national distribution.

She told students that her passion, network of people, professionalism and her ability to pivot were keys to her success.

Building a startup requires so much passion that you're willing to fully invest 18 hours a day, about seven days a week. It has to be a 100 percent commitment, and almost too difficult otherwise.

She credited her ability to create a strong network of mentors, advisors, and supporters.

"I have such amazing people to fall back on -- family, friends, people in the industry," she said, adding that she asks tons of questions and loves learning from people.

She brings her own professionalism and has strategically hired pros, like a branding agency and professional photographer. Azzara handles all of her own social media for P.S. Snacks, but hired a professional photographer to create beautiful images that help sell the brand.

She noted that there is no textbook for what she is doing, and credited her young age for being flexible in her business. She is 26. Throughout the building of what has become P.S. Snacks, Azzara has been able to listen to the market and quickly adjust to feedback by pivoting the business.

Making Favorite Recipes into New Products

In the summer of 2014, after graduating from Wake Forest University, Azzara realized her chocolate chip cookie dough recipe made with chickpeas and the brownie batter made with black beans were so popular with family and friends they had potential as new natural foods products.

She was right.

Her research indicated there was nothing else on the market like the snacks she had created.

She set to work on the concept. Initially, Azzara developed the products under the Slender Seven brand -- a food blog/online cookbook of her healthy recipes that all used seven or fewer ingredients. She had envisioned and launched that platform and content geared toward people trying to eat healthfully on a tight budget.

P.S. Snacks Founder/CEO Nikki AzzaraLearning by Doing

As a senior taking classes in consumer behavior, marketing and business and enterprise management, she used Slender Seven as a startup model and real-life application for her projects and what she was learning. That spring, her schoolwork doubled as marketing for her own firm -- and it made the last, home stretch of college more interesting, said Azzara.

That summer, she had an ah-ha moment vacationing with friends and family as they devoured her creations. "The dough didn't make it from the oven because people were eating it from the bowl -- and that was OK. There were no raw eggs," said Azzara.

She set about making retail-ready recipes, and stopped looking for a full-time job.

"I was just super-determined to make it work," said Azzara. In her favor: a good base of knowledge, networking skills, family support and no other obligations.

"I was very naïve and that definitely worked to my favor," she said. "I had no obligations and nothing to lose. It was just 'Let's see how we can make this work.' You almost never have another time in your life where you have the least obligations to take the risk, especially if your parents and family are supportive of the endeavor."

She tweaked her recipe until it was retail-ready, could be sold out of the refrigerated case and worked as a healthy cookie dough alternative, that could be enjoyed raw as a treat, a snack, or a dip/spread -- often used as an alternative to peanut butter or almond butter.

Crowd-funding Campaign Leads to Opportunity

"If you're not all in and 100% passionate it's just too hard, it's almost not worth it," said Azzara. "I got a really good piece of advice to fail fast. If you try something, figure out quickly if it will succeed or fail because if you get one glimpse of success and you're willing to pivot and build off that success, then success will continue to happen."

By January 2015, Azzara raised $10,000 through a crowd-funding campaign, that led her to the opportunity to join Union Kitchen, a culinary incubator in Washington, D.C. Union Kitchen provided the space, setup and licensing so she could make her products and get them in the store.

She made every batch herself -- and approached natural foods and specialty retailers to take on the product for their stores.

The initial sale was one case of each flavor to a seven-store, local chain of organic stores. For the next 18 months, Azzara made the product and promoted and sampled it herself at farmers markets, local events and college campuses.

But she noticed two related problems: The cookie dough and brownie batter were not selling well on their own. She had to promote them in the store to sell them. And between that and making and packaging the product, there wasn't enough time left in the day to work on the blog and platform that supported the brand -- and that brand wasn't working very well in-store anyway.

Re-Branding Effort Leads to P.S. Snacks

In the summer of 2016, Azzara decided to re-brand the entire business and drop the blog component.

"I started working with a two-person branding agency and spent a full day with them, telling the story, going through each piece," said Azzara.

And there was always this final note of "by the way …" it's actually good for you or "oh and …" it's OK to eat it raw. Like a post-script, or p.s. So they decided to play that up in the new brand.

P.S. Snacks allowed the message of -- "p.s. this cookie dough is good for you" -- and allowed growth of future products that used unconventional ingredients to transform familiar treats.

In late 2016, Azzara re-launched the cookie dough under the new brand.

P.S. Snacks sells three flavors of ready-to-eat, nutrient-dense cookie dough alternatives -- chocolate chip, peanut butter and fudge brownie -- in two sizes each: 12 oz. containers (like a jar of peanut butter) or individual portioned cups of 3 oz. each.

In each of the products, organic chickpea or black beans are the first ingredient, making up 65 percent of the recipe. Nut butter is the second. The dough is lightly sweetened with organic cane sugar, and all three flavors mix in organic, fair-trade chocolate chips.

"All the P.S. Snacks products are free of gluten, flour, dairy soy, eggs, preservatives, and refined sugars. All ingredients are vegan, plant-based and identifiable - likely ones you would find in your own pantry," said Azzara.

The cookie dough is meant to be enjoyed raw as a healthy snack or treat alternative, anytime of day.

New Brand Proves Successful

In fall 2016, Azzara launched the products under the newly created P.S. Snacks brand. Once again, she "pounded the pavement" with retailers. But this time, the cookie dough snacks sold themselves much better. Interest among consumers and retailers grew and the snacks started to take off.

She pitched the largest natural foods distributor, UNFI - United Natural Foods, which took on the P.S. Snacks cookie dough, allowing them to expand reach beyond the Washington, D.C. metro area.

The move was key, because it meant Azzara no longer had to worry about any delivery inconsistencies or being out-of-stock with retailers. UNFI delivers every day.

"From that moment on, sales really started taking off," she said.

She pitched the P.S. Snacks products to the Whole Foods' Mid-Atlantic, and the national retailer brought it into all 47 stores in the region (covering DC, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky)

The cookie dough can now be found in 15 states, 130 stores and is sold online via the P.S. Snacks website and jet.com.

"We are growing really quickly and selling thousands and thousands of units a week," she said.

Now, Azzara is working on new packaging, scaling for national distribution, outsourcing and hiring. She hired her first full-time employee in September.

Eyeing the Big Picture

The keys to Azzara's entrepreneurial success: listening, learning and a tireless work ethic.

"Nothing I learned in class really prepared me for this," said Azzara. "I learned how to do things like cost of goods sold in accounting class, but real-time and living it is a whole different ballgame."

For her startup to be successful, she realized early on that the business would not only be her full-time job but would be her life.

"If you're not all in and 100% passionate it's just too hard, it's almost not worth it," said Azzara. "I got a really good piece of advice to fail fast. If you try something, figure out quickly if it will succeed or fail because if you get one glimpse of success and you're willing to pivot and build off that success, then success will continue to happen."