Mitra Raman, Founder & CEO of The Buttermilk Company
Meet Mitra Raman, a former Amazon software engineer turned entrepreneur who started The Buttermilk Company, a Y-Combinator backed startup that brings affordable and authentic easy-to-make Indian food straight to your doorstep. She’s a total badass whose story reminds us all of the power of turning your passions into reality, of harnessing your potential no matter your age, and importantly, of realizing our parents’ love for us second-generation kids, even when we can’t see it. Read on to find out more.
“I grew up super brown. My dad is Tamil and my mom is Kannada, and they immigrated to Arkansas to be software engineers at Walmart. We had a huge community of Indian people around us growing up and actually migrated with many of them to Dallas and then Seattle, which was really nice. I started learning Bharatanatyam at the age of six and learned Hindustani music, danced at every Diwali show and watched Bollywood movies. And I loved all of it.
When I started college, my parents (both engineers) encouraged me to major in computer science. It ended up being really tough, and I actually wasn’t that good at it. I wasn’t coming in as someone who had been coding as a child, and the environment was super intimidating. After my first CS exam, my advisor even told me to consider business and that CS wasn’t for me! But I stuck with it and knew I couldn’t quit. When I look back, I’m really glad I did it - I don’t think I’d be where I am right now if I didn’t have that experience. I’ve realized there’s so much value in doing something that’s hard or intimidating and refusing to quit.”
From a Tech Giant to a Homemade Venture
“At some point, I started getting really sick of my job at Amazon. I was bored, stressed out and just didn’t care, which was a huge red flag. It was kind of the worst of both worlds; if you’re going to be stressed, you should care. My job was giving me anxiety and I wasn’t doing well physically because of it. I was working on Buttermilk on the side at the time, and my fiancé eventually told me to stop making excuses and just go for it. So I planned out my finances and made sure I’d be able to work on this full-time for a year to start with. A lot of people think that Buttermilk must have been doing amazingly well for me to quit Amazon, but it actually wasn’t. It wasn’t a huge financial risk for me at that point, and worst case, I’d try it for a year and then go back. I just knew I had to give it my all.
It all started with my mom’s rasam. To satisfy my craving, she once gave me some powder in a ziploc bag and told me to just mix it with hot water - and it was amazing. I then realized that every mom does this and has found ways to engineer recipes for their kids. That’s why I developed a crowdsourced business model where our recipes come from the community. Food is the one thing that we can all experience regardless of our cultures and it connects us all.”
“While there are a lot of ready-to-eat Indian food options out there like MTR, they don’t necessarily satisfy our cravings and honestly, taste like shit. Our moms’ food is way better. I think there’s a huge market for people like us who are Indian but grew up in the U.S. We don’t have the know-how, time or desire to make Indian food from scratch, but we still crave it all the time. We want an easy option that doesn’t sacrifice quality or taste - we’re looking for authenticity in the taste, product and the people behind it. Additionally, many of our customers are non-Indian too, so this is a great opportunity for us to educate them on Indian cuisine.
When I launched Buttermilk, we started in Seattle, doing everything by hand. I was printing at Kinko’s, labeling, and packaging at a commercial kitchen myself. I got a lot of orders from family and friends on our launch day, but then the orders slowed down to 1-3 a week. I used to think this was a failure, but we’ve been growing steadily since. We opened up nationwide in April and hired our first part-time kitchen manager. We were getting one order a day, which grew to 3-4 orders a day by June, 4-5 a day by July and 10-15 a day by August! I just started doing paid marketing and talking to customers a lot about their experience. Looking into the next year, we’re focusing on expanding our line of products and looking at different distribution outlets. The biggest focus for me is achieving product / market fit. We’re close, but we’re not there yet.”
A Second Generation Story
I used to (and still do) fight with my parents all the time. I would just want them to let me go to the dance, or wear a tank top, but they’d think it was the end of the world. I would sneak out of the house with a Juicy sweatshirt over my tank top and take it off once I was with my friends. Sound familiar?
My parents also became more comfortable with relationships and dating as I grew older. It really helped when I moved back to Seattle and was able to introduce my now fiancé to my family. I know my parents were always focused on just making sure I was happy and that he was a good person.
Now my parents listen to me a bit more, and I feel like I’m teaching them and helping them grow in some ways. My brother is a lot younger than me, and my parents even ask me for advice with him sometimes. At the end of the day, our parents’ number one concern at all times is our safety. They want us to be safe - physically, financially and emotionally. Even now, my mom asks me why I left my “great” job at Amazon when she sees me working tirelessly with Buttermilk. I get her perspective - our parents worked really hard to give us the best opportunities so we could coast, but we’ve just got to reassure them that we’re OK, and that we’re being responsible and doing the right thing.”
“What I’ve realized is, at a certain age, our parents turn more into our friends and peers than parents. I still butt heads with them from time to time — once every six months, my mom and I will get into terrible fights. However, some empathy from us will go a long way. When I got to be older and talked amongst my friends, I realized that we all had very similar experiences and weren’t alone.
My parents have been such great mentors too. I started this company because of my mom. And my dad has been in the business world for so long. He’s really accomplished and I go to him for everything - relationship advice, friends, you name it. He has started companies, raised money, been a CEO and led executive teams. He really knows how to navigate this world.”
Lessons from a Founder
If you’re interested in side-hustling…
“You’ve got to literally schedule time in your calendar to work. You have to be disciplined with your time and work at it. It’s hard at this age to do something on the side. I’ve missed family dinners, drinks, hanging out with people, birthdays, but you’ve got to work hard at your passion.”
Starting anything is really, really lonely…
“I’m an extrovert and I get energy from being around a group of people, so it’s been hard to be alone a lot of the time. The great thing about accelerators like Y Combinator is that I’m surrounded by people who are 100% focused on building their companies. It’s been great to share startup struggles with others and help each other out. Granted, there aren’t a lot of female founders in my Y Combinator batch, but there’s a handful of solo female founders which is really cool and a ton of female founder events. I also end every night with some TV to take a break from working and take my mind off of things.”
“Starting out, I felt so young and dumb, but I’ve realized you have to at least fake confidence at the start. Own your area and expertise.”
Hiring has been one of the hardest pieces…
“… and I’m still figuring it out. You’ve got to find someone who is going to be just as passionate as you are about your idea at this early of a stage. Some people might be great, but they may not be willing to work as hard as you need them to. And a lot of people expect great pay at startups, but that’s not really the case at at such an early stage. If you know of anyone interested in Buttermilk, send them my way!”
if you know what you’re talking about…
“…people will listen. Being a female software engineer at Amazon, I was on a team with a bunch of dudes who were 5’10 and above. I’m 5 ft tall and felt really small in comparison. They were great, but there were definitely some sexist moments that happened subconsciously. Once I was at a lunch meeting, and one of the guys called me out to take notes in the middle of taking a bite. I was the only girl, of course and I think they all kind of noticed, but it was really subconscious. After two years at the company, I was managing a team, which was super interesting because all the other managers were dudes. I felt so young and dumb, but I’ve realized you have to at least fake confidence at the start. Own your area and expertise.”