On a recent 710 WOR “Mind Your Business” broadcast, Yitzchok Saftlas (YS) spoke with Benny Imani. founder and CEO of MiMi’s Sweets. Imani originally came from Iran to the U.S. with just $50 in his pocket. He now owns a successful diamond and candy business.
YS: So, Benny, when you came o America three decades ago, you didn’t speak much English. How did you navigate communication and networking in business?
Benny Imani: I didn’t know a word. I didn’t even know the difference between “go” and “went.” I was basically clueless. So that was very difficult. We were in Flatbush, where they gave us English classes, trying to teach us some English on the side. Of course, we were a bunch of 30-40 wild boys from Iran. We were teenagers, and it was very difficult learning. But when you need to survive, you become a survivor. And I tried my best to learn as much as possible over a short period of time. It wasn’t perfect, but it got me around after six months. And slowly, slowly I progressed.
I was always, I think the American term is, a “go-getter.” I had to be on my toes. I had a younger brother, and I was like both a father and mother for him. Of course, he was a very smart boy, thank G-d. He was in school while I was half in high school, half trying to work. And I would talk to friends and friends of friends, and they would offer jobs here and there. So, whatever it was, I took it. Whether it was cleaning, working as a waiter, deliveryman, etc. Over time, you get to know people and start growing your network.
YS: I understand you were working a little bit in diamonds, and then you even started a chocolatier company. Perhaps you can talk about that and maybe even some of the challenges?
Benny Imani: For the first five years, I worked many different jobs just to survive, because we had no support from anywhere. I learned very early that I need to have a goal. I need to find something that I like. If I like the job, I ‘ll be successful. I liked the jewelry industry and started looking into it, asking here and there, but I didn’t have a job for six months and it was very depressing. Then a friend of mine called me up and said, “I’m working on 47th Street in one of the jewelry booths, but I’m going to move to Boston, do you want to take over?” I jumped on it, and I worked there for a year and a half, but there was not much room to grow.
I started looking for a higher position, found another company, and became their buyer for five years, traveling all the time and learning the diamond business. In 2001, I opened my own jewelry business, which is still operating and is our main business. But I grew up in Iran where there was never 100% certainty as to what’s going to happen tomorrow. So, I had to try not to put all my eggs in one basket. What’s going to happen tomorrow if that business goes down? I have a wife and kids now.
I had a good friend who had a very good candy store. I used to stop there every Sunday to chit-chat. He told me, “Listen, let’s open up a chocolate business.” I agreed, and before we knew it, we were at a machinery warehouse. But after four years, I realized that the chocolate business is very difficult with a lot of competition. Meanwhile, I was looking for another thing to bring in to strengthen the business because I saw it wasn’t doing well.
I found this company, Fini, one of the finest European candy making companies. It took me about a year and a half to sign a contract to make kosher products with them exclusively. We started making our first production, which was not as successful as we thought it was going to be. After four years, I decided I need to shut down the chocolate business because the business model was not right. I started MiMi’s Sweets, growing it and learning from my mistakes. What we did at the chocolate business was wrong, so I tried to do the opposite. Thank G-d, it proved itself right, and we were successful.
YS: What’s your strategy for introducing new products and convincing those big distributors and stores to accept and put your products on the shelves?
Benny Imani: From the first day, one of the challenges was, of course, that there’s always competition out there. So I tried to make my model very different. It involved a lot of risk and money, but I looked at it as an investment for down the road.
When I first started, I didn’t know what to bring in. I ‘m a risk-taker by nature, and to learn this business, I knew nobody’s going to teach me this, I had to learn it the hard way. I brought in a wide variety of products with different shapes and packaging for the first year. I t was very difficult year to put the products out, to introduce them to the market and try to convince people; it took us time.
A lot of products failed, because they weren’t meant for the American market. I learned very quickly that we can’t just bring everything. The USA is a big country with large communities all around, and I saw that even every individual state requires different products. In certain places, they love the bulk product; in other places, they don’t want to touch it. Once we started dealing with overseas, that was a whole different animal by itself. Forget about the USA, they have their own different tastes, different packaging sizes. That means we had to start slowly changing the entire business and trying to tailor to each customer, which is very costly, very time-consuming, and involves a lot of waste. But over the last six, seven years, we learned from our mistakes.
One thing in business that people don’t know is they have to put their egos aside when they make a mistake. I always put ego aside. For each mistake I learned, I asked, I researched, and tried to implement the right way. Thank G-d, slowly a lot of things have changed to the point that now we are very strong. We do have competition, and every day new competitions pop up like mushrooms. But I tell you, if there is no competition, you’re going to fall asleep. Competition is good for business. My goal is to make sure we are different in every way. Certain stock might be the same, but we try to bring in products that are different. You want to bring the watermelon sour belt? Well, I’m not going to bring it. I’m going to bring strawberry.
YS: What is a suggestion you can give on how to make sure that your products make it onto the shelves?
Well, shelf space is something that’s always tight. There’s always a fight. It’s not an overnight thing. It takes time, takes a lot of pushing, and a lot of encouragement. You have to believe in your products. We believe in our products because we know what our products are. We let them test the products and try them out. And even if we needed to ask them for a small space to try our product, we did it. We promoted it with advertising to make sure people know we’re out there. We gave samples to the supermarkets until people understood what we are. But once they know who you are and start testing, it’s guaranteed they’re gonna go back to the shelf looking for your product. It doesn’t come overnight. It takes a few years. But that’s the secret.
YS: Perhaps you could talk about some tips and strategies for when you’re running operations overseas.
Benny Imani: One of the strategies I had when I started to work with these companies is I partnered up to have my person there, who is also their person. He is my eyes and ears, but at the same time, he knows the company, he works for the company. And it’s a mutual help to both of us. I don’t have to be dealing with too many people in the company. Because each of these companies are massive, they have a lot of departments, a lot of people. So, I hire a worker for me here, there, or anywhere else that we manufacture. They are responsible to help me navigate through what needs to be done. Trying to channel it is tough when dealing with too many people.
YS: I understand that your products are kosher and halal certified. That’s very interesting. Can you explain why you chose that route?
Benny Imani: It goes back to my roots. We were born and raised in a Muslim country, so I’m very familiar with the Muslim world and what they eat, what they don’t eat, their certificates and everything else. I realized, there’s a tremendous opportunity because in the USA and around the world there are huge Muslim communities. A lot of them are observant, and they care about halal certification. Because a majority of the products that have gelatin usually contain pork gelatin or beef gelatin, that makes it not kosher or halal. Our is a very high-quality fish gelatin that makes it kosher as well as halal.
I decided to speak to a halal company, and we put together a contract. Once they know we are kosher to begin with, then it’s already halal as well. We decided to have everything halal certified, and we do have quite a bunch of Muslim customers.
YS: I found it fascinating that you don’t have a sales team. You’re a major manufacturer, and you’re moving products around the world. How do you explain that?
Benny Imani: Well, everybody does business differently. I learned my mistakes early on with the chocolate business. We used to go boots on the ground, go around, and sell to every single store. The truck, the networking, the whole nine yards. And that was the biggest mistake that I think failed the company. When I started MiMi’s, I decided it would be totally different. I wanted to have minimal exposure instead of so many workers and liabilities out there. I started working only with distributors. I make less of a profit margin, they make the margin, but they have the salespeople. That’s my strategy. And they do everything. I cut my costs. It’s less margin, but much less overhead and headache.
YS: From your decades of experience, what is your recommendation of when to take risks and when to just play it safe?
Benny Imani: Well, this is a million-dollar question. Some people by nature are little more risky, and some people are more conservative. I’m more risky, although of course everything is calculated, at least as much as my knowledge allows me. And based on that and my vision, I take the risks. I’m not always successful but for a majority of the time, if I fell down, I bounced back up. The chocolate business didn’t work out. It was a very difficult time and a lot of loss and everything else. But I started this business. I didn’t give up, did a lot of hard work. I’m still doing a lot of hard work, but it’s proved to be the right choice.