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Mitra Raman, founder of Seattle-based Buttermilk Co. (The Buttermilk Co. Photo)

The unique workplace culture at Amazon provided Mitra Raman both the motivation to quit the technology giant and the engineering chops to launch her own endeavor.

Raman landed her first job at Amazon as a software development intern while still working on her computer science undergrad degree from Carnegie Mellon University. After graduating in 2014, she returned to work on Amazon Go and then Amazon Books.

As she was building her tech skills, Raman, who is Indian-American, was also craving her mother’s home cooking. But she lacked the time or ingredients to make the Indian meals that she loved. Then one day, her mom bagged up all of the ingredients needed to cook rasam, a tomato soup and her No. 1 comfort food. All she had to do was add hot water.

“An idea was born,” Raman said. She began exploring the idea of a meal-delivery business, initially focused on Indian dishes that would include all of the necessary ingredients and that customers would cook at home by just adding water. The draw of launching her own enterprise proved more appealing than keeping her corporate gig.

“I found myself getting really anxious and stressed about Amazon work,” Raman said. “I decided it was now or never.” She was afraid that if she waited too long, she would eventually settle into Amazon.

So in July 2017, she launched The Buttermilk Co., a Seattle-based meal delivery kit startup that charges $6 for meals such as the vegetable wheat porridge dish Khichdi and the lentil dish Daal. She called the company Buttermilk because she always adds the ingredient to her rasam, and because the creamy liquid is traditionally eaten after a spicy Indian meal to cool one’s palate.

Her tagline: “Real Indian food, real fast.”

Raman worked part-time on the project until earlier this year, when she left Amazon and took on the role of full-time entrepreneur. She has one part-time employee.

“Being an engineer, you were forced to think about different problems very logically,” Raman said. “So when it comes to something new like food creation and delivery, I was able to set up the website really easily and build a delivery tracker and route tracker.”

Collaborating with family, friends and food scientists, Raman has developed five meal options, which are being sold and shipped nationwide. She’s working on creating a more automated process for turning recipes submitted by the public into meal kits. She’s also eager to set up a subscription plan so that meals are delivered on a regular basis, and she’d like to expand into other world cuisines.

A Sambar dish for sale through Buttermilk (Image via Buttermilk)

Raman recently was chosen to participate in Y Combinator, the well known startup accelerator program in Silicon Valley. Beginning next week, she’ll spend three months in California as part of the program, refining her business and looking to elevate it in the very crowded field of meal kit delivery.

CBInsights in October noted that activity in the food delivery market “has begun to cool.” Startups like SprigSpoonRocket, and Maple have all gone out of business in the past few years. But there are others like Dominos, which is using lots of delivery technology and continues to post impressive earnings, or Uber, whose CEO said in January that UberEats is “exploding,” that seem to be finding success.

Like The Buttermilk Co., some companies are also targeting specific cuisines. Seattle startup Yumso delivers authentic Chinese and Korean dishes to customers, for example.

There are also several former Amazon engineers building food delivery startups in Seattle. Three ex-Amazon employees launched Peach, the office lunch delivery startup that has raised nearly $11 million but recently went through a round of layoffs. Lish is another Seattle-based competitor, founded by ex-Amazon product manager Aakhil Fardeen and his former colleagues.

By adding hot water, The Buttermilk Co. meals are ready-to-eat. (The Buttermilk Co. Photo)

We caught up with Raman for the latest installment of our Startup Spotlight feature.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Create and deliver packets of authentic, healthy ethnic foods. Just add water to make your meal. Our motto is: ‘Authentic taste, fresh ingredients and community based.'”

Inspiration hit us when: “My mom gave me everything I needed in a bag to make a healthy, complete meal. I realized that all I needed was the right ingredients and know-how to recreate my favorite comfort foods.”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Bootstrapping as long as we can and starting an angel round so we can hire someone for operations/supply chain.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Our community! We crowdsource the recipes to guarantee authenticity and bring awareness to this group of (mostly) immigrants who have honed the art of their traditional food for years. We give back a portion of the proceeds to the recipe curator and connect the customer to the person behind their recipe.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Gathering in-person user feedback early on. We made all of our new product decisions based off of our users’ feedback and were able to confirm that we had the right product to start with.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Getting a user study done before we did any product testing. It was a huge cost and we haven’t received any return on the investment.”

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Bezos, 100 percent. Working for his company, I know firsthand how his principles and business acumen impacts the largest to the smallest decisions. He’s grown an online book seller into a global company tackling everything from groceries, to brick-and-mortar, to cloud infrastructure, to healthcare. That’s the kind of vision and leadership I want in my corner.”

Our favorite team-building activity is: “It’s just me so far :) I find myself researching cool new products and technologies with a glass of wine in hand and some Netflix going on in the background almost every night!”

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Grit. You need to be willing to do anything it takes to get the job done, have a frugal mindset and innovate as much as possible. We want people who believe in the company as much as we do and are looking forward to growing with us.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Just start. You can have a million excuses for why you can’t or don’t have time to do something, but take that first step and it will all roll from there. I recommend product testing with friends, industry research or attending meet-ups.”

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