Dustin Leonard has a LinkedIn email to thank for securing shelf space in IGA Supermarkets for his products and snaring meetings with Coles and Woolworths to do the same.
The 28-year-old entrepreneur established his social enterprise HERO Condoms as a university assignment in 2012, aimed at donating a condom to Africa for every condom sold in Australia.
Within a year, HERO Condoms were available from Australian pharmacies but Leonard’s efforts to secure distribution in the lucrative grocery market were less successful. Representatives of the major supermarket chains all declined to meet with him.
“I tried to get to the larger players in the grocery market but I hit a brick wall,” Leonard told SmartCompany.
“They weren’t interested. I couldn’t even get a meeting. I tried everything under the sun and was very persistent with emails and phone calls, but no one would see us.”
But instead of giving up, Leonard turned to the annual reports of the major grocery chains to research their business models and hopefully stumble upon “some way to get our foot in the door”.
It was reading a Metcash annual report that led Leonard to discover Silvestro Morabito, a retail veteran of 30 years and the chain’s former chief operating officer.
Leonard found Morabito’s profile on LinkedIn and sent him an invitation to connect, which was accepted. He emailed Morabito asking to meet up for coffee and some advice on guidance to crack the Australian grocery market.
Morabito, who is credited with leading the conversion of 300 supermarkets under the IGA banner, agreed to coffee. After hearing Leonard’s mission to help stop the spread of HIV in Africa, Morabito agreed to mentor Leonard and six months ago came on board as director of business development for HERO Condoms.
“The retail market in Australia is quite cut-throat,” Leonard says.
“Before Silvestro came on board as my mentor, I would try to research a decision and then make it to the best of my ability, but I always had some doubt in the back of my mind. Now I just ask him the right way to do something.”
“It has been phenomenal … a complete pivotal moment.”
With Morabito’s help, HERO Condoms are now stocked in IGA supermarkets, meetings with the “major supermarket chains” have taken place, and Leonard says the company is in discussions with major retailers in China.
Leonard says HERO Condoms are now distributed to approximately 1000 retailers across the country, and he estimates if the company secures distribution with one of the major supermarket chains, alongside IGA, between 3-5 million HERO Condoms would be sold each year.
To date, the company has donated 75,000 condoms to health and community organisations in Africa Leonards hopes to take a container load of condoms – approximately 750,000 – to Botswana in the middle of this year.
But Leonard believes his company would not have survived without Morabito’s guidance.
“We probably wouldn’t have been successful if we didn’t bring Silvestro on board,” he says.
“We were doing everything to attempt to get in front of the major retailers, which is actually quite vital for the company to be sustainable. He is our hero.”
And Leonard’s advice to other entrepreneurs looking for a mentor? “Don’t be afraid to reach out,” he says.
“If you ask for help, people are usually quite willing to help out. LinkedIn is amazing. I would never have had any idea how to get in touch with someone like Silvestro, but I was able to with the click of a button.”