Posted on

What’s a Vertical Form Fill and Seal Machine, and What’s it For?

If you want to put your food product into a single-serving pouch which is customized with your brand, nutritional information, serving suggestions, etc., and you want to do this in high-quantities (3000-20,000 servings per day) and at high speeds (60-100 servings per minute), then a vertical form fill and seal machine might be right for you.

What is a Vertical Form Fill and Seal Machine?

As the name would imply, a Vertical Form Fill and Seal machine does three things, in a specific way:

  • It forms packages or pouches out of a flexible feedstock – usually a film mounted on a roll
  • It fills those pouches with a material or product
  • It seals them, usually air-tight
  • It is arranged vertically, so that the functions listed above occur from top to bottom

Generally speaking, VFFS machines are separated into two general categories:

  • Those that fill packages with liquids or pastes
  • Those that fill packages with powders or other dry ingredients

The distinction is important because the machines are not interchangeable. A paste/liquid-filling machine will use a piston pump (powered either electrically or pneumatically, with an air compressor). A powder filling machine will generally rely on gravity to do the work of dropping ingredients into the pouches.

Costs vary widely. You can buy a Chinese-made machine for less than $3000, including the cost of shipping it to the US. You can also spend upwards of $50,000 or more for an American-made machine. One is not necessarily better or worse – for a Chinese-(or Indian-, or Pakistani-) made machine, you are trading cost for flexibility and… ease of use. Also, as is the case with going overseas for a product or service, you are going to need to know exactly what you want the machine to do, and how it should do it, if you expect to get something that works for you “out of the box.” An American manufacturer will likely be able to consult extensively with you, and customize their machine to do exactly what you want, at high-speed, with high-precision, rather flawlessly.

Often, and especially for small food makers who are just beginning to move into packaging automation, this isn’t really a choice you get to make. Usually the choice is, “a $3000 foreign-made machine, or keep doing it manually for a couple more years.”

How to make Po Cha – Traditional Tibetan Butter Coffee

One genesis for fatCoffee is the traditional Tibetan drink, po cha, or butter tea. (The other is Niter Kibbeh, a traditionally Ethiopian preparation of butter for use in butter coffee ceremonies and other gatherings.)

Typically, po cha is made with fermented yak butter and black tea. Unlike most western butters yak butter is more cheese-like in texture and taste, imparting a typically salty taste to the tea preparation. It can be something of an acquired taste, so omitting the salt in the recipe below is perfectly reasonable.

Tibetan Butter Tea (fatCoffee-style)
Print Recipe
A traditional preparation of butter tea or po cha.
Servings Prep Time
4 cups 10 minutes
Cook Time
1 minute
Servings Prep Time
4 cups 10 minutes
Cook Time
1 minute
Tibetan Butter Tea (fatCoffee-style)
Print Recipe
A traditional preparation of butter tea or po cha.
Servings Prep Time
4 cups 10 minutes
Cook Time
1 minute
Servings Prep Time
4 cups 10 minutes
Cook Time
1 minute
Servings: cups
  1. Boil water for tea
  2. In a large blender (we recommend a Ninja or NutriBullet type blender), add 4 tea bags (or more, depending on your taste)
  3. Add water to blender container
  4. Steep for 5-7 minutes
  5. Remove tea bags
  6. Add two pouches (or 4 tablespoons from a multi-serving pouch) of fatCoffee Vanilla to blender), plus salt.
  7. Close blender tightly and blend on high for 30-45 seconds
  8. Carefully open blender, and pour into separate cups; drink and enjoy!
Share this Recipe
Posted on

2017: A Year of Living Focusfully

It’s been popular among the folks that I know to lament that 2016 was a sucker-punch of a year. Full of tragedy, disappointment, and the untimely deaths of more than a few people who we have looked to for inspiration, joy and laughter.

“May you live in interesting times”, goes the (not, actually) Chinese saying. Still, I’m guessing that few people throughout history thought of their era as banal, boring or uneventful on a wholesale level.  And if they did, I’d wager as well that they lamented it thoroughly. We humans seem to be creatures of deep, natural discontent.

While we have scant control over the events driving the world around us, there is one area in which we can at least learn to exert more control: our responses to them. That feeling of control – even if it’s delusional – can greatly contribute to your sense of happiness. Particularly when it is habitual, rather than episodic.

One thing I’ve noticed this year – through running two business, launching a brand new product, and so many more changes big and small, is how difficult it can be in the course of a single day to remain focused on any one thing for very long.

And so, for 2017, my aim is to do a complete tear down: from the ground up, creating a daily routine that encourages, and even forces, long stretches of time where I’m focused on just one thing.

Though I don’t imagine that this is true for everyone, I know that I’m much more satisfied with a day if I’ve managed to bring one task to completion than if I’ve simply “touched” 10-20 different items on my To-Do list. Though there are definitely days where I have to play “traffic cop“, my goal is to have fewer of those.

With that in mind, here are five things I plan to do to better equip myself for the year ahead. If you want to call them resolutions, that’s fine – I prefer to think of them as habits-in-progress.

1) Sleep More Consistently

Depending on your physiology, diet, genetics and a host of other factors, you probably need between 6-10 hours of sleep each night. Personally, I know I do best with about 7, but I also know that I do better when I’m consistent. Catching up on sleep on the weekends? Doesn’t really work for me – I’m sluggish throughout the day anyway, and I miss out on my morning routine.

But that range – 6-10 hours, for adults 25-65 – is pretty big. And I know from personal experience that for a lot of people, it doesn’t have to be at a specific time of night, or even all at once. Think you’re an all-achieving go-getting short-sleeper who can get by on 3-4 hours a night, every night? You’re not.

Miss the mark on a given night? Grab a nap. 20 minutes, mid-afternoon, can be a huge help on a day when I’ve stayed up too late, or had to get up earlier than I would have normally. If you have 90 minutes during the day to doze off, that’ll get you a whole sleep cycle. But try to keep it to one or the other – an hour long nap will probably leave you groggy and disoriented.

Find what works for you – and that’s more than just a banal, “hey, do what feels right” off-hand remark. Setting a consistent routine that you can stick to is far more important than whether or not you check off all of the “must dos” on the “how to get the best sleep” lists.

Finally, if it helps, make sure that your employer knows that sleep deprivation is destroying value for their company. If they’re smart, they’ll install napping pods.


2) Ditch Email Before Breakfast, and After Dinner. And Most of the Time In Between.

Want to simplify your life? Here are 43 ways to do it.

Want to make your life unbelievably tense and complicated? Try Inbox Zero.

Here’s the idea: you open your email, and then relentlessly delete, file away or reply to everything that’s there, until your inbox is empty.

The next day, you do the same thing.

And the next day, and the next. And the next.

And lo and behold, within one short week, you are relentlessly obsessing about your empty email inbox, checking it hourly or even minute by minute. (Granted, if you’re hewing to the stated philosophy, you’re only supposed to be doing this for 20 minutes a day.)

The problem with these approaches – some of which are, frankly, not a bad idea at all, is that they merely apply band-aids to a gaping, gushing wound.

Email is like a gas: it will expand to fill whatever space and time you allot to it.

So, my new trick is a fairly simple one: timers. I have specific times during the day that I set aside to answer email. And they’re very small time slots, no more than 6-12 minutes at a time.

Also, never before breakfast or after dinner.

Most of us with corporate-type jobs, consulting gigs that depend on clients or businesses of our own feel absolutely tethered to the electronic chime of doom known as the “email notification.” But the fact is, you don’t have to be. First, you have to decide you’re not going to be.

In between writing the end of the last paragraph, and writing this one, I cleared out my email. In about 12 minutes.

Here’s my brand-new-for-2017 totally Patent-Pending method for handling email and all your digital communications. I call it, 36Box.

12 minutes, three times a day, max. If I’m spending much more than that dealing with email, Facebook, Twitter, whatever, I honestly need to take stock and ask, “why?”

I don’t hit “Inbox Zero”, but I get through everything there and either:

  • Responded (3) with a quick note or a specific answer
  • Forwarded the email to Evernote (6), if it had something attached or in it that I knew I would need sometime, like a document or a form
  • Created a To Do in Habitica (2) if there were really things that needed to get done
  • Unsubscribed (4) if it was a newsletter that I haven’t honestly, truly wanted to read in the last 2 days
  • Deleted it (15) if it didn’t fall into the above three categories and was more than 4 weeks old
  • Left it there (4) if it’s something I *know* I need to followup on in the next day

12 minutes. In the middle of writing a post.

If you use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to connect with other people in a meaningful way, make yourself more productive, or accomplish something you truly want to be doing, that’s awesome. For me… it’s soooooo easy for me to fall down a black hole of time and completely lose track of what I went there to do in the first place; so for this year, I’m focusing on getting that a lot more under control.


3) Spend a LOT More Time Saying No

With two businesses, a ton of side-projects (that I’m really interested in) and now two kids whom we’re homeschooling (whom I’m also really interested in), my plate’s getting a little full. Which is ok – I don’t really work well with a lot of free time on my hands.

The only thing I enjoy more than a full “to do” list is finding a new way to manage “to do” lists. (Habitica is one of my favorites, but I’m using paper more as well, too.)

There are already two items on my “Dailies” list that I expect to be checking off a lot more often:


It’s a basic truth of business that the more it grows, the less you do. That’s not an invitation to sit back and just let anything happen, but it is an exercise in letting go. One of the things I love most about Ninja Goat is getting to tinker with things. But if I want to have an hour to tweak something, I need to empower someone else to work on what’s already been figured out. Fortunately, I have a great team. Now all I need to go is get more into their pipelines (and, of course, keep track of how it’s going.)


4) Meditate

There are lots of reasons to meditate: health, attention span and even athletic performance. But for me, the ability to notice when my focus has shifted has been one of the most important benefits of meditation. Mindfulness isn’t mystical: learning to pay attention to what your brain is doing requires every bit as much practice as learning to ride a bike, knit, paint, or code.

Practice is critical.


5) Intermittent Fasting

Last, but definitely not least, is something which I’ve been doing on and off for the past year: intermittent fasting.

They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. “They” are, mostly, people who sell breakfast foods. Now, I’m not going to disparage anyone selling a food product, particularly anyone who might be selling something that gets your day off to a rip-roaring productive and energy packed start.

But – you should be skeptical of anyone who points to any single thing and says “this is the. most. important. thing.” Because no one thing is. There are many roads to the top of the mountain, and if yours is lined with muffins, orange juice and corn flakes… well, more power to you.

But I know that my road is smoothest when the day starts with water, and nothing else until about noon or 1PM. I spent my mornings feeling more focused, I have a ton of energy, and I’m able to plough through my most challenging tasks.

Sometimes I start the day with a cup of fatCoffee, and sometimes I eat a full breakfast (though it’s likely to square more toward sardines and kale fried in bacon fat than anything grain-y.) This year, I’m paying much closer attention to what my days feel like when I fast, and when I don’t.



Here we are, just a couple of weeks into 2017, and I’ve already missed a few of my daily goals: but I’m not worried, because consistency isn’t something you start with, it’s something you build over time.

Posted on

Job Carving: Flipping the “Workforce On Demand” on its Head

Here at NinjaGoat, we have a fairly simple policy when it comes to job responsibilities: if it needs to be done, and you can do it, get it done.

Granted, we’re early on in our life as a company and a culture, but this kind of inclusiveness is one of the most essential parts of who we are, and who I hope we’ll become. And it sits astride an intersection of a number of trends that are, to say the least, affecting how small businesses operate, and how that affects the people who work for them.

I’ve worked in companies of all sizes – I started my professional career in a small web development firm of 20 people in 2000, stayed on as it grew to 200, consulted for CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, worked alongside non-profits and grass-roots organizations, and now run two businesses of my own.

And until very recently, “run” meant “do everything myself.” Small business owners know: you don’t own the business, it owns you. And the biggest challenge I’ve had has been figuring out how to get out-of-the-way, and let other people take responsibility for what needs to be done. That challenge has two pieces:

  • Elucidating clearly what needs to be done
  • Learning to accept a wide range of how that actually happens

Writ small, this is basically the challenge all organization – tiny and huge – face. Bringing fatCoffee to market wasn’t exactly easy – but it wasn’t terribly complex. Once the idea was formed in my mind, and the recipe figured out, it was simply a series of steps to take to bring it to people who wanted to buy it.

Scaling up, at first, wasn’t terribly complex either: for the first year or so, it meant only, “doing the same thing, more frequently.” We went from producing one or two of a thing:

To making four or five of that same thing:

And then we started adding new flavors, and packaging different numbers of servings in different boxes, and selling different places online and offline. And like any small business just starting up, and looking to grow, we tried a ton of different things. Referral programs, multiple online stores, selling on Amazon, and more. And soon, the business started to look a bit more like:

(Yes, I got a 3D printer recently; I’m a bit obsessed at the moment, but it’s still a good metaphor). And now, looking to the side, I see this:

There are pieces, lots of them – and they sort of seem like they’re supposed to fit together and form something, but it’s not entirely clear what. And it’s even less clear if these new pieces fit together nicely with the ones I’ve already put together, and have working pretty well.

What does it mean to have an “on-demand” team?

Currently, we make fatCoffee about once a week. A lot of pieces have to come together for that to happen: ingredients need to be in stock, I need to be able to get time in the commercial kitchen we rent, my machinery needs to be in working order… and I need help in there.

It takes a team of 4-5 people to get fatCoffee from raw ingredients to a packaged product ready for delivery. (Or, it takes one person 10x as long.)

And while that happens, there are orders to route, vendors to deal with, website maintenance, emails, customers, and more.

Now, for sure, some of these things can be outsourced, even to software. I use a ton of web-based software and services to run my business. And, to be sure, we are adding some automation to the production process, but for now: it’s a lot of manual work.

The same manual work, over and over again. 3000 times in a row, until a dozen cases of fatCoffee are ready to head out the door.

Maybe the “gig economy” is a term you’ve heard before: Uber drivers, TaskRabbits, InstaCart Shoppers – there seem to be a lot of businesses today that work only because the people who work for them are hired “as needed” – an hour here, a ride there, a shopping trip over there.

Regardless of what you think of that kind of arrangement, the structure of those businesses is somewhat similar to our own, but for very different reasons.

Whereas some large companies are looking to “freelancize” their workforce to avoid the “entanglements” of having bona-fide employees, we’ve looked to create flexibility not just in our schedule, but in our job descriptions.

Our employees work shifts that work for them – in and around other jobs, responsibilities and commitments. But they also have the flexibility to take on work in areas outside of their “core” – want to help with the website? Here’s a list of things we need done. Want to go out and find a coffee shop and get them to start carrying fatCoffee? Here’s a list of some in your area. Want to promote fatCoffee online and earn commissions? Here’s a link to our affiliate program.

(BTW, If you’ve ever wondered what happens when you buy from a small business, it’s simple: you employ more people, more often, so they can support themselves, their families, and their communities. Now, personally, I buy stuff from all kinds of businesses, big and small. But when you buy from a small business, it’s really easy to see exactly where your money goes.)

From “On Demand Employees” to “On Demand Jobs”

Aside from production, there’s a ton of administrative stuff to do: photos of products, moving sales data from one place to another, following up with customers, and updating the website.

Ellis, our first regular employee, is a fine example: he started with us last summer, initially to help wrangle our data – a mess of reports from different websites and spreadsheets that took as long to make sense of as it did to learn anything useful from.

Along the way he asked, “can I help in the kitchen, too?” And frankly, there didn’t seem to be any reason to say no. fatCoffee production is a pretty straight-forward affair, and it’s easy enough to step in and start learning one of the steps… and then to eventually learn a few more, and more, until you’re able to fill in pretty much anywhere help is needed.

A challenging aspect of this is the need to write out, in fairly minute detail, the steps needed to complete any one of step of our process. But even this bears unexpected fruit: a well-detailed process is easier for everyone to analyze, both to understand, and to suggest improvements. (Yet another advantage of Universal Design.)

Another advantage: our team grows their skills, finds the pieces of our company’s needs that fit their abilities, and finds opportunities to help each other learn, grow and integrate more successfully.

At a time when unemployment and underemployment among Autistic individuals is stretching towards 90%, it seems flat-out absurd to keep plugging away with a standard set of job descriptions that may not match what employees have to offer. We’re a young and growing company – and with that we have the flexibility to carve out sets of responsibilities that meet our employees’ needs as well as our own.

Today, we have about 10 employees who bring a variety of skills and interests to the team, and who all have the opportunity to take care of our “open job descriptions” policy. It’s just a start, but an auspicious one.

Posted on

Powered By: The NinjaGoat “Stack”

A partial list of the products and services we use to run our business. In time, we’ll offer some specific how-to’s for each of these. For now, this is my “bus list.”

Online Store Management

  • WordPress and WooCommerce hosted by WPEngine
  • DNS and SSL provided by CloudFlare
  • Affiliate Management by Referral Candy and WPAffiliates
  • Stand-alone and embedded Facebook store by Shopify

Inventory Management

Financial Management

  • Online credit card processing by Stripe and PayPal
  • Offline credit card processing by Square
  • Bookkeeping by (creators of one of the best on-boarding experiences I’ve ever seen. Seriously, try them.)
  • Payroll by Gusto

Professional Services