Food, Drink and Venture Capitalism

September 14, 2015

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A recent networking event hosted by the National Venture Capital Association and the Emerging Markets Private Equity Association (EMPEA) provided a reminder that even two-person companies can champion the fundamentals of brand management, innovation and business development. The event focused on women in innovation and featured Ann Yang of Misfit Juicery, Tory Pratt of TRUE Syrups & Garnishes, Kaitlin Forster of CHIQS and Melissa Frakman of Zomato who shared their founder stories. Immediately following, NVCA and EMPEA led a discussion on building solutions to advance opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities in the innovation ecosystem.

The three lessons learned from these food innovators are:

  1. When customers ask, deliver. Online restaurant guide and food ordering company Zomato is not your typical tech start-up. The firm began in India, met customer demand by providing services throughout Eastern Europe and only later entered the US market by purchasing urbanspoon.com. Zomato recently received additional $60M in VC funding, which will allow it to further expand in priority markets around the world and introduce new services. TRUE Syrups began with one product: tonic syrup for cocktails. Pratt saw her business growth plans focusing on a move into flavored tonic syrups, however her customers were asking for a grenadine syrup. Pratt listened to them and, fast forward, the new grenadine now sells as well as the tonic.
  2. Be true to your brand. Misfit is part of the ugly fruit and vegetable movement – they turn surplus, excess or otherwise unwanted food into delicious, cold-pressed juice. Misfit’s motivation and passion are to reduce food waste, and Yang spoke about how a surprising number of customers buy their products for detox cleanses and the young company’s need to reinforce its purpose and the mission behind its beverages. There is a lot of discussion around food waste in the US, and Yang and her business partner are committed to being a part of that conversation through increased product awareness and educating their consumers.
  3. Always “go for the ask.” CHIQS sound like a “build a better snack food” story but Forster has the advantage of a lawyer’s inquisitive mind. That led her to a communal, commercial kitchen where she could produce her chips according to food safety standards and also seek guidance from her peers. Forster, who currently self-funds her business, also spoke about the tipping point she and many other small businesses face: the more you “go for the ask,” the more business you’re likely to secure, the more challenges – financial and other – you will face. Only the business owner will know when the time is right to face these growth challenges head on.

Whether funded through liquidating savings and hoping direct sales create sustainability, via grants and kickstarter funds or larger venture capitalists, the common thread among these four companies was their founders’ willingness to take a breakthrough idea and transform it into a business. Along the way, they are hiring staff, purchasing materials and contributing to local economic success stories communication agencies and reporters hunt for. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, the rate of start-ups has grown even with downsizing – the number of small business in the U.S. has increased 49 percent since 1982. It pays to give attention to the little guy or girl when seeking innovation and business creation inspiration.