Are You Growing the (Good Food) Economy?
There’s a local food revolution happening across America. From artisanal pickles to alternative CSA models, good food entrepreneurs are changing the local food landscape. Yet too often, entrepreneurs lack the business skills they need to translate their passion into profit in the marketplace.
Fair Food Network’s Fair Food Fund in partnership with Professor Jay Friedlander is changing that equation.
Jay is the inaugural chair of green and socially responsible businesses at Maine’s College of the Atlantic where he’s emphasized how social and environmental responsibility can translate into a competitive business advantage. To move beyond the classroom, he also created a venture incubator, The Hatchery, to give eligible students the opportunity and resources needed to develop and launch for- and nonprofit enterprises as part of their education.
In 2013, we partnered with Jay to develop the Fair Food Business Boot Camp an annual three-day intensive training for good food enterprises located in the Northeastern United States.
It includes skill building sessions with program staff, industry mentors, and fellow entrepreneurs to help participants refine their business models, solidify their plans, and accelerate growth. And it culminates with a pitch competition in which entrepreneurs present their plans to a panel of investors and compete for an award of up to $10,000 in Consulting Corps services from the Fair Food Fund. This year’s Boot Camp took place on Dec. 2-4 at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts in partnership with Food Sol.
We talked with Jay to get his tips for good food entrepreneurs and other thoughts on growing the good food economy.
What are the top challenges you see good food enterprises face today?
While many food entrepreneurs are long on passion, they fall short and suffer in the marketplace. More than half of all retail businesses fail in the first 5 years. This is because they too often lack the fundamental business skills they need to translate their passion into a profitable business.
Another challenge is the intense competition local food enterprises face from other start-ups, established firms, and conventional companies who are well funded and attempting to enter this market.
Leaders of good food enterprises need to learn the necessary skills to build a successful enterprise. This includes understanding the customer and the value their enterprises create; being able to read the numbers; and telling their story in a concise and impactful way to key stakeholders.
Jay talking with Boot Camp Pitch Competition Winners Fresh Food Generation
How has this changed over time?
The competition has only escalated and made the issues more acute. New entrants are creating increased competition across all areas of the food system. Not to mention the growth of organic to a $26 billion industry in 2013. Good food entrepreneurs have fewer margins for error than ever.
You emphasize the importance of entrepreneurs telling their story. Why is this essential and what makes a good story?
A good story is like the tip of an iceberg. It rests on top of a mountain of other materials with only the most essential elements showing.
Telling your story well creates clarity for both the entrepreneur and others involved in the venture. The process helps to reveal your critical strengths and weaknesses giving you a pathway forward.
A good story does so much more than collect facts and figures—it makes them relevant and meaningful. It has plot points that make the listener lean in and want to learn more while also showing the way forward.
What other tips do you have for entrepreneurs just starting out?
Any enterprise starts with passion. New entrepreneurs go through more upheaval than they could ever imagine, so you need passion to get you through the rough spots. If you don’t have the passion, don’t bother.
That said, you need to pay as much attention to running the business as you have for your passion. Business skills are key to cultivating and creating the world you want. Learning these skills also lessens your pain and makes you more likely to succeed.
Taking the stage at the final pitch competition
In a previous life, you were COO of O’Naturals, a natural and organic fast food restaurant chain founded by Stonyfield’s Gary Hirshberg that grabbed the attention of investors and the national media. How did that influence how you teach and coach others?
Having this experience was invaluable. It grounds my teaching and coaching in the real world. Having spent roughly a decade with O’Naturals brought me through almost every phase of a start-up from fundraising, planning the concept and establishing vendor relationship, to opening multiple stores, systematizing operations, and working with a partner with over $21 billion in sales.
We just wrapped this year’s Fair Food Business Boot Camp featuring 5 businesses from the Northeast. What was your biggest takeaway?
Working closely with these food entrepreneurs gives me hope. Hope that we can build a food system that is good for our communities, the planet, and overall economic prosperity.
What is one final pieces of advice you’d like to leave good food entrepreneurs with?
Listen. Be open to feedback and be willing to pivot your ideas based on what you hear in the marketplace.
Change is a constant, embrace it, and keep moving onward.
Check out the new Fair Food Fund brochure!
Dig into a feature story in the New York Times on the Business Boot Camp and check out our blog on a recent Fair Food Fund investment to Maine’s Northern Girl