Bruce Nierenberg knows the pervasive rough draft of business models about as well as other irresolute consultants and investors. They’ve heard the spiel. They’d prefer the rigmarole, if only for the effort.
On Thursday at FBU LA, an educational/networking event for the food and beverage industries, Nierenberg, a former Glaceau board member and the founder of BIN Consulting, briefly wore his best acting shoes before the crowd of attendees at the Skirball Cultural Center. So very through with this spiel, the pitch of the delusional and occasionally brilliant, he could do none other than satirize it before disproving its quarter-baked rationale.
With gusto, with lassitude, Nierenberg said: “Gee, your spaghetti sauce is so good! You should bottle it and sell it everywhere!”
If Nierenberg’s mockery toward the unprepared yet ambitious entrepreneur seemed a bit harsh, the audience didn’t seem to mind. His acting elicited chuckles, head nods, recognition. Perhaps the nearly unanimous agreement can be attributed to the scene at hand. While the audience may have traversed no further than the bubbly surface of entrepreneurism, most of the day’s bevy of speakers, Nierenberg included, have already dug into the caverns of conflict. They talk about liquidations like a Vietnam vet: we lost so many good men.
While the day might have served as a rude awakening to the hundred or so entrepreneurs with dreams of following Vitaminwater, Red Bull, Kashi, Wild Oats, it was an awakening nonetheless. This kind of thing takes work, not just a cute product and support from your buddies.
Rob Leichman, founder and CEO of The Lyric Group, a brand management and business development outfit for emerging food brands, said that no idea is sacred. Bluntly noted, sure, but point taken. He asked the most basic yet also most vital questions that entrepreneurs would be wise to consider.
“Does the world really need that particular product?” he asked. “Are you just one of a sea of nine thousand other products doing the same thing?”
And for those entrepreneurs who might have accidentally forgotten about product packaging, or perhaps those who have deemed their packaging worthy for the big leagues, Adam Spriggs, strategy director for the marketing group Interact On-Shelf, served up a big ole slice of humble pie. He praised Angie’s Popcorn — Boom Chicka Pop — for its pastel hues and in-your-face demeanor. He talked Harmless Harvest, the only plastic bottle of coconut water on the shelf, next to cans and Tetra Paks of fairly similar liquids. He discussed ketchup in a small square jar, which sits amongst the tall ketchup bottles of the lamestream. But he had more than pretty pictures. He had numbers.
Seventy-five percent of sales, Spriggs said, are undecided when the shopper walks into the store. So how do you land that purchase?
“You want to be the anomaly on the shelf,” he said.
We’ve long heard words like “disruption” and “differentiation,” and those words were often uttered on Thursday. But other themes of arguably equal importance, yet less commonly cited, also popped up throughout the day.
When you’re ready to expand in Costco, a concept like disruption has become nearly second nature. But for an educational symposium of this ilk, which isn’t exactly a regular occurrence for the food and beverage industries, advisory thoughts worth repeating took center stage. Here’s one: you matter. Of course the product matters. You need packaging that will stand out on the shelf. A formulation that will bring consumers back for more. Investors who share your values and vision. But through the all-nighters and the long drives and the financial stresses, keep in mind that consumers, retailers, investors and distributors are buying into the entrepreneur as well as the product.
Greg Fleishman and Andy Aussie, the co-founders of Purely Righteous Brands and former Kashi executives, spoke glowingly of Daniel Sullivan, the all-in founder of TumericAlive, a small but growing juice/elixir brand in New York City.
“When he talks about Tumeric,” Fleishman said, “it’s like he’s been living it for years.”
Later that day, Runa co-founder Tyler Gage showed his ardor for a vision that began at Brown University, moved to an Ecuadorian field and continues to this day in Brooklyn, N.Y., the brand’s home base, and throughout the country, where Runa is gradually emerging.
Look no further than Gage when considering the importance of the people in a business operation. Gage doesn’t take written resumés. When making hires or reeling in his next batch of vigorous interns, he doesn’t care too much about industry experience. Instead, he takes video cover letters. It allows him to sense passion in 10 or so seconds. It helps him separate the go-getters from the mediocre. Because, after all, you can be really nice and have a really good taste in movies, but a business only goes as far as its aspirations.
“I don’t think there’s any substitute early on for going for it,” Gage said.
The event conflated food and beverage rookies with financial gurus and broker veterans. It was idea makers and those who invest in the ideas. Slacks and blazers met jeans and brand tees. When covering the grind of food and beverage sales and marketing, Brent Knudsen, founder and managing partner of Partnership Capital Growth, compared it to a proctological exam. Gage brooded and mentioned his poor adrenal glands, his poor kidneys. When breakfast was served, a few bottles of MetaBrand’s I Am Sleepy sat next to a water dispenser. Attendees drank up and, spiked water or not, made it through the day.
Jim Breen, the founder and CEO of Way Better Snacks, talked about the process of sprouting — removing the shield of seeds, nuts and beans to unlock their nutrients. It’s his key point of differentiation. Breen was a kind of star at the event. He’s a man with a company on the rise. He was surrounded by those hunting for the next hit. Within the pillar-filled halls and the crystalline gardens and sculptures of the Skirball, atop the parched hills of Los Angeles, their desire was palpable.
“I think the optimism in this room, if you could bottle it, would be a great product,” said Pat Finn, managing partner of Finn Capital Partners.
And if not first to market, the entrepreneurs may take solace in the wisdom of Michael Sands, executive VP of snacks with B&G Foods. He displayed an image of one mouse demolished by a trap and another mouse with much to celebrate.
“The second mouse,” he said, “gets the cheese.”