This was the week of incredibly productive and insightful meetings with a myriad of entrepreneurs, business leaders, potential FTK customers, and major supporters. Thank you to all who took the time to meet with us – we left each session with new ideas on critical issues to explore and test in the next few weeks and with increased energy about the exciting few months ahead. In between them all, we began our goodbyes to favorite Chicago and Evanston folks, neighborhoods and cafes – while gearing up for our transition to Denver (where we both are right now!) to launch Fresh Takes Kitchen this summer.
I packed up our Evanston apartment on Friday and arrived in Denver Saturday afternoon, after a 16 hour road trip through the plains of Nebraska and Iowa – feeling a mixture of excitement about the coming months and nostalgia to leave behind an unforgettable two years at Kellogg.
Again, if anyone has tips or connections in the Colorado area, please send them our way. Already, we’ve been introduced to venture capital groups, food service executives and Colorado policy makers focused on health and wellness. Thank you to those who made these connections and we welcome any others!
Highlights from the week of 6/25:
- Product insights from families: We had eye opening interviews with several parents and their children, all members of the McGaw YMCA’s Children Center who graciously marketed and hosted these discussions. Through these discussions, we received great input and ideas to help shape both our service and our meals when we serve families. Several of the many great insights we heard… Everyone we spoke with loved the idea of the YMCA pickup, given that the center is a uniquely central aspect of their daily life. Health is somewhat of a priority for many families, but convenience, simplicity and getting kids to actually eat meals without complaining generally ranks seems to rank far higher on the list. Children have extremely varied preferences (more so than adults) – one child we spoke with only eats food that is easily identifiable and separated but another needed healthy foods to be “hidden” or “mushed” into a larger dish in order to eat it. Generally, parents seem to struggle with getting their kids to eat more of their dinner, and to finish their meals more quickly. Thank you again to Becky Slenk, for helping us organize these great conversations.
- Tips from highly successful entrepreneurs: Incredible suggestions on our fundraising and launch strategy from two extremely successful entrepreneurs – Chuck Templeton of Open Table and OhSowe.com and Dennis Barsema of RedBack Networks (and current professor of social entrepreneurship and Northern Illinois University). Both are also part of Impact Engine, Chicago’s new 12-week accelerator for impact enterprises. Chuck Templeton is Impact Engine’s Managing Director and is leveraging the program to help build up a thriving, connected community of social entrepreneurs in the Chicago area. They stressed the importance of measuring our impact from the very beginning, making sure we had a long-term time horizon (and the funding to cover at least 12 months at a time), understanding your “escape velocity” (point at which Fresh Takes revenue can fund its own growth trajectory), finding the right lead investors, evaluating our distribution partner unit economics and leveraging technology to develop a viral growth strategy. They had different perspectives on the benefits of a pre-Series A, convertible notes round of funding, but both provided us with interesting points to contemplate for each strategy.
- Wisdom from entrepreneurs a few years ahead of us: Received some great tips and words of wisdom during coffee chats with rapidly growing early and mid-stage entrepreneurs of all types – including Leslie Barber of Bellybar products, Desiree Vargas of GiveForward and Seyi Fabode of Power 2 Switch. Desiree and Seyi are Chicago-based and were part of last year’s class at Excelerate Labs and Leslie Barber is a fellow Kellogg alum who launched BellyBar in California with her Kellogg classmate. All three ventures were launched by two partners, so they all provided suggestions for us to consider about working together – how we split up responsibilities, make hard but critical decisions, and engage investors together. They gave us some tips on blogs and authors to follow: Seth Godin, Steve Blank, Fred Wilson, and Brad Feld. We particularly appreciated Seyi’s references to “The Startup Curve” and his warning for us to anticipate and work through the “novelty wearing off” and “wiggles of false hope.” They all emphasized the importance of testing ideas and listening to customers when deciding what is and isn’t working. In fact, Leslie described the initial year of BellyBar as “launching tests, not products” to develop the first portfolio of BellyBar offerings. They each developed their advisory board in unique ways and offered us some lessons based on hindsight, and all of them had pursued convertible note funding at some point in their growth.
- John Geocaris, Chairman and CEO of Little Lady Foods gave us advice on recipe development, meal production and hiring. As the head of a contract manufacturing food business, he helped us weigh the pros and cons of in-house versus outsourced production at different stages of our development. Early one, we are most concerned that outsourcing will strip our control over quality, create challenges when we are evolving products based on customer needs, and will minimize our ability to create great jobs for our community members. So as of now, we have decided to keep product development and production in-house, with heavy support of chefs, nutritionists and food scientists – but may try to engage a small co-packing facility in Denver that has product development expertise. This will ensure we don’t have to build all expertise in-house and may facilitate the process of outsourcing production down the line if we determine that is best for FTK’s success. We loved John’s suggestions on hiring and workforce development, and on engaging forward thinking food scientists who understand how to use natural inputs such as rosemary to extend the shelf life of our products. Having graduated from Colorado-based universities for both undergrad and law school, John was also gracious in his willingness to help us connect with his extensive Denver-based network.
- Matt Sheehan, former Vice President at RedBox, re-grounded us in lean startup mode and helped us think through our first six months of launch in Denver. He reminded us that though we’ve had an exciting few weeks of fundraising and celebrations, nothing major has changed with the status of our business. We still have to approach the next few months as a series of tests (think of ourselves with lab coats on every day at the office), identifying the key variables of our business and developing them out based on controlled, thoughtful trials. Our main areas of focus will be testing and fleshing out our distribution strategy (i.e. what types of partners work best) and our subscription model (should we consider balancing direct sales of products with our weekly subscription service). We are eager to continue engaging Matt as we develop out our testing plan and know that his insights will help ensure that we are both efficient and decisive at every step of our journey.
- Saying our goodbyes: Thank you again to those who took the time for final meetings, lunches, picnics and celebratory drinks, including Nell Funk of Now We’re Cookin, Jamie Jones, and Ari Levy.
Coming Next Week: Developing out a plan for rock star volunteers Josie Haspel and Christina Haschka to help us on product development and distribution strategies. Initial Denver-based meetings with Lorez Meinhold, in the CO Governor’s Office of Policy and Research and Randy Chilton, Vice President of Sales at Coinstar. Follow-up conversations with John Hoesley of Zip Fitness, Yellow Tractor and Kristen Darosa. And all the while, pursuing those critical steps to begin sales in Colorado this fall – establishing our LLC, getting necessary certifications and setting up conversations with our short list of commercial kitchen facilities, suppliers and distribution partners.