Breaking into the new food and urban farm industry is a challenge. Whether you already work in the local food business or are looking to transition into the industry, there are endless amounts of questions that are best answered by one on one chats with food system experts. No amount of research can compare to simply asking your burning question to someone who has been in your shoes before.
At Local Food Lab, we’ve assembled a team of mentors and experts from the industry to answer your questions about the new food and urban farm industry online via our discussion platform Food Lab News. On August 30th, we hosted a two hour "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) session with Olivia Tincani, food and farming entrepreneur turned food startup consultant and principal at Fare Resources.
In the AMA, Olivia answered a range of questions about best practices in ethically minded businesses, and gave tips about tools and resources available to entrepreneurs and business owners.
You can see the full AMA thread here.
Check Out the Highlights from Olivia's Live Q&A:
Do you have any marketing tips for a new food startup struggling to carve out a niche?
TINCANI: I'm going to address the couple of marketing questions here: having a full marketing strategy is key to your startup. This should be housed in your business plan, and should be hefty. It’s not just the WHAT of the marketing, but more importantly, the WHY. Thinking through the following (or ask Fare Resources to guide you through this process) as how to develop the strategy for your communications BEFORE you develop actual marketing initiatives. The initiatives are born out of these main areas: mission core values, objectives and goals (of the company, not the marketing) target audience, competitors and competitive advantage, messaging and language.
How can early startups break in to the food scene and start getting their products consumed ASAP?
TINCANI: I really think devoting time and energy to business development via community building and networking is one of the most viable ways of ensuring instant market results. It may seem obtuse, or rather secondary, to all the planning and organization and logistics and production you will be swamped with creating and refining in order to launch your business, but alongside of it, you must fully immerse yourself in your community of food makers, producers, activists, farmers, writers, trend-setters, investors, thinkers, experts, professors, and CONSUMERS. Do not under estimate the value of going to the workshop/party/conference and being your charming self and talking talking talking endlessly about what you’re thinking and doing. Also, branding and identity. Pretty things matter. You may have a wonderful food product but if it’s packaged badly, no one wants to eat it, I promise. So build in some decent money (and/or time!) for making your product visibly appealing. This doesn’t have to mean big time marketing or design firm, either. Friends and family and even design students can be a wonderful source for your beginning branding -- just know that it needs attention from the outset.
As a food entrepreneur myself, I often see a lot of opportunities to mentor other people interested in starting their food businesses. How does one get into food consulting? What are the first steps if you’re a newbie?
TINCANI: Trust that your personal experience is valuable. I began as a food consultant because people started asking me to give my opinion about their ideas. It may be a little awkward to think about monetizing that exchange at first, but learning from doing, and then passing on those lessons, only betters the overall landscape for us all. Always give an hour – or two! – for free. Listening to someone’s story will help you know whether you can help or not. Be honest if your experience doesn’t relate, but don’t be afraid to trust that you can apply your learned skills to new, unknown scenarios.
What’s the first question an entrepreneur should ask him/herself before launching a food company?
TINCANI: The best first question in my mind is actually two: 1. Are you ready to go all in, commit yourself fully? It’s impossible to launch your idea and execute well until you are 100% committed, emotionally and tactically. 2. Are you ready to do it afraid? Fear is one of your most powerful allies. And failure is your friend.
What is the biggest challenge of getting into the food business? What’s the most popular bit of advice you give to people who contact you for help?
TINCANI: Fear of raising capital is often times a deterrent, but educating yourself on the gamut of funding options is a great first step. Not being afraid of debt, but seeking sound advice from professionals on how to manage a patchwork approach of seeking both investments as well as loans can help you realize that your capital is able to be found. Research research research, and then leaping. These steps are always leaps, and always a little scary. If it’s not scary, it’s probably not worth doing.
How should food businesses seek out farms to work with? Once they find them, what are best practices for reaching out and starting that relationship?
TINCANI: Starting relationships with farms is just like any other – people like face to face interactions, especially farmers. It’s a somewhat solitary life, and interacting with potential customers is often times a rewarding part of a producer’s day. This can happen on farm, via an initial phone call, or via farmers market visits. Producers want to chat about the work they do.
When in the process of starting a new business should you prepare a business plan?
TINCANI: A business plan is a beautiful way of mapping out your thoughts – think of it not as a requirement, but a living breathing document that you use to both hone your idea as well as your process towards it, educate yourself, and adapt as you encounter roadblocks. It is also the building block for your operating budget. Your pro forma, if done well, becomes your vision into your operating budget for your first year, and is a great benchmark to always be referring back to. And the narrative changes as you learn more. And when do you write the business plan? At the beginning. Then revise and adjust and adapt it all along, as you learn more.
What do funders look for in evaluating whether to invest in a start up and how do they & entrepreneurs determine how much equity they should have? Any tips for identifying the “competition”?
TINCANI: Funders look for focused ideas, with innovation inherent. They also look for acute attention to demand or need. So yes, your "competition", or rather market context, should be well defined in your business plan. Spend time really investigating all avenues of how your product/establishment/ideas can be interpreted by the public, and educate yourself about the realities of each competitive business or correlate market. For example, opening a bar/restaurant with a specific theme? Spend hours in neighborhood places eating and drinking and experiencing hospitality in other places in the neighborhood your moving into, as well as places whose concepts can be considered similar. Know your landscape by reading and researching.
Any suggestions for determining compensation for staffs' sweat equity?
TINCANI: Determine a staff’s sweat equity after a considerable amount of time they've proven themselves as competent, loyal, and valued. I like 3, 6, and 12 month reviews with profit sharing or bonus options as early as 12 months if employee proves him or herself. It’s valuable to offer these options but always reserve the right to engage them when you see fit.
Could you speak specifically about capital/start-up funding for worker-owned food businesses, located in food deserts? I’m particularly interested in no-interest loans and grant funding as the folks I’m working with have very minimal financial equity.
TINCANI: Funny, we are trying to educate ourselves precisely about these same things right now! I’m not a funding/investment expert, but have been talking to some interesting people that know much more than me. We’ve been talking to folks at Sustainable Economies Law Center, Kiva, Accion, Kitchen Table Advisors, California FarmLink, etc. The California Center for Cooperative Development is a good resource as well. Elizabeth Ü’s book “Raising Dough” is full of practical knowledge about the funding world. And there are an increasing number of webinars and workshops being hosted in the Bay Area about precisely this sort of thing. Local Food Lab keeps us up to date on much of the industry news, and organizations such as Slow Money and the Social Venture Network host great opportunities for learning from the gurus of finance and investment.
According to KPMG LLP’s 2013 Food and Beverage Industry Outlook survey, food and beverage industry executives see technology as the greatest driver of future growth. As a small food business with very limited resources, what kind of technology should I be focusing on to grow my business (and use to keep up with the competition)?
TINCANI: Well this may seem obvious but don’t under estimate power of online presence and social media. You don’t need your own app to be successful. Curating a following, and who you follow, with an eye also to personal and real life community. Well-timed and not too many emails. Active and interesting blog peppered with content that tells your story. Social media-based specials. Smart and savvy newsy twitter reminders. No personal junk in your business social media. Instagram. VIDEOS! People love to see what you’re doing.
Curious your thoughts on food education among children in this day and age? And more specifically, if you had to do something immediately to improve awareness and education for healthy eating among young children and young adults what would that be?
TINCANI: Education can take place in many places in a child’s life, and home is the most important. I think the most clear path to changing children’s health is teaching parents the value of whole foods, and how to find and transform them on a budget. This means resourceful cooking and planning, and that doesn’t have to be based on expensive organic produce, just good local food stuffs that can be maximized for both nutrient access as well as ease of cooking. Beans beans beans! 10 years ago, at its inception, I was a program director for Next Course here in the Bay Area, an amazing non-profit that does exactly this kind of education. There are now a number of similar organizations working to educate not just children, but parents, educators, and community leaders.
What’s the best way to generate trials in food snacks, aside from handing them out at events?
TINCANI: I’ve never worked specifically on a snack food product, but for food products in general, demos are 100% the most fool-proof way to guerrilla market as well as get the word out. Focused beta testing with various test groups that you organize yourself can help you reach goals for feedback collection – building in metrics into your demos and samples. How are you receiving feedback from those who try your fare? Is it fun and easy for them to respond to your product after they eat it? If you develop a group of test eaters at your work, your partner’s favorite car wash, your mom’s group of friends, your neighbors…right there you’ll probably have a pretty diverse selection of folks, just make sure you build in ways to get their feedback from the get-go.
As an entrepreneur, how do I determine what I should doing in my prospective business and what I can be delegating to other people? How early do I determine these roles in the planning phase? And if I am in the planning phase and find that I need a complementing skill set to make this business run, how do I go about finding that person and structuring that relationship?
TINCANI: One of the things we’ve been focusing on more as a consultancy is assessing entrepreneurs abilities as leaders and managers as part of our coaching relationship. Your company is only as strong your team, and you at the helm. You should be doing what you like to do and what you’re good at, but knowing those things may be hard. Seeking outside help to evaluate your skills could be a great part of your start-up exercises. As an entrepreneur, you are required to conduct self-critique in order to succeed. When you recognize your own slight weakness in an area, react quickly and seek support in the form of a partner, advisor or employee. You can structure partnership relationships to be as flexible and small as you need in order to retain control of company and yet have unmet skill sets. Seek business strategy consultants, lawyers, smart fellow business people to help you create clear and detailed job descriptions and operating agreements. Document everything. Write down and sign mandates for working relationships, even casual ones. Conduct frequent reviews that go two ways – evaluate each other. Also evaluate your skills at actually managing others – it’s not a given that if you have a good idea, you can also lead a team of people to execute it well. Invest in building your leadership skills. Finding people is easiest if you’ve already immersed yourself in the greater food community, build colleague relationships strategic partnerships alongside your business/product, as you will then lean on them for employee or partner recommendations. Eschew competition – it doesn’t exist. Your “competitors” help build the market alongside of you, create functional and positive relationships with the broader “competitive” landscape. Use personal contacts first, Good Food Jobs and Craigslist second.
If you are an entrepreneur, and if something is not working quiet right, how/when do you really decide to quit ? Problem is there so many opportunities (or seemingly so) and after one failure to another opportunity, your passion and “staying power” could drive you.
TINCANI: Wonderful question. I would respond with a question back: what is your definition of success? Of failure? And have you quantified your business activities with super sound financial tracking and analysis? If not, then you’re not sure if you’ve failed, and you certainly can’t make any real educated decisions about how to pivot, or whether to close or quit. Adaptation and flexibility, or nimbleness, as I like to think of it, are key qualities to never abandon, even when skies look dark. If you hold on too tightly to your original ideas and fail to respond to unforeseen obstacles (read: opportunities!), you will automatically position yourself for failure.
I am curious about what you think about the future of the food system as it pertains to entrepreneurship. Is the future in Ag/Tech, local/organic back to the land products or some sort of hybridization?
TINCANI: Hybridization. Verticalization. Businesses that bend old industry divisions and stagnant models of separation of duties. The most exciting activity I see is entrepreneurs that take a 2-, 3-, 4-pronged approach to their business ideas and structures: apps for ranchers that broadcast rotational grazing methods to fellow ranchers and translate hard data for pasture revitalization into fodder for activist policy initiatives (no pun intended!). Online databases of farm sources that connect producers directly to wholesale buyers and manage and track payment for them. Cut sheets for butchers that translate into yield %’s for chefs. Farmers that own and operate food hubs and wheels, reinventing trucking/freighting/distributing to be better aligned with producer and consumer languages and needs. Online groceries that act as product aggregators and offer farmer marketing resources. Interdisciplinary and outside of the box, and yes, definitely tech dependent.
I have a question based on the media and promotion side of things. Lately, there have been many stories on the emergence of food start-ups and food entrepreneurs. Lots of VC money investing in food based apparatuses, local food distribution, etc. In terms of talking about food start-ups and food entrepreneurs, what do you think is not being said but should be?
TINCANI: Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is one of the most compelling organizations that exists right now, fighting this fight. I want more talk about farmworker’s rights as it relates to ethical food consumption, and food industry workers rights in relationship to the influx of tech money. There are people behind this food, and they need to be paid as well as the smart entrepreneurs to produce the primary material that makes all this fancy stuff happen.
You can see the full AMA thread here.
About Olivia Tincani
Olivia began her path to resistance in her father’s tomato garden in California and her uncle’s vineyard in Italy. Olivia was the managing partner of Farm 255,a unique “farm-AND-table” operation in Athens, Georgia, founded in 2005, that grew much of its produce on its own farm, Full Moon Farms. With her partners, she also opened Farm Burger in nearby Atlanta, serving 100% local grass-fed burgers sourced entirely from their Moonshine Meats collective, a pasture-based producers cooperative that supplies grass-fed beef for four restaurants with a whole-animal mentality. Olivia also acts as creative director for the symbiotic businesses. Prior to her Georgia adventures, Olivia worked in New York as an associate producer for Cabengo, a creative studio that develops communications strategy, usability, architecture, and interaction design projects for world-class cultural and educational institutions and non-profit organizations. Olivia also works as a community organizer for grassroots networks and non-profit organizations such as Slow Food International, The National Young Farmers Coalition, and The Greenhorns. She recently began the Southeastern Young & Beginning Farmers Alliance, the only regional grassroots effort promoting community development and policy change for the new agrarians of the Southeast. She is a Leadership Board member of The Spence Group, a nascent food and farming investment fund.