Investors Saved This Company by Tapping a Food Industry Veteran to Lead It Incredible Foods had started as a different company and underwent a big pivot when its backers asked the former COO of Ocean Spray to step in.
In this ongoing column, The Digest, Entrepreneur.com News Director Stephen J. Bronner speaks with food entrepreneurs and executives to see what it took to get their products into the mouths of customers.
Within about two years, Incredible Foods launched its first product: Perfectlyfree, a dairy-free frozen treat that is also free of other allergens. The line is in 5,000 grocery stores and by the end of next year, the company predicts it will be available on both coasts. But, before the release of Perfectlyfree frozen bites, Incredible Foods wasn't even a food company.
Prior to 2015, the company was known as Breathable Foods and led by founder and inventor David Edwards. He developed a process to encapsulate compounds to help consumers with sleep, anxiety or energy in an edible skin. Think: a grape. Edwards won the backing of venture capital firms including Flagship Pioneering, Polaris Partners and Winona Capital Management. Its first product, Aeroshot Energy, was meant to be a competitor to 5-Hour Energy, but consumers found it confusing and the company was sent a warning letter by the FDA.
Investors, who had sunk millions of dollars into the company by that point, sought the help of Kevin Murphy, who had previously served as the COO of Ocean Spray and was now retired, to evaluate Breathable Foods. Murphy and his partner dropped bad news on the investors: there was little hope for the supplements company. But, they saw the technology's potential in food.
"That same kind of technology could be used to effectively coat or skin a lot of different products of different sizes," says Murphy, who is now Incredible Food's CEO. "This technology packages food like nature would, think of an apple or a grape. Essentially, inside the skin you would have food products absent of bad stuff and free of allergens."
And that's a big deal. Between 1997 and 2011, the prevalence of food allergies in children increased by 50 percent, according to a Center for Disease Control and Prevention statistic cited by FARE (Food Allergy Research &; Education). "Up to 15 million Americans have food allergies, including 5.9 million children under age 18. That's one in 13 children, or roughly two in every classroom," according to the group.
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While Murphy says that allergy sufferers are a large potential base of passionate customers, he sees Perfectlyfree appealing to more than just allergy sufferers.
"We position it as smarter snacking," Murphy says. "millennials see the allergen free claim as 'hey, it doesn't have a lot of crap in it.'"
Over a year ending in October, unit sales of Perfectlyfree bites increased by 186 percent, the company says.
Click through the slides to learn about Incredible Foods's ingredients for success, according to Murphy, and what you can learn from them.
Create a solid foundation.
Although Murphy is a food industry veteran, he's never worked at a startup before. One of his first priorities was creating a solid foundation for the brand.
"Our products have to stand on three legs," he says. "They've got to cure someone's pain. Two, our products will have a superior form; we want them to be eaten on the run or on the go. Most importantly, the third leg is that they have to have superior flavor."
Murphy says that having this foundation is followed by setting timelines and goals to keep those objectives "front and center for everyone." Priorities are set by the management team, and then they determine what has to be done by whom with a deadline. These goals are reviewed weekly at the company and are adjusted as needed.
"Constant reporting/discussion on these key objectives keeps everyone focused on what we agreed were the most important tasks," Murphy says. If a new idea is pitched, Murphy and his team will measure it against previously set goals, and if it makes sense, that new idea gets its own objectives and deadlines.
Figure out what elements your business needs to be a success and relentlessly be in pursuit of them.
We usually hear stories of people in their 20s achieving great success, but the reality is that most entrepreneurs are around 40 when they start their businesses, and those over 55 are more likely to succeed. Coming in later with a lot of experience obviously has benefits.
"One of the things that helped us cover a lot of ground is we have over 100 years of experience. That doesn't make us super smart, but [while] we might not know what to do, we know what not do," Murphy says. One of those benefits is also an extensive network: Murphy was able to tap 15 retired food executives for help.
"I'm not pretty, but I'm relentless. I'm just going to keep piling through," Murphy says. "If the fundamentals look right and we believe it, I'm of the school that if we have an OK strategy we can execute it with passion."
Be mindful of who you want to target.
Incredible Foods sets its sights on Market Basket, a supermarket chain in the northeast, as its first retail partner. Murphy and his team assumed that once he got the product into those stores, its competitors would follow suit, because the company would already have a success story at a key retailer.
"We call them a lighthouse account," Murphy says. The company had a vice president of sales who had connections at Market Basket, so he was confident he'd get an initial meeting. "Specifically, he knew, they're an account that wants to be a leader and knowing their people, he knew they were looking for cutting edge products," Murphy says. "He said they're a good first places to go because they'd be receptive, and he was right."
When it comes time to finding your first big customer, Murphy advises that you "Do your homework and understand the differences among the key accounts. They all want volume but they target different consumers with different approaches."
For example, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Costco all have different target customers, and a different philosophy about what products they carry, Murphy says.
Create a roadmap.
Once you reach a certain level of success, it's a good idea to map up where you want to take your company within the next few years.
"Our goal is to build the sales, the brand and the potential up to a point where we'd be attractive to a larger food company. That goal is to achieve that exit in 24 to 40 months from now," Murphy says. Part of that brand building is getting into two more parts of the store. The company plans to create a fruit product for the produce section, and then a non-dairy yogurt product for the refrigerated section.
Having such a clear path aligns your business and its employees to a goal.
"It starts with a company vision that is simple, memorable and directive, then several key strategies that will get you on the road to that vision have to mapped out," Murphy says. "If you work hard at nailing the exercise of identifying specific target market, that target consumer's current frame of reference in that market, your meaningful point(s) of difference and the benefits of your point(s) of difference, then you will have a very clear path on how to successfully bring your product to market."
Sign up brand ambassadors.
Incredible Foods knew it had a customer base that was hungry for its products, so the company quickly got involved with FARE, the Food Allergy Research &; Education organization. For FARE's membership, food shopping "is life or death," Murphy says, who adds they then demanded their local stores carry Perfectlyfree. They also did demos in coffee shops and hospitals.
The company also reached out to food bloggers, not only those who have allergies but also those who are health conscious. "We shipped out the product to them and we had a tremendous response," Murphy says.
You can do this with your product once you map out your path to success, which will give a good idea of which bloggers will most appreciate it.
Don't be different. Be beneficial.
Murphy says one of the keys for any food company is consistent quality in terms of taste and feel. It has to be great every time, he says, like McDonald's.
His other key bit of advice is not just say your product is different, but prove it's worth to consumers.
"If you can't point to or demonstrate that difference, you're going to spend a lot of money and crash on the rocks," Murphy says. "Show a consumer how that difference solves a problem or makes some pain go away and then you increase your chances greatly."