Food Startup Reading Guide

Last year I was chatting with a neighbor when she asked how Mostly Made was going. I glossed over a few challenges and she politely said, "oh wow, you must be asking 100 questions a day!" I blurted out, "I don't have anyone to ask. I'm supposed to know all the answers!"

Reading has helped me find answers to some of those questions. Here is a list of books that influenced me while building my food business. Perhaps they will help you too! 


Give and Take by Adam Grant
What's the lesson? What goes around, comes around. Karma. The golden rule. Whatever you want to call it. Turns out, you can build a career by being a giver (if you avoid the common pitfalls). In fact, some of the most successful people are givers. They occasionally loose out on short-term deals, but the goodwill they cultivate propels their career over the long-run. 
Overall impression: People do better when they help others. Hire givers; don't hire jerks.

Locally Laid: How We Built a Plucky, Industry-changing Egg Farm - from Scratch, by Lucie Amundsen
What's the lesson? This book chronicles the Amundsen's family journey to create a pasture-raised egg business. As it pertains to my situation, Lucie Amundsen details some Minnesota events and resources that I found helpful, like the MN Cup.  
Overall impression: I truly loved this book. Lucie is a professional writer who happens to be a reluctant chicken farmer. It was an expertly written, entertaining memoir full of beautiful imagery and engaging story-telling. It also happens to be about starting a food business. Any entrepreneur can relate to Lucie's many "disappointing compromises and heart-stopping leaps of faith."


Irrational Persistence: 
Seven Secrets That Turned a Bankrupt Startup Into a $231,000,000 Business, by David Zilko
What's the lesson? Garden Fresh's focus on product excellence, coupled with years of persistence, allowed them to scale their fresh salsa business into a national brand. Unlike most other food brands who use copackers, Garden Fresh made all of its own products in its expanding manufacturing facility. This allowed them to deepen partnerships with grocery stores on private-label products, garner better shelf-space, and diversify their income stream. Like the title suggests, their success is rooted in stick-to-it-itve persistence. They just kept making (and selling) salsa so that, eventually when the fresh-deli category grew up around them, their products were front-and-center. 
Overall impression: Not exactly a beautiful read, but a decent chronicle of their often lonely journey from debt-ridden restaurant into a national brand; with a focus on manufacturing, business acquisitions, product line extensions, and the occasional staff betrayal.

 

Mission In A Bottle The Honest Guide to Doing Business Differently--and Succeeding, by Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff
What's the lesson? Unlike Garden Fresh, which focused on manufacturing, Honest Tea considered buying a manufacturing plant their biggest mistake. The practical lesson being to focus on your unique strengths and hire expertise for production. In other words, grow the business don't make the products. I particularly identified with their tribulations and rejections trying to find a copacker early on. Honest Tea was rejected by distributors and buyers who assumed consumers only wanted sweet beverages. While the industry underestimated customers, Honest Tea believed people had refined palates and deeper needs. 

Overall impression: This is the quickest read of any business book. It's a graphic novel format with lots of personal examples to keep it entertaining. Helpful tips from their struggles with distribution, manufacturing mishaps and product recalls. A small mom & pop operation may help one community, but a scaled brand (under the umbrella of CocaCola) can help the world by sourcing organic, fair trade and reducing waste. The book says that Seth, even though he's a CEO, still replies to every email he receives. So I sent him one...and in a day or so he actually did respond! 


Do The KIND Thing: Think Boundlessly, Work Purposefully, Live Passionately, Daniel Lubetzky
What's the lesson? Daniel Lubetzky spent over a decade trying to bring about middle-east peace with his jarred tomato spread that was sourced from Arab and Jewish partners. Though he was persistent and dedicated to a worthy social mission, the product wasn't sticky. He finally achieved success when he began importing apricot-nut bars from Australia. Though KIND bars don't advance mid-east peace, the product filled a real need and was well packaged with branding that inspired consumers. Meteoric growth occurred after KIND accepted outside investment and focused on product sampling. Giving their bars to consumers resulted in repurchase 8/10 times.
Overall impression: A strong social mission without a great product will yield mediocre results. Focus on creating a great product, then build a social mission into the execution. Dedicate marketing dollars toward product sampling.  

 

Raising The Bar: Integrity and Passion in Life and Business: The Story of Clif Bar Inc., by Gary Erickson
What's the lesson? Gary created a tastier, more wholesome energy bar because he couldn't find one 20+ years ago. Rapid sales growth created a culture crisis and Erickson had to recalibrate after the company vision got away from him. The eventual $60M fallout with his 50-50 business partner and several lawsuits over contracts highlight the necessity for careful review of partners. The brand gradually became more socially responsible as it converted to organics, reduced packaging waste and sourced fair trade. Social responsibility isn't why the Clif Bar exists, but it's how they have chosen to do business over time. 
Overall impression: Control over the business was more important to Erickson than making millions. Though a start-up may need money, entrepreneurs must carefully consider loss of autonomy. A company can do more good through the marketplace than one rich benefactor can.

 

Let My People Go Surfing, by Yvon Chouinard
What's the lesson? Make quality products for core customers, do your best to reduce the environmental impact, and employ independent people to execute your vision at a natural pace. Take a simple item like a t-shirt and trace it back through the supply chain. Carbon emissions for shipping, polluting factories, toxic dies, exploitative labor, pesticides on cotton fields, down to a poor parental-leave policy at your headquarters – turns out it's complicated to make that simple thing better. Good businesses should go all the way back in the supply chain and seek the best path – not just the part that customers see. 
Overall impression:  Use your business as a vehicle to make positive change, rather than simply a vehicle to make money. Yvon lays out the environmental problems that are likely to engulf humanity as he struggles to reconcile how his consumerism success is at odds with his desire for radical environmental protection. After improving everything along Patagonia's path, he sort of throws up his hands and says, "don't buy anything...we're all ruining the earth!" Yvon is an authentic character and it shows in his writing.

 

Ben & Jerry's: The Inside Scoop: How Two Real Guys Built a Business with a Social Conscience and a Sense of Humor, by Fred Lager
What's the lesson? Ben & Jerry's began when Haagen Dazs was already popular; they just sold theirs as a chunky, homespun version. As they grew, Ben & Jerry's did some unique fundraising – like letting Vermont residents buy early stock. Their financial woes were compounded by a need to constantly enlarge their manufacturing facility. The company finally caught up with itself when it hired a copacker to take-on some of the production. Social conscious was built into the company, at first by dispensing free ice cream at local events then later with a pledge to give 7.5% of profits to charity. They capped upper management pay to be no more than 5x the starting wage; which actually sort of created hiring challenges since compensation wasn't competitive. They cleverly took on distribution threats and big rivals, like Pillsbury, by capitalizing on their position as a lovable underdog. 
Overall impression: It's possible to succeed, not with an original idea, but with a different authentic brand message around a familiar product. Running your own manufacturing facility is a capital-intensive challenge.

 

The Method Method: Seven Obsessions That Helped Our Scrappy Start-up Turn an Industry Upside Downby Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry 
What's the lesson? Green for the masses. Method's unusual packages stood out on the shelf; while their green products supposedly clean just as well as toxic brands. Method got into Target by creating hype hiring a hip bottle designer. Most of Method's 'green-ness' goes unseen by consumers. Like, they have smaller measuring caps on laundry bottles and use clear plastic that is recyclable (white bottles are not). Tiny modifications to a bottle can have huge environmental savings at scale. 
Overall impression:  Most people don't want to sacrifice product performance to be eco-friendly. Build 'green' into your supply-chain and product without making the consumer compromise. Beautiful design creates hype; quality products retain customers.

Originals, by Adam Grant: 
What's the lesson? New ideas are polarizing and if you want to succeed, you've got to understand peoples' hang-ups and help them believe in your vision. Hint: You can improve your sales pitch by pointing out your product's flaws on the first slide (this makes people look for solutions, not problems); and you can better explain your idea by relating it to something familiar (i.e. "It's like a fresh version of Hamburger Helper!"). 
Overall impression:  Original thinkers must carefully shepherd their ideas through the real world if they want to be successful. 

Sweet Expectations: Michele Hoskins' Recipe for Success, by Michele Hoskins
What's the lesson? Michele Hoskins created a pancake syrup business from her great-grandma's recipe. She had no training in business or food; but she figured it out despite seemingly insurmountable challenges. She shared the story of her great-grandma, who was a slave, and always listened for relevant current events to get on store shelves. 
Overall impression: Tell your story. Take advantage of current events and programs designed to help women and minorities succeed. If you can, get certified as a woman-owned business and seek association groups.

Start Something That Matters, by 
Blake Mycoskie
What's the lesson? Blake created TOMS shoes after being emotionally moved during a trip to South America. TOMS shoes are stylish, they have a meaningful story, and clear giving message ("One for One"). Consumers like the cute shoes and they kept telling others about the story behind TOMS's mission.
Overall impression: Tell your story. Make giving part of your brand DNA, but create a product people love. Rather than giving a % of company sales, try to connect charitable giving directly to the consumer's purchase. 

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