Shawn Parr: Why Distance Can Make The Startup Heart Grow Fonder

The CEO of Bulldog Drummond shares the story of a successful startup whose founders live in two different locations.

I’m fortunate to meet and work with a wide range of industrious and passionate founders of early stage businesses, and I’m always fascinated to hear about new and unique challenges they face when starting a new business. I met the founders of Sneakz Organic about six months ago while working with one of our other early stage ventures. I was inspired by their vision and the challenge of starting a business with the two founders based in different locations. Sneakz’ goal is to help kids (and adults) who aren’t getting enough veggies in their daily diet by sneaking vegetable nutrition into multiple products in different aisles of the grocery store. Their first product is a chocolate milkshake that sneaks in a full serving of vegetables, via sweet potatoes, carrots and broccoli. It’s a healthier alternative to standard chocolate milks, with more fiber and less sugar, and all the nutrition coming from whole foods.

From big Consumer Packaged Goods (CPGs) to the startup mentality:

Both founders at Sneakz have unique career paths and diverse experiences. Both have always wanted to start their own business; one since he was a little boy dreaming of opening an all-in-one baseball card shop and vet clinic. Charlie is a Harvard MBA who worked in consulting, joined a startup, helped it grow and become acquired by a big natural foods company, then went on to work for them. Allison found her love in brand marketing and innovation in the beer industry and then went to work for the same natural foods company, where they met. They both became frustrated with the big CPG machine, and after learning the ins-and-outs of the natural food industry, thought they just might be able to defy the odds and make a startup work.

“From Yuck to Yum” invented in a real kitchen:

The idea for Sneakz was cooked up in Allison’s kitchen while she was juicing vegetables and she gave Charlie a try of her veggie blend concoction. They knew there was a big gap in people’s vegetable nutrition (75% of people don’t get their daily veggies) and when they started playing around with vegetable juice and chocolate milk, they discovered the green, bitter notes of veggies can be masked in the milk. They knew they had a big idea when moms’ eyes would widen and say they wished they could have a drink like this for their families. Their inspiration came from seeing the “yuck” faces kids have when they’re forced to eat their veggies turn into smiles. Hearing about the troubling statistics of American’s food habits (only 23% of meals have veggies, and that includes the tomato slice on burgers), they’re hoping to change the way children look at vegetables by making them fun and approachable.

A tale of two cities:

One owner is located in San Diego and the other in Boulder, but they’ve found that being in different locations has some very practical advantages. When Charlie realized that one of them needed to be closer to their food developer in Colorado to springboard product development, he took the leap and moved to the Silicon Valley of organic foods (Colorado) where he’d be next to their food developer, as well as potential relationships with important industry contacts. Allison was maintaining her day job in San Diego through the startup process, and has family and friend networks established there, so she couldn’t make the move with Charlie.

Two for the price of one:

Living in two different locations has allowed them to establish two core markets to launch Sneakz Organic: Colorado and Southern California. This means they’ve been able to leverage the resources that come with being near their food developer, allowing for rapid prototyping on innovation, balanced with the other partner’s hometown footprint that offers strong community relations and networks with their organic mom consumer. They’ve been able to cultivate relationships with their core retailers in both regions, allowing for a personalized, hands-on approach to watching the brand incubate and grow. Building up two distinct groups of consumer fans allows them to amplify their brand messages via social media that much more easily. As they go through further capital fundraising rounds, they’ll have two “launch markets” to support their business case. And through the capabilities of the digital age, their communication hasn’t skipped a beat. With constant emails, texts and phone calls throughout the day, it’s like sharing the same office. And for the times when they don’t see eye-to-eye, the space to step back and find the common ground is built in. The paradigm for working relationships has many facets, from one where face-to-face collaboration creates the best ideas and execution, to one where long distance can create twice the startup growth rate.

Distance can make the startup heart grow stronger:

After talking with Charlie and Allison I asked them if they had any advice and learning for other entrepreneurs, and here’s what they shared:

1. Everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much as what you budget. People told us that, and we didn’t believe them. But it’s true!

2. Nothing is more fulfilling or more challenging than owning your own business. You pour your heart and soul into your work, and there really is no separation between where the business ends and where you begin. It’s part of you. Wherever the path ends up taking you, be grateful for the journey.

3. Making a partnership work is tough. It really is like any other relationship where you need to nurture and appreciate each other, communicate and put effort into making it a good one.  So when you find a good partner, don’t let go of them!

4. Focus is important when the rubber hits the road. For Sneakz, it took Charlie’s fulltime focus to get the business up and running. When you have the idea, and have enough data to support the proof-of-concept, put your full passion and energy into it.

Shawn Parr is the CEO of Bulldog Drummond, an innovation and design consultancy headquartered in San Diego. Clients and partners have included Starbucks, Diageo, Jack in the Box, Adidas, MTV, Nestle, Pinkberry, American Eagle Outfitters, Ideo, Virgin, Disney, Nike, Mattel, Heineken, Annie’s Homegrown, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, CleanWell, The Honest Kitchen, and World Vision. Follow the conversation at @BULLDOGDRUMMOND.

[Image: Flickr user WILLPOWER STUDIOS]

 

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