Wendy Weiden: You Have a Food Business Idea. Now What?
Wendy Weiden has worked with established companies, entrepreneurs and organizations to develop food products, systems and business strategies. Her experiences in food product development and retail, ranging from large, multi-channel retailers like Williams Sonoma and restaurants to small, start-up purveyors, have informed her more recent work, which has focused on the systemic and strategic challenges in fresh, healthy and regional food production, distribution and procurement. Wendy’s diversity of experience, spanning public and private sectors, policy and business development, enables her to work effectively on a wide array of projects, ranging from big picture strategy to digging into operational weeds.
Teaching alongside Dava Guthmiller, Wendy leads our upcoming Business Planning and Positioning course. She took the time to discuss key considerations and decisions when planning for your food businesses.
Q. How did you get into business planning?
As is often the case with people in the food industry, it was not a direct route! I started my career as a management consultant but quickly realized that I wanted to work with food, which had always been my personal passion. I was lucky to be hired at Williams Sonoma, where I managed the development of their private label food products. Over time, I became tired of the retail grind while also realizing I wanted to work more directly with the people actually trying to make a go of it creating good food. So I left retail, went back to consulting (which I’d sworn off of for life!) – but this time focused solely on businesses and entities trying to make good food more plentiful and accessible.
Q. What is a top consideration for food businesses as they start to create their business plan?
There’s a big difference between having a great conceptual business idea and being able to articulate – specifically and concisely – what is special and unique about your product or service. Makers need to be able to do that for themselves before they can do it for other people. If you are having trouble explaining it to yourself, your mom, or your best friend why your strawberry jam is better than the 52 other varieties on store shelves (aside from taste, of course!), then your product probably isn’t ready to hit those shelves.
Q. What are some critical questions an entrepreneur should ask him or herself before launching a product or food business?
First there are the big lifestyle questions: How excited am I to work on this product? Can I see myself spending most (or all!) of my time on this for the next 12-24 months? Do I have the financial resources to not take a consistent paycheck, or do I need to balance this venture with another job? How much money will I eventually need to make from this venture to a) survive and b) be happy?
From a business perspective you should be considering questions like: If this business is successful, what does that look like five years from now? What about ten? For example, do you want to be in five amazing local markets or stores, or in five hundred Whole Foods across the country? Or both? What does the product line look like? Do you want to be running your own manufacturing facility? How many employees do you envision having? Answering these types of questions can help set your strategic direction early on – while leaving room to pivot as you learn and grow.
There are many practical questions you’ll need to think about as your business grows, such as whether it will be viable to make your product using the same ingredients you used in small batches, and what profit margins you’ll need to hit through various distribution channels. Speaking to those who have gone through this before can help you become aware of these types of considerations and questions early on in your planning.
Q. What are some common mistakes or missteps you see food startups make around business planning?
– Not understanding the entire competitive landscape, which includes not just direct substitutes for your product, but other ways consumers might opt to satisfy that need or want. You need to have a good understanding of the category and occasions for consuming your product. For example, coconut water isn’t just competing with other coconut waters. Other types of competitors may include kombucha, juices, and waters.
– Another common misstep is to incorrectly price your product when first selling it, which often occurs through direct sales (at farmer’s markets, for example.) Makers should be thinking about their costs, revenues, and margins throughout all the channels they’d eventually like to be in, so that they can price appropriately to earn adequate margins.
– Related to the point above, I often see entrepreneurs afraid to adequately value their own labor – and where their time is best spent. While it can be scary to pay people to do things, there are some things others can do for you, relatively inexpensively, and others that only you can do. Spend your time on the things that only you can do, and get help for the rest as soon as you can.
Q. We’re excited for you to co-present our Business Planning and Positioning course, with Dava Guthmiller. Who would you encourage to attend the course?
The participants that get the most value from the course are either people who have an idea for a product but not sure how to get it off the ground or those who have started their planning but need some coaching to move it forward. You may even have a first draft of a business plan and need more detail and structure. You may have a name, a logo but no plan. Finally those who need extra encouragement, motivation or inspiration will also find the course beneficial.
You can join Wendy and meet other food startups at our upcoming Business Planning and Positioning course. She and Dava will be covering essential early food startup decisions including: What’s my vision for this business? Do I really need a business plan? How should I position my product (and what that actually means)? What is brand identity and how do I develop one? How should I structure my business legally and when do I need to talk to a lawyer?
More details and enrollment information here.