Finding an investment partner, at any time, is no easy task. It’s not unlike soccer or football. The greater the number of shots on goal, the more likely to score a goal. But for young entrepreneurial brands, many entering business ownership for the first time, a capital raise can be a complicated and grueling task that can make or break a business owner’s dreams.
In this episode, I had the privilege of chatting with Ashley Hartman, Senior Principal at Bluestein Ventures, a family-backed venture capital fund that invests in the future of food. Ready to provide insights into a new way of seeing the capital raise. Ashely shares how investment and venture capital firms have taken the opportunity of the 2020 events to re-evaluate how, where, and with who they do business with. She shares how this year has become an opportunity to get better and stronger, meeting not only business but personal goals. Along the way we learn the importance of being a good community partner and how investing beyond a financial commitment has become a cornerstone in her firms’ success.
“People need to be utilizing their network a little bit more and asking a little bit more.” – Ashley Hartman
In this episode we learn:
- The reason why Ashley and Bluestein Venture focuses on helping brands in Seed to Series A stage funding.
- The ways investment firms are finding and supporting brands during this time.
- The criteria and evaluation tools that Bluestein uses when courting brand opportunities.
- The key differences in communicating with serial entrepreneur’s vs the home-grown “Hatchery” style entrepreneur.
- About diversity initiatives in business and how Bluestein is able to outreach to those communities that traditionally haven’t had accessibility to capital investment.
- Where Ashley derives her energy to keep on pushing hard to meet her goals and those of Bluestein’s brands.
Leverage Your Network to Maximize Business Opportunities featuring Ashley Hartman, Bluestein Ventures
About Ashley Hartman:
Ashley is Senior Principal at Bluestein Ventures, a family-backed venture capital fund that invests in the future of food. Bluestein looks for game-changing, early-stage ventures across the food industry that redefine how consumers achieve their health and wellness. Our investments span the entire value chain – both B2C and B2B – with a focus on four areas: high-growth consumer brands, proprietary foodtech, next-gen commerce, and value-add digital technology. At Bluestein, we’re active investors, going beyond capital to help its portfolio companies develop, iterate, and implement their go-to-market strategy to achieve product-market fit and set the foundation for scale.
Ashley is involved in all areas of Bluestein, including screening, due diligence, portfolio company support, as well as firm development and strategy. She has extensive experience leading growth strategy and establishing scalable infrastructure necessary to build sustainable ventures, honing these skills throughout her time running and scaling her family’s business, working on new ventures at Coinstar, and her experience in financial consulting. Active in the Chicago food community, Ashley serves on the Selection Committee and Associate’s Board of the Good Food Accelerator and is a mentor at Food Foundry and The Hatchery. Ashley received an MBA with honors from Harvard Business School and a BA in Political Economy, summa cum laude, from Williams College.
Outside of Bluestein, you’ll find Ashley on her yoga mat, exploring Chicago on foot, hiking up a storm when she can escape to the mountains, or at a contemporary art museum. A health & wellness nut, she’s been vegan for nearly eight years, but doesn’t preach!
Guests Social Media Links:
Bluestein Ventures – We invest in the future of food. We’re looking for game-chaigne, early-stage ventures across the food industry that redefine how consumers achieve their health and wellness. Our investments span the entire value chain – both B2C and B2B – with a focus on four areas.
Chicago Food Community – A united community effort working to bring food, dignity and hope to Cook County neighbors. They act as the hub for a network of more than 700 food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and other programs which provide food where it’s most needed.
Good Food Accelerator – The Good Food Accelerator gets emerging Good Food CPG brands ready for prime time, giving them the skills to scale up
Food Foundry – A Chicago-based growth accelerator program by Relish Works built in partnership with Gordon Food Service and 1871. It supports, connects, and propels innovative startups who are reimagining the food industry.
The Hatchery – A non-profit and beverage incubator dedicated to helping local entrepreneurs build and grow successful businesses.
Yerbae – A line of zero calorie sparkling waters that are enhanced with a blend of yerba mate, white tea extract, and guarana seed extract.
Coinstar – An American company operating coin-cashing machines
Diana Fryc: Welcome to the podcast, I’m your host, Diana Fryc, thanks for joining us today. As partner and CMO of Retail Voodoo, an award winning branding agency, I have met and worked with some of the most amazing women in the natural’s industry; food, beverage, wellness and fitness. As such, I decided to create The Gooder Podcast to interview these great people and subject matter experts and have them share their insights, expertise passions to help all businesses around the world become gooder.
And today we get to welcome Ashley Hartman, senior principal at Bluestein Ventures. A Family backed venture capital fund that invests in the future of food. She has extensive experience leading growth strategy and establishing scalable infrastructure necessary to build sustainable ventures, honing those skills throughout her time running and scaling her family’s business, working on new ventures at Coinstar and her experience in financial consulting. She’s also active in the Chicago Food Community and serves on the Selection Committee and Associates Board of the Good Food Accelerator and is a mentor at the Food Foundry and The Hatchery. The hatchery– I spoke to Natalie recently. I like them. They’re good people. Hi Ashley, how are you today?
Ashley Hartman: Hey, thank you so much for having me. It’s so fun to chat with you.
Diana Fryc: Of course. How is Chicago? You’re cold today or you’re warm today? What’s the day?
Ashley Hartman: It is 50 degrees and sunny and it’s the end of November, so I cannot complain.
Diana Fryc: Okay, and I think the last time we spoke, it was colder. You guys are kind of doing this and that’s why I’m saying is it hot or cold today?
Ashley Hartman: I know. I can’t take any day that’s above 50 in November for granted because we get to walk outside and I’ve been trying to enjoy the weather because you never know how long it’s going to last.
Diana Fryc: Well, so let’s talk about Bluestein Ventures; you guys are not new, there was a little bit of a rebrand, let’s just kind of do a little quick level set. Who is Bluestein and what do you guys do? What’s your expertise and what are you all about?
Ashley Hartman: Yeah, happy to share. So Bluestein Ventures is a family backed venture capital fund. As you mentioned in the intro, we invest in the future of food and we invest in the food industry across the value chain. So we do both B2B and B2C and we focus on four key areas. We have high growth consumer brands; that’s probably most relevant for your audience. Then we have Next-gen commerce, which is really how consumers get food in this new Omni channel world. The third area we focus on is Proprietary foodtechs that have the IP based solutions that are kind of real future food for a timeline, higher capex requirements. And then the last area we focus on is digital technology that powers the industry. So that covers restaurant technology, logistics technology, supply chain technology, and marketing technology.
We invest in the early stage, so we invest between Seed and Series A, and today we have twenty three companies in our portfolio that program it across the whole supply chain. On the CPG side, we have Vive Organic, which is towards wellness shot, Base Culture, which is a grain-free, gluten-free company. We have Yerbae; there I enhanced the caffeine sparkling water brand based on your gourmet. We have Bizzy which is a global coffee platform. RETHINK, which is a kid’s package of water and juice brand and we have Buddy Nutrition, which is a personalized protein powder. And our last one on the CPG side is reel, which is a sustainable toilet paper brand. Never thought toilet paper was going to be sexy until 2020. Who knew?
Diana Fryc: Who knew? And like it’s crazy in social media apparently; well when stores are running out of product and people buying, you see it’s all about accessibility and not just technology-wise, everything from bamboo base to recycled content etcetera. But it’s getting fun and funky out there with the toilet paper. It’s crazy.
Ashley Hartman: I know. I never knew that this was going to be a really fascinating industry and I’ve learned a lot about it in 2020.
Diana Fryc: All right, and you throw in like moist toilet tissue- MTT and it’s just bigger and wider and wider. It’s crazy. I want to ask you a quick question. You guys specifically focus on.
Companies and brands that are between Seed and Series A, that’s very specific. Is that because of expertise or is there a little bit of passion? Do you like that type of client because you like where they are in their headspace?
Ashley Hartman: Yeah, so it’s a combination of both. So when we were thinking about how you kind of build your portfolio, we noticed that there wasn’t a lot of capital within that space, institutional capital. We wanted to come in and really provide that and thought we could create a good niche there. And then secondly, it’s really fun to get a dig in there. There are companies that have kind of a little bit of traction, they’re kind of getting to product-market fit and we might get into this a little later. But lens on the world is how do we help you with your strategy? And that’s kind of at least like our competitive advantage, so we like to help our portfolio companies’ scale. And from that Seed to Series A stage, it’s really an exciting time because you’ve got such limited resources, both we think of it in terms of financial capital and also time; your time is the most valuable. And so we like to help our portfolio companies try to get to what we call product-market fit and that is that critical part from Seed to Series A where we feel like we can add the most value.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, well because we work with, of course, clients of all sizes as well, and what I love about that specific stage myself is that you’re getting involved and you’re coaching somebody along before they start making decisions that they have to unravel or something that they fall in love with. It’s not sustainable in the future. You’re like you’re getting right at a good time and they’re open to the feedback. They don’t have their heels dug in about; it’s got to be this way. I feel like it’s just a much more open set of dialogs that you’re not hitting anybody in a crisis, you’re hitting somebody at opportunity.
Ashley Hartman: Yeah, I think that’s a great way to put it, and we like to partner with you along your journey. So capital is not that interesting to us. But if we can actually help you think through how you’re going to get to the next stage, that’s like a lot more fun. We like when things aren’t figured out because it is that green field and you can dig in and understand what the challenges are. You can get alignment. You can really kind of build from the ground up, and hopefully, as you mentioned, you’re building the right strategies so you can get ahead of issues that might have come up along.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, this kind of naturally leads to this next question. I think that focus or the POV Bluestein focuses and advises your portfolio founders through the lens of strategy. So tell me a little bit more about what that means or did we already cover that?
Ashley Hartman: Yeah, happy to tell you a little bit more about how we kind of dig in there. So we like to think about go to market strategy, and that’s thinking through how you get to product market fit, and we like to help our portfolio companies really dive into their strategy and make sure that every piece of the business is aligned and integrated so that you are really defining what that strategy is for the future. We think of strategy in three kinds of buckets. The first is your vision. So that’s what is your vision; your value proposition, opportunity, the customer you’re going after, how you’re going to differentiate in the market?
The second is your playbook. So that’s how do you build a really economically attractive growth engine to enable you to capitalize on your vision? So that sales and marketing strategy, that’s your economic model. That’s kind of what product you’re going out with. And then the third piece is what we call your engine, which is the team, and that’s how you’re going to really build your team to enable you to execute on your playbook to realize your vision. So those are the three things that we think about when we think about strategy and getting you to product market fit. Because as we think about it, if you have all three of those together, and then you go raise capital, that capital just fuels growth and that’s where we want companies to get to.
Diana Fryc: So interesting, because in our work, we’re setting clients up from that perspective as well. But the way we’re entering into it isn’t from necessarily a fund perspective or funding model perspective. But what I love is like the absolute alignment. It is not common for me to meet somebody at a VC;
Or from an investment standpoint that sees the value proposition from a brand positioning standpoint to be just as critical as operationally; how are you going to be set up so that once you start scaling, you can meet the demand and things don’t fall apart. So it’s really wonderful to see that. I’m sure that things are starting to move in that direction from an investment standpoint. So I love hearing that. And it must be fun to look at it from a bigger standpoint from your perspective as well, or your teams perspective in that you’re not just looking at the charts and graphs and how do you sell, what’s your sales funnel look like or your sales strategy, or how do we scale your X, Y and Z? So I like that.
Let’s now talk a little bit about the market right now and specifically I want to be talking about from the investment standpoint. I have conversations with people every week and kind of the big joke of 2020 for some of those brands that are going through funding that were not already in conversation before Covid hit is not being able to find the groups. They can’t find the VCs is very hard and some organizations like Nosh are starting to put together panels where there can be some meet ups. But how are firms like yours finding brands that you can support now? Are you doing your own efforts? Are you doing them through third parties?
Ashley Hartman: Yeah, we try to triangulate the market in all ways, and so nothing’s really changed in our world, it’s just shifted to digital. So I think that’s kind of the story of 2020 and so we are generally finding investments in the same way and that’s through our network. Out network is really our most powerful ally in generating shows and so we co-invest and so we look for kind of our like-minded collaborator, co-investors to kind of bring us deals. We bring them deals. We kind of all collaborate and find new deals. So that’s one way. And then the second way is the conference world has gone digital this year. We shifted along with that.
We do a ton of pitch events, conferences, whether it’s I know you mentioned BevNet Nosh; they’ve done a bunch of great kind of investor speed dating pitch events, then there’s Food Bites, nutrition work and there’s a whole host of resources that I think brands can leverage to go out there for funding. It’s not easy and we have to have a lot more conversations that maybe you were expecting. There are resources available. You just have to kind of seek them out a little bit more. The interesting thing is that with this virtual world has opened up, I think, more geographies. So even like the past few months, we’ve started talking to a few companies that were in Europe and that hasn’t been on our radar at all and it probably wouldn’t have happened if COVID hadn’t happened and we weren’t all virtual. And so I’d encourage brands to think outside the box and find investors.
Diana Fryc: That’s so interesting. So as I’m listening to you talk, I’m also thinking, well, maybe it’s still maybe looking, maybe people need to be utilizing their network a little bit more and asking a little bit more where should I go? How can I find potential financial partners? But then maybe it sounds like you guys are finding even more opportunities because without having to travel, you can actually attend more events quite literally on a weekly basis.
Ashley Hartman: Yeah, one hundred percent, actually. It’s funny because my days are more stacked now because I don’t have any breathing room between Zoom meetings. Whereas before you couldn’t fit as much in during the day with travel, moving around, going to work, going home. So yeah I’ve actually noticed that we’re spending a lot more in and deal flow has been I think our statistics are like at least 30 percent higher this year than last year and I think that is a function of just having everything stacked in the day.
Diana Fryc: So this might be a permanent model change.
Ashley Hartman: Yeah, we’ll see I don’t know. I think it’ll be interesting to see how the hybrid model works and I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that as well because I think it works if you’re all virtual and it works if you’re all in person. But I’m not sure how the hybrid is going to work.
Diana Fryc: Well yeah and I think partly a lot of people joke about trade shows;
And there is a lot of money and there’s a thing, the time investment. However, I think humans still are kind of pack animalish and we’re also highly adaptable. So for the time being, Zoom works really well. I think it’ll probably eventually go to far more in person back when it becomes safe to do that, because there’s something about shaking somebody’s hand and having a lunch or a quick five minute session in the hallway with somebody you haven’t seen in a year or two or those things. I think those are just innate anthropological components of human nature. So I’ll be curious to see how it works. I think people say they desire this Zoom thing, but I can tell you at the end of the week of infinite number of screen sessions, the last thing I want to do is be on a screen. I check it out.
Ashley Hartman: Yeah I completely agree with you. And then it’s how energizing is it today when you do again meeting someone outside and you come home and you’re like you’re on a high because…
Diana Fryc: Yes, absolutely. Yes, and the dog park opportunities is where I get to interact with people. But do you feel like the types of opportunities that are being brought to you guys now are different than they were before? And I’ll preface it by saying this. I wonder how many people who were affected by Covid hunkered down, started coming up with this, putting together ideas that have been maybe floating in the back of their mind for a couple of years or couple of months even, or people who just can’t sit still and wait for the market to change and their ideas are coming faster and faster. Or is it kind of just more of the same, just a different format?
Ashley Hartman: Yeah, it’s such a good question, but we found that mostly everything’s been the same in terms of opportunities. So we invest at such an early stage that we’re investing in long term trends. So we joked and we continue to joke that the trends we were betting on happening five years from now happened in eight weeks because everything just accelerated with the pandemic and shifting human behavior and then we shift kind of back. But that’s kind of just the same as what we’ve been looking at before, because we bet on these long term trends and these trends are now realized; they’re here. Grocery delivery is here and more consumers are going to adopt it and sustain and stay with it over time.
So those things have just been kind of same old same old for us. And then we’ve also on our side, we focus a lot on building sustainable companies. So because we’re family office, we want to be with the company for the long term, we want to build long term sustainable companies and so we focus a lot on cash efficiency and we always have. I think that’s been more important for a lot more companies, though since the pandemic because there’s just so much uncertainty in the market. I’m pleased to see that a lot more companies are thinking about building a sustainable unit economics early, thinking about how they can conserve cash and I think that builds you up to be a more sustainable company over the long term. So I think that’s a very good benefit.
Diana Fryc: I feel like I’m going to ask all of these question about what is this different, is this different? And I almost want to kind of go, well; it’s different and the same process. Maybe we could talk a little bit about your partnership and the process. Have you typically in the past, once you engage with them and bring a client on, do you see them as partners or clients or how do you talk about them?
Ashley Hartman: We talk about our entrepreneurs, our portfolio companies and our founders.
Diana Fryc: Okay, so your company, your founders, is the process a little bit different? Did you guys used to be a little bit more hands on, like meeting face to face, or has it always just been a kind of a distance model?
Ashley Hartman: It’s been a hybrid of both. So we invest across the US and so we can’t have as many touch points in person anyway. But we definitely have thought more about moving things virtual and whether this can actually work long term. I think some of the companies that we used to travel for board meetings and maybe zoom works for board meetings, three board meetings out of the year, and we only need to travel for one board meeting.
So we’re definitely thinking through kind of what is necessary in terms of travel versus in-person. But the partnership itself has remained the same. It’s just the form of that that changed.
Diana Fryc: Well, we’ve talked a little bit about process and how you guys do things and how things are different. But maybe let’s talk a little bit about what a good fit typically looks like for Bluestein?
Ashley Hartman: Sure. Happy to talk about what we look for. We have different criteria we look at to evaluate companies and we have kind of a scorecard that we use against all companies, that we can be consistent with how we’re evaluating companies. And so we have really seven criteria on the scorecard. But on a macro level and I think I touched on this earlier, but the investor early. So what we look for is really can this company get to product market fit? And so we think about, okay, well, what does product market fit mean? We think of it as a combination of really three things.
One of that is, is there a significant market opportunity? So is there a large achievable addressable market? Is there an attractive customer base that you’re going after? And then is this market winnable based on your value proposition? That’s kind of the first bucket we lump things in. And then the second one is, do you have an economically attractive growth engine? So do you have a product that delivers on what customers want? Do you have strong organic and inorganic customer retention and acquisition? And then do you have a scalable unit economic model? So that’s kind of a bucket we put things in. And then the third bucket is, do you have organizational excellence? That’s what we call it. So do you have an emerging A team? Do you have core capabilities that you’re going to be able to start building on over time and then do you have a plan to kind of scale your team. And you don’t have to have everything thought out immediately. But those are the certain criteria we look for when we think, can this company get to product market fit?
And so that is if I drill down kind of reading between the lines of your question, if I’m talking about a brand, what jumps out at us and what we’re really looking for when we’re investing in brands is; can this brand either be a category definer or category leader? So, for example, we invested in Vive Organic, which is a towards wellness shot. We have the shot category in retail didn’t exist like there was no market size in retail. So there was nothing really to evaluate on the market side. But what we invested in was really investing behind them, being able to define the category and put that new make vibe almost synonymous with the shot category. And we’ve been incredibly proud of how the team is executed along that. But they really became the category designer. And then if I look at Yerbae, which is a caffeinated sparkling water brand based on Gourmet. Sparkling water was already a category. We bet on Yerbae because we do believe that they can lead that category and be that enhanced sparkling water brand, even though the category was already kind of defined.
Diana Fryc: It’s interesting when I think about these categories in these good fits, because sometimes and I don’t know if I’m going to couch this question correctly, but sometimes there’s a coachability that you have to be able to judge and it’s hard. Sometimes it’s hard to see that coming in. Like, these guys look great. The numbers look great. The category looks great. We see an opportunity. Can this team be coachable? Are they going to be okay with bad news? Are they going to be? Is that something that you guys are leading into or do you guys kind of have enough experience or are comfortable with? Okay, so if something was to get a little bit rocky, like you have the bandwidth and the wherewithal to take them through that or you know what I mean? It’s kind of a big business kind of question, like, do I like these people as one part and then can we coach them through is another part? Is that part of the criteria?
Ashley Hartman: Oh, my God, yes. We are betting on the entrepreneur, we have to have supreme confidence in you that it’s not only about you and your capabilities, you and your self-awareness, your coachability, your ability to attract good people around you.
And that definitely comes down to a judgment call and we evaluate that based on kind of pattern recognition and whether it works with you too. Like do we feel like when we’re having our conversations in diligence, that we are aligned in how the business should go? Where you think the business should go? When we provide kind of questions or feedback, are you accepting of that or do you differ with us? And so we have to kind of judge those cues through our relationship development or diligence in the investment. This all comes back to the founders and the entrepreneurs, because this is a journey and we want to partner with you and we want you to partner with us too.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, we’ve run into that as well too. We were like, “Okay can we coach these people through change? Do they want to be coached through change?” That’s a big one.
Ashley Hartman; Yeah, it’s a marriage you’re dating; you’re getting married but you’ll be together for a few years so it has to be right on both sides.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, let’s talk a little bit about those entrepreneurs. Is there some sort of consistent set of questions or concerns? Or I guess I’ll just start with that, what the brands come in the door with, do consistently find that because they’re in the space that they’re in, these are usually the hurdles or the questions that they’re coming in with?
Ashley Hartman: I think it depends on the different businesses and slightly the age and how their businesses are developing so there isn’t really one set of questions. I think when brands come to us, a lot of times questions we get are; I think a lot of brands are curious, how do we evaluate investment opportunities? What makes a good investment? And if we pass, why we passed? I think a lot of brands are kind of curious around that. And so we try to be very detailed in our feedback and open and transparent in how we’re looking at things.
And then the second thing is a lot of brands come with the question of like, how can you help me? What do you bring to the table? Which is good. You should want investors to bring something to the table. So we talk about kind of how do we get alignment around strategy, we want to know, what your key challenges are so we can see if we can be helpful. And so I think those are kind of the two questions that we most often get.
Diana Fryc: And when you’re evaluating brands, I know there are a number, of course, because the opportunities outnumber what you can actually invest in. But what are the — I don’t know if there’s common outage or stage, something that happens in pre stage. People are coming to you and you’re like, yeah, this is the common outage that people can come into this conversation with it. We’ll say come back to us in a year or come back to us when you solve this. Is there something common or are there big three buckets or is it just kind of across the board?
Ashley Hartman: Yeah, I think what we like to see is that you’ve thought through the integration of those three buckets and you don’t have everything again thought out today. You don’t have to have every piece of your business together. We invest in people we’re very comfortable with and with a lot of pieces missing and a lot of things. But what I want brands to think through deeply is their go to market strategy and why their go to market strategy. What makes you unique? So you can’t just copy and paste from another brand? It’s really about those integration points. So how does your vision connect to how you’re going to market with your team and their playbook and how are you going to win in the market? And then how do you set the organization up for success when you go capitalize on that? And then what we like to see is, are you asking the right questions?
As an investor, I don’t need you to know everything when you come to me. But what questions are you trying to answer, if I give you money and if I give you kind of time resources, what are you trying to go use that capital to answer so that you can flow that back in your business and make your kind of strategy and growth plan stronger. These are kind of the areas that I like to see brands think through, or they come for investment, and that gives me comfort that when I’m investing, as we were talking about in the entrepreneur, that they’re asking the right question, that they’re thinking things through deeply. That they really do have that strategy for scale and they’re going to be able to measure and pivot along the way and that they’re not just copying and pasting their strategy from another brand.
I’m going to do what our explorer did on going to James because it worked for him. Why would that work for your company? And don’t just think about it from kind of that looks like it was successful for this other brand. So I give you an example with Vive Organic. When they came to us, as I mentioned, they were building a category that didn’t really exist. When they launched, they had the challenge of going to build that category in their consumer base, and so what they did was they started out very locally just in Southern California, and they went through coffee shops. And so they stuck their product in a bowl in the coffee shop right at the checkout counter with ice in the bowl. And so it was a really complementary product and they were able to complement what the coffee shop was already offering, give them more revenue and also develop a strong consumer base that didn’t exist when they were launching and so then they launched in retail.
When they launched in retail, they launched very locally. So only in Southern California, but because they had built their brand through coffee shops when we launched in retail, the product kind of flew off the shelf. Everyone already knew what it was, and so they didn’t go take every growth opportunity, every distribution point to blow out the brand before they knew what worked. They developed this playbook that worked with their product that worked with their capabilities and the team and then they kind of developed this playbook that they could go apply in different markets. So that’s just an example of something that’s really unique to that brand that wasn’t copy and paste.
Diana Fryc: Yeah I notice sometimes as you’re — I don’t know if you havea shopper in your household, but it’s kind of hard when you are in this category and you do go grocery shopping and you are walking down the aisles and you’re going, “Okay, well that person is copying that, this brand over here is copying this and this,” and worked really great for them, and it hurts my heart sometimes because the people trying these and we’re talking about these younger brands, the more sophisticated brands. They’ve got a playbook. They’ve got the expertise, but it’s these younger brands specifically that are going, “Well that worked for Kind or that worked for Vibe or that worked for… So I’m going to copy their design language. I’m going to copy their go to market strategy.” And then I think they start to lose a little bit of who they are because they start co-opting other strategies because they saw it was successful and then they start to think, get confused about who they were and why they started and what their product or service is all about. Have you seen that yourself with some of the conversations or?
Ashley Hartman: One hundred percent. I think you’re right and you see things from your vantage point because you see so many brands and you see them all look the same and we also see a ton of brands. So we start to see a lot that look the same. And really, I like to ask always kind of what makes you unique and why are you going to get off the shelf? I think a lot of brands get really excited when they get on the shelf and they get those distribution wins and yeah, you’ve got to get on the shelf that’s kind of able stakes. But how are you going to get off the shelf and be differentiated against other people next to you?
Diana Fryc: Yeah, when we’re talking about those entrepreneurs now, I’m going to kind of separate them. There are the serial entrepreneurs, the ex-Coca-Cola person that comes in and has a great idea, understands the marketplace. They’re building a plan and then you’ve got the homegrown Hatchery style entrepreneur that has a really great idea, does not even have the faintest idea that it was marketable and is learning it on the fly. Are there key differences in those communications when you’re seeing those investment opportunities, do you — enjoy is kind of the wrong way to look at it, but is there one group that seems to be a little bit more coachable and the opportunities tend to be a little bit stronger? Or is it just pretty equal?
Ashley Hartman: It’s pretty equal. I don’t think that we do. We don’t discriminate against entrepreneurs, all different backgrounds and I think, yeah, the serial entrepreneurs definitely come with their certain level of expertise but sometimes it’s not as objective because they might take whatever they were doing before and just apply it to whatever they’re doing now. The homegrown entrepreneur can say, oh no, I have this gem of an idea and I’m going to do things differently because I look at the category and everyone looks the same;
And I think I have something truly differentiated. So I think everyone comes with their own perspective and I think it’s so important for brands to all come with their own perspective, and I think it’s about how you put other resources around you that makes your company shine. Homegrown entrepreneurs doesn’t have to have everything figured out; they don’t have to have the expertise that a serial entrepreneur does. But can they go find some mentors or outsource advisers or who else can they put around them to kind of showoff their capabilities and accelerate their growth? So I’d encourage all entrepreneurs to look for putting resources around their weakest. But no, I love both. I love talking to those who’ve done it before or those who have it all.
Diana Fryc: Well, and that’s why you have those incubators like The Hatchery and I wish I actually want to start building a network of my own of these incubators because we talk to, we rebrand all the time, they’re reaching out to us. They need a package. They’re just starting out. We’re not the right fit for them. But I have a space in my heart for them and I want to go, okay, there’s so much that I cannot help you with. But if you go to one of these places, they’ll set you up with mentorship and they’ll take you through the training and help you turn your idea into something. I love that I’m seeing more and more of those.
Ashley Hartman: Yeah, accelerators are such great kind of communities to this whole ecosystem. I completely agree. And we have some great accelerators out there that all brands should go explore. There are ones that are very focused on CPG. They’re ones that are very focused on sustainability. They’re so targeted right now that you can find the right fit for your brand for sure. There is the Good Food Accelerator in Chicago, there’s The Hatchery, there is Relish Works, there is Y Combinator, there’s XOC, Target has an accelerator; there are so many options and I think that’s such a great way to accelerate your brand for sure.
Diana Fryc: Well, along that line. Now, this is kind of for me, it’s a tricky topic. I started the podcast, this Gooder Podcast as kind of a visibility platform. I really wanted to raise the visibility of women in leadership in the CPG space; and as I’ve been growing it, one of the biggest outages that I’ve seen is this diversity. The diversity in our industry, in leadership specifically is lacking and so creating those opportunities for biopic and LGBTQ and disabled leaders, people we are not seeing traditionally in the natural’s industry specifically. And part of that is that without the visibility, people don’t have anything to look for, and so I think in investment, there’s a little bit of that going on as well. If all of these people don’t know about how to find investment or how investment works because they’re a startup or they come from a community that traditionally hasn’t had access to either the education or anything like that, I wonder what is happening in your world, what’s happening in investment. And we’re seeing some of that with like the Potluck network is coming together. But what’s happening in your community and maybe you can even talk about Bluestein further in being able to outreach to these communities that traditionally haven’t had visibility.
Ashley Hartman: Absolutely! First of all, I love that you’re doing this and I love that you’re elevating the voices. That’s so important because if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. And so I just think it’s incredible that the community is kind of coming together and sharing to elevate and that you’re doing an awesome job in your world. So absolutely, this year has been an awakening for everyone and I want to raise women, underrepresented communities. I want to raise voices and increase kind of the pipeline there, and so we are definitely thinking deeply about this internally, and so there are a couple of ways that we started to think about it.
First for us, since we’re very analytical and metric focused…
Diana Fryc: Put your super power hat on and figure out how to do that.
Ashley Hartman: Yeah, so we thought, well we can improve, but we don’t measure. So we went back and looked at how we are performing and overall portfolio; we’re not terrible, we’re 30 percent of our companies have female founders and 30 percent underrepresented founders. So that’s not awful, but we can do better and so we certainly want to increase that. And so the last three deals we’ve doneall had founders from other underrepresented communities. So we’re really happy about that growth. But we want to make sure that we have really first and foremost the widest funnel possible at the top. As we know in our track record, the last three deals, we know that if we screen them, they’ll make it through the funnel in the pipeline. So, yeah, we’re thinking about how do we kind of widen the funnel and make sure that we’re welcoming to all founders and that we’re proactively going to source them instead of kind of just waiting for them to come to us. We also just started a pilot program of monthly office hours targeted to founders of the community. So if you know anyone who’s interested, it’s on my LinkedIn page we have a founder that’s public, and once a month we are going to have office hours and anyone who wants to chat with us and if they want advice, if they want investment, whatever, we’re open. So feel free to sign up on my calendar page. But we’re always looking to do better. So I encourage anyone to send us ideas or feedback on how to move initiatives forward.
Diana Fryc: Okay, when you say you are actively seeking out; does that mean that you’re going different places to look for people or you’re asking your network different questions; I’m just curious how that’s manifesting.
Ashley Hartman: Yeah, we’re trying to broaden our co-investor network, so that we can increase our deal funnel. We have our investors that we are already networking with and other investors that were already kind of networking with, but trying to broaden that funnel as much as possible and explore different avenues that we haven’t connected with before.
Diana Fryc: That’s awesome. Thank you. Thank you for answering that question. And it’s so funny I ask these questions because I had a great conversation with Kimberly Lee Minor and we were talking about cultural change within organizations and she’s a cultural change manager. And one of the things that she said is like, “Underrepresented communities don’t have the power to make the changes Diana,” she’s like, “You’re white, and you have the power.” So she goes, “You need to use your network. You need to use your voice to create those opportunities.” So I’m now like, okay, now I’m going to be the one asking the questions to the people that hold the power as part of this. Thank you for answering that question. I appreciate it.
Ashley Hartman: We’re just thinking through this now and we are open to any ideas or feedback. So please reach out to me, with any thoughts you have.
Diana Fryc: Of course. So as we are kind of stretching this here, we’ve talked about business from all perspectives. But I’m curious what keeps you excited and energized about doing what you do?
Ashley Hartman: What keeps me energized is entrepreneurs. The passion for their business, it gets me excited, it gets me energized. I get to see so much innovation from my vantage point that I love it. And if I can help entrepreneurs achieve their goal that is just like the most energizing thing that I can think of.
Diana Fryc: They come with their own little stockpile of energy; they’re so passionate.
Ashley Hartman; Yeah and if you feel like you can kind of help them on their journey like that, whether we invest or not, if I can help in the journey, that just selfishly gives me satisfaction and I hope it helps the entrepreneurs themselves. But you if someone want to achieve something big and great, you want to help them do that.
Diana Fryc: Well, just a couple more questions here before we wrap up. One of the things that I like to ask is, what are you excited about? What are you seeing out in the marketplace that has you interested and has your eyeball on? And this could be product; this could be a service and this could even just be in the investment community. I’m just curious what are you excited about? What are you watching right now?
Ashley Hartman: I’m excited about a couple of areas in the space we invest in, one of those is kind of personalization. I think that that’s just such an exciting opportunity and that we’re finally getting science and the data to kind of align to enable brands to really personalize to consumers. So I want to see more in that area. And then the other place that I think is really exciting is just thinking broadly around alternative protein.
I think that there’s been such a historically, the products that have come out in alternative protein have been so inferior to typical traditional protein like food and dairy that now that we’re seeing such innovation that the taste and the texture is there, that there really is little tradeoff for the consumer to go with a plant based product versus a traditional product. I think that kind of exciting and opening up new worlds, because why would you choose to harm an animal or consume an animal product if you can get the exact same product without. So those are two places that we’re keeping our eyes on.
Diana Fryc: Interesting; I like that!
Ashley Hartman: What about you? What’s exciting you?
Diana Fryc: Oh, my Gosh. What’s exciting me? I know this sounds really crazy. I continue to be surprised about RTD just in general. Every time I think; what else can be created? A whole new something comes out. So like sparkling coffee, like never in my life would I have thought that that was a thing and of course that’s a thing; and at one point I used to laugh at myself. I think about five years ago I was like; somebody needs to come out with a coffee and tea mash up. And sure enough, there’s a coffee and tea mash up and it just is. So I watch that space quite a bit. But for me I think the biggest thing that I am keeping my eyeball on is two things.
One is the environment, anything that can reduce the footprint of manufacturing, whether it’s creating multiple locations, commands across the country, a shared resources rather than centralized distribution, kind of removing all of that type of thing, being able to down to packaging, shortening the lead time on manufacturing, all of that kind of stuff. Everything that can kind of reduce an environmental footprint is for me, I think the big challenge. I actually I think that’s what I’m watching. I would love to find a way to reduce the amount of food waste is heavy in my heart, how much product is thrown away before it even enters the food chain and then to know that people are hungry is a challenge for me, too. And that might be something that’s not a CPG type of thing, but more of a societal thing but so I’m looking at both of those.
Ashley Hartman: Yeah, we’re actually on the food tech side, we’re investors in a company called Mori, which takes silk protein and coats perishables to extend shelf life and so we were really excited about their potential and really thinking deeply also for sure on the tech side, how do you increase sustainability and lower your kind of environmental footprint for sure?
Diana Fryc: Just you know, if we’re throwing away 30 percent of product before it gets used, just think of all of the energy that goes into growing those products; even that alone. And it’s because people want the perfect Apple to end up on. It’s all of those kind of crazy. So anyways, much bigger picture than just RTD.
Ashley Hartman: Yeah we can talk all day about other theses and the sustainability for sure.
Diana Fryc: How are you keeping yourself sane these days? You’re on Zoom all day long. You’re in your place like what do you do to take time for yourself?
Ashley Hartman: I have found over the past year that as long as I can be outside for a little bit during the day, that keeps me sane. So I take a lot of walks, I start the day very early morning walks outside, so I try to do that. That’s the one. My one thing I have to do every day along with trying to get in a lot of yoga and a lot of reading.
Diana Fryc: Okay and I think before we go, which I’ve just really enjoyed our time together.
How do you want people to connect with you? Is LinkedIn the best way or do you have an email address. What’s your preferred method?
Ashley Hartman: Yeah, feel free to connect on LinkedIn and you can also email me any time. My email is actually firstname.lastname@example.org.
Diana Fryc: Okay, thank you. Thank you so much for your time today. I hope you had a little fun and a little break from your day from doing, well I guess it’s probably more Zoom time, but I really enjoyed our time today.
Ashley Hartman: I really enjoyed talking to you. We could do this more often. This was great!
Diana Fryc: This episode is sponsored by Retail Voodoo, a creative marketing firm specializing in growing, fixing and reinventing brands in the food, beverage, wellness and fitness industries. If your naturals brand is in need of positioning, package design or marketing activation, we’re here to help. You can find more information at retail-voodoo.com. And so there you go. I hope you enjoyed this episode. Thank you so much for hanging out with us today; and if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to this channel and share with your network until next time. Be well and do gooder.