Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

5 Things
CPG Founders Should Know

Celestia Howe is the founder of Cofo Provisions, outdoor enthusiast, and mom. Prior to starting Cofo Provisions, she worked as a product manager in start-up tech and co-founded Howl Often, a movement to get women outdoors for self-empowerment.

When you’re first starting out as a CPG founder, there are certain things you know for sure. You know you have an incredible idea, passion, and at least a few cheerleaders backing your concept. But what you may not know are the things that can make or break you from the get-go. These are the things that I only learned through experience, but can now look back and see that they are how I got to where I am today. Now, I want to share this founder advice with you — the advice that I wish someone would have told me three years ago when I started!

1. A Good Idea Solves A ‘Lack’ in the Market

Cofo Provisions was created to solve a personal need, to stay active and feel good – no matter my age – with non-toxic clean collagen. Three years ago I was juggling working long hours at a tech company, coming home to take care of my 7th grader, and when I had free time, exploring in the mountains trail-running or mountain biking. I was tired and my body felt battered.

Since I have Celiac disease, I intimately know the importance of non-toxic food. If I eat poorly with pesticide-laden food, I feel bloated, unmotivated, and emotionally on edge. I needed a source of collagen that didn’t have synthetics, refined sugars or fillers. Three years ago, there wasn’t an option and today there are very few. Most of the collagen on the market is from bovine (cow) hides and hooves that are sourced from Brazil and have trace metals. I figured if I wanted a clean source of collagen, then others must too. The seed to Cofo was planted.

2. Your MVP (Minimum Viable Product) Isn’t Always Your MVP

As a product manager in tech, I was educated in agile product development. This means that in the product development cycle there are short bursts of development and lots of subsequent iterations. After each market launch, we learn what worked and what didn’t and then improve. The first version of a product is called the minimum viable product (MVP), this is something that you can use to test the development process, market demand and create go-to-market processes. For Cofo, I started with a 10 ingredient medicinal mushroom + clean marine collagen product sold in compostable bags. It’s of course everyone’s hope that this MVP is the end-product yet rarely is this the case. After 6 months of testing, I learned that taste matters (it tasted bitter!), compostable bags punctured in shipping, and the marine collagen clumped in water and smelled like fish. The product was a bust and I had to iterate.

Two and a half years and three product cycles later we launched our current clean, sustainably-sourced Alaskan wild-caught marine collagen superpowders. Within this time there were lots of iterations which some people may call failures. There were times I was up all night from anxiety knowing the product wasn’t selling, I had lost more money, and I had to iterate. Now, we have a product and a loyal community. The patience and willingness to iterate paid off.

3. What Does Your Brand Stand For?

Three years ago when I started Cofo, I wrote down what Eckhart Tolle calls one’s personal outer purpose: “to elevate how people feel through food, nature, and community.” This purpose has guided my product and brand decisions. We do not use any synthetic foods, no fillers, no refined sugar and no ‘waste’ from animals like hides and hooves. We test for metals and other toxins in each batch and we only use certified organic ingredients and real food. I truly believe we are interconnected to the health of nature, so we give 1% of our gross sales to build nature in urban areas and build sources of healthy food for all people. Finally, we focus on educating our community on how to be outside and feel good inside.

When founders sign up to start a company, there’s lots of ups and downs and business decisions. Having a purpose that guides and keeps you on the critical path is essential. It helps you from getting whiplash and questioning in the middle of the night what you are doing this all for. I recommend writing down your outer purpose every week as an active reminder and to make sure your team knows what your purpose is.

4. Margins, Margins, Margins

In tech, most decisions were data-driven, sometimes to a fault. Yet, in CPG I feel there isn’t the focus on numbers that there needs to be. I ask some founders what their margins are and they can’t tell me. That’s worrisome; margins are to CPG as location is to real estate. Know your margins!! There are lots of distributors and sales channels that will take your product, but they want a sizable cut. You need to know your margins to determine a go-no go decision on each opportunity. Remember, it’s important to balance scale with profitability. A lot of start-up CPG companies have 30% margins — that means you most likely have to get funding if you are going to scale. Make sure you add your trade spend, discounts, returns, and shipping among other things into your COGS. And don’t play the game of messing with these figures to make your margins look better for investors — you’ll only end up playing in the red.

5. Your Best Mentor is Your Harshest Critic

During year two, I was fortunate to meet Ian. I reached out to a local VC firm (Luke Vernon @ Ridgeline Ventures) and asked Luke if he could recommend a local CPG CEO for a possible mentor. I struck gold! I was introduced to Ian MacGregor, Co-Founder and CEO of Skratch Labs. Ian is a straight-talker, strategic mastermind who values conscious leadership and culture. He’s led Skratch into a world-wide privately held sports nutrition powerhouse that was just named as one of Outside Magazines best companies to work for. He’s also built a dynamic, loyal customer community. We talk every month and he guides me on next steps, plus motivates me when I’m low. He told me “You don’t have a product” when iteration #2 wasn’t working. He told me to up the price because you won’t make it with “30% margins” and most recently “you aren’t a player in the outdoor industry – find an audience who cares about clean collagen.” His words sometimes sting – and I want that from a mentor – because it makes me act – fast. Without Ian, Cofo would not exist.

Conclusion

Starting a CPG business is hard. You need to manage operations, financials, product sourcing, sales channels, branding, certifications, and do all this with high production cost and low margins. It’s not for the faint of heart. With the above strategies, you’ll be able to focus on the critical path, increase production scale and most importantly, find enjoyment and fulfillment in the process.

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