GUEST ARTICLE: Here I go again on my own… why food startups need a team

By James Richardson, PhD, founder, Premium Growth Solutions

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: Gettyimages-Brian A Jackson
Picture: Gettyimages-Brian A Jackson
I continue to meet a remarkable number of founders who are trying to go it alone. They aren’t shut-ins either. I believe this is a strategic mistake that undercuts the ability of any young food business to stay disciplined and focused.

You would think having only one person onboard would mean tighter focus, since there is no likelihood of ‘arguments’ distracting the organization.  

But, for most people, solitude has been proven again and again to cause drift toward aberrant behavior and loss of perspective. Even monks live together for a reason.

Given the ultra-low net margins of most early stage packaged food businesses (due mostly to high COGS), it is even more critical that the venture be a social enterprise, not a solitary passion…if you want to truly scale up.

Here are the top three reasons ambitious food startup founders should have a co-founder and a small team as soon as possible:

1) Accountability to goals

There is an old sociological truism: a personal commitment is NOT really internalized unless it is made publicly again and again to folks whose opinion you respect. Until it becomes a social commitment. While lone wolf founders think that this means regular Facebook updates...this is not what causes accountability in a business.

Accountability is most easily created by having a business partner staring at you...every…day... If you mess up the business, you have now sunk a ship with two passengers. When you co-author a plan, each founder can keep the other accountable to sticking to it.

2) Getting sh*t done

Certain, highly independent, type A types gravitate toward entrepreneurship, because it grants them 110% autonomy. They believe they can do it all. What happens to these lone wolf founders is something I call operator tunnel vision...a sort of cognitive macular degeneration. The lone wolf’s brain, sensing operational overwhelm, will NOT seek help, but rather, simply start shedding operational duties in order to convince him or herself that they are pulling it off.

This is a common form of self-deception caused by a lack of social audience to stand there and call B.S. When the overwhelm strikes, lone wolves start omitting key responsibilities and create a twisted prioritization of tasks convoluted to the innermost folds of their own personal comfort zone. And, then, things starts slipping through the cracks.

Who vetted the co-packer contract carefully? Who’s managing the distributor pick up today? Who’s networking among angels? Who confirmed that UNFI has all the paperwork? Who researched the viability of the random new chain who called last week? And on and on. There is no software or AI that will prevent the lone wolf from forgetting something huge in the operational flow.

Since most founders are neither business people nor food production specialists, operating alone is quite frankly a set up. If you are in brick and mortar as your primary channel, this is especially the case.

3) Preparing for eventual success

Every once in a while, I meet one of the surprise successes, companies founded by folks who honestly had no clue their product would take off the way it did. When it did, they spent several years scrambling just to keep up with the growth curve that hit like a rogue wave. And they were often totally unprepared for the leadership situation they now found themselves in as they grew their teams to keep up. Running a fast-growing company is NOT for everyone.

Learning the relevant leadership skills is an entirely separate part of the journey.

This is one reason I strongly advise people to pace their growth early on, so that they can develop their leadership skills and their leadership persona with a small team first, before they suddenly have 20-25 employees with no prior management experience, let alone before they have 100 employees who they can’t interact with daily due to the structure of the organization.

There’s also something to be said for simply having a partner to commiserate with as you encounter inevitable bumps and setbacks on the founder’s journey.

james richardson color

Dr. James F. Richardson is founder of Premium Growth Solutions,​ a strategic planning consultancy for emerging food and beverage brands. His new podcast series – Startup Confidential​ – is available now on iTunes.

  

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