As a result, Ethan Holmes has turned the dream of his 15-year-old self into a steadily growing business that is a hometown favorite in the Midwest and which has earned the support of former Stonyfield CEO Gary Hirshberg, the Chobani Incubator team and even Cleveland Cavaliers’ point guard Matthew Dellavedova.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Investing in the Future of Food, Holmes shares hard-learned strategies for successfully pitching and financing a business, securing retail shelf space, building brand awareness and the importance of offering a hand-up to other entrepreneurs.
Holmes acknowledges that unanswered and unreturned cold calls or emails can be demoralizing, but he advises entrepreneurs not to be deterred, but rather to be organized – and persistent – which is how he said he landed shelf space at his first retailer in 2015.
“It took me a year of cold calling” the same buyers three to four days a week before someone from Heinen’s called back and placed an order of 2,500 units for delivery in two weeks, Holmes said.
“At the time, we were doing maybe a couple hundred units a month – so getting that much product together in two weeks was really a lot. I had to drop everything. We rented a kitchen in downtown Cleveland, I got my friends and family together and we produced that order in two weeks,” he said.
“So, my advice to food entrepreneurs wanting to grow their products in retail is to stay persistent and be organized. Again, I would call the same five buyers four times a week until I was able to get further in that communication. And what I noticed is even if they said no at that time, a year later, six months later, eventually – because that relationship was established – they would maybe say yes,” he said.
Persistence also helped Holmes earn a coveted spot in Chobani Incubator’s current cohort, which was originally slated for Spring 2020 but because of the pandemic is pushed back until Spring 2021.
He joked that he “spammed” the leaders of the incubator on LinkedIn and emailed Chobani’s corporate department to express his interest in the incubator.
“Eventually, they said, ‘Hey, we love what you are doing. We want to choose you,’” he said, adding that what attracted him to Chobani’s incubator program was its interest in diversity, inclusion and innovation. Plus, as a global food brand that helped pioneer a category, he knew it could help him build his footprint nationally.
Practice makes perfect
In addition to persistence, Holmes says a well-practiced pitch and putting yourself out there as an entrepreneur and individual are pivotal as illustrated by his recent success securing financial support and mentorship from industry veteran and former Stonyfield CEO Gary Hirshberg.
“Throughout my career, I have pitched to hundreds of investors, judges and retailers since our start in 2015, and one my most memorable pitches would be from last month to the Hirshberg Entrepreneur Institute, founded by Gary Hirshberg, the former CEO of Stonyfield,” Holmes said.
He explained he spent a week preparing and tweaking his pitch to ensure he could answer investors questions while also “painting a full picture of the brand, the core values, the work done this far, the next milestones and most importantly” who he is as an entrepreneur.
In response, 15 investors followed up with the brand after the pitch, and Holmes Made Foods secured a financial commitment from Hirshberg as well as a promise of guidance and mentorship.
Even as Holmes explores investment partners, he encourages other entrepreneurs to consider other options and bootstrapping during the initial growth period, if possible. For example, he said, he has used grants, factoring loans and net 30-day payment terms to help fund his company successfully so far.
Pursue the ‘impossible’
While managing everyday logistics and financing could easily become all consuming, Holmes advises entrepreneurs always to dream big and reach for what might seem like the impossible – which is how he landed a brand building partnership with the point guard of the Cleveland Cavaliers one year after launching his business.
When Holmes’ brother first suggested he explore a Cleveland Cavalier basketball team player as a brand ambassador, Holmes said he scoffed because Holmes Mouthwatering Applesauce was such a small brand that he didn’t think it would be of interest to a local star.
“And then, I decided, why not try anyway,” he said. Within hours of reaching out, Dellavedova’s agent had responded with a yes – which Holmes then took to a seed investor to raise the capital needed for a brand building event with the point guard and 250 fans – all of whom were also introduced to Holmes Mouthwatering Applesauce.
Holmes Entrepreneur Initiative
While making his dreams happen, Holmes also has helped other entrepreneurs reach for theirs – and in doing so experienced the benefits of unexpected partnerships.
When Holmes launched his business, he simultaneously launched the Holmes Entrepreneur Initiative to help youth explore entrepreneurship as a viable path forward.
“When I was 15 years old growing this company, I didn’t have all the mentorship or knowledge or resources to actually start my business. So, I had to learn a lot of trial and error. So I created this program as a way to give those opportunities to those students,” Holmes said.
He explained that he partnered with Youth Opportunities Unlimited in Cleveland, Ohio, to help teach students about Holmes Made Foods’ business model and provide them a stipend for working in with the company and area grocery stores.
Last year, he said, he partnered with a new organization – Young Entrepreneur Institute – to go into classrooms and teach students about entrepreneurship “through something as simple as applesauce.”
The lessons learned through this partnership have gone both ways, said Holmes. He explained that he learned from the students how important it is to be confident, look potential business partners in the eye, clearly answer questions and understand your value and what you have to offer.