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“5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” With Chef Vicky Colas & Jason Shiver

Hire the best operator you can find. It is tough to land the right one until you start proving the concept. They should come on the recommendation of industry insiders (food brokers, private equity/VC firms, retailers, etc). If you have a good advisory board, they can help you assemble the right compensation package. I have […]

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Hire the best operator you can find. It is tough to land the right one until you start proving the concept. They should come on the recommendation of industry insiders (food brokers, private equity/VC firms, retailers, etc). If you have a good advisory board, they can help you assemble the right compensation package. I have seen too many entrepreneurs give away too much ownership to the wrong talent. If done properly, this will save you a heap in the long run.

As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Shiver. He has served as CEO of Waterloo Sparkling Water since August 2017. Prior to Waterloo, Mr. Shiver held several positions at SkinnyPop/Amplify snack brands from May 2013 to January 2017, including President of North America prior to his departure. He was instrumental in helping take the company public in August of 2015 and won awards from both Nielsen and IRI for SkinnyPop’s performance. From 2008 to 2013, Mr. Shiver served as Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Glutino USA, a gluten free snack food company, which was acquired by Boulder Brands, Inc, a diversified food company. From May 2003 to January 2008, Mr. Shiver held several roles at Atkins Nutritionals, Inc, the leader in low carb food and beverages, including Vice President of Sales. From September 2001 to May 2003, Mr. Shiver was a Southeast Regional Sales Manager at Acirca, Inc, an organic foods and beverages company. From August 2000 to September 2001, Mr. Shiver was a National Account Manager at AriZona Beverages USA LLC. Mr. Shiver holds a Bachelor of Science in Marketing from University of South Florida.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Igrew up on a dirt road in Palm Harbor, FL (Tampa Bay area) where we didn’t know any of the things I am doing today was possible. I put myself through college (University of South Florida) and became the first college graduate on my dad’s side of the family.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

Clayton Christopher approached me about opportunities with a few of his portfolio companies. After not finding a fit, Clayton suggested I come visit him about one last opportunity. That opportunity turned into Waterloo Sparkling Water. Although it was pre-revenue, I thought everything about the opportunity was perfect and I could see Waterloo being the challenger brand in the category. It was also a unique opportunity where the co-founders (Sean Cusack and Clayton) were comfortable with ceding control to me and my team from the start, so it became a unique opportunity to steer a startup from inception, while having institutional capital to grow the business.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Well, it certainly wasn’t funny at the time, but Costco San Diego requested a meeting within one year of our launch. You can imagine the excitement the entire company felt. I put the meeting on my calendar (iphone) and counted the days. Before take-off, I checked my calendar to ensure I had my times right. I landed in San Diego and met up with our sales person for the region. We toured stores, went to lunch, and daydreamed about landing some Costco business. As I was imparting wisdom on him about Costco in the waiting room, we were told we were two hours late. You can imagine my horror that I was going to have to go back to my employees and let them know we didn’t get to see the buyer because we missed the meeting. I somehow messed up the time and was calculating the difference in time zones. Our buyer, Debi, was gracious enough to save me from that embarrassment by meeting with us before she left for the day. Although we didn’t land the business that day, I groveled until she gave us an opportunity. We are now available most of the year in Costco San Diego and Debi is a good industry friend. The morale of this story is the importance of making notes for myself in my calendar to clearly spell out the time of meetings in that time zone.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I think a mistake lots of entrepreneurs make is starting a business without enough capital. Even the best-laid plans can fall victim to this mistake. I think you put together a business plan and double the amount you think you need. Most people don’t realize how difficult it is to navigate in the early stages without trained operators running the business (this usually comes later).

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

You need to determine a business plan that identifies your strategy from points of differentiation to funding. If you are planning on going at it alone, you should at least establish an advisory board of a couple industry pros until you are able to hire successful operators around you.

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

I cannot emphasize how important it is to establish an advisory board as outlined above. I have spoken to many entrepreneurs that have made some devastating missteps at the beginning because they didn’t have proven operators around their business. Even if you are able to translate it into an actual business, you will own much less of the business at the end because of the capital you will need to raise to overcome your mistakes (dilution).

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

Entrepreneurs typically try to strike out on their own in the early stages and find themselves in trouble. Depending on your funding situation, I would hire a seasoned operator (common theme to this interview) that has deep knowledge of the industry, or better yet, deep knowledge of the category. These folks can be identified by your food broker, for instance. Invention development consultants tend to be jack of all trades, but master on none. Trusted advisors also have merit and can be compensated via small equity grants that are on a vesting schedule, so you can save money in the early stages.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

Again, this is an area where folks get in trouble. I watch shark tank and there are reasons they call them sharks. If you can, I would work off angel investment or personal investment until your brand is launched. Money becomes cheaper the more you prove out the concept.

Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?

This can be very challenging. Trademark your brand early and secure your website in the business planning stage. Next, google is your friend. You can identify manufacturers for your product, read reviews, etc. You should then qualify the manufacturer. Are they producing reputable brands? What SQF level are they and how did they score on the last audit? Identify and prioritize your retailers before considering distributors. Identify the brands you most admire and do a pricing audit across all channels. You will also be surprised the intel you can gain at store level. How do those brands get to market? Hire a food broker. You can’t do it by yourself. Your advisors or operators will know the reputable food brokers. They will help get the meeting and supply you with quality intel (i.e. expected margins, buyer interests/behavior, promotional planning, etc).

Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

What is your reason for being? What need state are you trying to fill? You never want to be viewed as a me-too product because you will lose your authenticity and eventually the battle in the long run. You want to fill a white space in your category and become a disrupter.

Raise more capital than you think you need. This is traditionally done through personal investment and friends/family in the early stages. As you prove your concept, pick a quality firm to partner with for the long haul. You want to see their portfolio of brands and interview the founders of those brands to understand the type of investor they are. They should bring industry influence and represent your core values.

Hire the best operator you can find. It is tough to land the right one until you start proving the concept. They should come on the recommendation of industry insiders (food brokers, private equity/VC firms, retailers, etc). If you have a good advisory board, they can help you assemble the right compensation package. I have seen too many entrepreneurs give away too much ownership to the wrong talent. If done properly, this will save you a heap in the long run.

Identify your competition. You should be positioned to be disruptive by virtue of your differentiation. Always be premium and give your consumer a perceived value through attributes, quality of ingredients, taste, etc. Stay true to your brand and don’t chase shiny objects (don’t go too wide). Keep your authenticity- consumers can feel it.

Identify the right manufacturing partner. Can they scale with you? Do they meet quality standards? Are they reputable? Have you put in the proper quality controls to ensure consistency? This is your connection to the end consumer.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

You have to bring something different to the category. Don’t go too wide with your lineup. Establish corporate values that will be reflective of your brand. Keep your communication consistent. Don’t lose your authenticity. If you successfully navigate these waters, you will create an emotional connection to your consumers, who will become fans of the brand. Remember, people love to share discoverable brands and those whispers turn into revenue.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I would like to think so. We start with our employees. Every employee is an owner of the brand. This is important because they are able to share in the success they are helping create. I have seen life-changing events for the hard-working people of companies we have created. From there, your corporate values should be reflective of your personal values. They shouldn’t be just words on a page. We have worked hard to embrace our community COVID-19 response to sustainability. Personally, I have taken the time to speak to the University of Texas undergrad and graduate students in their Entrepreneurial program. In addition, I will always make time to speak to early-stage entrepreneurs because they are the life blood of our future.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

We are in a great industry ripe with opportunities and great pay. It has changed my family’s life, but we aren’t a very diverse industry. It is on full display when you walk Expo West. For that reason, we have partnered with the University of Texas to identify talented minority candidates for two internships a year. We are a team of 30, so this is not a small commitment from our company. The idea is to turn these internships into earned full-time positions and hopefully bring the types of changes to their lives/communities as I have experienced.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Am I being greedy if I list two? I have said in the past Elon Musk because he is our modern-day Thomas Edison. This is a person that doesn’t think anything is impossible. My second would be Serena Williams. She is one of the greatest athletes of all time. I have to confess that I spoken to her husband, Alexis, on many occasions as a business mentor. He is a superb human being, but I have never had the pleasure of meeting Serena. Our team has long been admirers of Serena and are in awe of her achievements on and off the court. Little known fact, we have a fierce ping pong rivalry in our office. I am clearly the worst of the bunch and would love for Serena to step in and dispatch Jose, our best player.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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