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Mark Patterson: “Begin with a product that you really believe in”

Product /Production — Begin with a product that you really believe in. Be realistic about the production and scalability. Every great product needs to be produced within a budget. Poor budget planning can be the death of some great product ideas. There is a big difference in growing your food business from making a few dozen in […]

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Product /Production — Begin with a product that you really believe in. Be realistic about the production and scalability. Every great product needs to be produced within a budget. Poor budget planning can be the death of some great product ideas. There is a big difference in growing your food business from making a few dozen in your kitchen to making thousands at a manufacturing plant.


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 Mark Patterson, Founder of Civilized Coffee.

Mark Patterson grew up Ballston Spa, a small town in upstate NY. After a short stint in the United State Navy (Nuclear Power School), Mark moved to Jacksonville Beach (Florida) where he began his career in the food service industry. After 20 years working in two different Chef owned restaurants, he shifted gears and started down the path of Entrepreneurship and Founded Naturally Smart Foods I in 2013 and later Civilized Coffee in 2017). As CEO of Civilized Coffee, he has grown the company from a single focus product line to a globally reaching coffee company with expanding product lines and partnerships.


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”?

I have always been very thankful for my childhood. My mother and father grew up with limited resources (including food sometimes) Consequentially as parents, they were very adamant about — that no one should ever go hungry. This philosophy expanded to include our friends and neighbors. There was always plenty of great food and fresh baked goods in our home for everyone to enjoy. I carry this credo with me to this day and this is probably the main reason I was drawn to working in restaurants. I love to feed people.

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

Coffee has always been a passion for me, and I love coffee shops. The image of people sitting around drinking coffee while discussing current events, strategizing the future, sharing views and expanding their horizons through conversation brings me joy.

It was June 2017, as I was starting to look for my next opportunity when a local Coffee Importer, Jeff Norton, asked to meet with me. We knew immediately that with our combined skills we would start our new venture, “Civilized Coffee”

I had just finished reading the book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Al Switzler, and Ron McMillan. This book was a turning point in both my personal & business life. My business partner, Jeff Norton, had recently returned from a coffee sourcing trip in Africa and he was telling me about the importance of communicating with the farmers and their families. We started talking about the importance of “Civility” and the social unease we are experiencing today. We felt people need to get back to enjoying healthy civil conversations. By the end of our meeting and drinking several cups of coffee we agreed on a tagline “Bringing Civility back to Conversations”

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?

As a “start-up” there are always plenty of mistakes. The important thing is, to learn from your setbacks and use them to improve your decision-making skills. There is a lot of excitement and huge expectations for a new product. New product ideas generate great energy and anticipation. We were perhaps a little over exuberant with one of my new product ideas and product launch. Civilized Coffee was releasing a “Cold Brew Coffee Kit”. We met with our packaging partner and realized we could save quite a bit (per unit) if we placed a much larger order than we originally planned. The product was a flop and two years later we decided it was finally time to accept our mistake and move on.

To this day we still use this example in our “New Product Launch” meetings. We learned to test first. If the product proves itself with our customer base, we move quickly. We have created a very effective launch process — We are pretty nimble; and we can now launch a new product in approximately 4 weeks. Packaging & raw products are more expensive on the test but if the product resonates with our customer base, then our Design & Production teams can quickly make any necessary changes. When the product is a hit, we quickly scale to meet the market demand.

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?

A food Start-up is a relatively easy idea to visualize, but in reality, there are so many moving parts. Production, finances, marketing, shipping, compliance and so many more. I believe the hardest part is not only to ask for help but to find reliable resources that are willing to give you the best advice.

One of my strong traits is the ability to identify my weaknesses and find someone to help fill that gap. There is no room for ego in this business. You have to ask for help and to listen to that advice (most of the time). Luckily for me, Jacksonville has a strong Start-up Culture and many resources. There are several Private Investors. (PS-27 Ventures), Public Resources (Small Business Development Center at UNF), Volunteers (SCORE), Commercial Kitchens (Beaver Street Commissary). Never expect to have all the answers on your own and be willing to seek for help, when necessary.

Accept your limitations, find partners who compliment your skills and always ask for help.

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?

Most family and friends will want to support you and tell you they love your idea and tell you how great it is.

Step outside your comfort zone, test your product anywhere you can — festivals, markets, events, anywhere people gather. Listen to the honest feedback. This information may be painful at times, but will help you better refine your products, build on your customer base and lead to greater success.

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 believe a reality check is very important and that a second or third opinion is necessary. Is your product really unique, is there a market for your product? Have you laid out a business plan — Is it financially feasible? Do you have the time and financial resources to start a company?

Do some market research to see what your competition (yes, you do have competition no matter what you believe) is doing and understand what their strengths & weaknesses are.

Take time to step back and think about your resources and support system. This can be an emotional roller coaster and it is important to have people around you for support whether it is family, friends or business partners.

If you are comfortable with your answers, then there is no time like the present — Your first hurdle is convincing yourself.

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?

Every company and product have unique requirements and demands. It really depends on the individual’s level of expertise/experience. There are benefits to working with a consultant on recipe development, compliance and finding the right co-packer or production partners.

At the same time technology has made things a bit easier, there are several local and online groups that share information and resources on product success. There are also several programs (some free) that can be used to create Nutrition Panels and the right production partner will help with recipe & packaging development. Most importantly, have faith and confidence in yourself — remember you are not the first person trying to do this, there are endless online success stories and support.

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

Financing is very important and should be analyzed in depth. There are benefits to both models, one does not negate the other. You can do a little of both.

Self-Financing your start-up makes you very aware of your expenses and cash flow. I personally believe this also shows a tremendous amount of commitment and belief in your product. This is very important when looking for more money. Whether it is family & friends, banks or investors, as 100% owner of your business you get to make the decisions, choose the direction and you are 100% accountable for success (or failure).

Venture Capital can be an intimidating experience but can also be the most import decision you make. I would suggest making sure you have done everything you can do before approaching a VC. However, the more success you have the more Value your company has.

The downside of VC is that you are turning over a percentage of ownership for funding therefore you are no longer 100% in control of the decisions. This also means that if you need more funding later or if you want to sell you are potentially receiving a smaller share.

The good news is you have a new source of funds to grow and expand your company at a much faster rate. You also have new business partners who are very interested in your success. If you have chosen your VC wisely, you will have access to their trusted resources including business connections that you may not get on your own.

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?

Patents, Trade Secrets and Trademarks are probably best discussed with an appropriate lawyer. However, Lawyers can be expensive so keep this in mind. Do as much as you can on your own. Be organized going into every meeting with your attorney. Our Trade Secrets are only shared amongst a very select few and are not public information.

It is very important to do your research when looking for the right manufacturer. This is beneficial to both you and your future production partner. As a start-up you are a high risk for a manufacturer, and you are going to have a lot of questions. You may not understand the basics and you might not be successful.

Some basic questions are — do they make a product similar to yours, what types of packaging do they use, do they meet the standards you need (Organic Certified), what are their minimum order quantities (MOQ), what is their lead production time, how long can they store your products post production, can they store your packaging and what are their installment terms?

The good news is, if they already produce a similar product, they carry the basic ingredients and can help you with recipe development based on their facility capabilities. If there are unique ingredients for your product, they might even be able to help you source them. They can also direct you to the best packaging supplier. Remember any changes you make to their manufacturing process costs them (and you) time and money. It could mean changing your packing style or size. There is no doubt in my mind how important it is to find and build a solid relationship with a manufacturer to start and grow with.

“Think Big and Start Small” when you strategize your sales channels. Where do you see your products selling? At local markets? Specialty grocery, Super stores or online? Can you handle the sales volume, do you have a proven sales record, how are you going to move your product, do you have all the paperwork needed, Can you (or someone) visit the locations to sample and quality check your products?

As your volume grows, Distributors, Brokers, and deals/promotions come into play — be prepared, do you have enough margin to cover these expenses?

If your model is to sell online, insure you have a strong ecommerce presence. Make sure your sales channels are very strong — website, social media, 3rd party, wholesale and potentially dropship.

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.)

Even though I started my business with little experience in the food manufacturing & small business world I quickly learned the importance of the following;

  1. Product /Production — Begin with a product that you really believe in. Be realistic about the production and scalability. Every great product needs to be produced within a budget. Poor budget planning can be the death of some great product ideas. There is a big difference in growing your food business from making a few dozen in your kitchen to making thousands at a manufacturing plant.
  2. Marketing/Branding — Great products are only successful if potential customers can learn about them. Consistent branding and marketing to the right customers is key. Know who your customer is.
  3. Customer Demand/Sale Channels — How will you get your product to the customer. It is really expensive to mail frozen high protein ice cream, refrigerated home-made hummus has a short shelf life or can you get enough stores for a Grocery Distributor to give you an opportunity.
  4. Growth Plan/Funding — Hopefully growth will happen organically with time and hard work. Are you prepared for larger orders, have you talked with your suppliers, what is the lead time on production, how are you going to sustain growth and how are you going to finance it?
  5. Passion — This is really the common denominator of all successful food start-ups. You put on blinders and focus on success. You find solutions and dismiss the negativity.

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

Creating a great product that people are “crazy about” is not easy. I believe the best place to start is with what you know such as (a family recipe) or a product that you notice is missing from the store shelves. Do the research. Are people looking for it (Google Trends, Pinterest Analytics, Amazon…)

What is your “Why”? What can you do to make yours better — the best. Is it making it organic? Making it in the US? Bigger/smaller or tying it in with a cause (non-profit)?

Is there a big demand or can you create a massive demand through marketing?

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

Civilized Coffee was created to make the world a better place from the beginning.

Someone once called coffee “the favorite drink of the civilized world.” We believe this tradition, borrowed and shared across many cultures, has the power to unite and inspire. We hope our coffees are enjoyed over civilized conversations between friends both dear and different, all over the world.

We have also built solid relationships throughout the coffee world including working with farmers & Co-Ops in Kenya and neighboring countries. Our supplier from Colombia works directly with farmers to create sustainable economic opportunities.

Recently we have partnered with The Surfrider Foundation (First Coast Chapter) to create a line of coffee “Surfrider Select” where a portion of the proceeds are donated back to the foundation to support their mission of Clean Water & Clean Beaches.

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.

“Civility”

What would it take to make all of us to show more empathy to each other, listen to others without opinion or judgment? To focus on making our conversations more civilized.

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.

José Andrés — Chef & Philanthropist

I admire him for his high-level success in such a competitive space (restaurants) but also for his outpouring of philanthropy and good will. I still carry my parent’s belief of “no one should go hungry” and to see Mr. Andres feeding thousands after devastating natural disasters is very inspiring. As my company grows, I can only hope that I can do as much.

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

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