Bridging the Valley of Death

Too many good ideas don’t make it to the market. Too many passionate founders fail. The odds are bad and we need to do better. If we are going to feed 9 billion people by 2050, we need the innovators to succeed. If we are going to improve the nutritive efficacy of our food, be better stewards of our environment, and make food and beverage attractive to the next generation of entrepreneurs, we must do better.

If we are going to feed 9 billion people by 2050, we need the innovators to succeed.

In investor-speak, the “Valley of Death” is a metaphor for the disproportionate number of startups that die before their revenues make them sustainable and investable. Depending on the source, the numbers of those that fail vacillate between 50% and 90%.  

We, as an industry, need to coalesce and help bridge this metaphorical valley. It is in all our interests to be the champions of our innovators and entrepreneurs.

It’s happening today, but we just need to accelerate those efforts. Grassroots organizations such as Naturally Boulder are building a cross-sector community aimed at supporting founders and their fledgling businesses. Crowdfunding platforms like Pie Shell are helping connect young brands to the early money and attention they need.  

Events like Rabobank’s FoodBytes and Nutrition Capital Network’s Fall Investor Meetings are creating a space where founders have an opportunity to connect and pitch to investors.

Accelerator programs are connecting the innovators with the large food companies starving for innovation. There are a lot of good things happening.

However, I talk with people every day who are struggling to get their footing in the business. Too many are learning from the school of hard knocks. While that school provides some great lessons, for students who have limited resources, it’s not the best path to graduation.

Turning left when you should turn right might be all it takes to keep a great product from coming to market and a young business from flourishing.

The food and beverage industry is complicated. We have a tough regulatory and compliance environment. Manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping are challenging. And, this all happens before ever going to market. It’s only then that you confront decisions on pricing architecture, channel, promotion, and more. Turning left when you should turn right might be all it takes to keep a great product from coming to market and a young business from flourishing.

I am writing this article to all of us who have been in this business for years. It’s our responsibility to help shepherd these founders through the twists, turns, and trapdoors of this industry.

Mentor an entrepreneur, make yourself available to those who could benefit from your tribal knowledge. Show up at events, reach out to founders you read or hear about. Take responsibility for paying your good fortune forward.

It’s okay to have one hand reaching up to climb the ladder if the other is reaching down to pull up the next person in line.

The same message applies to current founders. A big exit, a business that is now sustainable and investable, that is just the start. The student becomes the teacher. Take up that mantle and go teach. Help others avoid some of the pitfalls and mistakes that you confronted and made. It’s okay to have one hand reaching up to climb the ladder if the other is reaching down to pull up the next person in line.

We can do better, we can be the bridge that spans the Valley of Death. Innovation is the future of our industry and it’s up to us to increase the odds that future innovators succeed.

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Elliot Begoun is the Principal of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on helping emerging food and beverage brands grow. He works with clients to design and execute customized route-to-market and go-to-market strategies that build velocity, gain distribution, and win share of stomach. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and FoodDive.

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